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Trump triggers overdue policy debate

Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

Whatever else Donald Trump’s election may have done, it’s had at least one welcome effect: it has finally sparked a long-overdue debate about the possible costs and benefits of Australia’s most important strategic relationship.

That it took the election of such an unpredictable, unreliable and downright dangerous a figure as Trump to do this is testimony to how deeply entrenched and seemingly unchallengeable the conventional wisdom is about the nature of Australia’s strategic position.

Strategic illiterates like myself naively thought that being a long way from the world’s troublespots and surrounded by a rather imposing moat might be a source of national security. For generations of strategic thinkers in Australia, however, such remoteness was actually a source of vulnerability: we were also a long way from our best friends and putative protectors.

The fact there were millions of mysterious Asians in between us and our “natural” allies was also a bit of a problem, too, especially in the early years of Australia’s notional independence.

Thankfully, relations with the region to our north have improved a good deal. But that hasn’t encouraged a similar independence in strategic outlook.

On the contrary, despite some of the Trump administration’s more alarming statements about its supposed friends, let alone notional enemies, there is little indication that any radical reorientation of Australia’s alliance relationship is being contemplated by either of the major parties.

All of the usual tropes about our supposed vulnerability and inability to defend ourselves are being trotted out by the strategic types who dominate the debate in Australia. One of the more depressing but entirely predictable aspects of the new debate is that it is suggested that we may need to increase significantly the amount we devote to defence spending in these perilous and uncertain times.

The fact is the case for more spending is routinely made whatever the circumstances. When the alliance is unproblematic, we need to spend more to demonstrate our reliability and ability to do our bit. When the alliance is in question, then we need to become more self-reliant and consequently ramp up expenditure on new military hardware.

It’s not necessary to be a limp-wristed liberal to find this logic a bit implausible and ultimately futile.

Best-case – and still most likely – scenario: Australia never uses all this new kit and it’s just a massive waste of money. The “opportunity costs” are potentially significant, though. If we spend our limited dollars on submarines and fighters, we don’t spend it on education, public housing, health or simply repairing public finances.

Worst-case scenario: we get to use all our state-of-the-art equipment and blow our neighbours and possibly ourselves to pieces. We also get to destroy the global economy and whatever’s left of the post-Trumpian international order, to say nothing of civilisation as we know it.

Strategic types will no doubt respond by saying that only by acquiring formidable and intimidating amounts of military hardware can we ensure the latter scenario does not play out. But they would say that, wouldn’t they?

The historical record suggests that arms races are not only a pointless waste of money, but they generally end in tears – oceans of them, in fact.

My intuition is that Australia could actually reduce its military spending significantly by focusing exclusively on a low-cost, labour- (rather than capital-) intensive strategy of national defence – a Switzerland of the southern hemisphere, if you like. We might learn to celebrate rather than fear independence and neutrality. Hasn’t worked out too badly for the Swiss, it has to be said.

Even suggesting such a thing invites ridicule. I have absolutely no expectation that such ideas will be taken seriously despite their possible fiscal merits or the fact that no matter how much Australia spends it can make no decisive difference to the outcome of any major conflict that develops in the region.

What could or should engender some serious debate among the strategic hardheads, however, is the possibility that we might actually think seriously about who our key international partners are and where our collective future lies.

As a so-called “middle power” we arguably have far more in common with the likes of Japan, South Korea and Indonesia than we do with the US or China. Establishing closer ties, even strategic ones, with such like-minded powers could transform Australia’s security position and reinforce our status as a serious stakeholder in the region.

The reality is that one day the Americans may well pack up and go home. They aren’t part of “our” region, so what’s in it for the transactionally minded Trump?

Just extrapolating on the basis of current geopolitical and especially economic trends suggests this is almost inevitable – as is the possibility China may dominate the region in America’s absence.

Preparing for this eventuality by shoring up ties with similarly positioned neighbours looks like an eminently sensible strategy – and one for which we have to thank Trump for reminding us about.

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