CAVAN HOGUE. We always want an outside protector

The recent Lowy poll that showed a decrease in support for Trump but not for the alliance should not come as a surprise. It is consistent with Australia’s long standing desire for a protector. We should not be naïve about China but we do tend to look at the USA through rose-coloured glasses. Our future is uncertain.

A Lowy Institute poll has found that Trump has decreased Australians trust in the US and certainly in Trump but support for the Alliance remains strong. While we must always take polls with a grain of salt, this finding is broadly  consistent with other views and surveys. Given the almost universal approach of the mainstream media and our politicians it is not surprising. Media criticism of Trump has of course been stronger than political criticism but both constantly harp on the theme that the Alliance is greater than any individual, is vital to Australia’s security and will be maintained. Australians have a long history of wanting a protector and depending on others for their security and this underlies any more recent developments.

We assume that the US acts responsibly despite historical evidence that it does not always do so. We also seem to accept without actually saying so the view that the US is different, i.e. US exceptionalism which looks a bit like an updated version of manifest destiny. Therefore we tend to take the American side without always weighing up the facts. At the same time, while  we should be less naive about the USA we should not assume that China is any better. Both are great powers which will pursue their interests and try to maintain their position of dominance.

The same poll looked at attitudes towards China. Some 46% thought it likely that China would become a military threat to Australia but the poll did not ask whether this would be because of the Alliance or unrelated. In other words, are we likely to get involved in a conflict between the US and China because of our alliance or are we looking at a military threat from China that has nothing to do with the USA? Again, the government and the media has fed the public a steady diet of China as a threat. Being both communist and Asian it must be a combination of the yellow peril and the red terror – the orange threat perhaps? However, on the positive side most people (79%) see China as an economic opportunity. Also, only 34% thought we should get involved militarily in any South china Sea military action. The danger is that we will create antagonism in China by overblown rhetoric.

The problem facing politicians who want to take a more independent approach to the US Alliance or to those who wish to persuade politicians to do so is that foreign policy has been hijacked by the defence/intelligence parts of the bureaucracy supported by short term domestic rhetoric from politicians. This helps exacerbate the electorate’s fears of the outside world and demand for protection from a great and powerful friend. There may well be votes in China bashing but there are more votes to be lost by attacking the alliance.  Trump has clearly eroded confidence in the USA but he will not last forever and the real question is where the US is going in the long term. Is it a wounded superpower on the way down which will get involved in nationalist adventures? Will it retreat into isolationism? Will it focus on China and Russia as a threat to its hegemony?

Then there is the question of terrorism. The elephant in the room is the undoubted fact that it is foreign intervention in the Middle East that has opened  a Pandora’s box which will now be very hard to close. Also, if ISIS is defeated on the ground surely it will simply focus on attacks in those countries which were involved in its defeat. The Australian ostrich keeps its head in the sand and refuses to think about this. The Middle East is a place we should keep out of but this is hard to do as long as we maintain our integration with the US defence forces.

We live in interesting times.

Cavan Hogue was Australian Ambassador to USSR, Russia, Mexico and High Commissioner to Malaysia

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Cavan Hogue is a former diplomat who has worked in Asia, Europe and the Americas as well as at the UN. He also worked at ANU and Macquarie universities.

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