Quad? When it comes to the US, domestic politics trumps everything

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Washington: A few hours before US President Joe Biden announced he had pulled the plug on a much-anticipated visit to Australia, one of our biggest allies in the US Congress, “AUKUS caucus” chairman Joe Courtney, neatly summed up why this trip mattered.

“Never understate the importance of physical presence,” the Democrat congressman told me.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and US President Joe Biden at a naval base in San Diego in March.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

“For the people of Australia, it’s important for us officials to be in the region in person – to demonstrate the real commitment to all of our friends who are really working hard to protect our shared values and interests.”

Biden’s decision to cut short the latter part of his overseas trip to resume talks on the US debt crisis is a snub to Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, does not reflect well on America’s reliability as a partner and is a potent reminder that, when it comes to the US, domestic politics trumps everything.

Biden’s planned visit to Canberra and Sydney – as well a historic trip to Papua New Guinea along the way – was meant to reaffirm America’s commitment to the region amid China’s ongoing rise.

But while both the US and Australia cherish their partnership, it’s now clearer than ever that one side of the alliance can afford to value that partnership less than the other.

To be fair, Biden is a self-described “congenial optimist” and White House insiders insist he is “deeply frustrated” of being unable to push ahead with the expected trip, which would have followed a three-day summit of G7 leaders starting on Friday in Japan with a brief stop in Papua New Guinea, and then onto Canberra and Sydney for a meeting of the Quad alliance with Japan, Australia and India.

But plans can change dramatically in a town as unpredictable and polarised as Washington and, given the stalemate over the debt ceiling, the president – who prides himself on being one of the most skilled negotiators in the nation’s capital – felt he had no choice but to cut short his trip after the G7.

Put simply, if the government runs out of money to pay its bills in a little over two weeks, such a default could cost Americans jobs and plunge the country into a recession.

Indeed, the White House Council of Economic Advisers recently modelled the impact of a protracted default and found that it could lead to a downturn as severe as the Great Recession.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen explained the threat as, “Over 8 million Americans lose their jobs. Business and consumer confidence take a substantial hit. The value of the stock market is slashed by about 45 per cent – wiping out years of retirement and other household savings.

“If that sounds catastrophic, that’s because it is,” Yellen added.

That’s not to say the optics couldn’t have been less awkward. After all, Biden had flagged a week ago that, if the negotiations with Republicans had “got down to the wire and we still hadn’t resolved this”, then he wouldn’t head abroad.

And yet, in the hours and days before the cancellation was confirmed, White House spokesman John Kirby was insisting that Biden could walk and chew gum at the same time, Australia’s new US ambassador Kevin Rudd was tweeting photos with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken talking up the forthcoming visit and the Prime Minister’s office had put out a statement – with the administration’s approval – confirming the trip.

Then, just after the clock struck 4am in Australia, Kirby was in the White House briefing room, telling reporters that the trip was being “re-evaluated”.

Asked if Biden was calling Albanese or “doing something that would perhaps lead to a change in the itinerary,” Kirby replied, “I can speak to Hiroshima; I can speak to the G7. We’re evaluating the rest of the trip. And as you might expect, should there be changes made or need to be made to the rest of the trip, we will absolutely make proper notification.”

As it turns out, proper notification was made – about the same time as Kirby’s White House press conference and right before the president and congressional leaders met at the White House and couldn’t strike a deal. What a shambles.

Now both Biden and Albanese are left red-faced, while China, which once dismissed the Quad as an unserious venture that would “dissipate like sea foam”, has been handed a diplomatic victory.

After all, years of strategic neglect from Washington produced a strategic vacuum that China was eager to fill. The result has been that Beijing has been steadily increasing its influence and power in the region, and the US knew it needed to lift its game.

Indeed, the more damaging part of Biden’s decision could well be the cancellation of his trip to Papua New Guinea, which would have marked the first time a sitting US president has visited the Pacific Island country.

Given that two of Biden’s uncles fought side-by-side with Australians in PNG in World War II, and one of them died there, the president also says he has a strong personal connection with the region.

PNG also sits near crucial sea routes between Australia, Japan and the US, and after Beijing last year struck a security pact with the Solomon Islands, Washington was cognisant of the need to do better in the Pacific – particularly after Pacific leaders in Fiji told Blinken last year, “We have felt at times, to borrow an American term, like a flyover country.”

As US Indo-Pacific co-ordinator Kurt Campbell said a year ago, “I would say that the most important element going forward is that the United States has to step up its game across the board and we’ve been encouraged strongly to do that by our Australian friends”.

This decision by the White House will play well domestically but for those affected, it is yet another example of US domestic politics curtailing US foreign policy.

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