Australian strategy: hold US, bet Asia
13 Mar 2017|

Image courtesy of Pixabay user Unsplash.

Australia’s strategic hope is to hold tight to what it has with the US while seeking new chances in Asia.

To use the language of poker: hold, not fold on America, bet big Asia. At the multi-dimension poker table, Australia is playing two hands simultaneously, with diverging strategies for the alliance and Asia, all for a single jackpot.

The hold-America, bet-Asia formula has lots of moving parts. The beauty is that it hews to the key themes Australia has been using for decades: alliance, Asian engagement and global rules. Unfortunately the new US leader dislikes these great themes. And the Narcissist-in-Chief’s hand might be more busted flush than full house.

Australia confronts an America First President who rejects alliances and renders economics in primary colours of protectionist, mercantilist hue. Enter ‘the most unpopular and least prepared’ US president of modern history. And Canberra thought the going was tough when Oz merely faced a new world where its top trading partner wasn’t also an ally. Oh, for simpler times.

The Foreign Policy White Paper Australia will produce this year will be the institutional expression of the hold-America, bet-Asia strategy.

On the hold’em side, Australia will seek to Trump-proof the alliance with multiple layers of history and commitment. After the Trump-Turnbull telephone turmoil, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop zoomed to Washington for talks with Vice President Mike Pence. The White House readout on that February 21 meeting gives the proper hold’em flavour:

‘The two reaffirmed the strong alliance between the United States and Australia and committed to maintaining the close ties of friendship between our two countries. The Vice President thanked the Foreign Minister for Australia’s multifaceted partnership with the United States around the globe.’

Expect lots more of that hold-hard and hope language in the White Paper. What will drive the bet-big Asia side of the Paper will be the need for insurance against Donald Trump’s core belief that America gets a lousy return from the international order it created. A succinct summary of Trump’s mindmap is offered by Thomas Wright, arguing that over three decades Trump has displayed ‘a remarkably coherent and consistent world view’, embracing antiquated, 19th century American notions of power:

  1. Trump is deeply unhappy with America’s military alliances and feels the US is overcommitted around the world.
  2. Trump feels that America is disadvantaged by the global economy. Note the striking vision of ‘American carnage’ at the centre of Trump’s inauguration speech: ‘We’ve made other countries rich, while the wealth, strength and confidence of our country has dissipated over the horizon.’ Thus, Trump’s America First promise: ‘Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength.’
  3. As evidenced by the President’s sympathy for authoritarian strongmen, Wright says, ‘Trump seeks nothing less than ending the US-led liberal order and freeing America from its international commitments’.

Using the Wright analysis, Jessica Mathews comes from the other direction to argue that the new President rejects the few fundamentals American neocons, realists and liberal internationalists agree on:

  1. The immense value to the security of the US provided by its allies and worldwide military and political alliances.
  2. The global economy is not a zero-sum competition but a mutually beneficial growth system built on open trade and investment, using a set of rules.
  3. Democracy is best. ‘Dictators have to be tolerated, managed, or confronted, not admired.’

What Trump believes and what he wants to discard will be a significant, unstated subtext for Australia’s White Paper. Without naming Trump, Australia will be arguing against him by emphasising the arrival of Asia’s new order, the deep foundations of the alliance, the central US role in Asia and the vital interests in a rules-based international order.

With his usual smarts, Hugh White offers draft language for the Paper; although don’t expect the statement to be as explicit as Hugh about the need for an Asian order to ‘ensure that Australia does not face an impossible choice between America and China in the future’. Like the virtual argument with Trump, this will be implicit not explicit.

If the history of Oz foreign policy is ‘a chronicle of efforts to avoid unwanted choices’, as Allan Gyngell remarks, then the attempt at playing two different poker hands with different tactics is a familiar bit of Canberra policy dissonance. Trouble is the size of the stakes and the confusion of forces at play in multi-dimension poker, as Allan concludes:

‘No one now working in Canberra has had to contend with systemic uncertainty on this scale…The drafters of the Australian foreign policy White Paper and their policy bosses have their work cut out. The post-war global era is over.’

Australia can’t fold. It has to play. And face the fear that it’s two hands—hold America, bet big Asia—are in conflict. What we want to hold tight threatens to jeopardise our big bets.