Former Senior Vice Rector of the UN Univerity and UN Assistant Secretary-General, Professor Ramesh Thakur of the Australian National University advises “Not just Japan, but others too will have to conduct a more self-reliant diplomacy to cope with the ‘America First` administration.”
CANBERRA – In a previous article, I discussed the extraordinary telephone conversation between U.S. President Donald Trump and Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on Jan. 28. As then noted, the rancor of the call unsettled not just the Australian political establishment but all U.S. allies. The Daily Telegraph headlined the story “Donald Thump” while the image of a bespectacled Koala offering a “G’day and Welcome” being punched trended on Twitter.
The argument was ostensibly about the resettlement of 1,250 refugees held in Australian-mandated detention in Nauru and Papua New Guinea. Trump was unable to hide his exasperation that an agreement signed by his predecessor compelled him to take in Australia’s unwanted refugee burden from some of the very countries that his executive order had banned from entering the United States. One can but wonder at Australia’s folly in risking damage to its most consequential alliance relationship by raising, in a get-acquainted call, such a politically charged side issue.
Trump’s unprecedented hostile treatment of the leader of the country that Republican voters judge to be the most reliable of all allies drew an equally extraordinary outpouring of support and reassurance from politicians, officials and people that was genuinely heart warming. That acknowledged, the larger, big-picture significance for many Australians of Trump’s hostile, rude and blustering treatment of the leader of America’s strongest ally is it was an overdue call to Australia to wake up, grow up and stand on its own feet.
Growing old is inevitable, it is said, but growing up is optional. Australia has grown into an old country but is yet to grow up, a fawning supplicant of the U.S. security umbrella with a foreign head of state. As former Foreign Minister Gareth Evans argued, the advent of the Trump presidency should concentrate Australian minds on a foreign policy that is “More Asia, Less U.S.”
Every change of administration in Washington produces a reset in U.S. foreign policy. Depending on whether the new president is from the same or the opposing major political party, the reset tends to be modest or substantial. Trump is the first U.S. president with no government or military leadership experience. His pre-election statements challenged the settled consensus on a range of foreign policy issues, from national security, U.S. alliances and nuclear weapons to trade, immigration and climate change. It promises to be business most unusual for the next four years.
Many governments began quickly to position themselves in anticipation of the president-elect’s likely lines of engagement with international affairs, a phenomenon dubbed the “Trump Effect” in a New York Times column. He has generated wide restiveness among European and Pacific allies about the costs, risks and constraints of the alliance alongside the undoubted security, diplomatic and economic benefits. Not just Japan, but others too will have to explore how to conduct a more self-reliant diplomacy to cope with the “America First” administration.
The uncertainty about Trump’s major foreign policy directions, with the accompanying risks of unpredictability and volatility, confront Australia too with unwanted choices. It faces a dilemma between a “rules-based order” to which it pays ritual obeisance and “tribal solidarity” with the white Anglosphere. The latter would be a rational strategic choice were American supremacy to continue for decades. The former is a better pursuit of Australian interests and values if U.S. primacy is not indefinitely sustainable and therefore Washington has to cede primacy and share strategic space with China in particular.
The kinship-based assumption, that the U.S. will indefinitely retain the ability and continue to defend Australia, is questionable. Trump seems to think of allies not as evidence of diplomatic strength but proof of U.S. military weakness. Contrary to Trump’s beliefs, Australia and other allies are not simply consumers of U.S. security but provide many benefits in return to America as well. Does the balance of security threats, the cost of the premium and the expected utility of the security payout when Australia is in peril still lie in continuing with the alliance essentially unchanged?
The alliance has given much of value to Australia: access in Washington, military equipment and training, intelligence, nuclear deterrence and U.S. bases in Australia. However, these are not cost-free. Hosting nuclear infrastructure facilities means they are likely targets of a nuclear strike. Like all insurance schemes, the premium must be paid up front and replenished periodically, but the insurer’s willingness to pay out when an emergency arises won’t be tested till the event. Most importantly, the need to keep paying the premium distorts priorities and therefore a significant opportunity cost is the constraints on the pursuit of an independent policy.
How should Australian foreign policy adapt to meet the changed circumstances of 2017 to better pursue security, prosperity and value goals? Trump’s America could be the unstoppable force that runs up against China the immovable object as they jostle for strategic space in the increasingly congested Pacific. There is a serious potential for clash of geopolitical and trade interests that could draw in other countries and force them to confront a deeply uncomfortable choice.
Multicultural changes notwithstanding, the historical origins and cultural roots of most Australians lie in Europe and their security guarantor, including a nuclear umbrella, is the U.S. But Australia’s chief trading partner is China, which is mounting an increasingly credible challenge to two centuries of an Anglo-Saxon maritime power as the dominant naval presence in the western Pacific. China is rapidly acquiring significant power projection as well as area denial capabilities as it undergoes a transformation from a historically continental to a modern maritime power.
Successive Australian defense white papers have expressed wariness of China’s military expansion and modernization. Yet Australia opted for China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank despite U.S. objections and has refrained from provocative moves in the South China Sea like freedom of navigation operations, despite close interoperability with the U.S., on the prudent dictum that discretion is the better part of valor.
Going along with U.S. policies in order to get along with Trump will prove to be neither good policy nor even good politics. A transformational approach to foreign policy will require both a reprioritization of bilateral relations with a heavy focus on the Indo-Pacific, and a recalibration of multilateral approaches to pressing global policy challenges like climate change, terrorism, nuclear threats and the use of force to settle international disputes.
Without abandoning ANZUS but downsizing it considerably, Australia must chart an independent foreign policy according to a Canberra-based calculation of national values and interests. Or does Australia really want to make the transition to aligning with Trump’s view that if only the West had confiscated Iraq’s oil and wealth after the 2003 invasion, there would have been no Islamic State militant group and all would have been honky dory?
Ramesh Thakur is a professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.