February 2017


Relying on Trump

By Hugh White
Australia needs to rethink its approach to regional security

That a person with Donald Trump’s character should now be president of the United States is so strange and striking that it can be hard to see past that character and consider the problems he confronts, and the policy choices he must make over the years ahead. But in the end this is what counts. What Trump’s presidency means will depend less on his character itself, and more on how that character shapes the decisions he makes. So, to understand the implications of Trump for Australia, we need to consider the issues and choices he will face that matter most to us. And they are, of course, about how he deals with China’s challenge to the US-led order in Asia.

Managing China’s rise is the most momentous strategic question Asia has faced for many decades, and managing it effectively is essential to Australia’s future security and prosperity. To see why, we need to understand just how America has kept us so secure for so long. It has very little to do with the ANZUS alliance itself, or the intelligence, technology or training that goes with it. It has much more to do with the role America has played in Asia more broadly, as the region’s strategic leader. We take this role for granted, but we shouldn’t. Today China is contesting America’s leadership, and posing real dangers. We could easily find our region riven by major-power rivalry, as it was for so much of the 20th century, and once again we’d be directly affected. Or America might back away and leave Asia under China’s sway. Whether things go bad, and how bad things get, depends a great deal on Washington, and how Australia fares depends a great deal on how far we can influence what it does.

So far, our leaders have reposed complete faith in Washington to work it out without our help. They have convinced themselves that Washington can make the whole problem go away by showing such overwhelming power and resolve that Beijing will abandon its challenge and go back to accepting US leadership. This is what Barack Obama was trying to do with his Pivot to Asia, but it didn’t work. Beijing was only emboldened by Obama’s mixed messages, token deployments, and own goals such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership debacle.

Now it is Trump’s turn. As far as Canberra is concerned, Australia’s future security depends on Trump succeeding where Obama failed. Before the election, that prospect seemed absurd. Trump’s policy instincts, his political and administrative capacities, and his temperament and moral values made him quite unfit for this task. After election day, however, the government from Malcolm Turnbull down saw no need to doubt Trump’s capacity to sustain US leadership in Asia and keep Australia safe.

Are they right? What difference does Trump make, really? America’s problem with China is not, after all, Trump’s fault. It is the result of the massive growth in China’s wealth and power. Whoever became president this year would have faced the same question: how can America impose costs and risks on China that are heavy enough to compel Beijing to back off, without incurring costs and risks that it is itself unwilling or unable to bear? None of the other candidates, including Hillary Clinton, had an answer to this question. Their only idea was to keep plugging away at the Pivot in the hope that it might start working.

That would never succeed, because the Pivot seriously underestimated the scale of the problem in two ways. First, it misread how far power has shifted China’s way in Asia today. Of course, America remains immensely strong, but on home ground China now has the economic, diplomatic and military weight to hit America hard. The days are long gone when America could threaten grave punishments for China without running big risks itself. That means, second, that America can only deter China and protect its regional leadership if it can plainly display greater resolve to bear the costs and risks of confrontation. The Chinese consider leadership in Asia theirs by right of both ancient status and present power. Beijing is convinced that it is more committed to regaining regional leadership than America is to retaining it. And that is probably accurate, because it is, after all, their backyard, not America’s.

Any assessments of American resolve will have to be revised massively because of Trump’s election and the whole spectacle that came with it. Until then, America’s political and foreign policy establishment took for granted that the great majority of American voters were unshakably committed to sustaining US global leadership. It followed that no one could be a credible presidential candidate who did not share that commitment. Aspirants had no choice but to pledge themselves to uphold the network of alliances and the robust military posture that underpinned the US-led order in key regions of the world, including Asia.

But that proved to be wrong. Bernie Sanders won huge support in the Democratic Party’s primaries by promising a retreat from US global commitments, and Trump won the presidency on the most isolationist platform of any candidate since Wendell Willkie campaigned against Franklin D Roosevelt to keep America out of World War Two. So on both sides of the aisle American voters have rejected the model of US global leadership on which America’s strategic position in Asia depends.

This shouldn’t really be so surprising. After the Cold War it seemed that global leadership was going to be cheap and easy for America. Everyone assumed that the US would remain by far the world’s richest and strongest power, and that no “peer competitor” would dare to challenge it. America could afford to exercise global leadership and still deliver the American Dream at home. But it hasn’t worked out that way. Engagement in the Middle East has been a costly and bloody disaster, and America faces major, nuclear-armed challengers in Eastern Europe and Asia. Fixing the Middle East, confronting Russia in Ukraine or resisting China’s challenge in Asia would each require an immense national effort.

Meanwhile, at home, American voters suffer from poor schools, decrepit infrastructure, dwindling opportunities and stagnant incomes. So it’s quite predictable that those voters have rethought their priorities. Why should they pay to sustain the regional order in Asia or keep Russia out of Ukraine when so much needs fixing at home? To them, grand talk of US global leadership is just another indulgence of the privileged and out-of-touch elites, and “America First” makes a lot of sense.

There is a lot more to America’s isolationist turn than Trump, and this will start to reshape politics more broadly as rising stars in both parties trim their sails to the new winds. Among mainstream Democrats, the Clinton brand of muscular internationalism will give way to ideas much closer to those of Sanders, while Republicans will try to attract Trump voters by abandoning the orthodoxies of old warriors such as John McCain. So we cannot assume that Trump’s isolationism is just an aberration. Some version of “America First” is here to stay.

It is wishful thinking to assume that in office Trump will somehow be forced to become a normal foreign-policy president by the weight of precedent and the power of the Washington system. We have seen already since last November’s election how willing and able Trump is to defy the system he is now supposed to lead. Witness his phone call with the Taiwanese president, his appointments to key positions in his administration, his open disdain for the US intelligence community, his criticism of major US defence projects like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, and, above all, his approach to Russia in the light of evidence of the Kremlin’s interference with the US elections. Don’t expect Congress to stop him, or the Department of State, the CIA or the Pentagon.

But there is another reason why we should not expect Trump to sustain the vision of US leadership on which Australia’s foreign policy has depended. This is where Trump’s character comes back into the picture. Trump is not just unwilling to bear the costs and risks of containing rivals like Russia and China who challenge the ideas that underpin the US-led global order. He seems to share their reservations about those ideas. This is most obvious regarding Russia. He likes and admires Vladimir Putin, and apparently sees nothing wrong with Putin’s way of conducting politics at home or abroad. He seems to accept and even welcome the idea that Russia asserts a sphere of influence over its neighbours. Putin is his kind of guy, so Trump is apparently happy to step back from US claims to global leadership to allow Putin the space to create that sphere of influence.

Trump’s view of China and its leaders is more complex. China as an economic competitor impinges on the welfare of American voters, and Trump has made much of his determination to push back. But there is scant evidence that Trump is much concerned by China’s strategic ambitions in Asia. His threat to repudiate the “One China” policy governing relations with Taiwan seems intended to gain negotiating leverage over economic issues rather than contain China’s bid for regional leadership. In fact, Trump might find much to admire in Xi Jinping and the system he leads, just as he admires Putin. He might be just as relaxed about the idea of a Chinese sphere of influence in the Western Pacific as he is about a Russian sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. Some around him may profess to be “China hawks”, but Trump seems willing to do a deal on anything, including, it seems, Taiwan, if the price is right.

There is, of course, another side to the Trump persona. His touchy ego and impetuous vindictiveness make him just the kind of person to stumble into a war for no coherent strategic reason, and heedlessly allow the war to escalate without seriously thinking about the consequences. That carries big dangers when nuclear weapons are involved. So with Trump we get the worst of both worlds. He is less likely to sustain an effective US strategic role in Asia, but more likely to start a war with China.

That is the key to understanding what Trump’s presidency means for Australia, and to understanding the challenge it poses to Australian policymakers. For decades our entire foreign policy has been predicated on assumptions about America’s capacity and willingness to sustain its leadership role in Asia. In recent years we have clung to those assumptions more and more tenaciously, even as they have become less and less tenable.

Trump’s ascendency makes it especially urgent to rethink our approach to Asia, and to recognise that simply relying on America to manage it for us will not work. It makes it especially regrettable that our government has been so determined to pretend that nothing has changed. And it makes it especially important that the shadow minister for foreign affairs, Penny Wong, has defied the indolence and timidity of the government and of any in her own party to state the plainly obvious: that Australia has to start thinking much harder for ourselves about the future of Asia and our place in it. It was a mistake to rely so much on Obama’s America. It is stark folly to leave our future in Trump’s hands, which is what our government seems inclined to do.

Hugh White

Hugh White is an emeritus professor of strategic studies at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University.

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