New normal for America is new abnormal for Australia

Australia always frets about the US alliance. Today, fret is becoming frenetic. Even a touch feverish. Fear darkens the fancies.

Donald Trump could do to US alliances what he’s done to US trade policy.

The president’s approach to trade and defence might be America’s new normal. Be frightened by that thought; Canberra is.

The new normal line is offered by Australia’s departing ambassador in Washington, Joe Hockey, in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald: ‘“We are not going back,” Hockey said. “America has changed, global commerce has changed, geo-politics has changed and it’s going to have a profound impact on every part of the world.”’

Here’s Hockey on how the new normal has arrived: “‘The US has basically torn up the whole multinational framework,’ he said. ‘Relationships now are overwhelmingly bilateral not multilateral. And I don’t think this is exclusive to the Republicans.’”

Hockey pointed to the positions of Democratic presidential contenders who, while opposing Trump’s abrasive style, share his protectionist trade instincts and resistance to deploying American troops overseas.

So the US turns away from the global trade system it built using its rules, based on its economic model, running on its dollars. There’s a lot there to make a good ally fretful. Especially the thought that even if Trump loses his bid for re-election, he’s already laid out a version of the future.

A Trump-flavoured new normal looks like this:

  • America first—the line from Trump’s inauguration that’ll be remembered is, ‘The American carnage stops right here’
  • protectionist and mercantilist—the global economy is a zero-sum version of the Hunger Games
  • alliance rejectionist—America wastes trillions to defend others
  • deals trump values—deals, not democracy. Strongmen and dictators, apply here.

A simple equation pushes at Australia: China coming, US going.

In that formula, it’s the US part that takes Canberra towards nightmares. Much Oz discussion of the China challenge is actually about US choices.

We’ve been worrying at the conundrum for more than a decade. Start the big fret clock from the global financial crisis in 2007–08. As a for instance, near this day six years ago, I wrote a piece headlined, ‘Rising China, troubled America, crouching Australia’.

The Oz crouch is more pronounced while Trump is both symptom and cause of US troubles. The crouching image was from the late, great David Hale and his 2014 ASPI paper China’s new dream: How will Australia and the world cope with the re-emergence of China as a great power? Hale’s vision has arrived.

China has buttered our economic bread for two decades, but the US has baked our security cake since 1941. One of my tried-and-tested lines is that the biggest threat to our alliance (and the US alliance system in Asia) is always posed by the US—what Washington demands or fails to deliver.

Australia has quietly balanced the twin fears of entrapment and abandonment, and luxuriated in the comfort of US power.

Once, the only surprise we got from Washington was how they described us when they bothered to mention Oz at all; there are worse things than being thought of as Texas with kangaroos.

Now we fret about which of the dire fates—entrapment or abandonment—is what’s coming over the horizon. And surely, the trap and desertion can’t both happen simultaneously?

In his series re-examining the alliance, Andrew Carr’s starting point is that Oz–US strategic interests are diverging. The ad hoc, weakly institutionalised form of the alliance has served both sides well for seven decades, Carr writes, but the old model is no longer fit for purpose. He notes Canberra’s fervent wish and the orthodoxy of institutional Washington: the alliance is not at risk. Times change, though, and the political compact has to adjust:

[F]or all the celebrations of mateship, and the beehive of activity that marks the alliance today, it’s important that we keep a clear eye on the purpose of the relationship. What are we cooperating for? How do our goals overlap or differ? The risk is that in our bid to maintain intimacy we are accepting a deliberate vagueness about our interests. Closeness will matter little if, in a crisis, it becomes clear one party has no interest in meeting the unspoken assumptions of the other.

Australian Foreign Affairs magazine tackles the alliance with the question, ‘Can we trust America?’ China’s ambition puts US–Australian ties under strain, Michael Wesley writes, meaning the US has more need of Australia. Thus, Canberra has the chance—and the obligation—to shape the alliance in our interests: ‘Instead, we have become less questioning and more compliant with each presidential tweet.’

Hanging on to the alliance and hanging with The Donald have become contradictory ends.

Australia’s continual invoking of loyalty and sacrifice, Wesley notes, ‘has given the alliance a marriage-like status, in which adherence to our ally’s cause has become a test of national character. We have lost sight of the limited-liability nature of the alliance at a time when this quality is more necessary than ever.’

Those who muse on the alliance in both the US and Oz keep reaching for similar-sounding answers about the need for a makeover and a rethink.

US Foreign Affairs magazine wants to save the alliances as the system that put America on top: ‘Trump’s ire has been so relentless and damaging that US allies in Asia and Europe now question the United States’ ability to restore itself as a credible security guarantor, even after a different president is in the White House.’

Note that bland phrase packed with explosive questions: ‘credible security guarantor’.

The cry to save the alliances comes straight from the heart of institutional Washington, the foreign and defence institutions and mindset that Barack Obama derided as ‘the blob’.

A single, faint Obama–Trump continuity exists in the way The Donald has squelched the blob. It’s a continuity that points to the new normal.

Canberra embraces the alliance affirmations from official Washington. The blob offers reassurance and continuity and more of what Australia has loved for 70 years.

The new normal coming out of the US, though, ain’t about continuity.

Canberra frets and fears. Rethink and reshape the alliance, by all means, if that’s what’s needed to hang on to it.