Globe Trotter

An Interview with Alexander Downer

They do have important challenges ahead of them -- chiefly continuing the process of modernizing and restructuring their economy. There's absolutely no doubt about that. That is not just economically difficult for them to do, but it will be politically difficult as well, in that the likely reforms are likely to meet with some community resistance. Of course, they don’t need to worry about losing the next election, but nevertheless, they need to keep the country stable. I think they're not doing as well as they were and there has been a significant stock market decline. Still, their position is pretty strong compared to what it was three or four years ago. And this is despite the fact that there's been a huge decline in commodity and energy prices, including in the case of the Chinese market. We've seen a depreciation of the Australian dollar which has been quite substantial actually. In that kind of an environment, it's had an effect on the Australian economy, but the Australian economy's still continuing to grow at around 2.5 percent a year. That's a bit below our average, which is around three percent, but nevertheless, I wouldn't overstate the problems in China and I wouldn't overstate the impact of them on Australia.

OR: What is your view on the U.S. in terms of its global leadership? Will an America under a new administration be able to regain credibility? Is it facing long-term damage?

Downer: We look to the U.S. to maintain international activism and leadership. It's tough to ask the Americans to do this because it involves a lot of sacrifice. Deploying forces internationally involves the sacrifice of the troops themselves, which can be life-threatening, and it also involves huge financial costs. We do say to the Americans that we don't want America to retreat from its leadership role in the world because if it does, it creates a vacuum. That vacuum will be filled and it will be filled in unpredictable and often quite dangerous ways.

You have tensions right across the Middle East from Yemen to Syria to Iraq. You have the Iran issue. You have tensions in Eastern Europe, in particular in Ukraine, you have issues in relation to the behavior of the Russians. We've spoken already about the South China Sea and the potential for miscalculation in Asia. We have to take all those things into account. In that sort of environment, what we don't want to see is an America in any way retreating from its global role. It's easy of course for us to say that, and therefore we say it with this additional comment: we don't think America should attempt to do these things alone.

We think it should be able to call upon its allies to help it. For our part, as an ally of the U.S., we're always willing to do that. We have people in Afghanistan, we have aircraft flying over Iraq and soon over Syria, bombing ISIS targets. We are prepared to share the burden with the Americans and we want the American administration to know that there are countries like us, like the U.K., often the French, the Canadians, and others that are prepared to share the burden with them.

As you start to enter the election period and as you're particularly now beginning to get into a faster pace through the primary process, we look for candidates who will maintain that role for America, should they be successful and become the next president. That's the best way I can answer your question, rather than getting into giving the Obama administration points out of ten. I think as an ambassador, I might just bypass that one.

OR: What do you think of the Iran deal?

Downer: No agreement can ever be completely watertight, but given the alternative, which is no agreement at all, we think the agreement is a positive development. The thing of course about Iran is that it's a key player throughout the Middle East. Where sometimes we, Australia, would find ourselves at odds with the Iranians, particularly in relation to the Middle East peace process (so-called), on other occasions, as is the case in Iraq and the war against ISIS, we obviously have to some extent make common cause with the Iranians. We need the Iranians, however, who exert a great deal of influence in Baghdad, to understand the importance of having an inclusive government in Iraq, not a Shia-dominated government, which disregards the interests of the very large Sunni element of the population.

We want there to be as well a constructive relationship between Iran and the Gulf States and we don't want Iran to overreach in terms of any ambitions it may have in that part of the world. Whether you agree with the Iranians or whether you don't, it's without any doubt an important country in the neighborhood. It would obviously be a regional, if not a global catastrophe if Iran moved towards building nuclear weapons. It would be a huge and very retrograde step in the security environment of the Middle East. We're hopeful that this agreement will ensure that doesn't happen. That's the intention of the agreement, and if it should start to fall apart, then the great powers, the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council in particular, will have to think again about what they can do in that environment. That's a hypothetical question, so we don't need to exercise our minds about that. The present agreement is going ahead, so let's just hope that it works out for the best.

OR: Do you think the release of frozen assets will embolden Iran, especially insofar as it supports certain terrorist activities?

Downer: There is an argument, of course, that because they will receive their frozen assets and be able to trade more openly and there will be more investment going into Iran, that they will have more resources to put into organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah, or to continue to strengthen their military.