In most US presidential election years – say, for the Clinton-Bush race in 1992, or Bush-Gore in 2000, or Obama-Romney in 2012 – a respectable debate can be had as to which candidate tracks more closely with Australia’s interests. 2020 is not such a year.
Would Donald Trump’s re-election favour Australia’s interests? To ask the question is to answer it. Making the argument for Trump may give its proponents a transgressive thrill, but it is not a serious proposition – at least for those of us who wish the United States well.
Australia’s interests are served when the United States is well-governed, cohesive, attractive to the world, and strong enough to deter bad behaviour by adversaries. Under Donald Trump’s presidency, the United States is poorly governed, divided, unappealing to the world, and weak – which leaves all of us vulnerable to malign actors.
On foreign policy, Trump’s actions run counter to our instincts. Australians are alliance believers; Trump thinks allies are scroungers. Australians are inclined towards internationalism; Trump is sympathetic to isolationism. Australia is a trading nation; Trump withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and attacked the World Trade Organisation. Australia is an old democracy and a free society; Trump swoons over strongmen like Vladimir Putin and – for much of his presidency – Xi Jinping.
Trump’s defenders claim he is tough on China. His advisers certainly are, but Trump himself is wildly inconsistent. If re-elected, he may well revert to his earlier plan to make a ‘deal’ with Xi.
Trump has brought self-dealing and disinformation into the Oval Office. He has undermined American institutions and corroded Americans’ self-belief. He has sloughed off capable Republicans and turned citizens against each other.
Finally, he has led a feeble US response to the coronavirus, with 225,000 dead so far. COVID-19 has now taken more American lives than were lost in World War I, 9/11 and the Vietnam War combined. Trump’s America looks frail and febrile.
What of his opponent? Joe Biden is an experienced politician who has devoted his life to public service. He doesn’t worship money; in fact, he was proud to be one of the poorest members of the Congress. Even his opponents like him. His strength lies in bringing people together, so the times may suit him.
When it comes to external policy, Joe Biden believes in a model of US leadership that has been overwhelmingly benign for the world – and highly advantageous for Australia. No wonder that Lowy Institute polling reveals that nearly three-quarters of Australians would prefer Biden to be the next president.
Is Biden perfect? Far from it. He lacks the brilliant political skills of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. I wish he were younger: world leaders should be in the prime of their lives.
In the White House, Biden would probably stay away from the details and focus on the biggest decisions. Ronald Reagan did this quite effectively.
Consequently, the people around President Biden would be more important than the people around President Trump. Luckily, Biden is famous for attracting good staff. On the foreign policy side, his associates Tony Blinken, Jake Sullivan, Nick Burns, Michele Flournoy, Kurt Campbell, Susan Rice and Ely Ratner are all smart, competent, tough-minded public servants.
Biden would be tougher on China than Obama was, because Beijing’s external policies have hardened in the past four years and Washington’s centre of gravity has shifted in tandem.
A Biden administration would present challenges for us. It is hard to imagine that Scott Morrison would enjoy as intimate a relationship with Biden as he does with Trump. It would be a more competitive field: other world leaders would be running towards the White House, rather than away from it. Ambassador Arthur Sinodinos’ job in Washington, DC would be more difficult. But I would back Australia to compete effectively for the new administration’s ear.
Climate change policy would be awkward for the Morrison government. Biden’s senior policy adviser Jake Sullivan told me recently for my podcast, The Director’s Chair, that climate change would be “a big priority” for Biden. The new president would “rally the nations of the world to get everyone to up their game … He will hold countries like China accountable for doing more, but he’s also going to push our friends to do more as well and to step up and fulfil their responsibilities to what is fundamentally a global problem.”
This would not be welcome in Canberra. But regardless of the outcome next month, the world is moving away from carbon. This will impose new costs but also create new opportunities. It is in Australia’s interest to play our part in helping the world to avoid dangerous warming.
If Donald Trump is re-elected, he will be emboldened – and unleashed. America will be pushed to the breaking point; the international order led by the US will continue to degenerate.
If Joe Biden is elected, a level of normality will return. The craziness will subside. That in itself would be a blessed relief. It is always interesting to tally up the positives and negatives of the candidates for president. But in 2020, there is an emergency in the United States. The warning lights are flashing red. The preferred result for Australia is clear.
Originally published in Sydney Morning Herald.
Michael Fullilove is the Executive Director of the Lowy Institute.