Whither the alliance under President Trump?

By David Donaldson

November 10, 2016

A US aircraft carrier in the South China Sea.

As Australians recover from the shock that Donald Trump will become the next United States president, thoughts are increasingly turning to the question of what this means for the Australia-US alliance, and Australia’s interests in the world more broadly.

He doesn’t seem to have expressed any meaningful opinions on relations with Australia — which may be a good thing, in the circumstances — though one of his advisers did tell Ambassador to the US Joe Hockey that the Donald sees it as a “special relationship“.

Former Ambassador to the US Kim Beazley told ABC 7.30’s Leigh Sales last night that thanks to the disturbing nature of some of his policies, “great pressure is about to come on us because we are members of the only alliance his team unreservedly approves of”. This may see Australia trying to play some kind of mitigating role between the US and our Asian neighbours, Beazley thinks.

“When Trump comes in in a couple of months we’re going to have to really sit down and think through how we handle our responsibilities here, because running away is not an option.”

How does Trump see foreign policy?

It’s very unclear what Trump’s approach to international relations will be — but it is likely there will be a significant break with current thinking.

Trump’s isolationist tendencies have received plenty of coverage — he’s sceptical about the value of projecting American power in Asia and Eastern Europe — but his unpredictability and often aggressive manner — he has suggested he would just take Iraq’s oil — make it difficult to know how he’d approach foreign affairs. There’ll probably be less emphasis on using American influence to maintain the distinctively American flavour of current international relations, which could be bad for Australia, but military outbursts would also be unsurprising, and possibly also bad for Australia.

This lack of coherence suggests it’s not something he has very well-formed views about, which will potentially give whichever advisers he appoints great influence. Uber-partisan Newt Gingrich, who has advocated a more muscular foreign policy, is being talked about as a possible secretary of state.

Two of Trump’s hobby horses in particular could affect Australia. If he starts a trade war with China by raising tariffs on Chinese products, the economic impact on China, our largest trading partner, but also the United States itself, which is our third-largest trading relationship, could do damage to Australia’s economy. His more aggressive approach to a rising China could also exacerbate the already sometimes awkward and occasionally dangerous security path we must tread between the two Pacific hegemons.

The president-elect has also been a big advocate of making allies pay their fair share of the costs of their own defence. This is particularly the case with NATO states — many countries in Europe have been free-riding off the US by spending very small amounts on their defence budgets. Only four of 25 European NATO members meet the 2% of GDP defence spending target in the treaty organisation’s guidelines. Although Australia’s spending is also below 2% of GDP it is not a political issue in the US as Europe’s is, and the Australian government is already planning to increase defence spending to 2%.

He’s also suggested Japan and South Korea need to be more self-reliant, which raises the prospect of a greater feeling of insecurity in those countries leading to an arms race — Japan, which is currently under the US nuclear umbrella, has the capability to develop nuclear weapons in a very short period of time. Conflict to Australia’s north could have significant knock-on effects for us.

And on the home front, a continuation of Trump’s current unpopularity with Australians could threaten Australians’ own positive but often disinterested confidence in the alliance. According to the Lowy Poll, the number of Australians who say the alliance is important for Australia’s security has already dropped nine points from last year to 71%, bringing the numbers close to what they were towards the end of George W Bush’s presidency (63%). The highest during Lowy’s 12 years tracking this question was 87% in 2012. This year almost half (45%) of respondents agreed that “Australia should distance itself from the United States if it elects a president like Donald Trump”. Australian governments may be disinclined to commit to bilateral activities if displeasure with the American president and the alliance strengthens.

Turnbull’s optimistic reaction

Last night Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull responded to this uncertainty by repeating the mantras of US foreign policy about a rules-based global order, a Pax Americana and the American presence in Asia — the very things Trump has been reacting against — substituting his hopes for what Trump will do for what he’s likely to do.

“Both of our nations are committed to the maintenance of peace and stability in the world, especially in our region where the presence, the powerful presence of the United States has been such a force for stability for so many decades. Indeed our prospects and that of our region — the fact that billions of people have been lifted out of poverty, has been a consequence of that stability — some people describe it as the Pax Americana, others might argue whether that’s a little strong but nonetheless, without that strong presence of the United States for those 40 or more years we would not have seen the extraordinary growth in China and of course all the countries of the region,” Turnbull told the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry annual business leaders’ dinner — a statement that at any other time would seem anodyne, but which is rather optimistic in the circumstances.

“That has been manifest in the world’s interests, manifest in our interests, manifest in America’s interest.

“And as Paul Keating often used to say, quoting Jack Lang: ‘In the great race of life, always back self-interest because you know it’s trying’.

“I have no doubt that the United States under President Trump will pursue its enduring national interests and its enduring values, which we share. Just as his predecessors have done, despite differences of political view and perspective, from a domestic-American point of view, and just as his successors will do in the decades to come.”

Certainly, self-interest is a powerful concept and Trump will act in what he sees as the American interest — but that will probably be different to the Australian government perceives it to be. While American self-interest has, in the historical period of American dominance out of which Australia’s alliance was born, mostly been conceived as sitting with the promotion of openness, rules and interdependence, Trump is rewriting that idea in a more nationalist light, leaving much less space for other countries — even the ones that fit into the internationalist mode of thinking, like Australia.

Get in there and influence

These risks mean Australia will need to strengthen its efforts to influence American foreign policy and ensure it aligns with our national interests, says Beazley.

“We have our own point of view about what our interests are and, frankly, what theirs are,” he explained on 7.30.

“How do we handle it? We handle it by using all the tools we have to get in and influence policy, and there are a lot.

“When I was in the embassy in Washington we were always into senior policy decision-making zones. We just continue to do that, and our ministers start turning up in greater numbers in the United States, at least for a time. We need to be mindful of the need to engage with them.”

Image: American aircraft carrier USS George Washington steams through the South China Sea.

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