By Serge DeSilva-Ranasinghe
After more than a decade since the 9/11 terrorist attacks reinvigorated the United States-Australia alliance, both countries today maintain closer ties more than ever before. In one of his final interviews, outgoing US Ambassador to Australia, Jeffrey Bleich, spoke to Sergei DeSilva-Ranasinghe about the challenges in the relationship; developing economic and people-to-people relations; what the US Asia-Pacific rebalance means for Australia and the region; US policy to the Indian Ocean region; the importance of Western Australia and the future of bilateral ties.
I would like to start by asking you about the present state of the bilateral relationship, particularly in relation to its challenges. It is widely understood that the US and Australia enjoy strong relations, but having said that, every relationship also has its difficulties. What would these be in relation to the US and Australia?
Right now, Australia and the United States are in a very strong place. Both agree on challenges in the Asia-Pacific region. Although we may differ on some tactical issues, by and large, we share a common perspective on important world issues, so I don’t see too many challenges in the relationship. The biggest fear down the road is that we may take this relationship for granted and assume we will always work well together. Relationships between countries can change over time – bad relationships can improve dramatically, but great relationships can weaken if you don’t pay enough attention to them. After the global financial crisis and the Iraq war, which was unpopular in Australia and quite controversial in the United States as well, a generation here has became sceptical of US leadership in economic and security matters. One of our goals is to not only remind people of the
successful aspects of our relationship in the past, but also to restore confidence and demonstrate a visionary and common approach on the issues that affect this region. The USeconomy is recovering, which is helpful. We have completed our mission in Iraq, created a timeline to exit Afghanistan, and rebalanced and refocussed our global priorities. But I worry about the generation that needs to be reassured – so they can feel confident like their parents and their grandparents – that the US-Australia relationship is worth their personal investment.
On the topic of challenges, does the depreciation in Australia’s defence spending and defence industry pose any particular long-term concern?
The United States and Australia have been working closely for more than 70 years. So one year’s defence budget cannot be taken as a major change in long-term commitment. The
percentage of GDP for the 2013 budget mainly reflects writing-off some under-spends in the past couple of years. But the long-term effect of the United States with its allies around the world is that there is greater burden to be shared. The US taxpayers and families can’t have their young men and women and tax dollars being spent disproportionately for the security of the world, so we’ve had to identify areas of vital and non-vital interest to the United States. We’ve also had to encourage our allies to assume greater responsibility for those non-vital interests and cooperate more in areas of similar and compatible interests. We are seeing some very positive developments in the defence sector in terms of Australian capability. Read More