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Trumped or bust: how will the post-inauguration cards fall for Australia?

Posted By on January 19, 2017 @ 14:30


As the Trump bandwagon rolls down Pennsylvania Avenue and into the White House, the Australian government faces a number of policy conundrums, solutions to which will strain both its policymaking skills and its resolve.

The Trump presidency challenges many of the assumptions on which Australia’s economic and security policy has rested for almost seventy years—all of those assumptions best summed up in the lazy phrase “rules-based international order”. That order was underwritten by US power. It’s now under challenge as other big players, particularly China and Russia, no longer want to abide by US rules. Nor, perhaps, does President Trump.

Of greater concern, however, is the fact that the challengers to the US are tackling the issue from diametrically opposed perspectives: where Russia, and Putin in particular, sees opportunity, China, and Xi in particular, sees threat. And where the US in the past might have taken comfort from the support of its allies, many of the latter are now wallowing in a sea of uncertainty that reduces their status to bit-players at best and liabilities at worst.

As it cashes in what’s left of its chips as a winner (albeit bankrupt) in 1945, Britain’s increasingly untidy divorce from Europe erodes its strategic value to the US. France is locking itself into a new competition with Germany, Europe’s southern underbelly (unhappily identified as the PIGS [1]) is headed for penury, and the opportunistic optimists from the East who rushed into the EU after the Soviet Union’s collapse are now re-learning past habits as they install authoritarian governments. So Russia sees as many opportunities to its west as it does to its east across the Pacific.

Europe’s a mess and Asia’s not much better. Japan is undergoing a prolonged crisis in confidence. South Korea is transfixed by a scandal that’s symptomatic of the sclerosis affecting its symbiotic economic and political elites. Taiwan, like the canary in the mine, thinks that it can scent freedom when only disaster can result from an attempted break out. And ASEAN is experiencing centrifugal forces greater than any in its 50-year history.

So into this global mêlée comes President Trump. While he’s not the cause of it, it’s hard to see that he’s the solution either. That’s at the centre of the problem facing Australia’s policymakers. And to judge from the alacrity with which Prime Minister Abe decided to visit Southeast Asia and Australia—little warning and even less fanfare—Japan is onto this new dispensation much faster than we are.

So what might Australia’s policymakers come up with if we are not to be trumped by a new brand of US exceptionalism that promotes protectionism over free trade, or busted by a new form of sabre-rattling [2] that would want to exclude China from the South China Sea or confront Russia [3].

The first thing they need to address is the fact that regional security (and that includes the security of China, by the way) is an artefact of regional economic strength, not national military power or the disposition of armed forces. Our long reliance on ANZUS has inoculated Australian policymakers to view security as a defence issue. If ever it has been, it is less so now: national security is about improving the lives of citizens and ensuring that a growing economic cake is shared equitably. Trump’s decision to can the Trans-Pacific Partnership impacts directly on the region’s economic security.

A second imperative is the quality and intensity of our diplomacy. Because we see the US as our security blanket, we have a preference for a transactional foreign policy. It’s easier to deal with problems as they occur rather than set an agenda and an implementation plan that might forestall those problems in the first place. Transformational policymaking is hard because it demands both clarity of thinking and perseverance in execution—something our present political paradigm doesn’t help.

To take just two problematic examples: the brittleness of our relationship with Indonesia and the insouciance of our relationship with the Philippines. Xenophobia is always a subcutaneous manifestation of nationalism. In Indonesia’s case, wannabe Presidential aspirants find it easy to appeal to religious ideologues and the alienated. Largely due to our marginal position in Indonesia’s consciousness, Australia is a convenient whipping boy, as General Gatot Nurmantyo’s recent media appearances [4] have again reminded us.

In the confused world in which both Indonesia and Australia find ourselves, “business as usual” is no solution. Our policymakers need to focus their energies more on building strong relationships between our economic institutions, and our government leaders need to invest in building substantial and deep relationships with their counterparts. And at a time when President Jokowi is increasingly isolated domestically due to pressure from Islamic ideologues, his authority and legitimacy should be reinforced by more frequent visits by regional heads of government, including ours.

Similarly, President Duterte is going it alone, with unforeseen and unforeseeable consequences for the region, as he responds to China’s overtures. Australia has an abiding interest, evident since SEATO days, in the stability and security of the Philippines. Yet where are the indicators of any serious investment on Australia’s part?

The third, and perhaps most important, step is to begin capitalising on both the strength and enduring nature of our relationship with the US. Taking up office as one of the most unprepared presidents in US history, Trump needs friends. At a time of strategic flux, the US is critical to any re-articulation of the ‘rules’ on which ‘the international rules-based order’ is built. Trump himself, and perhaps the US political elite more broadly, is more comfortable with acolytes than friends. Australia, the Bush-anointed ‘deputy sheriff,’ has been one of the most constant acolytes of all.

That needs to change. As a close friend, we need to transform the ANZUS alliance from a followership to a partnership. We need to know what we bring to the table—not just a ‘suitable piece of real estate’ as the late Des Ball described Pine Gap (and might have so described the Northern Territory training base where the US Marines are stationed), but as an ally that brings wisdom and counsel to the policy dialogue. That means knowing what our interests are and being able to articulate them.

For all its puzzling features, the Trump presidency is an opportunity for Australia. We hold some pretty good cards. The real question is just how well we are able to play them.

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

URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/trumped-bust-will-post-inauguration-cards-fall-australia/

URLs in this post:

[1] the PIGS: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PIGS_(economics)

[2] a new form of sabre-rattling: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jan/12/no-access-rex-tillerson-sets-collision-course-beijing-south-china-sea

[3] confront Russia: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-01-13/trumps-pentagon-pick-says-us-needs-to-be-ready-for-russia/8179830

[4] recent media appearances: http://www.smh.com.au/world/why-indonesian-general-gatot-nurmantyo-broke-off-military-relations-with-australia-20170105-gtmak3.html

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