World Needs U.S. Leadership

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This was the year the multilateral system, such as it is, broke down. Definitively. The Copenhagen climate fiasco was bad news if you think the planet is warming and urgent action is required. It was also bad news if you think the globe needs effective management of big issues.

It gave us a glimpse into where we go if we are deprived of US leadership. The answer is: we go nowhere. And that's if we're lucky.

China destroyed Copenhagen with its obstructionism and its determination that nothing it does, and thereby nothing that any other developing nation does, on this issue should be subject to any external verification.

So China, not the US, was the destroyer. But the US was only nation that could possibly have wrestled the Chinese around to a more reasonable position.

And Washington was disengaged. US President Barack Obama only dropped in on the last day and for the shortest possible visit.

All this might possibly mean that the people who really matter on the planet don't actually think climate change is nearly as urgent as the zeitgeist suggests. After all, Chinese President Hu Jintao demonstrated his priorities amply. He didn't even come to Copenhagen. India's Prime Minister, the admirable Manmohan Singh, basically went along with the Chinese position. And no one could possibly accuse Obama of making climate change his top priority.

So perhaps these guys are just not convinced of the urgency of the climate issue.

On the other hand, it might also mean the multilateral system simply cannot work without US leadership.

There seems to be a whole class of international relations commentators, not least among our bunyip faux wise men in Australia, eagerly predicting, if not outright yearning for, US decline.

Copenhagen is a benign version of what they get if their dreams come true. But at least with climate change the catastrophe is some time off. The multilateral system is failing, too, on more immediate problems.

Obama has spent a year holding out his hand in friendship to Iran. He has been comprehensively shunned. Iran has gone ahead building its nuclear weapons program. This year we found out it has a second, secret uranium enrichment facility at Qom.

This is doubly surprising because it is enriching all that uranium even though it does not have a nuclear power plant.

We also found out that Iran has been working on a neutron initiator, which has no purpose other than to trigger a nuclear weapon.

And, to top it off, the Islamic republic has tested a missile with a range just short of 2000km, putting not only Israel, but a large part of Europe, under direct threat.

That Obama has been shunned by Iran means he has yet to do anything about Iran.

On this it would be wrong to suggest that Obama, or the Americans generally, have been disengaged.

Because the Iranian economy is so badly run, it could be vulnerable to tough sanctions. But the UN Security Council won't pass sanctions if these are vetoed by Russia or China.

Similarly, the sanctions won't be wholly effective if they are not embraced by Russia and China.

Yet US success in persuading Russia and China on sanctions has been limited and equivocal, to say the least.

It may be that if Russia or China vetoes sanctions, or threatens to veto them so they are never brought to a Security Council vote, the US will lead sanctions unilaterally.

In this, the US will have the support of the European Union. And it will also have the support of Australia.

Now here is a big clue. If Iran is to be stopped from getting nuclear weapons it will be entirely the work of the US (unless of course the Israelis bomb the Iranian facilities).

The multilateral system as such will almost certainly not have been the key factor.

For here is a deep truth, which we are almost never allowed to utter. In international security, the global system is not the multilateral system centred on the UN. That is a byword for windy ineffectiveness, a la Copenhagen.

The only international security system that works is the US alliance system.

If the Iranians don't get nuclear weapons, it will be because the Americans stop them. If the Chinese are not tempted to use military force to take back Taiwan, it is because they are frightened of the US and its allies. If the world sees a reduction in nuclear arms numbers, it will be because the Americans work out a treaty with the Russians. If Saddam Hussein is gone and can no longer pursue nuclear weapons, and if there is a chance at last of a democratic Arab state emerging, it is because of US intervention. If the Taliban is to be prevented from retaking Afghanistan and providing a state for the use of its allies al-Qa'ida, it will be because the Americans kept their nerve and set an Afghan government on a sustainable security course.

And so it goes around the world.

This is the most unfashionable thing you can say, and also the most important, because it's true. The global security system, in so far as it works at all, is US security policy operating in co-operation with its allies.

This is, incidentally, very good for Australia.

Australia is perhaps the second-most intimate ally of the US after Britain. We are about the 14th-largest economy in the world, command a huge land mass with enormous resources, we are about the 12th-largest military spender in the world. We are a critical ally of the US in the Asia Pacific but also one of the US's few global allies. We contribute, often quite modestly, it is true, to most things that matter on the planet.

Here is another unfashionable truth: the US connection is central to almost everything we do. Overall, this has been a mixed-to-fairly-good-year for Australian diplomacy, especially for what we regard as our middle-power diplomacy.

This was a term first made popular by former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans. It was meant to connote that ability of middle powers to lead issues, form coalitions, devote sufficient resources to an issue to move things along internationally but still present no overbearing security threat to anybody.

Kevin Rudd is an arch-practitioner of middle-power diplomacy. And the signal success of such diplomacy this year was the establishment of the G20 grouping as the primary global economic policy co-ordination body.

But here's another truth: Australian middle-power diplomacy works best when it works in harness with the US, and the US system more broadly. Some folks tend to posit middle-power diplomacy as a sign of our independence, our ability to act separately from the US.

This is a foolish line of thinking. We are of course independent from the US and at any given time there will be plenty of things Canberra disagrees with Washington about. But our fundamental strategic alignment is as an ally of the US and as a part of the US system. Every serious player in the world recognises this and deals with us on this basis.

Moreover, because we share so many values and interests with the US, we predominantly tend to agree with it on issues. We independently agree with the US. Independence is not established only by being able to disagree with the US.

The G20 is a case in point. The G20 is perhaps Rudd's most significant foreign policy achievement. In saying that I am not suggesting it is his achievement alone, or even primarily his achievement. However, it is a big policy outcome he set out to get, and he was successful. But here's the rub. It was not the prime minister of Australia but the US president, at the time one George W. Bush, who, at the urging of Rudd, convened the first G20 summit to deal with the global financial crisis. It was Bush's successor, Obama, who cemented the G20's place of pre-eminence. In other words, for a big global play, Australia's greatest single strength is its influence with the US.

The same was true of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum. Bob Hawke founded APEC but only after he got US agreement. Hawke's first speech on the subject was ambiguous about US membership, but he soon was enthusiastic for the Americans to be involved and it could never have happened without Washington's support.

When Paul Keating got the idea of trying to elevate APEC to summit level, he had to sell it to Bill Clinton. It was Clinton who formally proposed and covened the first APEC summit, which was held in the US.

Keating's Asia-first rhetoric had its greatest institutional consequence only through his influence with Washington. The Americans operationalised his idea and this had consequences in Asia.

Rudd is cleaving close to Obama, as he should. This is the way effective Australian middle-power diplomacy works, which is in great contrast to the multilateral system. It doesn't work at all.


Greg Sheridan is the Foreign Editor of the Australian.
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