ANZUS, Indonesia and the Pottery Barn rule
2 Dec 2013|

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Bali, Indonesia, October 6, 2013. In the words of my namesake, Washington has exposed one of The Things We Dare Not Tell. We all know and accept that Australia spies on foreign leaders, but like Fight Club, the first rule about spying is we don’t talk about spying. It’s bipartisan.

Too often overlooked in the current debate is that a serious security blunder by the NSA—and therefore the Obama administration—is largely responsible for derailing the Abbott Coalition Government’s promising early courtship of Jakarta.

Imagine if the situation were reversed. At the very least, Colin Powell’s Pottery Barn rule should apply: you break it, you buy it. The pressing question should therefore be: how does Washington help to clean up this mess?

John Kerry’s recent success in the Middle East has highlighted the utility of traditional, discreet shuttle diplomacy. I argue that a similar effort by the United States could serve as a circuit breaker in our current imbroglio with Jakarta, or at least help stem the bleeding and speed the natural rate of recovery. It is in everyone’s interests for US policymakers at the very highest level to help mediate, stabilise and defuse the escalating spat between two of its most critical long-term partners in the Indo-Pacific. Here’s why.

With only a small fraction of the Snowden material in the public domain, this problem has the potential to fester and even grow. It undermines Australia’s most crucial regional relationship—past, present and future.

To some in Washington this may seem like ‘herding cats’—yet such efforts are critical in forging links between the ‘spokes’ of the Asian regional system of alliances of which it has long been the ‘hub’. This ‘thickening’ of Washington’s web in Southeast Asia is particularly important as events further north heat up.

Intervening to smooth relations between Jakarta and Canberra thus presents Washington with low hanging fruit—fostering stability and strategic depth in Australia’s immediate neighbourhood enables it to focus on more pressing challenges in the wider region. While the upcoming Indonesian elections will undoubtedly draw out and complicate this effort, the prospect of more than 300 convicted terrorists being released from Indonesian gaols over the next year should at least partially offset this.

Such a concerted American diplomatic initiative falls in line with the recommendations of a new CNAS report on the politics of America’s regional force posture. The report makes the important, yet oft-overlooked argument that while strategic threats may open the door for the US to deepen existing security ties and help foster new ones, their long-term viability rests on ‘conducive political environments in partner countries.’

Australia should play its part in encouraging this, given the on-going need to broaden the foundation of its security from an over-reliance on the US to being part of a wider security architecture, along with other partners like Indonesia.

Washington has form in using its unmatched gravitas and leverage in the role of discreet mediator. During the East Timor crisis of 1999-2000, and crucially, before the Australia-led UN force under Major-General Peter Cosgrove landed in Dili on September 20th 1999, American leaders at the very highest levels personally intervened to contain the tensions between Canberra and Jakarta. This concerted effort included phone calls, diplomatic cables and private meetings conducted by President Bill Clinton, Secretary of State Madeline Albright, Secretary of Defense William Cohen, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Henry Shelton.

While that earlier crisis was more serious than that faced today, it demonstrates the value of Washington’s diplomatic support at the highest level. The Clinton administration was reluctant to pressure Indonesia, yet when it did, it was critical to secure the success of the Australian-led operation.

This was acknowledged by then-Governor George W. Bush during a US Presidential election debate on October 12th 2000. He answered a question from moderator Jim Lehrer about foreign intervention:

I thought the best example of a way to handle a situation was East Timor, when we provided logistical support to the Australians, support that only we can provide. I thought that was a good model..

Fast-forward to today, and if we are to truly believe that the point made by American officials that the ‘Pivot’ really is a whole-of-government ‘rebalance’, then we should ask to see their diplomatic clout bought to bear. Indeed, Rory Medcalf was right when arguing that the purpose of Australia’s alliance with the US is not predetermined and limited to military conflict.

Washington’s shuttle diplomacy in this mess would give weight to the declaration by elements of the US commentariat that Australia has moved from ‘down under’ to ‘top center’ in terms of geopolitical import, and that ‘The Pivot Starts Now’.

Henry Lawton has recently completed an MPhil in International Relations at the University of Cambridge. His dissertation examined the ANZUS alliance, with particular reference to Indonesia. Image courtesy of U.S. Department of State.