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The Donald dichotomy: US leadership without the leader

Posted By on August 7, 2017 @ 06:00

Donald Trump has caused a profound shift in the way Canberra thinks about a US leader, but not yet about US leadership. Call this The Donald dichotomy.

Australia confronts an ‘America First’ president who is sceptical of alliances and the international economic system America created. Canberra is shaken by The Donald view of alliances as lousy, zero-sum deals (America spends the dollars for zero return from allies) and Trump’s protectionist/mercantilist economic instincts.

Australia seeks to Trump-proof the alliance. The art of the effort—and the discipline in its execution—is to lavish praise on the US while saying nothing negative about Donald Trump: stress US leadership, yet downplay the US leader. Try to love American leadership while ignoring the 45th president.

The strains in the dichotomy are obvious. How do you get US leadership without also getting The Donald?

Two months ago (a couple of lifetimes in Trump world), I said ‘shock and awe’ [1] was too grandiose a term for the Trump effect in Canberra. ‘Shake and appal’ better caught the feeling. Discard these as distinctions without a difference. Trump keeps trumping himself. Whether its shake or shock, appal or awe, the amazement mounts.

As an expression of Canberra’s astonishment, see Peter Jennings’ post [2] from last Wednesday. Occasionally, a good policy wonk with a fine writing style just has to let rip on the keyboard. Hear the roar. Feel the passion. Here’s a taste of the jeremiad of Jennings:

The White House, with its weird collection of spivs, neophytes, generals attempting to do politics, bug-eyed ideologues and family retainers, is more dysfunctional than a pack of preschoolers gone hyper on red snakes. As for America’s role in the world, it doesn’t matter that the adults in Cabinet try to assure allies that everything is okay, because the president has shown a daily ability to sow doubt and despair into the hearts of friends and foes alike.

As Peter began re-entry, he observed: ‘It’s hard to lead the free world when you are a figure of fun.’ Amen to that as a pithy expression of the dilemma.

After six months of The Donald dichotomy, Canberra seeks whatever smarts it can get out of Washington, while refusing to comment on great swathes of what Washington’s leader says and does. This is improvised tactic masquerading as strategy, and for the moment the tactic is half working.

Australia will treat Trump as a highly abnormal element in the ‘new normal’ of international affairs—and look for whatever normality it can get from the rest of the Washington system.

Even before Trump, the new normal involved big shifts from the old normal. At various points in the coming months and years, the world is going to have to incorporate elements of Donald Trump into the new normal; although, if the rest of Trump’s presidency resembles his first six months, it’ll be chemistry (or alchemy) of the highest order. We have a long three and a half years still to come, folks.

A major tectonic element of the new normal is the long-term decline in US relative power. Stress that word relative. Whatever The Donald might think, America is still on top. It’s just that lots of others are getting bigger and stronger at a faster rate. Relative decline was chugging quietly this century until the Great Recession [3] smashed America. Now, Trump’s quest for greatness will, instead, deliver a self-inflicted erosion of US international influence. Trump is a symptom of America’s relative decline with the potential to hasten the trend.

A summary of how the Canberra polity views the new normal is in the first chapter on ‘the strategic environment’ in the 2017 Independent Intelligence Review [4]. The report judges: ‘The global strategic influence of the United States has declined in relative terms and that trajectory is set to continue.’ The review sees:

1. Fundamental changes in the international system:

‘The trend in the global balance of wealth and power is favouring China and India. The Western ascendancy in international institutions and values that characterised the second half of the twentieth century, and the early years of the twenty-first century, is eroding.’ Power politics remains important. Rivalry and competition between states ‘will become more accentuated over coming years’.

2. Extremism with global reach:

Globalisation accelerates the movement of people, goods, money and ideas; the dark side of these positive trends is ‘the illegal and destabilising transfer of goods, money, weapons and people. This has broadened the potential for extremism, sectarian fundamentalism, radicalisation and terrorism to take root and have their destructive impact.’

3. The security consequences of accelerating technological change:

Disruptive technological innovation places ‘enormously destructive capabilities within easier reach of rogue states and non-state actors. This trend is not reversible and it will lead to an even more threatening international environment than now exists.’

In line with current Canberra preference, the review doesn’t once mention The Donald. Perhaps that’s fair enough in a review of intelligence. Boom-tish! [Pauses for laughs.] Not a sausage …

Article printed from The Strategist: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au

URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/donald-dichotomy-us-leadership-without-leader/

URLs in this post:

[1] ‘shock and awe’: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/shock-trump-shrill-china/

[2] Peter Jennings’ post: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/trump-world-turns/

[3] Great Recession: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Recession

[4] 2017 Independent Intelligence Review: https://www.pmc.gov.au/national-security/2017-independent-intelligence-review

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