Professor Michael Wesley
The Trump administration emerged on an Australia-United States relationship that had experienced two decades of growing intimacy and integration. Since 1996, diverse centrifugal forces had carried the bilateral relationship forwards: the growth of China’s challenge to the status quo in the Pacific; the “unipolar moment” and Australia’s determination to cleave closer to the sole superpower; close collaboration in the War on Terror and invasion of Iraq; and the extension of Asia’s balancing and rivalry from the Pacific into the Indian Ocean. And so the much-publicised tense phone conversation between President Trump and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull over the Obama era asylum seeker swap deal between Australia and the United States sent a shock wave through Australian politics, politicising the relationship in ways not seen since the end of the Vietnam War and beginning of the Iraq War.
Uncertainty over what Trump 'means' for regional security has meant that the 45th President has functioned as something of a Rorschach test in the Australian strategic policy debate. Discussion of what Trump means for Australia has all but dominated Australia’s media since the November 2016 election, but for the most part, the stance commentators took on Trump has been mostly determined by where they sat in the strategic debate prior to his election. For the majority of commentators, Trump represents an acceleration in what they believe are the underlying dynamics in the bilateral relationship; and the new administration has imparted a particular urgency to their prescriptions for the future of the Australian-American partnership.
The responses in Australia to Trump have focused largely around three questions, and the implications that answers to each of these questions have for Australia’s strategic policies.
The first question is what Trump means for the United States’ role as a global and regional actor for the next four years and perhaps beyond. On this question, the debate ranges from the alarmist to the reassuring. Those commentators most alarmed by Trump argue that his nationalist policies will in effect dismantle America’s role as the leader of the postwar neoliberal world order.
In particular, these commentators fret about the corrosive impact of Trump’s America-first policies on a range of multilateral institutions, from trade to environment to arms control. The implication is that for the world’s largest economy and pre-eminent military power to turn its back on the guiding liberal internationalist philosophy of every administration since that of FDR could trigger similar reactions among other significant economies and powers, leading to a wholesale retreat from the neoliberal world order that has underpinned seven decades of global stability and prosperity.
Others have rendered more sanguine interpretations of what Trump means for America’s global and regional roles. Some have pointed out that the global reaction to Trump underlines just how important the United States remains to global order.
A more forward-leaning administration in Washington signifies a more emphatic American leadership role rather than an abdication of leadership, they argue. In a similar vein, others have argued that far from heralding the beginnings of American isolationism, Trump represents a reassertion of American global and regional leadership that went missing during the Obama years.
In particular, Trump’s stated intention of building back American military power, and particularly its naval power, will bring about a “real” rebalance that will face down the Chinese challenge in the Pacific in a way that Obama’s version patently failed to do.
Unsurprisingly, the policy recommendations that flow from these different positions are strongly polarised. For those who think Trump heralds a revisionist America, the prescription is to counteract the effects of American foreign policy on the multilateral global order. These commentators argue Australia must remain true to its liberal internationalist principles, and become much more entrepreneurial and activist in promoting these international order principles in coalition with like-minded countries. This approach appears to have been followed by the Australian Government at times, with senior ministers and officials declaring publicly Australia’s commitment to free trade and investment, climate change action and the global liberal order.
But for those who see Trump as heralding a return to a more muscular American international role, the prescription is to cleave closer to the new administration.
Although Canberra was spared from the list of allies called out by Trump during the election campaign for allegedly scrimping on their own alliance commitments, the new transactional sentiment emerging from Washington has not been lost on the Australian commentariat. Many saw the outpouring of support for the alliance following the Trump-Turnbull phone call as a sign of the underlying strength of the relationship. One expert even suggested Trump would have honoured the asylum seeker deal for no other ally than Australia.
Elements of the government’s policies have responded to these analyses, with the Foreign and Defence Ministers energetically building their rapport with the new Vice-President, Secretary of Defense and Secretary of State.
The second question concerns what Trump means for regional stability. Some commentators suggest that the combination of increased military spending, uncompromising rhetoric and the new president’s easily-baited personality have alarmingly increased the prospects for conflict in the Pacific. Fundamental to this view is that China’s growing military might and commitment to asserting its 'core interests' in the South China Sea will mean that any American attempt to face it down will be profoundly escalatory. The opposite view holds that Trump is a deal maker whose commitment to American jobs will mean that he will deal much more pragmatically with China. One suggestion is that Trump will be willing to trade America’s security commitments to its apparently ungrateful allies in Northeast Asia for an economic relationship with China that sees a reduction of the United States’ trade deficit with China.
The more alarmist view leads to prescriptions for greater distance between the two allies: either a critical distance that sees Australia needing to play a tempering role on the bombast of the new administration or a ditching of the alliance to build closer partnerships with Asian powers, including China. Australian fears of being dragged into a conflict not of its making or in its interests have escalated during Trump’s first 100 days.
But so have fears of abandonment, with some commentators questioning Trump’s dependability in coming to Australia’s assistance if it is threatened. Interestingly, concerns over Trump’s dependability yield diametrically opposed prescriptions: either to reduce Australia’s strategic reliance on the alliance through building regional partnerships or doubling down on integration into alliance structures to make alliance obligations even less optional.
The third question is what Trump means for the alliance. For those who see Trump’s election as symbolising a decisive shift away from American liberalism, the alliance no longer possesses its hitherto unshakeable foundation in common values.
Other alliance sceptics argue that Trump’s muscular revisionism has converted what was an alliance in support of the status quo into a partnership in which the largest member has become a disrupter to stability and prosperity. Those more sanguine about Trump’s impact on the alliance urge patience, investing confidence in the myriad strands that comprise the alliance to provide it with the ballast it needs to survive executive-level ructions. Rather than disinvest in the alliance, these commentators urge Canberra towards a pragmatic transactionalism.
Australian diplomacy should quietly seek to strengthen the alliance’s fundamentals, and use Australia’s variety of points of access to help educate the nong in the White House about America’s real interests and role in the Pacific.
Few of the analyses or prescriptions that have emerged since November are entirely new; their familiarity is evidence of profound debates about the alliance that have occurred in Australia since before the Vietnam War. What Trump has done is invest these debates with an urgency and vehemence not seen since the invasion of Iraq.
A major new element to the debate centres on the implication of Trump for America’s long-term character and direction. Some see Trump as a harbinger of long-term structural change in the character of the United States, from a growing, confident, outward-looking liberal superpower to a declining, paranoid nationalist great power. Many disagree, arguing that Trump is an anomaly who polled over three million votes fewer than his opponent, and faces bitter opposition even from within his own party.
Depending on which of these interpretations one holds, the policy prescriptions for Australia are stark. Trump the anomaly counsels a patient approach: hunker down, pragmatically avoid blow ups, and wait for a grown-up to return to the White House in four years. Trump the harbinger calls for a very different response.
An America that is increasingly at odds with the world it built and led between 1946 and 2016, aggressive and unpredictable to allies and rivals alike, will only implicate its smaller ally in more dangerous situations. Better to attenuate or cut the links now.
Now that’s a choice that can’t be squibbed. It all hangs on Australia’s ability to read its closest ally.