US engagement at ‘critical moment’, says scholar

Professor Victoria Farrar-Myers is the Fulbright Flinders Distinguished Chair in American Political Science.
Professor Victoria Farrar-Myers is the Fulbright Flinders Distinguished Chair in American Political Science.

“There are a lot of people on Capitol Hill who think partnership is a dirty word. The current administration doesn’t. Now is the critical moment to engage with the US.”

It’s a stormy night in Adelaide’s CBD and Professor Victoria Farrar-Myers is taking questions after delivering her final lecture as Flinders University’s Distinguished Fulbright Chair in American Political Science.

During the lecture she refers to a photograph of a crowded sports stadium. It looks like every other baseball stadium in America. The crowd is fully seated, baseball caps abound, and almost everyone appears to be caucasian.

“Do you feel inside or outside of this crowd?,” she asks her audience.

Professor Farrar-Myers is illustrating how even the most benign cultural assumptions can be a recipe for disaster when it comes to the minefield of international politics.

Her point is that, for most people, the crowd looks appealing and fun. The expressions on some of the faces in the audience, however, clearly indicate they are not convinced.

It’s a clever and unusual tactic, but it’s typical of Professor Farrar-Myers, a straight-talking New Yorker of Scots-Irish descent based at the University of Texas Arlington.

A Presidential Scholar and Americanist, she has come to Australia to learn how US Presidents can better engage with the world to ensure the best results for her home nation.

Her lecture, titled Australia as a Middle Power in the Asian Century, includes an urgent call for Australia, and other nations, to seize a “critical moment” in history in which to engage with the US as partners, allies – and even as a facilitators.

That she openly admits she believes partner is a dirty word for some conservative American politicians is perhaps part of the reason why she has been hailed as a breath of fresh air by many of those fortunate enough to have met with her.

During her time as Flinders University’s Distinguished Fulbright Chair, she has travelled extensively in Australia and Asia, interviewing key decision makers and influencers ranging from Prime Ministers to leading academics.

Along the way, she says she has learnt much, and that it has changed the way she thinks about how America and its Presidents can continue to prosper as the world’s leading economic and military power.

She is not one of those who believes that partnership is a dirty word. In fact, she says that it is only through partnerships and “collective determinism” that the US will be able to free up the resources it needs to stay on top.

Her upcoming book, provisionally titled ‘Out of Focus’, tackles the issue in depth, and carries advice that she hopes will help US Presidents do international politics better in the future.

During her lecture, she says something that one has to think would make the blood boil in the veins of some of the US’s more hawkish politicians.

“Can Australia as a middle power say no to the US?,” she asks her audience, a clear tone of challenge in her voice. She pauses, looking around the room, eyebrows raised.

When no one speaks, she answers her own questions. “Yes!,” she says emphatically. “Australia can say no to the US.”

Not only can it say no, she says, but, when it is in Australia’s best interests, she insists it should. Her reason for saying this, she says, is because she believes true partners should be able to say no, and that true partnerships will make the US stronger.

It is only through partnerships, she says, that the US, while still taking a leadership role, can make other countries share the load. Partners, she says, can be made to put up or shut up.

According to Professor Farrar-Myers, it is through “soft diplomacy” that the US has the best chance of rebalancing in a way that keeps it ahead of the rest of the world.

She also has a positive message for Australians who feel that the US’s competition with China means they must adopt an all or nothing approach in supporting one over the other.

She says Australia, as a middle power, doesn’t have to choose sides. Instead, she says it can have the best of both: strong trade with China and a rejuvenated alliance with the US.

It is precisely because it is a middle power that Australia has the flexibility to do both, she insists.

In a few days Professor Farrar-Myers will return to the University of Texas Arlington, where she will release her book into a political climate that is likely to be hostile to its message.

Asked if she is worried about a negative reaction, in characteristic style, she shoots straight from the hip.

“The true essence of executive decision making is to think about the long term ramifications of decisions made and be alright with taking political hits along the way,” she says.

“The turbulent world today demands we think anew, challenge old assumptions, and innovate for a prosperous collective future.”

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