Australia needs a one-of-a-kind strategy to prepare for a second Trump presidency
2 Jul 2024|

The Presidential debate last week was tough viewing. In the aftermath of President Joe Biden’s faltering performance, and the Supreme Court’s favourable ruling on Donald Trump’s immunity claim, Australia needs to supercharge its planning, because the odds of a second Trump presidency have seemingly shortened.

Australia, like many countries, has been preparing for a possible second Trump administration. Ambassador Kevin Rudd’s Twitter account provides insights into how hard he and our embassy in Washington are working. But as we get closer to the election, there needs to be an approach that goes well beyond the embassy and traditional diplomacy. 

Australia needs a laser-focused strategy that is ambitious, well-resourced and co-ordinated across all arms of government.

Our ability to navigate another Trump presidency depends on the creation and implementation of a one-of-a-kind strategic plan that considers every risk, predicts curve balls, and foreshadows decisions that affect us. This is difficult, but not impossible. 

During the first Trump presidency, there was some conservative commonality between the ruling parties in both countries, which won’t be the case this time—noting Australia is set to have its own election within the next 11 months. This adds an extra dimension to the complexities that would need to be managed.

Scenarios should be workshopped and tested, including with well-connected people from business and civil society. Options should be developed that would help deter policy directions that are not in Australia’s interests or those of our broader region. No doubt a lot of work is already going into future-proofing AUKUS, for example—a job that will have to ramp up significantly if Trump is re-elected. Trump might change direction on the partnership. He could decide to stay committed to just one of the two pillars, or seek to renegotiate the terms of the arrangement.

In addition to defence issues, Australia’s strategy will also need to cover economic security, trade and industrial policy, societal impacts, international affairs and security.

The strategy must also have an offensive element and prepare Australia to capitalise on opportunities, including by making plans to support partners and allies during times of great difficulty, or worse, crisis. Australia fared well during the first Trump presidency and, along with partners such as Japan and India, has lessons it can share that could strengthen our partners’ hands. 

What follows are six priorities the Australian Government should pursue immediately. Where initiatives are already underway, it is vital that they are sufficiently resourced—more is more in this unique situation. They must be led by our strongest performing officials and deeply integrated with related functions across government.

  1. Keep Australians with strong US contacts close and in the tent 

Our embassy would already have identified the Australians with relevant and senior networks—or valuable convening platforms—in Washington and across the US, with a focus on those who are linked to Trump, his close associates and likely future advisors. In that grouping will be businesspeople, former politicians and officials—including retired military officers—and think tank experts. They will be talking to members of the Trump camp, other influential Republicans and key Democrats—who will still be a counterbalance and crucial contributors on a range of issues. Our diplomats, security and intelligence officials, political advisors and politicians must keep this network of contacts focused on supporting Australia’s interests. 

Canberra has learnt some lessons from Trump’s first term when the Coalition was in power. Former Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s recent trip to DC—and his meeting with Trump to discuss AUKUS—shows this is likely already part of a broader strategy. Beyond the embassy, these efforts must be supported by a constant hustle back in Australia and from across Australia’s entire diplomatic footprint. 

There are a handful of serving department and agency heads and politicians from both parties with deep, relevant US networks—although, frankly, not enough. The government needs to ensure these people are put in positions, and sent on trips, that allow them to support Australia’s interests by tapping their valuable networks.

  1. Boost diplomatic representation in key economic and security powers, especially in North Asia and Europe

One assumes our embassy in DC has already requested, and been granted, the extra staff they need for the hard months, and possibly years, that are likely to come. Burnout at busy embassies happens quickly, and the government can’t afford it in Washington. 

Beyond the US, some of the most important diplomatic investments the government should be making now are global ones. Many of our partners and allies—who have long been anxious about the US election—will find dealing with a second Trump presidency confusing, chaotic and difficult. Even if they strike a solid tempo of engagement as some did last time, the administration is likely to withdraw from, or dial down on, trade agreements, multilateral initiatives and important partnerships. 

Trump’s off-the-cuff style of leadership will have unintended consequences, some of which will catch our partners off guard.

All of this will create risks; but also opportunities for Australia. Many countries will seek out other close partners with shared interests. They will want advice, to share insights and to deepen bilateral and minilateral partnerships, especially in areas affected by a US vacuum.

Australia has spent recent years building up our relationships in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, which was needed for a variety of reasons. But now it is time to focus also on influential economic and security powers that will be pivotal in a second Trump administration or belong to groupings that will be. Australia should give priority to boosting embassy resourcing in diplomacy, intelligence, trade and defence in Europe—for example in Brussels, Berlin and Vienna—Japan, the United Kingdom, India, South Korea and Singapore. 

Australia and Japan, which have aligned interests across so many sectors, will become even more important to each other. There may be opportunities, for example, for Japan and Australia to work with key European partners to influence stakeholders in the US, while helping to strengthen links between the Indo-Pacific and Euro-Atlantic regions.

  1. Supercharge our global intelligence relationships, prepare for a changed US intelligence community and prioritise new ideas that bring partners together

The Australian intelligence community has a lot going on. It’s just hosted US Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines; it is working to deliver complex and top secret technology and is grappling with the challenges and opportunities of artificial intelligence and its impacts on everything from tradecraft to social cohesion. That’s in addition to preparing for the findings of a periodic independent intelligence review

Nonetheless, now is the time to enhance and bed down intelligence relationships, many of which have been growing over the past decade as Australia’s intelligence community has shifted from a group of agencies—largely collectors and analysts—to a more integrated community that is expected to deliver whole-of-government and global outcomes.

If Trump is re-elected, our intelligence partnerships—and how we leverage them—will become far more vital but also more complicated. Trump has signalled he would replace intelligence leaders with loyalists to a degree unseen in previous administrations. Australia’s close relationships with existing officials—in both intelligence and across government—will likely cease to be nearly as useful in a Trump administration, and very unfortunately could even become detrimental if the purge becomes a witch hunt.

US intelligence partners, and US agencies for that matter, will also have to navigate the challenges of working with a President and staff who have previously mishandled or ‘lost’ binders of classified intelligence.

The US is an intelligence superpower with enormous global reach and advanced technological and tradecraft capability. But a Trump presidency could threaten that advantage, including the advantage it provides to partners, especially the other members of the Five Eyes group.

The US-Australia intelligence relationship has long helped strengthen and deepen the alliance, so navigating any thorny new risks will be crucial—and drawing on individual relationships will be a necessary aspect to this. Australia should therefore deepen intelligence diplomacy functions and prioritise strategic initiatives and new, big ideas that bring partners together. This is the perfect time to propose, for example, a low-classified open-source intelligence centre through which trusted countries beyond just the Five Eyes can focus on high priority, shared regional challenges. Areas could include, for example, analysis of China, economic security, technological developments and climate security. This is the time to find new and unique ways to build rapport and deepen both traditional and emerging relationships.

  1. Our prime minister, and his department, will need to step up 

World leaders are usually strong performers either on domestic or international issues; but rarely on both. Australia will need Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and any successor to be that rare exception. His office and the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet will need to spend more time on global issues if Trump is re-elected.

Trump is an unscripted leader and, as former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has written, he doesn’t always delegate. He rarely sticks to talking points and agreed outcomes, so leader-to-leader relationships become more important. The best way to manage an unscripted Trump is to be as prepared and scripted as possible. Leaders’ interactions should be carefully planned to circumscribe the areas in which the notoriously transactional Trump can demand trade-offs that are antithetical to Australia’s interest.

Time with any US president is rare, and exchanges with Trump are unpredictable. This means the relationships built with staff around Trump—the White House Chief of Staff, Secretary of State, Secretary of Defence, Secretary of Commerce, Director of National Intelligence and National Security Advisor, their teams and others—will be even more important than usual. The Prime Minister and his staff will need to work very closely with the Foreign Minister, our Ambassador, and other key Australian ministers, to ensure they keep their finger on the pulse of how such relationships are developing. They need to be ready to identify and troubleshoot difficulties quickly, remembering that Trump, and many of those he surrounds himself with, emerged from working environments very dissimilar to a government bureaucracy. Traditional norms won’t always apply.

The Prime Minister’s office and department will need their own dedicated strategy to help build a relationship between the Prime Minister and a returned President Trump. There have been stumbles over the past year that have been noticed across Canberra and overseas. These include the oddly celebratory welcome home of Julian Assange, the bungled treatment of arbitrarily detained journalist Cheng Lei during Chinese Premier Li Qiang’s visit to Australia and the removal of ASIO and ASIS from the National Security Committee of Cabinet. Greater strategic focus is needed to deal with the challenges ahead. The Prime Minister, his office and department should assess their resourcing dedicated to the US relationship. Any restructuring within the department, or commitment of additional staff to areas such as foreign affairs, international security, international economy and defence, should happen before the US election. 

  1. Appoint a dedicated National Security Advisor  

This is a no brainer. Australia is one of the few developed countries that does not have a dedicated National Security Advisor (NSA) position. This means we are not present at the world’s regular, closed-door NSA meetings and dialogues, where important international decisions are discussed. Before and during a second Trump term, those meetings will become even more frequent, especially during heightened tensions and crises. Is Australia seriously content to continue missing these chances to influence such vital discussions, even with the added uncertainty that a Trump administration would bring?

The Prime Minister needs to create a dedicated and autonomous secretary-level NSA position in his office, supported by a small and high-performing staff. That person needs to be on a plane by the end of August, focused on forming and deepening relationships with key NSA counterparts and other high-level officials so that Australia is as well-prepared as it can be for the outcome on 5 November. 

  1. Australia needs a unique taskforce that is built to last

Australia needs a strong, central point of control in Canberra to deal with the series of interlocking and complex challenges that arise from a Trump administration—challenges that will be both bilateral and international but all of which could affect our economy, society and national security.

We need more than the geographical desks in the relevant departments and the existing ad hoc interdepartmental committees, in recognition of the breadth of impact that a Trump presidency would have. We will need a permanent and well-resourced taskforce, staffed by exceptional public servants with a range of skills. This taskforce, of course, needs to work very closely with our embassy in Washington, and other key stakeholders.

This taskforce needs to react quickly, help solve problems creatively, develop new ideas and be ready to capitalise on global opportunities. The head of this committee needs to be a proven and innovative strategic thinker—someone who can work across and outside government, think outside the box and deliver results in unique circumstances.

The urgency has now increased for Australia to lay down the foundations of a Trump 2.0 blueprint. It must be ambitious and must assume that it will absorb more resources, more bandwidth and more creativity than we have previously planned for. As part of that, Australia must embrace its importance as a regional power that is even more accessible and available to our partners and allies than we have been previously.

Former President Trump has been here before. He’s had time to plan his return and, if elected, will hit the ground running to implement what he wants to achieve. Australia needs to ensure we hit the ground running too.