He has been compared in the British press to George W. Bush. He was once described by the US ambassador to Australia in a cable to Washington as ‘a polarising right-winger’. He endeared himself to US Republicans by describing the Obama administration as ‘the most left-of-centre government in at least half a century’. And he has even adopted some of the opposition tactics and small government rhetoric of the US Right.
But both Tony Abbott’s friends and enemies should disabuse themselves of any notion that he is some kind of a radical neoconservative. Why his enemies? Because if they insist on this caricature, they set themselves up for the same frustration they endured when they tried to paint John Howard as a radical right-winger. They built a caricature of our second longest serving prime minister that Australians could not recognise. They fought a straw man, and lost.
As for his friends, particularly in America, there is early evidence that Abbott’s thinking on foreign policy and the US alliance may be shifting in subtle but important ways. True, he supported the Iraq war, using language to describe the invasion that neoconservatives would have approved of. It was, he once argued, ‘to liberate other people, to advance everyone’s interests and to uphold universal values that the “coalition of the willing” went to war in Iraq.’
That quote is from Abbott’s 2009 book Battlelines, yet even then he was equivocal about the outcome of the war (‘The creation of a more-or-less functioning pluralist democracy… could even justify the immense sacrifices made.’) And late in the 2013 election campaign, Abbott admitted he was ambivalent about the Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya interventions, even alluding to Colin Powell’s famous Pottery Barn rule (‘You break it, you buy it’).
As he told ABC’s 7.30: ‘I supported [Iraq], but a lot of people would question its wisdom and its outcomes. We’ve had intervention in Afghanistan. Again, I supported it. A lot of people would question its wisdom and its ultimate outcomes. We’ve had intervention in Libya. Seems to have been more successful, but we’re at the beginning of a long story there. We have to be very careful because if we break something, we own it.’
The interview, far from sounding like Paul Wolfowitz or Bill Kristol, revealed a realist streak in Abbott’s foreign policy thinking. His instinct is always to support the US alliance, but ‘I just think we need to be very careful in a situation like this [Syria] because we can easily make a bad situation worse by acting precipitously’.
There is no question that Abbott is a strong supporter of the alliance and that his admiration of America runs deep. Yet this circumspection about the uses of US military power may come as a surprise to some in Washington who have heard the comparisons with Bush. What such comparisons miss is that Abbott’s conservatism has British roots, and that’s a tradition of thought which has very little in common with what Americans now think of as ‘conservative’.
Those who now call themselves conservative in America are essentially political radicals, who hold dogmatic views about taxation, the size of government, sexual morality and the use of US power, all of which are totally divorced from context and circumstance. The Republican party’s pursuit of President Obama and his policy agenda has even seen it trash Congressional traditions which used to be respected by both sides of politics. American conservatism has always had what Irving Kristol called a ‘creedal mentality’, but in recent years it has taken a decisive turn away from pragmatism, empiricism and respect for tradition, and towards mere ideology.
The tradition of thought Abbott draws on for his conservatism could not be more different. Battlelines is peppered with references to Roger Scruton, Michael Oakeshott and Edmund Burke, each of whom in their different ways dedicated their work to resisting the threat posed by extremist ideology of all kinds. One of the defining features of this type of conservatism is that it is anti-ideological. Ideology presupposes that a system of government can be perfected by abstracting it, thus pulling it away from the concrete practices of particular societies. But as Abbott says in Battlelines, ‘Conservatism starts with an appreciation of what is and what has been and tries to discern the good from patterns of conduct.’
Ideology does not have a strong grip on mainstream Australian politics. Both major parties have reasonably empiricist, pragmatic ideas of how policy should be developed and managed. But in recent years there has been a tendency in Australia for the US-Australia alliance to take on an ideological dimension. Rather than being a practical arrangement that serves Australian national interests, the alliance has tended to become an object of veneration to which political leaders regularly pay tribute. Prime Minister Gillard’s March 2011 address to Congress was extraordinary for its florid praise of America, and Abbott went so far as to say in 2012 that ‘few Australians would regard America as a foreign country’. Abbott’s recent circumspection on Syria suggests his ardour may have cooled.
One last theory about Abbott, which is worth addressing: the British Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan wrote glowingly in the UK Daily Telegraph recently that Abbott ‘has no time for the notion, favoured by some Melbourne clever dicks, that Australia is an Asian power: his country’s alliances with Britain, the United States and the other Anglophone democracies are central to his worldview.’ Actually you don’t need to be a Melbourne clever dick to believe that Australia is an Asian power. Just consulting a map will do. Or you could read Peter Hartcher’s pre-election interview with Abbott (headline: ‘I would be an Asia-first prime minister, says Abbott’), in which Abbott said: ‘Decisions which impact on our national interests will be made in Jakarta, in Beijing, in Tokyo, in Seoul, as much as they will be made in Washington.’
Judging by what Abbott has said and written on the topic, the Anglosphere has never, in his mind, been an organising principle for Australia’s foreign policy. It does have its place as part of Australia’s relations with the world, particularly in defence and intelligence sharing. But for Abbott, the Anglosphere is a primarily an intellectual construct, a common heritage of civic institutions, art, literature and ideas, not a diplomatic tool. Don’t expect Abbott to turn his back on Asia.
Sam Roggeveen is editor of Australia’s leading foreign policy forum, The Interpreter (lowyinterpreter.org)