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There’s a good reason we’re so interested in the US election: it matters

Donald Trump has been highly critical of trade liberalisation, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Reuters/Jim Young

There’s a good reason we’re so interested in the US election: it matters

Kim Beazley was Australian ambassador to the United States from 2010 until January 2016, and a former leader of the federal Labor Party. He is now a senior fellow at the Perth USAsia Centre. This is the first of an occasional series he will write for The Conversation on the US and Australian elections.


All of us believe we own the US presidential elections. Globally, there is great sensitivity to the possibility of America’s political intervention in a country’s domestic politics. Often that is more a product of a politically motivated paranoia than it being any real prospect. The fear is mostly pure projection; we want to be involved in US politics.

I used to dine out in Washington, D.C., on a piece of Pew Research done for the 2008 presidential election. The question was asked around the globe whether the respondent was “interested in the US presidential election”. In the US 83% surveyed revealed themselves so focused. The Australian response was 84%.

We were more interested in their politics than they were. Many other countries were pretty close to us on the measure.

Generally, the presidential race teases out reactions among foreign observers as candidates reveal their approaches to global leadership. Discussion revolves around the degree of unilateralism or collegiality expressed by the candidates in how they propose to manage American leadership.

If the candidate is a sitting president this can throw up surprises. However, the view abroad usually is that both the incumbent and the challenger, or the two candidates at the end of a term limit, are exercising a metaphorical global wink of the eye at us. Change will be nuanced, peace will be sustained, allies massaged, competition with adversaries kept within bounds and rules of global order sustained.

This is felt no matter what harsh things are said on the hustings. The impact of the debate on American global positioning is negligible.

This election is different. The Republican race is coming into global focus. This is not simply because candidates’ claims are more than usually vivid, but the character of them is impacting American diplomacy, materially and immediately.

Secretary of State John Kerry recently described comments by Republican candidates Donald Trump and Ted Cruz as an “embarrassment” in his dealings with foreign governments. He told Face the Nation on CBS that they:

… upset people’s sense of equilibrium, of our steadiness about our reliability, and to some degree I must say to you, some of the questions the way they’re proposed to me is clear to me that what’s happening is an embarrassment to our country.

Kerry’s is a near-unprecedented call. One of the inhibitions on American politicians drawing attention to the unpopularity in foreign countries of an opponent’s views is the tendency for the American electorate to dismiss the foreign criticism and instead mark the complainant down. That an old campaigner like Kerry would thus engage is a mark of his high anxiety levels.

Kerry’s complaints were directed squarely at speculation by Trump and Cruz about keeping Muslims out of the US, and various forms of constraint and surveillance of Muslim communities in the US.

In the struggle with Islamic extremist terror, words are bullets. Across the globe Muslim communities are in a finely balanced debate over whether or not the extremists are jihadists or heretics.

Members of those communities are either acquiescent in providing safe space for extremists, actively supporting those extremists, or alerting authorities of problems with them out of a sense of shared citizenship. Only the latter position is acceptable for the broader community.

Spreading that sentiment is entirely dependent on Muslim members of our communities feeling part of the whole and not the “other”. In this battle folk working either way are not suspending judgement until the poll produces a result.

The debate is part of the current fight. Kerry knows it is destructive of American leadership; it fosters an atmosphere conducive to extremist propaganda.

Kerry knows this is not an either/or fight – it can only be conducted one way. But it must be a two-pronged approach: on one side, maximum effort must be invested in stifling sentiment conducive to extremism. And alongside that must be a clever military/political engagement with complex countries and movements in the Middle East to optimise the effectiveness of the military assault on the extremists.

There are no negotiations that can be had with the extremism heretics. The only negotiations are with those who have to bear the brunt of the struggle. They are all Muslims with a substantial trust deficit when it comes to us. The US administration effort is damaged at so many levels in so many ways by the candidates’ unedifying manipulation of fearful sentiment in the American electorate.

The problem doesn’t end there. Australia has for years relied on the ballast the Republican Party has provided the liberal internationalist argument in American politics – not only on the military front, but the economic as well. Having unilaterally disarmed on protection in the 1980s, Australia has needed friends. By a country mile the US has been the best, both in its own actions and in international forums.

Likewise, Australia has sought military commitment and openness with the US on sharing intelligence and capabilities. Republicans have been the most forthcoming.

Importantly, when protectionist attacks have been mounted on America’s Asian trading partners, the Republicans have been most resistant. This has been critical for Australia’s prosperity as much of it is based on trade. Asian nations turn Australia’s raw materials into products for the US market.

This is no longer the case. Cruz at least is within reach of this longstanding Republican role. Trump is trashing it.

The trade debate also has an immediate effect. The critical trade agreement for American prosperity and leadership in Asia, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, sits becalmed in Congress. A House majority supports it – at least about 190 Republicans and 40 Democrats. Trump has summarily dismissed it to wildly cheering crowds.

There has also been loud applause at Trump rallies for massive tariffs on Asian products, and belting Asian military allies like South Korea and Japan. If implemented, these moves would have a devastating effect on the global economy. There is no room for nuance in Trump’s stance. To avoid this cost, Trump would have to take a 180-degree post-election turn. Hard to see it happening.

These are hard times. This mayhem is built on the solid grievance of the contemporary American middle class. Their grandparents carried the battle for freedom in the second world war. Their parents were prepared to be held hostage to the good behaviours of formerly very bad powers in the Cold War nuclear standoff.

The post-1970s model of multinational production, a surge in illegal migration, trade liberalisation, the collapse of trade unions and above all technological change has blighted their expectations and their hopes.

No political parties in the US embraced what Australia started to call the social wage when Australia opened up to the global economy in the 1980s. Going for growth in Australia enabled universal health care, substantial training and educational improvements, and a broadening of its industrial base. Middle-class incomes doubled.

The blighted middle-class Americans who have had no real increase in wages in the last 30 years don’t demand a performance from the government. They demand its dismantling. Trump will probably lose, but working back from the end of this shaky branch will be a difficult task for Obama’s successor.

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