Trump or Biden, Australia is alone
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Trump or Biden, Australia is alone

America protected Europe through the Cold War with a credible nuclear deterrent. Indo-Pacific nations can expect no such pledge. Originally published in the Australian Financial Review.

The result of the upcoming US presidential election is inconsequential for Australia. It does not matter who wins.

This claim needs some support, given the chasm in beliefs, values and temperament between President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden.

Biden is a standard-bearer for America’s traditional foreign policy since World War II. As the Brookings Institution’s Tom Wright says, Biden “believes in American leadership, the liberal international order, democracy, alliances, treaties, and climate change". His foreign policy manifesto, released in March, was titled Why America Must Lead Again.

Trump, in contrast, is openly hostile to this establishment orthodoxy. He thinks US alliances are a way for foreigners to exploit the American taxpayer, that free trade disadvantages American workers, and that “leadership” just means endless wars.

In their book A Very Stable Genius: Donald J. Trump’s Testing of America, journalists Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig recall a briefing that former secretary of state Rex Tillerson and defence secretary Jim Mattis gave Trump in 2017.

They wanted to convert Trump to the orthodoxy, and so began with a slide that read: “The postwar international rules-based order is the greatest gift of the greatest generation.” Trump’s adviser Steve Bannon reportedly recalled: “Oh baby. This is going to be f---ing wild … If you stood up and threatened to shoot [Trump], he couldn’t say ‘postwar rules-based international order’. It’s just not the way he thinks.”

True to form, Trump soon flew into a rant against NATO, free trade agreements, and the Iran nuclear deal.

Experts tell us that Republicans and Democrats in Washington are united on the need to confront China, but how deep is their resolve?

So why, then, is the result of this election insignificant for Australia? Given the strides China is making in our region, and the increasing pressure Beijing is putting on Canberra, don’t we want a Biden-led America that reclaims the leadership mantle? Or, if you favour Trump, maybe you would argue that Australia needs a US president who is openly critical of Beijing, and who can already claim to have decisively moved the focus of US national security away from the Middle East and towards China.

The problem is that whoever wins this US election will inherit a political system and a nation that have no appetite for a contest on the scale that would be required to contain China’s rise. Experts tell us that Republicans and Democrats in Washington are united on the need to confront China, but how deep is their resolve?

'The single most self-sacrificial pledge'

This week, Mattis, speaking in a Lowy Institute webinar, recalled a former Australian ambassador telling him that the US had once made “the single most self-sacrificial pledge in world history”.

Mattis assumed the ambassador was referring to the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after World War II, but the Australian surprised him: “The most generous thing, the most self-sacrificial pledge made was after World War II … you pledged 100 million dead Americans in a nuclear war to protect democracy in Europe.”

The ambassador’s point was that America’s commitment to defend Europe included a pledge that the US was prepared to engage in nuclear warfare with the Soviet Union. Such a war would almost certainly not have been confined to Europe but would have extended to targets on the US mainland.

Part of the reason the reason Europe remained at peace during the Cold War was that America’s commitment to Europe was credible. Its allies, and its enemies, really believed that the US would make this sacrifice if it had to.

The critical question for America’s adversaries and allies in Asia today is whether any of them would believe the same thing. Does the US still have that kind of resolve?

American resolve is in question because the job of maintaining its leadership in Asia against China’s challenge is so big. China's nuclear force is still modest but economically it is bigger than the USSR, and it already has the second most powerful naval fleet in Asia, after the US.

Yet despite the change in rhetoric in Washington, there is no sign that the US is actually gearing up for a struggle on that scale. America’s military footprint in Asia doesn’t look all that different to a decade ago, despite the fact that China’s military has grown rapidly since then.

Neither presidential candidate is promising to restore America’s military edge in Asia. No matter who is in the White House, Asia’s security system will evolve from one of American dominance to a balance of power, because China will grow so much faster than the US. Combined with Beijing’s clear intent to assert itself in the region, the task would be too costly for the US to tackle.

A balance of power between these two giants would be difficult enough to manage for US allies such as Australia, which depend on China economically. But we should also confront the possibility that even that is more weight than the US is prepared to bear.

After all, Asia has its own giants – Russia, Japan and India – that will constrain Beijing, and there’s no reason to think the US would ever be locked out of Asia economically. So there’s no deep animating purpose to motivate America as there was in the Cold War.

No matter who wins next month, Australia faces a future in which maintaining our security will increasingly be a job for us alone.

Sam Roggeveen is director of the international security program at the Lowy Institute. Connect with Sam on Twitter.

Areas of expertise: Australian foreign and defence policy, China’s military forces, US defence and foreign policy, drones and other military technology. Also, trends in global democracy.