Commentary | 18 November 2016

'Take Trump one step at a time'

'An escalation of strategic rivalry between the US and China could be uncomfortable for Australia.'

Originally published in the Australian Financial Review. Photo: Department of Defence

  • James Curran

'An escalation of strategic rivalry between the US and China could be uncomfortable for Australia.'

Originally published in the Australian Financial Review. Photo: Department of Defence

  • James Curran

Since Donald Trump's stunning election upset in the United States, there has been much noisy, if nervous talk about his victory heralding the advent of another American 'revolution', or the ushering in of a 'new world order'.

But reactions to what his victory means for Australia have been largely consistent with how the alliance has been discussed and debated here since the ANZUS treaty was signed in 1951.

Three distinct reactions have predominated.

The first, understandably, has been one of alarm and anxiety. Fearful that Trump's lurid campaign prescriptions for the virtual trashing of the US alliance system in Asia might now become reality, some analysts see only the darkest of clouds gathering. Thus according to one report the US-Australia relationship is 'potentially in crisis', its foundations might 'crumble', and the country needs an 'urgent' Plan B if Australia cannot make the Alliance work under Trump. These kinds of reactions are broadly consistent with what historian David McLean has identified as the longstanding 'chronic unease' in Australian minds concerning the level and nature of America's commitment to Australia's security under the terms of the treaty.

A second response to the coming Trump presidency is typified by the remarks of former prime minister Paul Keating, who calls on Canberra to now 'cut the tag' with the US alliance and finally embrace a more independent Australian foreign policy. Keating's comments derive largely from a 'radical nationalist' view of the nation's history, which claims that the country has never been able to lay claim to a separate international identity and has only been a 'lickspittle' to great and powerful friends like Britain and the United States. But Keating was also expressing his frustration of the near holy status that the Alliance has come to assume in Australia's global outlook in recent times. And there is much to be said for his frustration.

The third view is characterised by wilful sentimentality, a determination to make the new, uncertain circumstances fit the established pattern. Here the tendency is to bask in the cosy glow of reassurance and recycle rhetoric. Thus Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull felt the need to affirm in the wake of Trump's win that 'Americans understand that they have no stronger ally, no better friend, than Australia'. The sentimentalism was apparent when Trump adviser Rudy Giuliani enthusiastically told Ambassador Joe Hockey that 'we love Australia'!

Such sentimentalism ignores the prescient remarks of Owen Harries, who warned even before the cataclysm of 9/11 that 'however sweet the rhetoric and however warm the hugging, the priorities of the two countries are likely to differ at least as often as they coincide'. Those differences may sharpen under President Trump.

To be sure, Trump's long-held threat to turn the fiscal screws on Asian allies bodes ill for how he regards America's role in the region. But two of his advisers have already been softening his stance, affirming that as President, Trump will sit down 'pragmatically and respectfully' with leaders in Seoul and Tokyo to discuss the maintenance of the US military presence there. 

Hot talk about Trump's win constituting a 'strategic shock' forgets that Australia has dealt with far more serious seismic jolts to its international outlook in the past. When the British government announced its military withdrawal from East of Suez in 1968, headlines here screamed 'Waken to our peril'. The following year, President Nixon called on America's Asian allies to stand more on their own two feet, and in 1971, Billy McMahon was aghast when the same president left him – and other allies – out of the White House loop on his dramatic opening to China.

But perhaps the best policy advice for how Canberra should treat a Trump presidency is: one step at a time, piecemeal and pragmatically.

That said, the management of the alliance is likely to become harder. It would have become more difficult too under Hillary Clinton. Trump will simply expect more of US allies. He will demand it. Australia does not want a US trade war with China, but it also would not want to see a scaling back of the American presence in the South China Sea.

What we really don't know is how Trump will respond to a serious international crisis. And that is where Australian concern should be more exclusively focused