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How Australia should respond to Trump

Australia, like many other countries, now faces some big questions about how to respond to the election of President Trump. Here are three of them.

How Australia should respond to Trump
Published 15 Nov 2016 

Australia, like many other countries, now faces some big questions about how to respond to the election of President Trump.  Here are three of them.

(1) How bad will he be?

In Canberra these last few heady days we have seen a small surge of optimism that Mr Trump will not turn out to be as bad as we all feared. This is based on three rather slender sets of evidence. One: his demeanour on election night and at the White House has been relatively measured. Two: some people, including James Woolsey and other Trump advisors, who are thought to understand or even represent his views have tried to redefine his foreign policy positions towards Republican orthodoxy. And three: in initial phone calls, including with Malcolm Turnbull, Mr Trump has reportedly sought to reassure allies that all will be well.

No one can blame those who, in such anxious times, look for reassurance. But in all prudence the evidence of the past few days must be set against the 18 months of Mr Trump’s campaign, and his long career before that. No doubt Mr Trump will not do many of the things he has promised, but it is far too early to conclude that the farrago of absurdities that constituted his policy platform will somehow be transformed into a coherent and workable policy program. So let’s hold onto the wishful thinking: we are still most likely to face a very difficult time.

(2) What should we hope for?

On foreign policy, Canberra’s wishful thinkers seem to be persuading themselves that President Trump will quickly embrace Republican orthodoxy: big on defence, strong on alliances and tough on rivals.  They ought to be careful what they wish for. On this model, Mr Trump would push back harder against China in Asia, and expect its allies to do the same. He’d be much less tolerant than Mr Obama has been of Canberra’s edgy fence-sitting on freedom of navigation operations, for example. He’d press Canberra to make exactly the kinds of choices that our leaders really do not want to make: choices to side with Washington on issues that seriously damage our relations with Beijing.

Orthodox Republican foreign policy offers no solutions to America’s or Australia’s strategic challenges in Asia. Doubling down on the Pivot by doing things like sending more warships, as Mr Trump apparently foreshadowed to Mr Turnbull, only works if China backs off. And no one should bet on that. If they don’t back off, a swing towards Republican orthodoxy would only increase the risk of an armed confrontation in which we might expect Mr Trump’s worst instincts to come into play. Even the greatest optimists must admit he’s the last person to trust to de-escalate a dangerous crisis.

The reality is that we’d be better off if Trump doesn’t prove a late convert to Republican orthodoxy, but instead holds true to the ‘America First’ brand of isolationism on which he campaigned. In that case the risk of confrontation and conflict would fall. Of course it would also mean America’s strategic role in Asia would fall too, and China’s would rise. No one would welcome that, but it is the choice we face in the Asian century: do we prefer a bigger Chinese leadership role, or a bigger chance of US-China war?   

(3) How should we deal with Mr Trump?

Mr Trump’s election poses a big diplomatic challenge, and an ethical one too. The diplomatic challenge is to decide how quickly and warmly to embrace a new President whose policies remain so uncertain, and so potentially damaging.  A quick, warm embrace might look like the best way to limit the risks, like patting a scary dog. But to offer too much support and endorsement before we know what he will do might be to sell one’s support a little cheap. It is too soon to give him the benefit of the many doubts about what kind of President he will make.

But this is not just a matter of policy. Whatever turn his policies take, there remain big questions about Mr Trumps character, with important implications for the way he will conduct himself as President.   These are questions which our leaders cannot, or should not, sweep away by saying that he has been elected and therefore we must accept him as he is. Those 290 electoral college votes do not turn unacceptable views into acceptable ones, nor turn a person who cannot be trusted or respected into one who can.   

So we should not forget that Mr Trump has come to office through a campaign that was not just based on policy absurdities. It flagrantly violated limits on acceptable political conduct that we in Australia believe to be important, and that exploited and promoted attitudes which are contrary to what we might think of as Australia’s values – and what we thought were America’s values too. That is what made it a little disconcerting to hear Malcolm Turnbull speak so enthusiastically last week, after their initial phone call, about the bonds he shares with the President-elect.

There is something ugly going on here. In the rush, since last Wednesday afternoon, to forget the reservations we all had about Mr Trump’s character, we can sense something of the psychology of collaboration, as principles are quietly abandoned in the face of power.  Mr Turnbull and his colleagues would serve Australia’s interests better, and give a better account of their own moral steadiness, if they held back a little.

To deserve our respect Mr Trump will have to do a great deal more than he has done so far to repudiate the faults he has displayed on his road to the White House.  If he doesn’t, we should keep our distance. If not, we risk undermining our own sense of the limits of political conduct, and of the values of tolerance and respect that underpin our society. After all, we don’t want a Donald Trump here, do we?

Keeping our distance is going to make the next four years, at least, rather uncomfortable for those who have to manage our relations with America.  But that is the hand we have been dealt.  The stark reality remains that on almost all the evidence available to us, America seems to have elected as President a person unfit, intellectually and temperamentally, to hold the office. We will not make it any easier to manage this misfortune by trying to pretend it hasn’t happened.

Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

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