Bitter polarisation of American society undermines case for US alliance

May 4, 2023
Politics of White House and President of USA United states concept. Podium speaker tribune with USA flags and sign of White House.

It is difficult to imagine a scenario for next year’s Presidential elections which does not increase the already bitter polarisation of American society. The level of irrationality and violence in the United States means that in the coming decades it may well veer between bellicosity and isolationism. In the face of an uncertain American polity, tying ourselves yet closer to the American alliance seems a foolhardy enterprise.

What more can be said about the sorry spectacle of two septuagenarians facing off—again—for the Presidency of the United States? President Xi, a spry seventy-year-old, and Putin, a mere youngster of seventy-one, must be chortling as they watch the quadrennial carnival commence.

In a more rational world, one might expect both Biden and Trump to be challenged for their party’s nomination. Sitting Presidents are not immune to challenge, as both Jimmy Carter and George Bush Sr discovered, but Biden seems invulnerable, unless his health deteriorates. His only current challenger, Robert Kennedy Jr, is widely regarded as a populist nutcase, best known for his scepticism about vaccines.

On the Republican side it seems that the more party supporters learn about Trump’s sleaziness the more they like him. In 1920 union leader Eugene Debs ran for President while in jail; Trump may yet copy that playbook. Florida Governor Ron de Santis seems to be Rupert Murdoch’s preferred candidate, but after a spurt last year he is sinking in the polls.

When Nikki Haley announced her candidacy for the Republican nomination she pointedly made a generational shift key to her announcement. It might seem strange that a woman of colour is seeking the nomination of a political party that is usually associated with white America, but having been Governor of South Carolina, one of the most conservative states in the country, she would be a strong candidate.

But like other hopefuls she is unable to win over the Republican diehards, whose votes in primaries will determine the nomination. At this stage the nomination appears to be Trump’s to lose.

Much could still happen before November 2024 to prevent either Biden or Trump being elected. [At this time in 2019 neither man seemed the most likely candidate.] A repeat of the 2020 election would presumably be close, although most commentators are cautiously tipping a narrow win by Biden, based essentially on the deep unpopularity of Trump with independent voters.

The Australian government will be careful not to express a preference, while hoping that Ambassador Kevin Rudd’s assessment of Trump will not be remembered should he win. A Biden victory would assure a continuation of our smooth integration into US strategic and diplomatic engagement, one of the several policy areas where the Albanese government has outmanoeuvred their opponents.

A Trump victory, however, would disrupt the underlying assumptions of our foreign policy, although how far is unclear. One would expect US support for Ukraine to decline and bellicosity toward China to increase, although as President, Trump proved less likely to resort to military force than many feared. The Netanyahu government would find itself back in favour in Washington, with even more repression likely on the West Bank.

The most disastrous impact of a Trump Presidency would be on climate policy. In a world facing devastating global warming it would be catastrophic were the United States to reverse the steps Biden has taken towards greater sustainability. Those of us who see climate change as the greatest threat to human security—the position of our Pacific neighbours—have every reason to be terrified of a Trump return.

But perhaps the greatest danger lies not in the outcome of the 2024 election but in the possible repercussions of a close contest, in which one side feels they have been cheated. The fury of Trump’s supporters at the Capitol in 2021 is a nasty foretaste of how millions might respond to another loss. And while Democrats are more likely to accept a clear outcome—as both Al Gore and Hillary Clinton did, even after winning more overall votes than their opponents—there is sufficient suspicion of Republicans deliberately making voting harder to engender widespread revolt were Trump seen to win through voter suppression.

Eighteen months of bitter political fighting, in which one candidate appeals to racist, sexist and homophobic prejudice, will be corrosive not only to American democracy but globally. It is not accidental that Trump’s term in office coincided with the rise of authoritarianism in other countries. We felt the impact in Australia with the rise of right-wing conspiracy theories and overt appeals to white nationalism.

Central to the rhetoric of the current foreign policy establishment is that our alliance with the United States is underpinned by shared values and commitments to democracy and the international rule of law. The US Studies Centre at Sydney University has become a full-time agent of American propaganda, pumping out continual ideological ballast in support of AUKUS.

It is difficult to imagine a scenario for next year’s Presidential elections which does not increase the already bitter polarisation of American society, and the declining respect for the basic rules of democratic government which we claim unites our two countries. Australia has much of which we should be ashamed, particularly our record towards asylum seekers and Indigenous Australians, but we have experienced none of the disrespect for the basic norms of democratic elections that characterise Trump’s Republicans.

No Australian government can determine whom it must deal with in Washington. I do not share the fears that the United States is on the verge of fascism, but it is clearly a deeply divided and unhappy country, in which decision making is often paralysed. The obsession with relations between the US and China overlooks the growing complexity of global affairs, as the world is both more interconnected and more multipolar.

Countries once dependent on the US such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey are now less so; India may well be part of the Quad but it will pursue national ambitions that are not necessarily those of its allies. [Whether the Modi government shares our “democratic values” is also dubious.] In the face of an uncertain American polity, an increasingly complex international order and catastrophic climate change, tying ourselves yet closer to the American alliance seems a foolhardy enterprise.

If Biden is re-elected this will not mean the end of Trump-like politics. It is likely the Republicans will regain control of the Senate, which will further limit the President’s ability to act. Second term Presidents lose authority, as pretenders gather to replace them. The level of irrationality and violence in the United States means that in the coming decades it may well veer between bellicosity and isolationism, neither of which augur well for our alliance.

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