ANZUS has morphed from an alliance to a sacrosanct ethos to which all Australians are supposed to subscribe. It is time it went back to what it was supposed to be – an alliance. … To differ with the Americans may require political courage of an order to which the Australian political class are unaccustomed.
It has become axiomatic that, since the beginning of the century, China, India and others have been rising. The United States remains wealthy, technologically adept and militarily strong. But the American people, aware of their relative economic decline and suffering from battle fatigue, have lost much of their appetite for overseas military commitment.
For several years, these developments have prompted Australians to think more actively about how we should relate to the United States and to our neighbours.
With Trump, the need for clear thinking in Australia about how we adjust to and help shape our external environment is now pressing.
A clear policy outlook for this new administration may take twelve months or so as Trump appointees are confirmed and find their feet. But the difference between this incoming administration and its predecessors –including the conservative ones –is beginning to be apparent.
We need to think about four things.
First, Trump’s apparent perspective on security contains contradictions.
Trump seems intent on a strong military and on preserving America’s external interests. Trump’s approach to some allies, including Japan and Australia, has been reasonably reassuring .The same cannot be said for others such as NATO members –whose leaders are deeply worried about his pronouncements, including on Russia.
And even those reassured by Trump’s undertakings will worry about his habit of impulse e.g. on crucial issues such as Taiwan or Iran.
Second, Trump’s approach to international economic arrangements –as epitomized by his pronouncement to withdraw from the TPP and his more obscure but forceful views on NAFTA and United States’ economic relations with China – do not augur well for global prosperity and the increasingly interdependent international trading system from which Australia has benefitted. Trump will be partly pulled back by advice and by the real world – but not all the way.
Third, Trump and his people seem to know little and care even less about the international treaty structure. There is room to criticize post war international structures, institutions and agreements. However these have prevented nuclear war, lifted standards of living and sustained norms, which, while often honoured in the breach, have left the world better off.
Fourth, since WW2, the United States has propagated the democratic ethic as the fairest, if imperfect, form of governance. The West has generally subscribed to that ethic and much of the rest of the World has aspired to it. However democracy is not just about fair voting and strong institutions, it is about precepts. And Trump is weak on precepts.
The question is increasingly been asked: What is democracy if Trump is the result? And can we –or other democratic countries -continue to base our policies on the assumption of shared values, if with this new American administration, that assumption is false?
What then do we do?
First, we still need the United States and the ANZUS Alliance. The American presence in the region, if properly administered, is in our interest. It has not been a total plus- but it has been a net plus in keeping the peace since WW2.
But ANZUS has morphed from an alliance to a sacrosanct ethos to which all Australians are supposed to subscribe. It is time it went back to what it was supposed to be –an alliance.
There has been no daylight between American and Australian security policy since 9/11. We have spent lives and political energy in the Middle East where our strategic interests are limited.
In our region we are still tagged as a deputy sheriff. This limits the degree to which, on security, we are perceived as having views of our own, and hence derogates from our influence.
Our armed forces are integrated into United States’ military structures, in particular the Pacific Command. While protocols exist to withdraw these forces in the event of potential engagement e.g. over Taiwan. In practice, this would be difficult to do. Should we look again at these arrangements?
A warning. To differ, if need be, with the Americans on security –particularly with the group who will take power next month- may require political courage of an order to which the Australian political class are unaccustomed.
Second, we have again to think seriously about our dealings with our Asian neighbours. This should involve:
- a more ambitious and expensive attempt than hitherto to educate Australians about Asia through schools, universities and various scholarship and visitor programs -as suggested in the late lamented Asian Century White Paper.
- encouragement of a serious bilateral dialogue between the United States and China. We should not try to play a bridging role. The issues are of political will, not process.
- augmentation of our own dialogue with China.
- more emphasis on strategic dialogues at a bilateral level with the more independent minded counties in Asia such as Japan, India, South Korea, Indonesia, Vietnam and Singapore– not aiming at quasi alliance structures which would stoke Chinese fears of containment, but at developing common approaches to regional security and economic issues, including policy towards the United States.
- continuing to consult with ASEAN as a group, while bearing in mind it is less cohesive than it once was and that bilateral channels with South East Asian countries are more effective .
Third, if the United States wishes to abandon the TPP, so be it. We should contest its views and pursue alternative trade liberalization structures such as the RCEP, the putative grouping based around ASEAN and China.
Fourth, even if the Trump administration walks away from the international architecture the United States was instrumental in creating, and abandons some of the finer precepts with which America has lead the world, we must not forget that over half America’s voters think differently to Trump.
Our political class must avoid the temptation to allow our own political discourse to be infected by Trump’s victory .We must stick to our own values, not only because they are ours, but because in four years time America’s outlook may revert to something with which we again have something in common.
John McCarthy has served as Australian Ambassador to Vietnam, Mexico, Thailand, USA, Indonesia, Japan and High Commissioner to India.