Aussie PM Gillard Wows Washington with Football, Tears, History

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard addresses the US Congress in Washington on Mar. 9, 2011. Seated behind Gillard are US Senator Daniel Inouye (D-HI) (R), and President Pro Tempore, and Speaker of the House John Boehner. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

Nothing much new was expected to come from the first visit to Washington, DC by Australia's first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard. And nothing new really did.

But so what? She was a big hit anyway.

It got a bit trivial when she tossed an Australian football around the Oval Office and debated the merits of Vegemite with President Barack Obama ("It's an acquired taste," she said. "It's horrible," he said.)

Then she struck gold on Capitol Hill when she stood before the US Congress and delivered a sentimental, even teary, speech about deep-rooted, shared values and an alliance that's been steadfast for six decades.

Aussie troops have fought in Iraq and are still serving in Afghanistan alongside US forces, just like their forebears did in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and the first Gulf War.

"You have a friend in Australia and you have an ally, and we know what that means," Gillard told the congressmen and senators. "In both our countries true friends stick together. In both our countries real mates talk straight."

The Sydney Morning Herald reported how Gillard got six standing ovations. She herself choked back tears as she neared the end of the address and urged the US to take bold steps to counter its present economic malaise.

Americans, she said, could do anything and "I firmly believe you are the same people who amazed me when I was a small girl by landing on the moon."

The esteemed audience rose to its feet and Speaker of the House John Boehner (who has a reputation for public displays of emotion) sniffed along.

Gillard—who a few months back admitted she has little passion for foreign affairs—hit all the right notes on her first official visit to DC.

It's true. Australians do verwhelmingly like American superpower engagement in their Asian neighborhood. They see it is as essential—not only for their own national security, but also for the region's overall stability. Without that stability, today's amazing Asian economic boom (which has paid off handsomely for resource-rich Australia) probably would never have happened.

Australia—a mature, prosperous, and stable democracy that hangs off the southern end of Asia—has embraced this dual focus approach in its world view.

And, in many ways, it fancies itself as a bridge between East and West.

It has strong economic links not only to China (its number one trading partner), but also to South Korea and Japan, plus the rising economies of Southeast Asia and, more and more, India. It has forged closer security and anti-terror ties to Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, and watches over the micro-states of the South Pacific.

With all this in its resume, Australia's alliance with the United States has become more, not less, valuable over the years.

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Geoff Spencer oversees Asia Society's online, public relations, and marketing departments. He has over 25 years of experience as an Asia-based journalist.