America’s allies around the world are still trying to digest what a Donald Trump presidency will mean for them. Even in Australia, where supporters of the US don’t get much more rusted-on, there are signs we may be starting a long overdue debate about our relationship with the world’s most powerful country.
Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs Penny Wong said that as the world prepares for the Trump presidency, defining an independent foreign policy within an alliance framework is now a more complex task.
Quite what this might mean is unclear, but a shift away from the US would mark something of a watershed given the uncritical unanimity of thinking that has characterised foreign and security policy for decades in Australia.
Remarkably enough, it has taken the election of a thin-skinned man widely accused of racism to the world’s most powerful job to bring this about.
While we wait to see what Trump will do, a few things are already clear and ought to inform debate in this country.
First, Trump is surrounding himself with equally alarming and odious figures. The Rasputin-like figure of Steve Bannon is Exhibit A in this regard. Diatribes published on his site Breitbart News about women, Jews and a form of white ethno-nationalism have made him a great favourite with the Ku Klux Klan.
One of the favourites to take over as Secretary of State is the prominent former neo-conservative John Bolton, who favours bombing, rather than negotiating with, Iran. Given Trump’s determination to dramatically expand American’s military capabilities, he will certainly have the wherewithal to do just that if he gets the job.
The Iranians would be very foolish if they did anything other than try to get their own nuclear weapons as rapidly as possible under such circumstances. Indeed, one thing the Trump presidency seems almost guaranteed to achieve is a rapidly expanding arms race, with a proliferation of nuclear powers, possibly including Japan and South Korea.
One might hope that the Australian government would be urging caution and restraint in such circumstances. On the contrary, however, Christopher Pyne has been quick to highlight the potential benefits that might flow to Australian industry if the US expands its military as Trump apparently intends.
In the current increasingly febrile atmosphere, it seems pointless to even try drawing attention to the “lessons of history”. But anyone caring to look should remember the way arms races contributed to the first and second world wars. The politics between the two world wars is starting to resemble our own time, too, with one crucial difference, of course. This time the fascists may be on our side.
The great hope is that Trump will be constrained by the celebrated checks and balances of the American system. But given his contempt for much of that system, his control of Congress, and his ability to stack the Supreme Court with ideologically sympathetic figures, we can’t be too confident about that, either.
What should Australia’s policymakers do in such circumstances? First, recognise that the world and our principal ally really have changed and that it really does make a difference who is in the White House. Second, start to think about what being an independent nation might actually mean and what’s involved in becoming one.
One of the staples of foreign policy analysis and rhetoric is that Australia is a “middle power”. There is something in this idea, but actually putting that into practice means having the capacity to act in, and think independently about, the world from a distinctively Australian perspective.
As long as we have been tied to America’s apron strings, we have been incapable of adopting an independent position on many issues – and many of our most important neighbours know this only too well. Unlike the US, geography dictates that our future will always lie with the countries to our north, most of which are middle powers like ourselves.
A truly independent Australian foreign policy might reinforce the institutions and relationships that actually constitute this region in ways that could directly benefit us and our distinctive interests. We have more in common with the likes of Japan, South Korea and the ASEAN states than we do with the US or China for that matter.
Australian policymakers actually have the opportunity to play the sort of creative, independent role that we often talk about, but have been incapable of realising while we effectively outsourced our security policy to the US. It is not anti-American to recognise this. Ingratiating ourselves with China is not the only alternative either. On the contrary, thanks to President-elect Trump, the middle power moment may finally have arrived.