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US alliance under Trump

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A pedestrian walks past a newspaper headline regarding US President Donald Trump and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, in central Sydney, Australia, 3 February 2017 (Photo: Reuters/David Gray).

In Brief

The election of Donald Trump has presented significant new challenges for US allies across Europe and Asia alike. Trump has railed against US trade deficits with Germany and Japan; warned that US allies will be expected to contribute more to alliance burden-sharing; and shaken the notion of the US nuclear umbrella when he appeared to sanction the idea of Japan and South Korea developing an independent nuclear weapons capability.


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Each of Trump’s arguments is broadly underpinned by an ‘America first’ approach to US strategic and economic policy, in which US alliances are no longer valued as a core tenet of US strategy, but are instead viewed as individual ‘deals’, whose worth must be proven on a case-by-case basis.

Trump’s transactional conception of alliances was keenly felt in Australia, where a refugee settlement deal signed between Australia and the Obama Administration famously disrupted the first phone call between Trump and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

Since then, Australian government officials have worked overtime to put the US-Australia alliance back on track. In early May, the two leaders attended a black tie dinner in New York on board the World War II-era aircraft carrier, the USS Intrepid, to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the US and Australian victory against Japanese forces in the Battle of the Coral Sea. The event was viewed as a success on both sides of Australian politics, with former political advisor and foreign policy commentator Andrew Shearer suggesting the event ‘showed that Trump is changeable on foreign policy’.

In our lead piece this week, James Curran argues that the events in New York represent not so much a success as a retreat to ‘sentimentality’ in the Australia–US relationship. On board the Intrepid, ‘dinner guests were shown stirring videos drawing a line all the way from Australians and Americans fighting at Le Hamel in 1918 to contemporary conflicts in the Middle East’.

By showcasing ‘Australian military mythology’, Curran explains, the Australian government has perhaps decided that ‘the best way to handle Trump’s unpredictability and inexperience on the world stage is to smother him in history, leaving the issues of substance to the senior policy professionals’. Thus, Curran argues, ‘the Australian government clearly believes that cuddling up to Trump…offers some kind of strategic reassurance in an era of volatility’.

There are three problems with this approach to alliance relations for Australia as well as for other countries.

First, Trump represents a profound shift in US domestic and foreign policy, and one in which a business as usual approach will no longer suffice. Trump has withdrawn from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and 2015 Paris Climate Change agreement. Trump has retreated to protectionism in his approach to US trade and investment policy. And Trump’s domestic behaviour has raised questions about his commitment to core democratic values such as rule of law and a free press. All this represents an erosion of the shared interests and liberal values that have historically underpinned the US network of alliances in Asia and Europe.

Yet many allies, such as Australia, seem unwilling or unprepared to deal with the changes represented by Trump. Instead, Curran argues, ‘at the very moment when a US president retreats from the language of pax Americana, Australia’s Prime Minister and Foreign Minister still talk of the United States of the past rather than the country Australia is dealing with today’.

Second, hoping to handle the erratic Trump presidency by leaving ‘issues of substance’ to the policy professionals is a dangerous move. Speaking in Australia recently, Chairman of the US Senate Arms Services Committee, Senator John McCain, appeared to endorse this approach when he argued that ‘the occupants of The Lodge and the White House come and go’, but the ‘deeper bonds’ of the US–Australia alliance are ‘unbreakable’ and held together by ‘the millions of our citizens who work together, serve together, sacrifice together, and lift each other up every day’.

Rifts are already beginning to emerge in other alliances because of divergences between the President and his policy professionals on ‘issues of substance’. Following his first overseas trip as President, there appears to be a significant divergence between the President and his National Security Adviser, HR McMaster, and director of the National Economic Council, Gary Cohn, over America’s commitment to collective security within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) alliance. Similarly, in his speech at the recent Shangri-La Dialogue, US Secretary of Defense General James Mattis made all the usual positive statements about US support for shared liberal values and the rules-based order. Yet the questions General Mattis received from Australian, Japanese and other regional interlocutors reflected the deep anxieties among US allies about the deviation between statements by policy professionals and the actual behaviour and inclinations of President Trump.

Such deviations are more broadly representative of the deeper battle within the United States over the country’s future global role. Yet they make it profoundly difficult for allies to count on ‘underlying expectations about the instincts and intentions’ of the United States when forming their own policy strategies.

Most importantly, ‘cuddling up to Trump’ as a form of ‘strategic reassurance’ is a flawed strategy because it fails to acknowledge that the US-led order created at the end of World War II, and the US system of alliances that underpinned that order, is undergoing fundamental change. As Curran argues, ‘Now more than ever is the time to emphasise that Australia’s peace and prosperity in the region will depend on its relationships not just with Washington, but also with Beijing, Jakarta, Tokyo and New Delhi‘.

In his keynote speech in Singapore, Australian Prime Minister Turnbull spoke of the ‘gathering clouds of uncertainty and instability’ facing the regional and global order, and the need for small states like Australia to ‘to play more active roles in protecting and shaping the future of this region’. This is to be commended. But Mr Turnbull is still to outline what that more active role might look like, and he made no mention of the importance of transforming Australia’s most challenging regional relationship — that with Beijing.

Of course allies like Australia will continue to prefer that the United States remains engaged in Asia, and that it remains committed to global rules and norms. But rather than doubling down on an erratic and distracted United States, Australia must also do the hard work of doubling down on its relationships in Asia and detailing what its strategy now is. And rather than relying on an unpredictable presidency to overturn carefully negotiated global rules and norms, Australia must determine for itself how these rules and norms need to be shaped and how to prosecute them.

The EAF Editorial Group is comprised of Peter Drysdale, Shiro Armstrong, Ben Ascione, Amy King, Liam Gammon and Jillian Mowbray-Tsutsumi and is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.

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