SYDNEY -- "George Bush is not an easy export."
That judgment, expressed over lunch at a beautiful harborside restaurant by Allan Gyngell, executive director of the Lowy Institute, a year-old foreign policy research center, describes the only blemish on America's relations with this traditional ally in the South Pacific.
Gyngell, a longtime member of the Australian foreign service, is, like almost everyone one meets here, instinctively pro-American. He points out that ever since the British base at Singapore was captured by the Japanese in 1942, Australia has looked to the United States for protection. Supporting the alliance with the United States has been the consistent policy of both major parties, the Labor government that was in power during World War II, and the Liberal government of Prime Minister John Howard, who is in office now.
Australia has sent troops to support the Allies in the two world wars, the United Nations in Korea, the United States in Vietnam, and the coalition forces in Afghanistan and wars against Iraq. Public opinion polls showed majority opposition to the invasion of Iraq, but Howard's decision to contribute 2,000 troops was broadly accepted. Now that force has been substantially reduced. Only one Australian has died in Iraq, and there is little public pressure for an early pullout. A Labor Party challenger to Howard in last year's election was criticized for promising a quick return of Aussie troops and has been replaced as party leader by a man regarded as having strong credentials on national security issues.
All of which makes the cautious reaction to Bush here something of a puzzle. Gyngell and his colleagues suggest that it has to do with what they see as Bush's intense belief in the uniqueness of America. "All Americans feel that," Gyngell said, "but with Bush, it is so strong that it hardly allows room for others."
Gerard Henderson, executive director of the Sydney Institute, a think tank dealing with a broad spectrum of political and economic issues, commented that presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton both were more popular in Australia than the current president appears to be. Henderson, who once served as Howard's chief of staff, said he recognizes the strength that both Howard and the current President Bush derive from their directness of expression and bluntness. But he said the style that works well for both men in solidifying their domestic constituencies is less amenable to winning friends overseas.
"It's not a question of changing policies," Gyngell said. "It's really a matter of style," and that means it hardly ranks high as a foreign policy challenge for Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice -- an intriguing figure to Australians, who are working their way past an unhappy history of excluding immigrants of color and today are savoring the dynamics of an increasingly diverse population.
This is a happy country, with a booming economy, budget surpluses, quite generous social services and stable, consensus-minded government. "Because we are so isolated from the rest of the world," Henderson said, "we have no choice but to get along with each other. We are very pragmatic, not very ideological."
Being pragmatists, Australians are carefully watching the emergence of China as a potential superpower. Gyngell said there is no serious neoconservative faction arguing, as in the United States, that China could become a strategic or military threat. "We see nothing but opportunity in China, a major market for goods and services and an economy that complements rather than competes with ours. It is now our number two trading partner, after the United States, and the fastest-growing."
Of greater concern is the uncertainty about the future of U.S.-China relations. Australia does not want to have to choose between its basic political-military alliance with the United States and its growing economic ties with China. A flare-up of tension between the United States and China, over the future of Taiwan or some other issue, would be bad news for Australia. And an armed conflict between those two countries would test the U.S.-Australian ties like nothing else in modern history.
But all this is conjectural. For now, soft summer breezes blow here, and the magnificent harbor is filled with sailboats. The Queen Elizabeth 2 and other tourist ships are at the docks. And the only disturbing noises come from Canberra, where the Parliament has just resumed meeting and the Labor opposition is scrambling for issues to embarrass the government. The world should be so lucky!