A Trump victory and the alliance—a preliminary cut
9 Aug 2016|

US defence secretary Ashton Carter told the world at this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue that ‘the US–Australia alliance is more and more a global one. As our two nations work together to uphold the freedom of navigation and overflight across the region, we’re also accelerating the defeat of ISIL together in Iraq and Syria.’

The ANZUS alliance isn’t necessarily the most significant allied relationship for the US. However, it is arguably the most productive. The other allies draw the US into their affairs and spend American security capital. The Australian ally demands nothing, in the current environment, of American security that can’t be met with (albeit lopsided in Australia’s favour) intelligence exchanges, paid-for access to the best American equipment, joint scientific research projects, and mutually useful exercises. We don’t spend American capital obliging the US to confront dangerous possibilities. Our military is also capable of enhancing American capacity, supporting the American forces anywhere with effective force. We are more than just a flag.

Arguably, of all the allies of the US, we’re capable of an intense strategic dialogue free of a subliminal self-interested agenda. That’s been the case since World War II (with a brief exception in Southeast Asia in the early 1960s). The difference now is that we’re a meaningful power with the sophistication to articulate effective suggestions in dialogue about the affairs of our region and world.

Our conundrum in the current American political race is this: having established a complex strategic relationship and dialogue with the US, what on earth do we say, and where do we begin, with a victor in the presidential race who during the campaign has trashed the entirety of the alliance system, and the liberal international rules-based order, that have underpinned trade and broader global relationships since 1945?

Trump may not win. His campaign has had a shocking month. His party followers at the Republican National Convention manifested the psychology of hostages. It was like watching a mass Stockholm syndrome event. There was nothing in their talisman’s basic line that represented previous Republican verities so they mobilised around chants worthy of the killing of Piggy in Lord of the Flies. Hillary’s the substitute for the virtuous Piggy. Mostly it wasn’t ‘kill the beast’, but ‘jail her—though ‘shoot her’ was to be heard as well.

Should Trump win, there will be immense responsibilities on us. Almost exclusively our trade and security arrangements have missed his widely swung sabre. But that sabre slices into trade and security arrangements which have been critical for our prosperity and security. There will be plenty in our zone who will have things to say to him, and at least his vice president would be listening—Trump is unlikely to listen to them. When he’s briefed on the depth of our relationship and the massive character of our mutual investment, which far exceeds any American pairing in the region outside Japan, he might listen to us. The ensuing discussion will be tough.

Some of our commentators and analysts share in a broader global schadenfreude that will see them rub their hands at a picture of a rogue, isolationist America repudiating old shared values and perspectives. However, we don’t have the capacity to readily survive an uncoupling of our bilateral defence relationship with our national security intact. For example, when I was defence minister, the objective with the joint facilities was to ensure we had full knowledge of, and concurrence with, their capabilities and operations. Now, having expanded in number and capacity in recent years, they’re integrated into our intelligence system and our military’s operational capabilities.

The equipment, systems and technologies we get from the Americans are vital to our order of battle. The marines in Darwin are important, but what’s critical for us is the engagement of US-origin equipment and technologies in assisting the defence of our northern approaches. Though our latest defence white paper placed the role outlined by Ash Carter as a co-equal force-structure determinant, the character of the equipment to be acquired and the systems to be developed overwhelmingly relate to that more traditional task.

I have mentioned here before the essential American-origin character of our air defences. We start with the strategic and tactical contribution of US satellite surveillance, over-the-horizon radar (an Australian-developed joint research product), airborne early warning, anti-submarine warfare, and broader surveillance US-origin aircraft. Strike and interdiction comes from our Classic Hornets, Super Hornets and Growlers (ours is the only other air force deploying the latter). The F-35s constitute the next phase. Equipment foreshadowed to enter service over the next 30 years will need the enhancements of capability coming through emerging technologies developed under the rubric of Washington’s ‘third offset strategy’. Our Defence Science and Technology Group is heavily engaged in associated research programs.

We can’t afford to sit back and let mayhem rule. More broadly, we can’t afford to see our region, including relations with China, fall victim to ill-considered confrontations. Some have confidence that the US constitutional system of checks and balances will counter Trump’s worst excesses. US presidents have few positive initiatives they can engage without Congress.

The powers, however, for a US president’s negative initiatives are manifold. He can undermine confidence among allies that he will initiate action in support of them under any guarantee. He can use the broad licence US trade laws give an American president to pursue punitive action against trade partners. He has plenty of power to ensure border agents torment unwanted entrants.

A Trump presidency won’t be a question of hold onto your hats for four years and then sanity will rule. America will be a different place after four years of Donald Trump. Australia’s responses, should they be necessary, must be immediate, forceful and sustained.