If Heath Ledger could comment on the outcome of the US Presidential contest, he might suggest that, in politics and human commerce more generally, life imitates art. His portrayal of anarchy and disruption in The Dark Knight offered a disturbing metaphor for the likes of Geert Wilders, Nigel Farage and even our own lookalike, Pauline Hanson.
And now we have Donald Trump.
When faced with a strategic discontinuity, the most important first step for any strategist is to recognise it for what it is—an existential challenge to the prevailing world order. And make no mistake: just as the Brexit is an existential challenge to the European order as we know it, Trump’s election to the presidency of the world’s dominant power is an existential challenge to the world order as we know it.
In a copybook example of mellifluous persiflage, Prime Minister Turnbull intoned the same pious sentiments that have substituted for policy in a procession of AUSMIN statements and Defence White Papers for two decades. His immediate response was as bland as it was complacent. Our alliance with the US, he told us, was enduring because it was based on shared interests and common values, and not on the comings and goings of Presidents and Prime Ministers. Really?
And what are those shared interests and common values? Apart from trotting out the usual platitudes—democracy, the rule of law, maintaining the international order upon which our security and prosperity depends—our policy elite (of which the readers and writers of The Strategist are paid-up members) prefers mouthing comfortable truisms to the hard work of analysis and recalibration.
Throughout the western world, democracy is under challenge, not least of all because electorates have lost confidence in both the democratic institutions and the leaders who run them. The rule of law is under challenge, as a Trump administration toys with the forcible repatriation of illegal immigrants and Australia continues to deny legal rights to refugees on Manus and Nauru. And the international order—an artefact of the post WW2 dispensation—is under challenge as China emerges as a global power in its own right.
Like most other observers of the US, I forecast a Clinton victory. I was wrong. But in my post of 20 October 2016, I commented that ‘Donald Trump would’ve forced both the US and its partners to re-examine the foundations, purpose and strategic effect of the alliance network that has underpinned the strategic position of the West for seventy years’.
The time for that reappraisal has arrived. And it’s no bad thing.
As we try to come to terms with what has actually transpired in the US, we should be aware that, in a quite fundamental sense, Thomas Piketty belled the cat in his 2015 book Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Piketty’s thesis is straightforward: when the return on investment exceeds the return on labour, inequality is the result. Whether voters live in the rustbelts of the US, the ‘dark satanic mills’ of the UK, the soulless factories of industrial France or the sweatshops of Germany, they feel alienated and angry.
This is perhaps the central strategic issue facing the West: the failure of neo-liberal economics to improve the lot of the working class citizens who shed their blood in two world wars to protect individual freedom, build national prosperity and create a worthwhile future for their children. When the citizens of a democratic state believe they’re disenfranchised, the security of the state is in peril because its very raison d’être is in question.
At first blush, Trump’s instincts appear to favour a dangerous cocktail of exceptionalism, isolationism and protectionism, with a measure of racism and climate science denial to add colour and movement. A foreign policy that seeks to penalise its nearest neighbour, Mexico, for its poverty and its most important competitor, China, for its success is unlikely to do anything to ameliorate the economic issues that underpin US voter anger and distrust. And a strategic policy that wants to transfer the cost of US dominance to those allies that benefit, or think they benefit, from US military power is a surefire way of eroding the trust that is essential to strong alliances.
Australia, like our Asian and European alliance colleagues, has some serious work to do. The feckless complacency—best evidenced in the parroting of phrases like ‘shared interests’, ‘common values’ and ‘rules-based international order’—that has distinguished our strategic policy making for seventy years has to give way to a much more hard-nosed and clear-eyed appreciation of those things for which we, as a nation, are prepared to spend blood and treasure.
Our national interest isn’t defined by the power or the interests of the United States.
Rather, it’s defined by the inclusiveness, harmony and resilience of our people. It’s defined by equality of opportunity and equity in the distribution of the benefits of being Australian citizens. It’s defined by our ability to determine an international rules-based order that seeks to bring together our neighbours, including China, in both the design and operation of the rules rather than seeking to contain or constrain them. And it means being able to act in concert with like-minded nations, including the US, to sanction those that might seek to constrain our freedom to define and act in support of our national interest.
President Trump’s election will provide us with exactly the reality check we need.