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U.S. Allies Still Trust America

After the fall of Kabul last month, many observers of U.S. foreign policy concluded that America had lost interest in its allies, and that its allies had lost faith in America.

An important development in Asia, however, serves as a powerful rebuttal of both arguments.

The conventional wisdom in August was that Washington was no longer a reliable partner and that allies’ trust had been destroyed by the manner of its withdrawal from Afghanistan. One unnamed former British intelligence officer, for example, opined to a reporter that the chaotic close to the Afghanistan mission marked “the end of an era of Western liberalism & democracy that started with the fall of the Berlin Wall.”

Conservatives in particular were quick to write off President Joe Biden. Commentators who had supported the mad non sequitur of George W. Bush’s Iraq War and endorsed the election of the appalling Donald Trump now claimed that Biden’s withdrawal, after the U.S.’s 20-year commitment to Afghanistan, had shattered their confidence in America.

[Read: Joe Biden’s new world order]

This response was disproportionate and ahistorical. It demonstrated what the Australian strategist Owen Harries called “the parochialism of the present.”

And the announcement last week of the Australia-U.K.-U.S. defense pact, or AUKUS—which promises closer military and scientific ties among the three countries and the development of a nuclear-powered Australian submarine fleet—is a reminder of the enduring potency of America’s network of alliances.

The U.S. will remain the richest and most powerful country for years to come, the only nation capable of projecting military force anywhere on Earth. Washington can’t get everything it wants, but American power still has no substitute.

Most U.S. allies understand this. Take the Australian case: For seven decades, Australia has found the U.S. to be a powerful and reliable ally. The two countries have fought beside each other in every major conflict of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Yet there has always been a lively domestic debate about America. Australia’s participation in the Iraq War alongside American forces was unpopular. The unimpressive U.S. response to the coronavirus pandemic made Australians worried, and President Trump’s behavior made them heartsick.

Still, support for the U.S. alliance has been one of the most consistent results over nearly two decades of polling by the Lowy Institute, which I lead.

Australian soldiers fought in Afghanistan for many years, so August was a difficult month. But the American withdrawal didn’t change Canberra’s calculus when it came to signing up for AUKUS.

A lot of this has to do with Australia’s relationship with China. In recent years, Canberra has faced increasing pressure from Beijing. This includes trade sanctions imposed to punish Australia for the sin of calling for an independent international investigation into the origins of the coronavirus.

[Read: France is mad]

In response, Australia has bolstered its domestic resilience, increased its defense spending, and thickened its connections with other regional powers, including India, Japan, and Indonesia.

This has not been uniformly welcomed at home: Some have long argued that Australia should do more to accommodate Beijing’s rise. But public opinion toward China has hardened, in tandem with Chinese behavior. A Lowy Institute poll this year found that, for the first time, more Australians see China as a security threat than an economic partner. Trust in China has fallen precipitously, with only 16 percent of Australians saying they trust China “a great deal” or “somewhat” to act responsibly in the world, down from 52 percent three years ago.

Now, with AUKUS, Australia is doubling down on its old alliance with the U.S. while also drawing the United Kingdom more deeply into the Indo-Pacific. This is an ambitious step for Australia, a signal that the country intends to shape its external environment and contribute to the regional balance of power. Washington seeks to strengthen Australia’s capabilities, as well as the shared sense of solidarity felt by the three allies. For its part, London will tender the pact as evidence of Britain’s global standing and ambition. With this deal, all three countries are betting on one another’s reliability over the long term.

For Australia, the deal offers great opportunities but also carries risks. Nuclear-powered submarines provide immense capability in terms of lethality, speed, range, and stealth. These boats will give Australia significant deterrent power. Yet AUKUS will anger China, which remains Australia’s largest trading partner. Beijing will worry about what it means for the tightening of U.S. alliances in Asia more generally. If Chinese leaders were given to self-reflection, they would realize that this deal was, in fact, made in China.

Australia will need to demonstrate that this move is not escalatory, that it contributes to regional stability, and that it accords with Australia’s commitment to the rules-based order, especially the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Canberra must increase its investment in diplomacy as well as defense—and in new relationships as well as old ones. For Australia, the Anglosphere is necessary but not sufficient.

The pact has infuriated France, which has lost a prized contract to build conventionally powered submarines for Australia and recalled its ambassadors to the U.S. and Australia in protest. The French contract was a troubled one, but the Australian government ought to have shown more grace in the manner of its withdrawal from it. Washington and Canberra should move to assuage the anger felt in Paris.

Washington and Canberra should also move to assuage the anger felt in Paris, which has recalled its ambassadors to the U.S. and Australia in protest. France is an important Indo-Pacific power in its own right, and a key advocate of European involvement in the region.

[Read: Europe should drop the act on Afghanistan]

AUKUS is a head-snapping development. The sharing of nuclear secrets between sovereign nations is as intimate as international relations gets. It may not be replicated with other U.S. allies for a long time, if ever.

But Australia is far from the only Asian power looking to do more with Washington. At the White House this week, Biden will host the first in-person leaders summit of the Quad countries: the U.S., Australia, India, and Japan, the last two of whom seem comfortable with AUKUS. And while some Southeast Asian countries have registered concerns over the new pact, others are supportive.

Indeed for most Asian countries, the U.S. remains an invaluable partner. Its formidable forward presence brings balance to the Indo-Pacific. Few want the region to be dominated by an aggressive China. No one wants to live in another’s shadow. Most prefer a balance of forces, with a general acceptance of international norms and the rule of law, along with the long-term presence of America.

August was hard and harrowing for the U.S. and its friends. But the world’s judgment of America’s staying power was premature. In September, things are looking brighter.


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I spoke with Williams about what the new, cheaperplan Democrats are coalescing around could mean: for people looking around the housing market and finding very few options, and for people struggling with the basic need to obtain shelter. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity. Jerusalem Demsas So the housing proposal in Build Back Better — what’s in that? Paul Williams The Build Back Better housing plan really addresses decades of under-investments in affordable housing and housing supply at the lower end of the market, which is something the government traditionally has been needed to support in order to correct market failures at the lower end. So the big bucket items in the Build Back Better plan are: Investments in the public housing capital backlog. 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On one end, there are tenants struggling to stay housed as they were hit hard by the economic effects of Covid-19. And on the other, there’s been a really hot housing market where homeownership seems to be a dying dream for millennials and historically disadvantaged groups. How well do you think these big buckets you’ve outlined address these two concerns? Paul Williams I think that the biggest ticket items in the original proposal were really about either creating or preserving existing affordable housing at the lower end of the market. It’s the people at the very lower end of the market who are least able to weather the storm [of Covid-19]. And that’s where most of these investments lie: in preserving those existing lower-end units and creating new ones. On the homeowner side, there’s a piece in this proposal that is downpayment assistance for first-time homebuyers. You know, it’s a difficult thing because housing prices are really hot right now, but the lending that’s actually happening is like almost 80 percent to people with credit scores above 760. So it’s all people with very high incomes and very low debt loads. And this is with extremely low mortgage rates. So, downpayment assistance in a lot of places isn’t really going to help people break into this really hot housing market. What you really need if you want to lower those new home prices, is you need to build more homes — and there’s not that much of that in this bill. Jerusalem Demsas Yeah, it seemed earlier this year that there was energy around exclusionary zoning reform. [Exclusionary zoning laws, which range from banning multifamily housing to requiring certain numbers of parking spaces in or near homes, artificially constrain the number of homes built in an area]. There were proposals from the Biden administration and Sen. Amy Klobuchar and there were blog posts coming out from the Council of Economic Advisors about how much restrictive zoning was responsible for a lot of our housing affordability woes. What happened there? Paul Williams So, in the original proposal there was around $5 billion for a carrot incentive program for local municipalities. The idea being you can get a small amount of money from the HUD if you hire some planners and have them do a zoning study. And then if you implement some of those changes you could get even more money. So, you know, I don’t personally think that the amounts that are in there are really going to swing the pendulum for a lot of jurisdictions, particularly those with some of the most egregious policies. But I don’t really see what was in the package originally as a game-changer. Jerusalem Demsas The package has been in negotiations for a while, and there are several proposed cuts to the housing portion. Reporting seems to indicate everything gets cut — public housing, rental assistance vouchers, the housing trust fund, etc. — except for downpayment assistance, which actually goes up from $10 billion to $15 billion. This seems to be a tendency of Congress’s. Earlier this year, I covered a memo that the Treasury Department wrote to policymakers and Congress in particular, essentially pleading with them to focus on increasing housing supply. I talked about why Congress is much more willing to engage on demand-side policies [giving people money to afford something expensive] rather than on supply-side policies [making expensive things less expensive]. Do you have any thoughts about this? Paul Williams Yeah, that’s an interesting point. I agree, Congress is often more willing to engage on the demand side than the production side, and that can lead to increased prices if we don’t also build more — especially for the low-income people we’re trying to help with these programs. 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And then in cities where you have rent regulations that can keep annual rent increases from going up exorbitantly, you can also push back on that. Jerusalem Demsas Focusing on housing production elements of this bill, one area where we could see increased production is in public housing. But as you mentioned earlier, public housing funds have been deficient for a very long time so we have this massive capital backlog. That means that even with the original proposal to spend $80 billion on this, almost all of that would have gone toward just repairing those buildings — and now that seems to have been cut. Can you talk a little about what the capital backlog has meant in real terms for people living in public housing? Paul Williams So just to kind of frame it with the history. In 1998, as part of a slew of welfare reforms that President Bill Clinton’s administration moved through Congress, the Quality Housing Act really shifted the way that HUD [Department of Housing and Urban Development] funded public housing. The result of all these changes together was the capital expenditures have been in precipitous decline since 1999. Some of that has been alleviated by public housing authorities taking units out of public housing ... but the vast majority have not been, and the result is that these buildings are just going to fall apart around these people. This is potentially the last time Democrats are going to have full control of Congress and the presidency for, some people say, a decade. There’s no alternative here. We have to fix these buildings. Jerusalem Demsas And every once in a while, the lack of safety makes pretty big news. We hear about fires in public housing where people have actually died, and the lack of capital investments was the key factor. 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This is technology that does not yet exist on the market so their hope is to get this working and deploy it portfolio-wide across all of their buildings. I think it’s important not to underestimate the impact that public sector procurement has on these kinds of long-term changes we need for climate change. It’s not just in vehicles, it’s also in buildings and housing. Jerusalem Demsas We’ve talked a little bit about the need to fix the existing public housing stock. And while that’s very important, we’re so far behind on capital expenditures that likely none of that money would actually [meaningfully be spent on] creating new units of affordable housing. It appears that the best chance for that in this bill is in the Housing Trust Fund dollars. How does that work? Paul Williams Yeah, the Housing Trust Fund and the home investment partnerships exist to plug all the [financing] holes because there are so many projects that come very close to getting funded and then can’t get that last piece funded, and the project falls apart. The Housing Trust Fund in particular is targeted toward the very low end of the rental market — so, very low-income and extremely low-income households. Jerusalem Demsas One of the things that’s really shocking to me is that despite all of the pain we’ve seen over the last year when it comes to lack of housing, Congress is still not even really tackling this problem. It just indicates to me how much many of these lawmakers still don’t really believe that they’re responsible for fixing the underlying problems in the housing market. And I wonder, do you think this sort of “housing policy is local” disease is going to persist? Paul Williams It definitely would be a shift for the federal government to say we have a serious stake in this issue and we’re going to wield a stick to do something about it. The federal government has not really done that in relation to what are framed as local planning issues. I think it’s becoming increasingly clear that a lot of these local planning issues actually have serious national macro-level impacts on who’s able to access housing for a cost they can afford. So I think that the case is becoming more and more clear — as this problem gets worse and worse — that there is a role for the national government to do something about it.
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