On election night in 2020, President-elect Biden reassured the American people that despite everything they had endured for the past four years, “I believe at our best, America is a beacon for the globe.”
Nearly three years into his presidency, Biden has dropped the caveat. Speaking to the American people from the Oval Office, reflecting on his visit to Ukraine, Biden said that he “felt something I’ve always believed more strongly than ever before: America is a beacon to the world, still, still.”
This week, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese flies directly into the light.
Since the first – and rare – invitation to a prestigious State Dinner was issued to an Australian Prime Minister over half a century ago, Australian leaders have generally shared Biden’s misty-eyed view of the United States as a force for good in the world.
Albanese’s ninth meeting with the President will likely be a sombre affair. In contrast to State Dinners past, which have generally been celebratory evenings marked by champagne toasts and even, at the last one, talk of “bromance,” neither the President nor the PM will want to give the impression that they are celebrating amidst a world in crisis.
As he has done since even before he was sworn in as President, Biden will use this week’s visit of a like-minded ally to reinforce his message about the central role of the United States in a world divided, as he sees it, into democracies versus autocracies.
As the forces of tyranny unleash themselves across the world with renewed vigour, it is “American leadership,” according to the President, that “holds the world together.” The Australian Prime Minister, for his part, obviously agrees, and goes to Washington with a view to clearly and publicly reinforcing Australian support for that leadership.
Dinner with the President was originally offered as somewhat of a consolation prize for Biden’s abrupt cancellation of his planned visit to Australia earlier this year. It was billed as a meeting of minds – a chance to talk up the like-minded approaches of the two governments on defence, via AUKUS, and the new, “third pillar” of the alliance: climate action.
The leaders will likely still talk about cooperation on climate action and transition, but – as it almost always does – any talk of climate will now come an even more distant second to the “shared values” of the security alliance.
Increasingly, the framing of that security alliance, and talk of the “rules based international order” has an eerie, back-to-the-future quality to it.
In his address from the Oval Office last week, Biden went so far as to quote Clinton administration Secretary of State Madeline Albright, who described the United States as “the indispensable nation”.
In a world increasingly beset by crises, Western politicians, policy-makers and pundits appear to be reaching for the reassurance of Albright’s 1990s – the brief interregnum when a victorious and virtuous United States had vanquished the forces of tyranny to the dust bin of history.
In a dramatically changed world, Biden’s desire to force international events into those old binaries rings hollow. In his address last week, the President characterised the invasion of Ukraine and Hamas’ attacks on Israel as two sides of the same coin: attacks on freedom and democracy.
Even instinctively, it should be clear that these two crises are not the same. There are vastly different contexts, histories, and power dynamics at play, and the United States has played very different historical roles in each.
As an experienced foreign policy operator, Biden is better placed than many to appreciate these complexities, and to manage multiple crises at once.
But he, and Albanese, will continue to reach for the same tools even in a vastly changed world. In all likelihood, the Prime Minister’s meetings and dinner with Biden this week will gloss over those changes, emphasising consistency over complexity.
Like Biden, the Australian government sees the United States as it always has: as a safety beacon, the indispensable guarantor of our own, and the world’s, security. Still, still.
Dr Emma Shortis is Senior Researcher in the Australia Institute’s International & Security Affairs Program.
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