For better or worse, national leaders don’t just represent their country: they become its public face and an expression of its values to the outside world. In the case of the United States this is in large part because the president of the day has the power and capacity to actually make a major difference internationally.
The contrast between the administrations of George W Bush (the self-proclaimed ‘decider’) and Barack Obama (the widely criticised procrastinator) reminds us that it really does make a difference who’s in charge. It also influences the way outsiders think about the US - or any other country for that matter.
George W’s dad, George H., famously didn’t do what he dismissively described as ‘the vision thing’. No doubt Tony Abbott would have some sympathy with this view as he plainly sees himself as a pragmatist in the tradition of his mentor John Howard. But even for the international system’s lesser lights, leadership style matters – especially when you’re on tour.
Abbott’s recent visits to western Europe and North America provided the first opportunity for many outside Australia to assess our still relatively new leader. The choice of destinations and themes was in itself revealing. For a man who thinks that we undervalue and neglect the contribution Australia’s armed forces made during World War One in particular, the chance to visit major European battlefields was, it seems, too good an opportunity to pass up.
The small talk with ‘socialist’ French president François Hollande might have been a bit heavy going at times, but no doubt compensated for by the opportunity to rub shoulders with various members of the British aristocracy. Indeed, the rest of the trip offered a chance, par excellence, to consolidate links with key members of the Anglosphere.
Indeed, the ‘bromance’ with Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper reached new heights as both leaders expressed their opposition to anything that was likely to damage economic growth. In this regard the Canadian leader has considerable form, being a climate action sceptic and one of the most outspoken champions of exploiting that country’s massive, environmentally toxic oil sands deposits.
Luckily for Canada, however, despite Harper’s personal support for the war in Iraq, he wasn’t prime minister at the time and Canadian forces consequently weren’t involved. It plainly also makes a difference when people are in charge. This merits mention because the third and most important stop on Abbott’s tour was the US, where the still unresolved aftermath an earlier era cast a long shadow over discussions.
The convulsions in Iraq threaten, once again, to draw the US into the proverbial Middle Eastern quagmire. Obama clearly has none of the gung-ho enthusiasm of his predecessor, but this may not be enough to avoid a new entanglement. Even more remarkably, Abbott has not ruled out Australian involvement either.
One might be forgiven for thinking that the one big lesson to emerge from the war in Iraq was that it was a disastrously ill-conceived adventure from which neither the US nor the poor benighted people of Iraq benefited. Australia’s involvement was relatively marginal and served no significant military function whatsoever – apart from the time-honoured strategy of making ourselves useful to the US and helping to legitimatise an essentially unilateral policy.
The strategy is still firmly in place and threatens to suck Australia into yet another conflict which has no immediate relevance to this country. Abbott’s refusal to rule out direct assistance from, and participation by, Australian forces in any new conflict in Iraq continues a time honored tradition. As he put it:
I want to assure the President that Australia will be an utterly dependable ally of the United States.
Obama probably needs little convincing of this. The Abbott government looks likely to expand the number of American troops and naval vessels deployed in Australia as a part of a deepening of bilateral strategic ties. And the Australian military may once again be called on to demonstrate that, as Obama put it:
Aussies know how to fight.
No doubt they do, and no doubt it was meant as a compliment. But is this really the most useful image to be projecting overseas? Are we really just a country of self-absorbed, sport-obsessed climate sceptics who can be relied upon to ‘do their bit’ when the going gets tough? Clearly this is a cliché, and an unrepresentative one at that, but that’s why the image projected by our leaders matters.
For believers in the possibility of progress in human affairs, the Abbott vision, such as it is, doesn’t inspire. No matter how attractive the 1950s may seem to some in retrospect, we’re not going back there. The big picture may be out of fashion, but it doesn’t seem unreasonable that those who seek to lead us should have some notion of where they think we’re going and a capacity to articulate it.
The grand tour was a chance for Tony Abbott to tell us and the world what this government is about - other than balancing the books. If he did, I’m afraid I missed it.