Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The New Guam Doctrine

by Graeme Dobell - 14 April 2010 2:54PM

The new Guam doctrine will mark a significant stepping-stone in the creation of Asia's concert of powers. This ranks as a 'brave' prediction, because we don't yet have an Asian concert, and Barack Obama hasn't yet set foot on Guam to unveil a new doctrine. But both are approaching.

If Obama had not tarried in Washington to deliver the health centrepiece of his first presidential term, we would by now have the new Guam doctrine on display. But for Obamacare, the president would have made his tour last month � Guam, Indonesia and Australia. That trip is now scheduled for June.

The Guam stopover will underline the point that the US is spending billions on the island as a fresh assertion of its continuing role as Asia's military guarantor. A previous column offered this translation of the doctrine that will be blessed when Obama makes his Guam touchdown: 'We're going to be here for a long time yet.'

But my translation sentence is deficient because it reflects only the military dimension of the new doctrine. The beauty of what Obama will offer is that it will have a second, multilateral (Concert of Powers) dimension, building on the military framework of the US bilateral alliance system in Asia.

A translation of both dimensions of the Obama doctrine would look like this: 'We're going to be here for a long time yet, but we are certainly ready to talk about new ways to run the neighbourhood.' Or to put it more formally: the new doctrine will link a continuing assertion of US military capability to a willingness to think new thoughts about Asia's security architecture and a concert of powers.

A new Guam doctrine resonates in Canberra because Nixon's original version had such a profound impact on Australian defence thinking. Heading for the Vietnam exit door, Nixon used a stop-over press conference in Guam on 25 July, 1969, to float a thought bubble about US allies needing to take care of themselves. In dealing with non-nuclear threats, Nixon said, the US would 'look to the nation directly threatened to assume the primary responsibility of providing the manpower for defence.'

The rough translation of that at the time in Asia and Australia went like this: We're getting out of Vietnam. Good luck, everybody. We suggest a Do It Yourself kit for defence.'

Sitting back in Washington, Kissinger later wrote of his 'amazement' that what had been private White House musings had suddenly been unveiled in an unscripted, impromptu pronouncement on Guam. The off-the-cuff announcement meant there'd been no briefing, consultation or forewarning for allies.

The strategic shift via press conference caused all sorts of frissons across the region, not least in Canberra. It didn't equal the magnitude of the Nixon-goes-to-China shock, but it certainly made an impression. Indeed, it was the reaction of allies as much as Nixon's words that turned the Guam presser into the Guam doctrine.

After Guam, Australia was on notice that forward defence and reliance on the great and powerful ally did not amount to a defence policy. And as the US exit from Vietnam gathered pace, the Guam doctrine grew in significance. Every Australian Defence White Paper since 1976 has been, in part, a post-Guam document. The argument ricochets, rebounds and recurs: How much weight for the alliance versus spending on self reliance? Defend the continent or help the neighbourhood? Is it a regional capability or an expeditionary force?

The affirmation of the US commitment to its role as an Asian power has been a standard couple of paragraphs in most post-Cold War speeches by visiting US presidents and secretaries of State or Defence. Guam puts fresh dollars behind those words. The new superbase is a military statement of intent expressed in concrete.

What Obama can do is define the meaning of a new Guam doctrine in ways that reach beyond the military dimension. The Obama version of the Guam doctrine can be about conversation as well as concrete.

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Deciphering Presidential Touchdowns

by Graeme Dobell - 18 March 2010 12:09PM

Indonesia and Australia stand equal in the number of US presidential touchdowns on their soil over the last 50 years � each has six. More on those mixed half dozens in a moment.

Popes kiss the ground when their plane lands. US Presidents lay their hands on the shoulder of the leader they meet. The Pope offers a blessing. The President sends political and diplomatic messages.

The coming Obama visit to Guam, Indonesia and Australia is somewhat curtailed but the intended messages are coming into view. Stopping in Guam is, plain and simple, a nod to the Defence Department. Going to Indonesia is an expression of Obama's own life. Mark it as a White House personal-and-policy must, building on a lot of other compelling reasons for giving Indonesia more prominence.

And Australia? Perhaps Kevin Rudd's magnetism has captured Obama during their various interactions over Afghanistan, climate change and the G20. Or, more likely, the State Department and Hillary Clinton won with an argument that was part geography and part politeness. You're going all the way to Indonesia, why snub the Australians when they are virtually next door?

The first leg of the trip will give us a new Guam doctrine on the US's continuing military presence in Asia. Richard Nixon did his doctrinal dance in Guam as the US extricated itself from Vietnam. Nixon's Guam doctrine was about allies henceforth taking primary responsibility for their own defence.

The Guam doctrine that Obama will bless is made flesh in the creation of a new multi-billion dollar US military superbase. The message can be encapsulated as: 'We're going to be here for a long time yet.' Given the politics of Japan at the moment, the message could be aimed as much at Tokyo as Beijing.

Beyond the personal history of Obama in Indonesia, the White House is briefing on the visit as an expression of the view that 'America has been somewhat absent from the region over the last several years and we are committed to re-establishing that leadership.' It's a two-part US call to Asia: our attention may have wandered but we know about our interests.

Reading that briefing, I was struck by the joining of Australia and Indonesia as twin 'middle powers' and the description of the journey as another expression of 'the changing global governance' of the 21st century. You can use phrases like that when you brief in the White House.

For both Australia and Indonesia, the Obama trip will be the seventh visit by a US President in the past 50 years. That figure suggests Australia has been doing pretty well with presidential touchdowns while Indonesia continues to strive to get due recognition for its significance. Indeed (warning: incoming clich�) Australia may well have been 'punching above its weight' in gaining presidential attention. The figures are contained here at the US State Department accounting of presidential trips.

Australia got off to a 'flying' start with two visits by LBJ; one in 1966 to express his friendship for Prime Minister Holt and one the following year to mourn Holt's disappearance in the surf. Then there was a 25-year gap, after which Australia scored repeatedly: George H Bush in 1992, Bill Clinton in 1996, and George W Bush in both 2003 and 2007. Obama's trip to Canberra means Australia will have enjoyed a touchdown by four US presidents in a row. In the touchdown stakes, that is close to the gold standard for 'middle powers'.

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