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Donald Trump and the Implications for Australia

The World Policy blog is hosting a series of articles featuring global perspectives on the U.S. presidential election, the effects of which extend beyond partisanship and beyond our borders. Read previous articles from TurkeyMexico, and Israel

This article is part one of a two-part discussion of the election's implications for Australia. Read part two, which addresses perceptions of Hillary Clinton's candidacy.

By Michael Clarke and Anthony Ricketts

Donald Trump’s candidacy for president of the United States has generated significant debate in Australia regarding the future of the Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Alliance (ANZUS), which has underpinned the country’s security since the early years of the Cold War. Much of this debate has counter-posed the Republican candidate’s volatility and incoherence on foreign policy issues with the predictability and reliability of his Democratic opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

What discussion of the campaign fails to acknowledge, however, is that Australia will face hard choices with respect to the alliance regardless of who ultimately becomes the new resident of 100 Pennsylvania Avenue. The fulcrum of such choices will lie in how the next U.S. president seeks to deal with shifting geopolitical realities in the Asia-Pacific.

Many of Trump’s statements on foreign policy have been focused on critiquing what could be termed the bipartisan post-Cold War foreign policy consensus in Washington. This consensus, according to Eliot Cohen, Eric Edelman, and Brian Hook, has been based on the twin assumptions that a “strong United States is still essential to the maintenance of the open global order … that the alternative to America’s ‘indispensability’ is not a harmonious, self-regulating balance of independent states but an international landscape marked by eruptions of chaos and destruction.”

Trump has challenged this school of thought by propagating a foreign policy agenda predicated on three core arguments: the United States’ web of alliances has been over-extended strategically and militarily; the United States is disadvantaged by the open global economy; and the United States is no longer respected by rivals or friends.

The first position has resulted in Trump openly questioning the utility of U.S. alliances (such as NATO and Japan), threatening to withdraw American security guarantees unless such states bear a greater proportion of the financial burden, and speculating that such allies should acquire nuclear weapons of their own.

Meanwhile, Trump’s remedy to the assertion that the United States has suffered economically from the liberal global trading order that successive administrations have championed—threatening to slap high tariffs on imports, pursuing a “trade war” against China, and scrapping the Trans-Pacific Partnership—is a throwback to the protectionism of 19th century American policymakers.

Finally, for the United States to win back respect, according to Trump, Washington must be willing to act unilaterally, particularly in the use of military force.

Australia’s security since 1945, however, has depended on the complementary relationship between the strength of the U.S. alliance system in Asia and the consolidation of an open global economic order. Each of Trump’s core foreign policy positions, if implemented, would fundamentally weaken this order.

Overtly questioning long-standing alliances in Asia will not only undermine regional security by increasing uncertainty about U.S. commitment to the region, but may also provide incentives for both allies and adversaries to pursue destabilizing initiatives. Thus, under a President Trump, Japan and South Korea may have to confront an increasingly assertive China and Russia, as well as a nuclear armed and volatile North Korea bereft of U.S. support. As Malcolm Davis notes, such a situation “would likely accelerate constitutional reform towards ‘normal defense power’ status” in Japan, while “the withdrawal of US forces from the Korean Peninsula would generate greater risk of provocations from Pyongyang, and a commensurate greater risk of war” for South Korea.

To say that such developments would be unwelcome in Canberra would be an understatement given Australia’s steadfast commitment to nuclear non-proliferation and abiding interest in a stable strategic environment in Asia. The view that a President Trump would threaten these core interests has become widespread. Veteran journalist, Daniel Flitton, for instance, has argued that should “The Donald” become the new resident of the White House there is but one “simple bipartisan choice” for Australia’s leaders: “tear up the ANZUS alliance.”

Australia’s current political leaders have also weighed in on what a Trump victory would mean for the country. Leader of the Australian Labor Party opposition, Bill Shorten, first described the Republican’s foreign policy agenda as “barking mad,” but he later toned down such “honesty” with the more “diplomatic” statement that as the ANZUS alliance has in the past withstood “the vagaries of Australian and American domestic politics,” an ALP government would work with “whomever is elected.”

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s Liberal-National Party Coalition government has also made comparable diplomatic overtures. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop stated, “I have consistently confirmed that the Coalition will form a constructive working relationship with the next President of the United States, as it is in our national interest to safeguard the strength of the relationship.”

Former minister of defense and Australian Ambassador to the United States, Kim Beazley, has perhaps most accurately identified Canberra’s bind should a Trump administration come to pass. While noting that a Trump victory would cause “mayhem” for Australia’s national security, Beazley suggests that Canberra would have to “grin and bear” it and expend diplomatic effort to make the case for a sustained alliance relationship, as the country does not have “the capacity to readily survive an uncoupling of our bilateral defense relationship with our national security intact.”

If elected, Trump will usher in a sea change for Australia’s defense policy and send ripples through the geostrategic realities in the Asia-Pacific region. Because of this, many see a Clinton administration as a “safer pair of hands”—which is where we turn our discussion in part two of this post.

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Michael Clarke is an associate professor at the National Security College, Australian National University, where he specializes in international security, particularly in Asia. He is the author of numerous academic publications and his journalistic writing on international security issues has been published by the Wall Street Journal, CNN, The National Interest, and The Diplomat.

Anthony Ricketts is a doctoral student at the National Security College, Australian National University. His PhD dissertation is focused on United States grand strategy in the Middle East and has contributed commentary to The National Interest, Canberra Times, The Age, Sydney Morning Herald, and the Huffington Post.

[Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore]

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