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Trump and the future of the US-Australia alliance

Australia has long been a reliable ally of the United States. But has it become too reliable? That’s one of the key questions posed by historian, James Curran, in Fighting with America, a Lowy Institute Paper: Penguin Special.

Curran is Professor of History at the University of Sydney and a Research Associate at the United States Studies Centre and argues that the current intensity in Canberra’s relations with Washington has led Americans and Australians to forget past disagreements and that in com­ing years the Australia–US alliance is less likely to be characterised by the kind of willing agreement that has marked it in the last two decades.

In this extract, Curran discusses challenges the pending Trump Presidency may pose for Australian leaders in managing the alliance.

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When Donald Trump takes the presidential oath before that vast concourse of the nation gathered in front of the US Capitol on 20 January 2017, the United States will take a great plunge into the unknown. A stunned world will take a deep breath and wonder what lies ahead.

In his inaugural address Trump will no doubt repeat his campaign pledge to ‘Make America Great Again’. This might be reassuring for those US allies who worry about declining American power. But during the campaign Trump also called for America to turn inwards, to abandon allies and to give up on longstanding commitments to global security.

Even when Trump uses the language of American dominance – such as his promise to increase defence spending – he does so in a way that raises real questions about the purposes to which he would put American power.

But perhaps more worrying than the uncertainty his presidency has created are the things we do know about Trump: his profound lack of curiosity about the outside world, his irascibility and his dema­goguery. These and other characteristics of the new American president will worry US allies and encour­age its adversaries.

During the campaign Trump tapped into, and also fuelled, discontent with the unevenly distrib­uted rewards of globalisation, contempt for the American political establishment and fatigue with American foreign policy commitments abroad. He presided over growing hostility towards minorities – especially Muslims and immigrants.

It is difficult to know which of these blistering, angry currents that have coloured the US political debate over the last year are transitory and which are permanent. But as he did in the campaign, as presi­dent, Trump will probably feed the perception among many of his fellow citizens that the ‘American dream’ is in danger – this despite some signs of economic recovery – and magnify the sense of national malaise.

For Australia, and for other close US allies and partners, perhaps the most alarming dimension of Trump’s international agenda is his disdain for the US global alliance system. During the campaign Trump’s targets were mostly European, accusing NATO partners of ‘free riding’. But he also said that the United States should reconsider its alliances with Japan and South Korea if they did not meet the cost of feeding and housing the US troops stationed in both countries. He foreshadowed not only a com­plete drawdown of these garrisons but suggested that both Seoul and Tokyo consider developing their own nuclear weapons as an alternative to relying on the United States.

Prior to the election Australian officials appar­ently sought and received some kind of reassurance from Trump’s campaign that his disparagement of US allies did not apply to the Australia–US relation­ship. That quest for reassurance – the desire to hear the comforting words that a presidential candidate is sufficiently apprised of Australia’s importance – is a longstanding trait of Canberra’s management of the alliance. It is as if the political elite in Australia con­vince themselves that so long as the right words are uttered about where Australia sits in the American pantheon of partners, then all is well in the world.

Nevertheless, the soothing words uttered by Trump’s advisers in the midst of a campaign should be treated with great caution. Trump has now successfully made US alliances around the globe a domestic political issue. Allies have been put on notice and there will be much greater scrutiny of what, precisely, partners are doing. One alliance insider in the US capital has already observed that ‘no-one in Washington is saying now that Australia punches above its weight in the world’.

The central thesis of this paper is that in com­ing years the Australia–US alliance is less likely to be characterised by the kind of willing agreement that has marked it in the last two decades. Even if Clinton had won the election, it is likely that the management of the alliance would have become more difficult. Clinton would have demanded more of the alliance, especially in Asia, where Australian and US interests often coincide, but sometimes con­flict. A Clinton administration would have watched closely how its allies in Asia balanced the challenge of China’s rise with their security relationship with Washington.

Trump’s victory, however, will make the man­agement of the alliance much more challenging. Trump’s personality will be a key factor in this. As previous Lowy Institute Polls have shown, the popularity of the alliance in Australia falls when confidence in the incumbent US president drops. This happened during the George W. Bush presi­dency after the US invasion of Iraq. The 2016 Lowy

Institute Poll showed that almost half of those sur­veyed believe ‘Australia should distance itself from the United States if it elects a president like Donald Trump’.

With Trump as president it will be more difficult for Australian leaders to appeal to the common values that unite the United States and Australia. Trump’s preparedness to stoke the fires of racial division smack of what Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer calls ‘vengeful populism’. During the election campaign Australian politicians from all corners of the political spectrum denounced Trump’s many and varied provocations, albeit to differing degrees. Prime Minister Turnbull was, for example, more diplomatic than the Leader of the Opposition, Bill Shorten, whose more direct criti­cism of Trump raises the question of what impact this might have on his relationship with the US president should he become prime minister one day. Nevertheless, it is difficult to know how enthusiastic either a Liberal or Labor prime minister will be in standing alongside this president and speaking with any confidence about what America stands for in this new and uncertain era.

But if Trump’s values will be difficult to embrace, his administration’s impact on Australian interests will be more telling. It may well generate the same kind of fears that gripped Australian policymakers at the enunciation of the Guam doctrine in 1969, when President Richard Nixon called on US allies in Asia to provide more for their own self-defence. The then Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs, Keith Waller, reached the sombre conclusion that the ‘US retreat from Asia’ meant a ‘major withdrawal from the whole area west of Hawaii’. At a time when the anxiety prompted by the very words ‘East of Suez’ resulted in hysterical reactions to Britain’s earlier announcement of its planned military withdrawal from Southeast Asia, one newspaper headline in the wake of that announcement screamed ‘WAKEN TO OUR PERIL’: the same eerie resonance was clearly being deployed in Waller’s language.6 In recent months, Australian commentators have been airing the same kinds of warnings.

Still, it remains a time for cool heads and rational analysis. The feverish reactions to Trump’s raw remarks overlook that, even if elected, he would face significant institutional resistance from Washington’s national security community, resistance that would likely prevent – or at the very least moderate – the implementation of his drastic vision.

On the question of how this new Republican administration will deal with China’s rise, Australia, like other Asian allies, will wait to see which Trump sets foot in the Oval Office. Will it be the Trump who said that he wants to punish Beijing by imposing a punitive 45 per cent tariff on Chinese imports into the United States? Or will it be the Trump whose position on China’s militarisation of the South China Sea has been equivocal?

Australia would find either Trump disturbing. On the one hand it would fear the economic fallout of a trade war between the United States and China. On the other hand it would be seriously concerned to see an American retreat from tough-minded positions on key strategic issues in Asia such as freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

Now more than ever is the time to recognise the limits of sentiment in sustaining Australia’s relation­ship with the United States. Trump has little time for such niceties. The Australia–US relationship has been able to weather periods of strain and stress in the past. It has repeatedly demonstrated its capacity to adapt to changing circumstances and cope with differing national interests. But the alliance has never seen anything like Donald Trump.

Nearly fifty years ago, President Lyndon Johnson, nearing the end of his term in office, quipped to a group of Australian journalists in Washington that Canberra ‘might have one or two problems with Mr Nixon’. Johnson was most likely referring to what Nixon would expect of Australia in Vietnam and in terms of broader regional responsibilities. How quaint that warning now seems in the light of what may lie ahead for the Australia–US alliance.

Fighting with America a Lowy Institute Paper: Penguin Special is written by James Curran and published by Penguin

3 responses to “Trump and the future of the US-Australia alliance

  1. Talk of Trump being a strategic thinker in terms of world affairs is just laughable clap trap if the Electoral College give him the Presidency they will be giving a Rolls Royce to a toddler fit only for a dinky toy. America invented reality tv and all such low rent inventions must be atoned for – Trump as President is America’s shameful reward.

  2. Thanks for a thoughtful and insightful article. From Australia’s perspective, I think the main issue will be what Trump’s real agenda is for China, and how China reacts. Possibly Trump is simply aiming to get China to revalue its currency thus making US manufacturing more competitive. But equally possible, given his choice of defence and security advisers, is that he has noted China’s “softly softly catchey monkey” strategy and believes the time is ripe for the US to reign in China’s rise before it topples the US from its position of economic and strategic dominance. Trump’s embrace of Russia and his threat to Japan and Korea to ramp up their defence efforts suggest that he may have a plan to encircle China with unfriendly neighbours. If this is his real game, then be prepared for possible conflict in the South China Sea, beginning with a move to pressure China to abandon the Spratleys. Echoes of the US blockade of Japan in the run up to Pearl Harbour. Even more radical would be US encouragement of Taiwan to become independent. Australia will be road kill in any of these scenarios.

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