Angus Duncan, President of the Politics Club
Over the break, State was lucky enough to sit down to interview His Excellency The Hon. Kim Beazley AC, Australia’s Ambassador to the United States of America, to discuss Australia’s relationship with the USA.
Ambassador Beazley was elected to the Federal Parliament in 1980 and represented the electorates of Swan (1980-96) and Brand (1996-2007). Ambassador Beazley was a Minister in the Hawke and Keating Labor Governments (1983-96) holding, at various times, the portfolios of Defence, Finance, Transport and Communications, Employment Education and Training, Aviation, and Special Minister of State. He was Deputy Prime Minister (1995-96) and Leader of the Australian Labor Party and Leader of the Opposition (1996-01 and 2005-06). Ambassador Beazley served on parliamentary committees, including the Joint Intelligence Committee and the Joint Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee. After his retirement from politics in 2007, Ambassador Beazley was appointed Winthrop Professor in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Western Australia. In July 2008 he was appointed Chancellor of the Australian National University, a position he held until December 2009. Ambassador Beazley took up his appointment as Ambassador to the United States of America in February 2010. In 2009, Ambassador Beazley was awarded the Companion of the Order of Australia for service to the Parliament of Australia through contributions to the development of government policies in relation to defence and international relations, and as an advocate for Indigenous people, and to the community. Ambassador Beazley was born in Perth. He completed a Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts at the University of Western Australia. He was awarded the Rhodes Scholarship for Western Australia in 1973 and completed a Master of Philosophy at Oxford University. He is married to Susanna Annus and has three daughters.
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Now here, without further ado, is our interview.
STATE: Ambassador Kim Beazley, let me begin by thanking you for taking the time to be interviewed by State Magazine. We really appreciate you taking the time and it’s a great honour to be talking to you.
KB: Happy to do it.
STATE: Let me start off by asking Ambassador – you’ve had the opportunity to meet and work alongside President Obama, what do you consider some of the defining characteristics of his personality?
KB: Well look, I’m not sure I’m in the business of giving free character analysis of the US President, but when you say work alongside, he’s way above my pay grade. I do however turn up whenever he is meeting with our Prime Minister or when he is visiting Australia. Look, I think the thing that most is intriguing about him from our point of view is his very strong focus on our region, on Asia. This is not unusual in an American President, but unusual it’s so pronounced, he understands it well. I noted that for example that when he visited Indonesia he spoke briefly in Bahasa and I was talking to the wife of the Indonesian Ambassador, and asked her what it was like and she said it was effortless, so quite clearly when he spent time in Indonesia in his youth he picked up a pretty good understanding of language and culture. So if you are looking for something that is different or in this President from perhaps previous Presidents and if you’re looking for some of the origins of his interest in our region and his interest in us, I think you can probably incorporate that childhood experience within it.
STATE: Clearly his speaking abilities were demonstrated the other day in his State of the Union, and I’d just like to take one of his quotes where he said “America remains the one indispensable nation in world affairs and as long as I’m President I intend to keep it that way”. From the Australian Government’s perspective, how realistic is Obama’s belief?
KB: Well, the statement “one indispensible nation”; that is the assumption that if you are going to get a problem settled, if you’re going to get a solution, if you’re going to ensure the good health of the global economy you can’t operate without reference to the participation of the United States. We found that out when we were in office when we were setting up APEC, and we initially I guess forgot to invite the United States to be a member, that was a situation that was corrected very quickly, but it was quite clear you couldn’t function an Asian Pacific community without the active participation of the United States. So that statement that he makes, as one indispensible nation, I guess, of all nations on the globe that particular description most applies to the United States.
STATE: President Obama’s resent trip to Australia, it was fair enough to say, was perceived as an attempt to bolster their presence in Asia Pacific. From a diplomatic point of view how do you think Australia perceived President Obama’s trip?
KB: Well, I think that given the views that I saw expressed along the roadways in Canberra and in Darwin and the general sentiment or views that were possible to discern, he was very welcomed, he is a very popular figure in Australia. His election produced a great deal of interest in Australia; one of the stats I love to quote from public opinion polling back to American interlockers here is that pure research asking the question in the United States in the last presidential election “are you interested in it” got an 83 % response expressing interest. When they asked the same question about the US presidential election in Australia they got an 84% response. Australians are very internationally minded in global comparison and probably, in fact, more internationally minded than many Americans, the average Australian. So Obama has been a, any US President is a source of considerable interest in Australia, but Obama especially so.
STATE: So a key part of his trip down under was the announcement made by President Obama and Prime Minister Gillard that there is to be an American military base in Darwin that will hold up to 2500 marines. What do you think this military base means for the Australian-US alliance?
KB: Well it is part of, it, we have a very wide ranging military and intelligence collaboration with the United States expressed through joint facilities, joint exercises, acquisition of first class equipment, close engagements with various agencies of national security in the United States, it is a very strong relationship and emphasising American troops in Australia as well as Australians in the United States or at lease particularly Australian naval vessels in the American waters around Hawaii. This has been going on for years and years, this puts a little bit more structure into what has been as I said an ongoing feature of the alliance relationship and from the American point of view sends an important signal into the region of its continuing engagement, and from our point of view it’s a good thing that the Americans sent that signal into the region.
STATE: So do you think there’s a new strategic rationale behind this military base? Could it be the rise of China or almost an acknowledgement that they’ve had their eye off the ball by focusing on the Middle East for too long?
KB: Probably not the rise of China, the US is playing here a very sophisticated hand. They know very well that encouraging the peaceful rise of China, is a thing in which we all have an interest but they also have a very acute awareness of the importance to everybody’s prosperity of recognising the rules based international system both on trade matters and on settlement of disputes, and what the increasing American involvement in the region is that there is to be an environment in which it is possible that these issues, and there are many disagreements particularly on maritime boundaries in the South East Asian region these will be settled by peaceful means and by negotiation and not by, to coin a phrase, fait la guerre [make war]. So we have an interest that, that is the case, most of the countries in the regional approval all the countries in the region in fact have an interest in that and the US is prepared to engage in a way that holds the ring, that’s the first point I’d make. The second is that the United States also, and Obama is emphatic about it too, is a legitimate Pacific power by virtue of geography. It is a Pacific state geographically and therefore legitimately engaged in the Pacific’s regional affairs. Now, the difference I suppose, in the speeches that are being made recently from speeches in the past is not so much that it doesn’t incorporate an American engagement in the Asia Pacific region – plenty of American Presidents have asserted that over the years – it is the level of priority being assigned to it of the indication of the Obama administration both in the President’s statements and in Secretary of State Clinton’s is that in this century this is the US priority area. So hitherto you would have said well, certainly during the Cold War their focal point of engagement tended to be Europe, the Middle East and as far as the Asia Pacific was concerned the far north of the region. The tier for politics of the globe has shifted since the end of the Cold War and this is really, these statements are really a recognition of that.
STATE: Well, just going back to the State of the Union, President Obama said, “Anyone who tells you that America is declined or that our influence has waned doesn’t know what they are talking about”. So you don’t think then that this statement would have been made in reference to the rise of China?
KB: Look, I think arguments about American decline reverberate all over the place particularly since the global financial crisis, so lots of commentators have alleged that this is occurring. The simple fact of the matter is that it is more sensible to see global developments not in terms of American decline but the rise of a multiplicity of states that have come into wealth in an international political system, that encourages them to do so largely created by the United States in the aftermath of World War II. So the United States is not declining its economy continues to grow, it remains pretty well the most inventive society on earth, it constantly re-creates itself, its population, wealth and military capacity in technological terms at least in the latter case is expanding but it also acknowledges that there are a lot of other countries doing very well and doing increasingly well and some growing very fast and not just China there’s India, there’s Brazil there’s in our region smaller powers Indonesia, Vietnam. The global growth is in everybody’s interests, so I think it is a reasonable thing for the President to say in the light of all that the US isn’t declining the US is like us all dealing with a system that is much more diverse.
STATE: So you don’t think in any way that the new military base could damage Australia’s multi-million dollar trading partnership with China then?
KB: No, China doesn’t trade with us because we have an alliance, or don’t have an alliance with the United States. China trades with us because it is in China’s interest to do so. When China ceases to have an interest in doing it, the trade would stop at that point. But you could not foresee that sort of circumstance whilst ever China’s growth is like it is and Australian raw materials are necessary for it.
STATE: Australia, then, from what you’ve said is not now stuck in an awkward situation between our security alliance with America and the new found partnership we have with China?
KB: I think we would only be in an awkward position if we were silly, this is not, is not a difficult set of relationships to sustain the economic relationship we have with China, the good diplomatic relationship we have with China is eminently sustainable as is our relationship with the United States. The international economic picture is interesting too in regard to China; of course we’re looking in traded goods and to a lesser degree services. In the case of the United States you’re looking at the focal point of a massive amount of Australian investment and vice versa American investment in Australia, absolutely dwarfs the investment big picture elsewhere in the region, and on the globe. There are many various ways of doing statistics but the sort of mutual investments at least of one set that came across recently between Australia and the US is about 800 billion, between Australia and China it’s about 90 and the biggest new investors, that is new FDI’s in Australia last year was American and Australian investment in the United States despite the global financial crisis and the US economy’s difficulties has increased every year throughout that global financial crisis. We are massive investors in the US and they in us much more so than we in China.
STATE: Then the new base, the new military base doesn’t make Australia any more of a military or terrorist target?
KB: No. No, no it doesn’t, it’s an emphasis in the region and the region is very happy about it. I’ve got to say it emphasises to countries in the region that relationship is important and continuing but more importantly that the United States is actively engaging in the region and it’s a good symbol for that purpose. I don’t think in all honesty anybody is fearful of a base with a brigade of marines in it that they are there for exercise purposes, honing their skills and by the way given that the Australian Defence Forces are about to get two large amphibious ships very useful training in maritime operations for the Australian Army.
STATE: Sorry to stick on the military base; if we look at it from another perspective some academics might argue that we’re moving into a period where soft power is much more important than hard military might. How do you think Australia would respond to such an idea?
KB: Soft power is always important and because American soft power is pretty potent, potent in the region and potent in our country. If you’re defining soft power in the context of your cultural outreach the American cultural outreach is pretty strong.
STATE: If we could just move on to America’s withdrawal from Iraq. How is that largely being perceived in America?
KB: Well, I think he came, President Obama came into office promising it and he is perceived as having delivered on a promise. There are critics of it that would have liked to argue that it would have been useful for America to move heaven and earth to sustain a military engagement in Iraq, but there is no appetite for that here and there certainly wasn’t sufficient appetite in Iraq for them to be prepared to adopt positions that were encouraging to the Americans.
STATE: So does the withdrawal now allow America to focus on Asia Pacific?
KB: I think the United States will be engaged in the Middle East for a long time. Assigning priority to the Asia Pacific doesn’t mean that the United States is not engaged in other parts of the globe – it’s a global power. Just as when priority was assigned Europe, Middle East and North Asia it didn’t mean that the United States had no interest or engagement in South East Asia or East Asia more generally, so it’s not an either/or in that sense but as the United States restructures its defence forces, as they reduce expenditure on some elements of it. It’s quite clear that they’re making a considerable effort to sustain those parts of the force structure that are most significant in our region but they’re not insignificant in the Middle East as well.
STATE: So if we just take a step back; what do you think is the new defining feature of this new era in American-Australian relations?
KB: Well, I think the defining feature is that because of the changed geo-political focus of the globe away from the old Cold War focal points of, you know, Europe, North Asia and the Middle East to the Asia Pacific transforms Australia from being essentially in a global backwater to being if you like a pretty significant power in the southern tier of that focal point, of the new focal point of the new global political system, so from being geo-politically a bit of a backwater we’ve moved geo-politically to the forefront and I think that change in our status is somewhat reflected in American interest in us.
STATE: Just turning to domestic politics with your long successful career at a Federal level. What was your reaction to images of our Prime Minister being dragged into her car after being attacked by protestors on Australia Day?
KB: *laughs *I’m a diplomat, don’t ask me to comment on politics.
STATE: I’d just like to end the interview by asking about you. Now I understand you have a passion for military history. So out of all the conflicts of the ages and their leaders what aspect or period interests you the most and why?
KB: Look, I am interested in military history and it is an amateur’s interest, not a professional one. I am interested in the American Civil War – it’s interesting both because of the principles over which it was fought, it was a war thought to preserve a Union which was seen as a Union of definite worth to the global community and the example it set and it also was to right a horrific historical wrong. So in terms of the politics of the American Civil War it engages political values at many different levels and it was an interesting fight but more as an Australian because, the result of the Civil War is important to us, because the United States emerged intact at the end of it the US have both the physical capacity and moral authority which it would not have had if it was a divided nation to play a really substantial role in our region in the twentieth century. That was crucial in terms of resisting the advances of the Japanese Empire at the time of World War II. So you can if you want to and if you take a “what if” approach to history you can draw a pretty direct line between the outcome of the American Civil War and our survival in World War II. Well I’m interested in that, I’m also interested in Australian military history particularly in the context of the First and Second World Wars, again from a perspective of what guaranteed our survival and what lessons we need to learn from.
STATE: And just finally you’ve been a Rhodes Scholar from UWA; Defence Minister; Opposition Leader, narrowly and disappointingly missed out on becoming Prime Minister and now you’ve gone on to become Ambassador to the US. What has been your favourite portfolio?
KB: Well look I’m enjoying my job at this moment it’s terrific, it’s very interesting and very worthwhile. I have to say of all the jobs I’ve had the two that I liked most was the job leading the Labor Party and the job as Defence Minister, so I don’t think those were particularly terrifically huge secrets but, I certainly thought that my political career was at it’s most worthwhile while doing those two things.
STATE: Well Ambassador, thank you so much for taking the time to speak to us today, if you’re ever back in Perth the Politics Club would love to have you at an event to speak. So thank you very much.
KB: I will certainly do that.