Trump’s victory speech said all the right things. No talk now of putting Hillary in jail. On the contrary: gracious tribute for her hard-fought campaign. And promises to heal wounds, to be a president for all Americans.
And new jobs. And infrastructure. And looking after all citizens, including significantly the veterans (of America’s endless wars of choice). And making America truly great again. A lot of warm fuzzy emotion from an exhausted victorious leader.
The relative decline of a great power (relative to other contenders) does not always happen smoothly. There are discontinuities, surprises, sharp inflection points. Tonight was a major such moment in the United States’ relative decline.
It is hard for an ally so close and dependent on the US as Australia has become, especially since 2001, to get our heads round this. Bob Carr was quicker to adjust than Malcolm Turnbull or Julie Bishop. Both reached desperately for the ANZUS security blanket, for self- reassurance. This is how it must have been for Romanised Britons when the legions finally sailed away.
Bishop spoke in prayerful pieties, praising America as ‘the guarantor and defender of the rules- based international order’. Pray, where has she been in these past decades since 1991 of American unilateral hegemonism and violent regime change? She said the Asian region looks to continued American (strategic) leadership. What might China’s view be on that?
Carr was more realistic. He said we should not kid ourselves or try to normalise Trump in our minds: he is a true radical who will rock a lot of boats. It is time for Australia to reconsider its habits of intimate embedment of ships and generals in US forces: time for a more detached approach to an alliance now led by a man whose strategic thinking is quite unclear.
I agree. At this point, Trump is a leader with inchoate feelings and prejudices rather than a coherent world view. Though a rich man born to new-rich money, he was never acculturated into either the American political or military leadership classes. He is still at heart the awkward immigrant-origin kid who made some money but didn’t make the country club. This is why the Rust Belt states, betrayed by the elites, voted for him: behind his money and boasting, they recognised one of their own.
He brilliantly articulated the fear of the white lower middle class, the haunting question ‘Where did our country go?’ Revisit Clint Eastwood’s ‘Gran Torino’ to see what drove today’s shock election outcome. We didn’t anticipate it, because these voters kept their intentions quiet.
Many huge questions now. Will Trump’s gut instincts survive the onslaughts of the military-industrial-foreign policy elites’ schooled Washington orthodoxies?
How much influence will Saudi and Qatari money still have in a Trump-led Washington? I hope, much less than they would have retained under Clinton.
How will Trump balance his vehemently stated and disruptive antagonism for Iran, with his evident sympathy for Putin, Iran’s present strategic ally? And with Putin’s and his own antipathy to the Islamist fundamentalist wars in Iraq and Syria bankrolled by the Saudis and Qataris, wars which have cost – are costing – America so much in blood and treasure?
Where will Trump finish up on US relations with Russia and with the more reckless European NATO allies, given the continuing great power of the US military-industrial- foreign policy elites, and the importance of keeping up high defence industry spending to ;protect the jobs of Trump’s blue collar voters? Defence production is almost the only part of the US economy that has not been taken offshore by the US capitalist class. Trump has to keep it going. And as Clinton’s war hawks said, what use is military power if you don’t use it?
Will Trump’s outspoken trade antipathy to China expand into strategic antipathy? And where will Russia, now China’s effective ally under pressure of the US neo-cons’ and liberal hawks’ sustained demonisation of both these great nations, stand if that happens?
Could we see Putin soon advising Trump, his yarkii (‘bright and colourful’) American friend, on how the US can most safely transition its relative decline in this now-becoming-more-multipolar world? After all, Putin has had plenty of such experience in managing decline in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. And Putin remembers in Boris Yeltsin a man who had much in common with Trump, as a charismatic populist leader of a nation in distress.
Here is an optimistic scenario. Trump will stick to his instincts of retrenching bloated American military spending and adventurism abroad. He will resist the calls of self-serving allies like Australia that the US must go on leading the free world at the cost of its money and lives.
He will, however inchoately at the outset, try to implement a new philosophy for America’s international relations: of re-building patterns of mutual respect and normal regular dialogue in the US’s strategic relations with its major nuclear weapon state peers Russia and China. He will act, as both Russia and China advocate, within a genuinely rules- based international order built not around US exceptionalism but around the United Nations Security Council’s original system of collective security. He will abandon US hegemonism that can only see Russia and China as threats to US ‘global leadership’, and as ‘problems to be managed’ , rather than as respected fellow partners in the common task of maintaining a stable multipolar world balance of power.
He will rebuild American industry and jobs through badly needed new infrastructure projects in transport renewal and energy transformation .
The bad scenario? Trump will be brainwashed by the military-industrial-foreign policy elites’ siren song: that the drive for prevailing world military power must go on, at whatever the cost to the US economy. He will prepare US citizens for war, as Hitler prepared Germans for war after 1933, reinvigorating the economy through rearmament and building protectionist walls.
He will reach some form of tactical accommodation with Putin’s Russia and Xi’s China, as Hitler did with Stalin prior to 1941. But he will accept the advice of the Washington strategic elite that these two nations are the United States’ existential enemies: the same advice Hillary Clinton accepted from these same elites. Advice which can only end in war.
It is time for Australia first to get its own foreign policy thinking onto a more realistic basis. Then, to offer Trump’s Washington good frank counsel, in the true spirit of our ANZUS alliance. We need to remind our great and powerful friend to husband his strength, to walk softly in Asia.We should not pander to his vanities. We should try to engage his prudence and good manners – not yet extinct in America – towards fellow nations.
I must be dreaming. Neither Turnbull, Bishop, Shorten nor Plibersek, all indoctrinated in what ANZUS has become since 2001, would have the slightest idea of what I am talking about here . We are in for a very bumpy ride.
Tony Kevin is a former diplomat and currently Emeritus Fellow at ANU.