ANDREW FARRAN. Under Trump  – A moment of truth may be approaching  

Nov 15, 2016


Indications are that a Trump Administration will expect America’s allies to pay their way to a greater extent than former President Nixon’s expectations were pursuant to the Guam Doctrine of 1969 mid-point in the Vietnam War.

By and large it could be argued that Australia has paid its way – through Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq since that time. All defeats. Will the balance of wider interests be more or less benign in the coming years?

The next year may see the return of ‘nation’ states. Elections in 2017 may bring in a swag of far right governments in Europe. The greatest risk is Marine Le Pen in France which would presage or bring forward the inevitable break up of the EU. 

In that context we could see Russia’s President Putin pushing the envelope further in the Ukraine and test it in the Baltic states and Poland. The big question is whether NATO as a group will be up to the task if Putin pushes even further. It is up to those Eastern countries to demonstrate that with the US under NATO they will push back. Or might Trump not see this as a key US  national interest and turn its back on its 50 year commitment, with what serious consequences for the post-WW2 order and America’s allies in general?

Similarly in Asia/Pacific. Where might the line be drawn and would it be one that should commit Australia?

Central to this question is of course China. What is the strategic purpose of its fortifications in the South China Sea? Will they present in time a fait accompli vis a vis Taiwan and if so how far can those installations be allowed to proceed before the fate of Taiwan is sealed? Is that a national interest issue for Australia? If the US sees it differently and we do not fall in with support, would the Alliance for us be imperilled?

Further north, do we have a role or interest in any conflict in the Korean peninsular? What influence could we have there anyway notwithstanding our impressive role in the Korean war which was considered a national interest issue at that time. But the threat there now has a nuclear armed ICBM missile component. Without Chinese and Russian pressure the containment of North Korea seems a faint hope. Allies would have limited role in this.

What of Japan should it be involved in conflict separately, at one level or another, with China? Most likely in the North China Sea. Could the US ignore that as a central  national interest? What role as an ally could Australia play in a conflict at that level? This would seem well beyond our weight other than marshalling diplomatic support for a settlement among our South East Asian friends. We couldn’t do less but would the the Alliance be adversely affected anyway?

Since 1951 when the ANZUS Treaty was concluded the Pacific security environment has changed markedly. We are no longer threatened by Japan. It is difficult see how we might be directly threatened by anyone else unless the world order breaks down completely in which case we should retreat to the proverbial bush! There is of course the real prospect of regional instabilities, in PNG and the Pacific Islands – and Australia has peacekeeping responsibilities there. In this regard, ANZUS with its regional emphasis is exactly the appropriate contribution that Australia can bring to the alliance within its means.

Whatever we should avoid involvement in conflicts which may affect specific US interest but not ours. That is the lesson we should have earned over the past 50 years. Such conflicts will technologically be well beyond our competence, and involve high risk, with little compensating insurance for ourselves?

There are no definite answers to these questions? But what they pose is the necessity to review the lines that we should not cross within the alliance. They question the efficacy of the Alliance longer term. Alliances, as Americans once acknowledged, create entanglements, and for us in certain cases regret. What clarity has there been in our involvement in Iraq and Syria, and Afghanistan following US mission creep later on.

It might be best if we were more pragmatic, dealing with the countries of our region on their merits, on a basis of mutual interest. Through diplomacy we should seek to uphold the essential basis of the international legal order which supports the rights and independence of sovereign states, the violation of which would be an international crime.

On the centenary of the ghastly battle of the Somme we should seek to avoid fuelling wars. We should be prepared to defend our territory and our trade routes, through sound diplomatic practice. We don’t need to make ourselves a target for others. If there are lines to be crossed within the alliance or otherwise they are for the people to determine through Parliament.

Andrew Farran is a former diplomat and senior academic in public and international law.

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