Pondering Trump: alarm versus pragmatism
17 Sep 2018|

The Australian government’s approach to the US under President Donald Trump is deeply pragmatic: hold tight to what we’ve got, get what we can, and don’t anger Trump.

Loudly love the alliance. And if you can’t say anything nice about Trump, say nothing. So far, it’s working.

The Australia–US relationship since Trump’s inauguration has been defined by what the president has NOT done to Australia. He hasn’t questioned the alliance. He hasn’t hit Australia with trade tirades and tariffs. He hasn’t broken the refugee deal he so denounced when first taking office. And he hasn’t even sent an ambassador to Australia.

The pragmatic view is that Australia has stayed out of trouble with Trump and has done well with a transactional president. The pessimistic argument is that Trump is tearing up the international system and Australia must rethink and reposition.

In public, the Liberals proclaim the pragmatic view. And, of course, being in government enforces that discipline. Being out of office, Labor grandees are freer to sound the alarm. But even the Libs are musing about the alliance effects if Trump brings the legions home.

Purest pragmatism is dispensed by Alexander Downer, our longest serving foreign minister (1996–2007), who has just completed five years as high commissioner to the United Kingdom.

Downer says Trump has been better for Australia than Barack Obama. Obama ‘made America look weak’, Downer writes, and ‘under Obama, America pulled back from the world’.

Trump may be bombastic, crude and crass, Downer observes, but so what? The Downer judgement:

In Asia, Trump has built a half-decent personal relationship with Xi Jinping. That has helped with his attempts to get North Korea to scrap its program to build nuclear-armed intercontinental missiles that could hit American cities. The talks have happened; let’s see if that strategy has worked. It’s too early to say. Trump certainly hasn’t persuaded the Chinese to desist from militarising reefs in the South China Sea. But his aggressive commitment to American military power—including a huge increase in defence spending—has probably made the Chinese realise it would be dangerous to go much further in the South China Sea. All that’s good for us.

Downer says Australia’s experience of Trump has been mostly positive:

So the Trump presidency is going quite well for Australia. Not perfectly, mind you. Pity he pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. That was a bad mistake. But pulling out of the Paris Agreement will have a marginal effect. And he did exempt us from the steel and aluminium tariffs.

The former Labor foreign minister Gareth Evans (1988–1996) says the US under Trump is a rogue superpower, ‘tearing up the order it did so much to create’. Evans says the ‘irremediable damage’ being done by Trump means Australia must think hard about future responses. He offers four policy shifts:

  • Less America: Continued US engagement in the region is certainly highly desirable, Evans says, and Australia shouldn’t walk away from the alliance. ‘But less reflexive support for everything the US chooses to do is long overdue.’
  • More self-reliance: Australia should be more of a diplomatic free agent, Evans says, abandoning the constant urge to look over our shoulder to Washington.
  • More Asia: Strengthen relationships at all levels with key neighbours like India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Japan and South Korea, as a collective counterweight to a potentially overreaching China. At the same time, Evans says, Australia should ‘develop a more multidimensional relationship, not just a one-dimensional economic one, with China itself’.
  • More global engagement: Evan says Australia should be a relentless campaigner for continued global cooperation. ‘There are many global public goods issues on which we could make a positive difference, using our own strengths as a capable, credible middle power and the strategies of international coalition building that are the essence of effective middle power diplomacy.’

Former prime minister Tony Abbott observed to the Heritage Foundation in Washington that Trump is ‘the most unconventional president ever’, but is well on the way ‘to being a consequential president’—even if ‘erratic and ill-disciplined’.

In the Abbott view, Trump’s trump card is that ‘the rest of the world needs America much more than America needs us’.

The world will confront that need as the US brings its military home, as Abbott stated: ‘A new age is coming. The legions are going home. American values can be relied upon but American help less so. This need not presage a darker time, like Rome’s withdrawal from Britain, but more will be required of the world’s other free countries.’

Dealing with a deal-making president, Abbott said, Australia could not rely on tradition or sentiment. But in Abbott’s view, Australia is getting a good deal:

For Australia, Trump has so far been a good president. Despite a testy initial conversation with Prime Minister Turnbull, he’s honoured the ‘very bad deal’ that his predecessor had done to take boat people from Nauru and Manus Island and to settle them in the United States.

He seems to appreciate that Australia is the only ally who’s been side-by-side with America in every conflict since the Great War, and has exempted our steel and aluminium from the tariffs slapped on many others.

As a country that’s ‘paid its dues’ on the American alliance, we have been treated with courtesy and respect but that’s no grounds for complacency in dealing with a transactional president.

Even before Trump launched his trade battle with China, the former Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd observed in December that an ‘America First’ administration could find itself being put last in Asia.

Rudd said Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership was symbolic of a US becoming less relevant to Asia’s economic future:

In fact, the US is increasingly emerging as an incomplete superpower. It remains a formidable military actor, with unique power-projection capabilities that extend far beyond its aircraft carrier battle groups to include an array of other capabilities that are as yet unmatched by other countries in the Asia–Pacific region. But its relevance to the region’s future—in terms of employment, trade and investment growth, as well as sustainable development—is declining fast.

Some in Washington DC seem to think that the US can sustain this pattern for decades to come. But many of us are skeptical. Unless and until the US chooses comprehensive economic re-engagement with the region, its significance to the overall future of Asia, the world’s most economically dynamic region, will continue to fade.

The idea of the US fading away will be encouraged by Trump’s decision to skip the East Asia Summit in Singapore and the APEC summit in Papua New Guinea.

If Trump had got to PNG, the expectation was that he’d also come next door to make a presidential visit to Australia. That chance of an Australian stop has now disappeared. So one other thing Donald Trump won’t have done to Australia in 2018 is visit the country.