Our imperial overlord wings his way into Canberra today. Let us hope he finds all is satisfactory when he surveys one of his most loyal vassal states. Canberra isn’t quite in lockdown as of writing, but from about lunchtime on the barriers will go up, the roads will start being closed and even the press gallery coffee cart will be sent packing, presumably on the basis that … well, who knows, really.
The Secret Service — or at least those still employed after the shock-scandal-debacle Vangate revelations in The Daily Telegraph today — will have the run of the place. Like Mephistopheles’s Hell, the president is always in America, no matter where he is, travelling in a tiny projected bubble of the United States.
So too the Washington press corps, who’ll be put up at the National Press Club made over to more closely resemble their homeland, complete with copious doughnuts and clocks set to US time. There’s not that many cultural difference left between Australia and the US — we’re less friendly but have better food and coffee, and don’t use our streets as a vast outdoor mental health ward — so temporarily erasing the last few for our distinguished visitors isn’t that big a deal.
The hallmarks of all such visits by heads of state are of course theatre and formality, but a presidential visit is now accompanied by almost kabuki-like levels of ritual. In particular, there’s the elaborate display of fawning from the commentariat. Invariably, the likes of local State Department representatives Michael Fullilove and Greg Sheridan shuffle forward, heads bowed low and hands reflexively reaching for the forelock, to explain how important the US-Australian relationship currently is. Critical to such encomia are incantations like “Asia-Pacific engagement”.
It is a matter of utmost necessity that each presidential visit be portrayed as the start of a new period of US engagement in our region, ending a previous, regrettable era when Washington had its head turned by other parts of the world.
This time around the enthusiasts have been joined by Kim Beazley, apparently our ambassador to Washington, but whom one could be forgiven for thinking sees his job more as representing Washington’s interests in Australia. “He’ll arrive in a country that truly loves him,” Beazley gushed about Obama to his local rag, The Washington Post. The Post also quoted extensively from the Lowy Institute about how enthusiastic Australians were about the United States having military facilities here.
While it was nice of the Lowy Institute to speak on our behalf, polling data suggests otherwise. With Obama scheduled to reveal what has already been detailed to the Fairfax press (to the visible chagrin of Greg Sheridan), that the United States will be using a Northern Territory base as a permanent training facility, Essential found this week that only 18% of voters wanted us to become closer to the US, a fall of six points since the issue was last raised with voters in March.
Throwing open Darwin to thousands of Marines on a regular basis would seem to fit the bill of closer relations with the Americans.
On the other hand, 35% of voters want us to have a closer relationship with China, a rise of three points since March. In fact, voters favour closer relationships with several countries over closer ties with the US, including India, Indonesia and Japan. The numbers on China will doubtless please local Beijing apologists such as Hugh White, who are forever urging us to welcome our new Chinese overlords.
That Australian foreign policy doesn’t have to be informed by a reflexive reductivism to deciding which superpower we should be cosying up to appears an unpopular notion among policymakers here.
It’s a contrarian school of thought represented most notably by Kevin Rudd, who as prime minister was inexplicably convinced we could walk and chew gum simultaneously on foreign policy. This complex position left many confused, particularly once they realised he wasn’t the Sinophile he’d been labelled as early on.
Still, such complexities are best forgotten about now as our enthusiastically pro-American leader welcomes the President and we become, if only for 24 hours, DC on the Molonglo.