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Donald Trump and coming scrutiny of ANZUS

Posted By on November 30, 2016 @ 14:30

Image courtesy of Flickr user nathanmac87.

A constant in Donald Trump’s electoral pitch was that wealthy allies had for too long relied on America’s willingness to backstop their national security and harvested the long-term economic rewards of keeping their own military effort comparatively modest.

We’ve no real idea at this point where a Trump administration will see the balance of American interests on this issue. We have to be optimistic that the President-elect will recognise that the way he was inclined to frame this question when he was a candidate was simplistic and not especially helpful. Americans won’t want the US to be portrayed as a ‘gun for hire’, a mercenary power that charges what it thinks it will cost to sustain a military posture that will deter and, if necessary, defeat the opponents of an ally; if the ally doesn’t pay their full share, the deal is off.

In fact, the pact between allies is profound and quite remarkable—a willingness to accept that a nation’s most treasured asset, its sovereignty, should depend to some degree on another state and a willingness to risk a state’s most treasured resource, the lives of its citizens, to protect the sovereignty of another state. The considerations that each party brings into play to assess the merits of an alliance relationship are broad and intangible—not the sort of thing that anyone can readily put a dollar value on.

It’s also the case that for a long time now the US has told its allies that the willingness of Americans to sustain these arrangements would be more assured if there was a visible measure of burden-sharing. Most allies have responded positively. This will present Trump with a dilemma. He won’t want to portray the US as a ‘gun for hire’ but neither will he want a major plank of his electoral platform to be reduced to the mundane: marginally stronger enforcement of a well-established practice.

The current reality is that the network of US alliances is still widely perceived to be an important part of the fabric of security in key regions of the world—a complex tangle of interdependencies and positive and negative forces that yields confidence in a condition of order and stability. Put simply, it’s about confidence that tomorrow is going to be very much like today. That’s a tribute, above all, to US diligence and skill in managing these arrangements through all the trials that the passage of time and the tendency of nations of follow singular developmental paths could throw in their path. At any point in the past 70 years, Washington has been able to say of all these arrangements that both sides wanted it that way.

The core question is whether Donald Trump’s message is that America wants out. The most surprising thing about this question is why has it’s taken so long! At this point, however, we simply don’t know where the US will come out on this issue. That said, the simple fact that the question was so clearly raised in the recent US elections and so strongly, if not unambiguously, answered almost certainly means that it’s too late to go back to the status quo ante. These alliance relationships will be reviewed and recast in various ways and these processes will reverberate through the security structures around the globe.

ANZUS won’t escape scrutiny. We’re a cheap ally in the sense that we’ve not had and don’t have an acute and/or enduring threat to our national security. The Pentagon hasn’t had to factor possible contingencies in and around Australia into planning for the overall size of its armed forces or the balance of particular capabilities. On the other hand, Australia and Australians have never hesitated to acknowledge the deep sense of comfort we gain from knowing that the US is, for compelling reasons of its own, deeply committed to peace and stability in the vast Indo–Pacific arena and from the fact that we have a formal alliance with them.

Donald Trump hasn’t changed geopolitics. There’s a strong likelihood that America will remain a dependable force for order and stability in the Indo–Pacific. That’s what we should be aspiring to protect even as we join with like-minded regional powers to build new processes and structures to preserve the peace. We have a good story to tell on the alliance front and, to the extent it remains relevant, we should continue to tell it.

Above all, we shouldn’t panic and rush to the extremes. It’s quite silly to relish striking out on our own, as if ANZUS has been an unwelcome imposition. And if Beijing decides that the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people requires taking something that we or a close friend value highly, where do we find the countervailing power? Neither should we go to the other extreme and make silly promises to America that even Washington will see we mightn’t wish to keep, as some have already started to do. We must remember that alliances work so long as the participants remember that they are allies because they agree, not that they should agree because they are allies.

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