The indispensable nation? Covid-19 tests the US-Australian alliance | Australia news

Each morning, former US ambassador to Australia John Berry walks through City Hall Park in lower Manhattan, where stands a modest memorial to young revolutionary Nathan Hale.

The 21-year-old spy and soldier was hanged by the British in 1776, having uttered the immortal last words: “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”

Nearby today stands the Lower Manhattan hospital, outside of which, these days, sits a large white truck “being used as a temporary mortuary because there are not enough places to hold the bodies”.

Daily, thousands of Americans are losing their lives for, in, and because of their country: doctors and nurses in service of their compatriots, ordinary Americans who have been unable to be saved by their country’s healthcare system.

“I don’t mean to paint too bleak a picture,” Berry tells the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.

“But we can’t be Pollyanna-ish with the numbers that we’re facing and what people are dealing with. There’s no one living in New York City who does not know someone who has died. I have watched body bags come out of buildings across the street. It is touching everyone.”

The United States is home to a little more than 4% of the world’s population; it has suffered one-third (1.16m of 3.5m) of the world’s Covid-19 cases. More Americans – 67,000 – have died in three months from this pandemic than died in 20 years of the Vietnam War.

The nation Hale gave his life to create is struggling, like no other country on Earth, to rein in its invidious, invisible, deadly enemy.

And Australia has watched in near-disbelieving horror as its closest ally has flailed in its efforts to combat the coronavirus and foundered in a government’s most fundamental task: to keep its people safe.

The best of times, the worst of times

Berry, the US ambassador to Australia between 2013 and 2016 and now president of the American Australian Association, sees demonstration of a Dickensian dichotomy in the New York tableau: “The best of times, the worst of times.”

The best, he says, are those doctors and nurses and critical workers who have dedicated themselves to the lives and welfare of their fellow citizens. It lives too, in the American spirit of New Yorkers who emerge from their lockdowns at 7pm each night to cheer, bang drums, ring bells, and play New York, New York for the city’s frontline essential workers.

“Every night it gets a little louder and I have to tell you I cannot help but every night cry when I am listening because it is such an outpouring of human passion and love and support and thanks to those people risking their lives for everyone else’s,” he says.

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The worst, Berry says, have been the other constants: the wail of ambulances, the ever-presence of the refrigerated trucks, and the ever-climbing death toll.

The US, Berry says, has much to learn from Australia in its Covid-19 response: the jobseeker that “preserves the jobs” of those stood down and, more structurally, a healthcare system that can care for the many.

“We’ve got to build a healthcare infrastructure … the United States could learn a huge amount from Australia, because you do it better than us. You have a healthcare structure that has responded to this, that has handled the load, that has stepped up in the crisis.”

Great and powerful friend?

The United States of America is, and will remain, Australia’s most important ally.

But how does Australia regard its “great and powerful friend” when it is no longer so great, nor so powerful? How does Australia respond to an ally that is inconsistent and – under stress – chaotic, and that has championed insularity to proclaim “America first”?

Dr Michael Fullilove, the executive director of the Lowy Institute, says crises like Covid-19 are “stress tests” for nations, and the US is failing.

“The US appears to be seriously unwell,” he tells the Guardian. “It appears to be somewhat febrile and ineffective. The US was self-isolating before Covid-19 under Donald Trump’s presidency, what Covid has done is magnified the worst elements of the Trump administration.

“His personal response has been one of the worst in the world, he has been inconsistent and self-absorbed, and late to the party.”

Donald Trump

While Donald Trump is neither popular nor trusted in Australia, 72% of Australians believe the US alliance is in the country’s national interest. Photograph: Oliver Contreras/EPA

But Fullilove argues the problems exposed run deeper, and are institutional: states’ capacities in the US are weak and uneven, the absence of a social solidarity is starkly apparent, and the lack of a broad-capacity public healthcare system has been brutally exposed.

“Covid-19 is a stress test … it is revealing about nations as well individuals.”

In an ally, Australia desires a US that is engaged globally, that is steady and reliable and that defines its national interests broadly, Fullilove argues, “not one buffeted by the ego of one individual”.

“Australia needs a US engaged in Asia, otherwise this region can be dominated by one big authoritarian state. I think the world is holding its breath until November. Many of us are troubled by what’s happened, not only in the last three months, but over the last three years.

“The American people have the ability to course correct – they’ve now seen what Donald Trump is, they know what he is like, they’ve seen him in a crisis.”

Australian prime minsiter Scott Morrison with US president Donald Trump at the White House in September 2019.

Australian prime minister Scott Morrison with US president Donald Trump at the White House in September 2019. Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

Trump is neither popular nor trusted in Australia – the latest Lowy Poll shows only one in four Australians have confidence in him “to do the right thing in world affairs”, but a great majority (72%) of Australians believe the US alliance is in the country’s national interest.

The Australian public, Fullilove says, separates the person of the president from the institution of the alliance.

But the focus of America’s fight against the coronavirus has, in the public domain at least, been narrowly funnelled through the person of the president, in part because he has taken to giving long, free-range press briefings that have veered from the dismissive – saying the virus was not as severe as seasonal flu – to the categorically dangerous – suggesting injecting disinfectant could be a treatment.

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Donald Trump has used the bully pulpit of the press briefing room to castigate his enemies domestically – the “fake news” media and the Democrats – and attack those overseas, in particular China, which he has blamed for not only being the origin of the virus, but for concealing how serious the outbreak was, costing the world valuable to time to prepare.

“I think they [China] made a horrible mistake and they didn’t want to admit it,” he said.

Covid-19 has radically reshaped this presidential election year: former certainties have evaporated and, by polling day in November, the current ones will have been similarly left redundant. But put simply: a race in which Trump’s incumbency once gave him immense advantage has been blown wide open.

However, beyond the prism of politics and the president, America’s inability to respond quickly and effectively to the Covid-19 epidemic has revealed too how the US’s institutions have been hollowed out and decayed by neglect or partisan manoeuvring.

Flaws in the federal system

Covid-19 has also exposed the flaws in America’s strong federalist system. Rather than acting cooperatively to defeat the virus, it has worked antagonistically.

Witness the ghoulish spectacle of US states locked in bidding wars for personal protective equipment for their hospital staffs, or the president allegedly doling out ventilators to favoured Republican allies.

Australia’s federal system – which invests far more power in the central government than the US – has worked, while not without blemish or disagreement, on the whole cooperatively, to the benefit of the Australian people. It’s been aided too, by a well-funded and run public health system, something sorely exposed by Covid-19 across the US.

Professor Simon Jackman, chief executive of the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, says the Covid-19 crisis has revealed just how easily a lack of coordination manifests itself in the American system.

“Whereas in Australia it’s been easier … coming hot on heels of bushfires. I think the federal government here discovered the hard way the value of collaborative approaches and wasn’t going to get caught a second time. We began in a better place institutionally, add an immediate crisis preceding it, and as a federation Australia responded far better.”

Even more vivid is the contrast with China, where the virus is believed to have originated.

“China, albeit using means available to an authoritarian state that a liberal democracy might not approve of, got a result against the virus. And the great game that’s afoot between the US and China can’t help but be a part of that context.”

A damaged reputation

Jackman says it appears inescapable that US prestige has been damaged by its inchoate response to Covid-19 and its inability to protect its citizens.

“For all its wealth and all its might, the US has not been able to bring down fatality rates. You can see in the way this virus has landed on New York – if not the symbolic center of US power, certainly its financial power. You have the spectacle of refrigerated trucks being used to store bodies in neighbourhoods servicing some of the wealthiest people on the planet.”

A dressed in a hazmat suit and face mask stands in front of the doors of two big refrigerated trucks outside a funeral home in Brooklyn, New York.

A man dressed in a hazmat suit and face mask stands behind two refrigerated trucks outside a funeral home in Brooklyn, New York. Photograph: Marie Le Ble/Zuma Wire/Rex/Shutterstock

But Australia’s alliance with the US remains an inviolable element of foreign policy. While grounded in security, the alliance runs far deeper than “things painted battleship grey”, Jackman says, across economic cooperation, cyber resilience and intelligence sharing. As example, Australia is participating in freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea alongside the US – “a little bit of signalling to China, ‘don’t test us now’” – but it has also just secured a valuable agreement to store strategic petroleum reserves on US soil.

Former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd agrees, arguing that Australia must not – and will not – walk away from the US alliance that has been the bedrock of Australian foreign policy since the second world war. But Rudd warns that a second Trump term will strain the relationship even further than it has been.

Writing in the Economist Rudd argued that: “Mr Trump, with his ‘America First’ battle-cry, in effect abandoned America’s global leadership role for the first time since 1945.

“Normally, America would have teamed up with China to manage the crisis through a joint taskforce established under the Strategic and Economic Dialogue. But that machinery has also fallen into disuse. Instead, the administration began kicking China when it was down. Normally, however imperfectly, America would also have mobilised the world. This time, in America’s absence, nobody did.”

Former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd.

Former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd. Photograph: Paul Braven/AAP

The received foreign policy wisdom in Australia maintains that while Trump’s presidency has been unconventional and his rhetoric at times confronting, the deep historical ties between Australia and the US, the ongoing institutional connections, and the countries’ shared values and interests, mean that it is in the interests of both that the partnership remains close and broad-ranging.

In the vernacular: presidents come and go, but the alliance endures.

Rudd tells the Guardian that wisdom holds still, but with a re-elected Trump presidency “the overall fabric of domestic political support in this country and among other American allies around the world will begin to more fundamentally fray”.

Rudd says he believes the alliance “will definitely remain in force” and that it “remains overwhelmingly in Australia’s national interest”.

“[It will] fundamentally fray – that does not mean disappear. It does mean weaken. And … there’s a reason for that: for the first time since 1945 we’ve had an American president say ‘America first’ – by definition, allies second … that’s the core problem here.”