What are the sources of the American image around the world? How has it changed in recent years? And what, if anything, can the U.S. government do to shape that image? The American Interest posed these questions to a distinguished group of international observers. Their answers reflect diverse histories and circumstances, and offer some useful counsel.
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Suez Crisis. That dramatic episode constitutes a crucial marker in the history of Australian foreign policy: It was the last occasion on which an Australian government acutely and openly opposed the United States on a major international issue. That crisis demonstrated not only the power at Washington’s disposal, but its willingness to use that power ruthlessly if even its closest and most substantial allies—Britain and France—stepped out of line by pursuing too independent a course of action.
China has had great success in converting economic opportunities into regional political influence. . . . It has adopted a moderate and reasonable tone and deftly exploited its substantial soft-power assets. . . . As a result, most of its neighbors are now more comfortable with the idea of China’s growing power—and so feel less dependent on America. This has deprived the U.S. of an important political asset.1White, “The Limits to Optimism: Australia and the Rise of China”, Australian Journal of International Affairs (December 2005).
The recent creation of a new piece of regional diplomatic architecture, the East Asia Summit, of which China and Australia are members but the United States is not, may be a significant sign of change to come.None of this, however, means that Australia is faced with a hard, stark choice between the United States and China—not, at least, unless one or the other of them insists that such a choice be made. But it does mean that Australia must learn to play a more demanding diplomatic game than ever before, one that will on occasion involve the difficult feat of riding two horses simultaneously. And instead of the sturdy, straightforward virtues of dependability and unconditional loyalty that have served it well until recently, it will need to acquire and cultivate a range of new skills: discrimination, agility, qualified commitment, ambiguity.There is nothing strange about these skills; they are among the basic tools of diplomacy. But the special conditions that have for much of its existence allowed Australia to dispense with their regular use are now ending. From now on, given the change, Australia will need to regard alliances not as a test of character (“Australia will be there!”) or a union of souls (“the Anglosphere”), but as pragmatic devices to be adjusted to changing conditions. Yes, Australia will stay on the American Bandwagon, but instead of always leading the cheer squad it will need to cultivate some of the skills of the helpful passenger. These include the encouraging of careful steering, some timely map reading, a judicious use of the brakes, and—not least—better road manners. As with all efforts at back-seat driving, it is unlikely that such advice will be gratefully received. But it would serve the best interests of both countries.1 White, “The Limits to Optimism: Australia and the Rise of China”, Australian Journal of International Affairs (December 2005).