RAMESH THAKUR. New series. We can say ‘no’ to the Americans.

Without rupturing ANZUS, Australia must reclaim the space to chart an independent foreign policy according to a Canberra-based calculation of national values and interests. Indeed, a visibly independent foreign policy on matters important to Australia could be the most effective strategy for quarantining the alliance from the disruptive Trump effect.

The Trump rebalance of the central tenets of US foreign policy effectively ends the short-lived pivot to Asia, even though like most incoming presidents, Trump is unlikely to implement all his ideas developed on the run during the election season. China will step into the leadership vacuum as the stabilising power in the Asia-Pacific and—in another historical irony—as the custodian of the global commons in efforts to check the pace and impacts of climate change.

Australia’s role

Whether or not Trump succeeds in draining the swamp in Washington, he does seem determined to drain the swamp of war. The swath of ungoverned territories from Afghanistan through the Middle East to North Africa is graphic evidence of the failure of the US military to defeat rag-tag armies of insurgents, pacify populations and stabilise countries. Instead, as the US disengages from these multiple continuous wars it will leave behind a confetti of broken and dysfunctional countries once ruled by brutal but stable and—at least in Iraq, Libya and Syria—secular dictators.

While realism requires us to deal with the world as it is, ideals impel us to edge towards the world we would like to live in. As Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop has repeatedly affirmed, Australia is a “Top 20” nation. As such, it is not inconsequential and does have the ability to shape regional security and global normative architectures to ensure our interests and values converge as much as possible.

Australia faces a further dilemma, between a rules-based order on the one hand and tribal solidarity with the white Anglosphere on the other. The latter would be a rational strategic choice were American primacy and supremacy to continue for decades. The former is a better pursuit of Australian interests and values if the judgment is made that US primacy is not indefinitely sustainable, is indeed facing more intense challenges with every passing year, and therefore Washington will have to cede primacy and share strategic space with China in particular in the Asia-Pacific region.

Future defence

In turn this calls into question the assumption that the US will indefinitely retain the ability and will to defend Australia. The alliance has given much of value to Australia: access in Washington, military equipment and training, intelligence, nuclear deterrence and bases in Australia. However, these are not cost-free. Hosting critical nuclear infrastructure facilities means hosting likely targets of a nuclear strike. Like all insurance schemes, the premium has to be paid up front and replenished periodically, but US willingness to pay out when the emergency arises will not be tested until the event.

Of course, the first foreign policy requirement of any government is to look after the nation’s security. But does the balance of security threats, the cost of the premium, the opportunity costs of US priorities distorting Australian policy choices and the expected utility of the security payout when Australia is in peril still lie in continuing with the alliance essentially unchanged?

Without rupturing ANZUS, Australia must reclaim the space to chart an independent foreign policy according to a Canberra-based calculation of national values and interests. Indeed, a visibly independent foreign policy on matters important to Australia could be the most effective strategy for quarantining the alliance from the disruptive Trump effect.

Ramesh Thakur, a former UN Assistant Secretary-General, is professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University. this article was first published by the Australian Institute of International Affairs. 

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