'As Tony Abbott met with US President Barack Obama, he knew the president was grappling with an escalating disaster.' Photo: Andrew Meares
As Tony Abbott endured an interpretive dance performance at Normandy’s Sword Beach a fortnight ago, he saw both good and bad.
The newcomer to the world stage was lucky enough to be seated beside one of the giants of contemporary European power, German Chancellor Angela Merkel - whose attendance was under-remarked upon considering it was the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings.
A fellow conservative, Merkel turned out to be excellent company even if she did have to conduct a round of soft-shoe shuttle diplomacy between two other leaders, Ukraine’s then president-elect, Petro Poroshenko, and the steely-eyed strongman of Russian expansionism, Vladimir Putin.
By the time the last two heads of government, Barack Obama and Queen Elizabeth II, were in place Abbott had been chatting to those around
The event was ostensibly about the men who took the five beaches that day in 1944, securing a continental toe-hold that would lead to the liberation of occupied France and the overwhelming of Nazi Germany.
Yet as the pomp droned painfully on, it became clear that the politicians were stealing the show. Not that it was much of show when it finally came - dozens of people wearing the equivalent of Qantas pyjamas, prancing about enacting European submission and liberation. The term “Euro-wankers” may even have been bandied around in Abbott’s travelling entourage.
But the Prime Minister also saw the substance. Germany’s seamless presence at a ceremony marking the unconscionable atrocities of its Nazi past was a stunning sign of European progress.
And federal Germany itself is the very idyll of that progress. It runs the continent’s strongest economy and maintains a stable political culture inclined towards peace, co-operation, social progressivism and multilateralism.
Germany’s post-war behaviour is in many ways the embodiment of Abbott’s own foreign policy framework, which holds that strong prosperous economies founded on democratic principles are inherently peaceful, and will not put their prospects for wealth accumulation at unnecessary risk.
From France, Abbott travelled to North America where, as if on cue, the obverse of that principle crashed into view in the form of the Iraq situation.
The juxtaposition was jarring. On the one hand, sophisticated Europe, which for all its faults represents the triumph of peaceful integration. On the other hand, there is sectarian, bloody, Iraq - currently the closest thing to hell-on-earth.
The former was built in the aftermath of a war that was fought because, as far as the Allies were concerned, there was no choice; the latter was the inevitable chaos of an ill-conceived and poorly executed invasion based on false intelligence and a total failure to bequeath a functioning pluralist state.
As Abbott met with US President Barack Obama, he knew the president was grappling with an escalating disaster that required a swift US response. And he knew Australia would play some part in that response, albeit probably a very small one.
Which is why he counselled caution.
A key objective of Abbott’s call to the White House had been to obtain Obama’s reassurance that the ‘‘pivot’’ to the Asia Pacific was proceeding - that there had been no cooling in Washington towards strengthening the US presence in the Asian quadrant - and therefore in Australia.
The quid pro quo from Abbott in the lead-up to that meeting was to publicly assure the US that Australia stands with it, noting that while America is the world’s policeman, it should not be expected to carry that burden, financially or militarily, on its own.
It was a general commitment which, thanks to the collapse of the Iraqi state, may require expression in quite specific terms more quickly than Abbott imagined.
No one wants another military entanglement, which explains why Abbott has been loudly praising Obama’s cool head in the face of a chorus of hawks in the US demanding drone strikes.
The Republican Senator John McCain wants the heads of Obama’s national security advisers, including the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for resisting calls for immediate aerial bombing.
Abbott is not convinced.
‘‘This is a witch's brew of difficulty and complexity,’’ he said on Thursday amid reports the US now wants Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to step down as a pre-condition of military assistance.
‘‘While we should be ready to do what good we can, we should be careful about anything that might make a bad situation worse and that's why it's important to consult, to consider, and to plan, rather than to act precipitately in a very difficult situation such as is unfolding in Iraq right now.’’
It is further evidence of the Australia Prime Minister’s increasingly nuanced handling of complex foreign policy challenges, and of his ability to read the lessons of history.
Mark Kenny is Fairfax Media's chief political correspondent.