The AUKUS folly: Albanese and the US presidential election

Aug 22, 2023
Concept of relationships between USA and Australia.

There never was a chance of overturning the AUKUS folly at the Labor conference. As unpalatable as it might be, the only possibility of extracting Australia from America’s war planning now lies in the bizarre milieu of American politics. And it’s not forlorn.

Labor’s leadership was determined to plug a political hole created by the impression that the Coalition was stronger on national security. Surrendering sovereignty over the war decision and wasting vast amounts of tax payers dollars on the nuclear submarine pipe-dream was the price. The Prime Minister is open about his desperation to be more than leader of a one term government; whatever the cost.

Prime Minister Albanese might be genuine when he says Australia and America have “a longstanding relationship, based on deep friendship and trust and a shared commitment to peace, the rule of law and the values of democracy”. As a basis for a defensible foreign and strategic policy these criteria could be hard to maintain after 2024. Perversely now, all hope of Australia being able to extract itself from the debacle-in-the-making that is AUKUS lies in America descending in to chaos and paralysis. And there are many ways in which this could happen, and most of them swirl around Trump.

The past experience of Trump could prove a poor guide to a second term. The indications are that a second Trump Administration would generate an environment favourable to the rising opposition to liberalism, universalism, and internationalism. The shared values cherished by Albanese, which he claims underpin his enthusiasm to subordinate Australia to American strategy, might be hard to locate under a resurgent Trump. Illiberalism and isolationism in America would be further empowered, enabled, and would flourish.

Consider, for instance, the implications of the opinion of two American constitutional scholars regarding section 3 of the 14th amendment to the US Constitution. They argue this section “sweeps in a broad category of former oath-swearing officeholders turned insurrectionists or aiders and comforters of insurrection or rebellion” who would be barred from holding office, including the presidency. The ramifications of January 6 loom over the presidential campaign. If any of Trump’s indictments led to the fulfilment of the conditions for section 3 to be applied a constitutional, political, and civil crisis would probably envelop America.

The Supreme Court would be unlikely to be able to resolve the crisis at it has already lost the confidence of most Americans.

Biden and Trump are currently running neck-and-neck in opinion polls. Even if Trump is disqualified and replaced by DeSantis, Biden’s low approval rating still might see an unconventional Republican candidate succeed. That could be worse. Therefore, we should expect to see our political leaders at least workshopping what the consequences might be for Australia, and in particular for AUKUS, for various election outcomes. Simple prudence might argue for such a thought experiment.

The disqualification of Trump under section 3 would see at a minimum the legitimacy of the election vigorously contested. Just imagine the impact of Trump being disqualified during the campaign. His millions of supporters are already convinced that the last election was stolen, and see the raft of indictments against him now as part of another conspiracy to deny him the presidency.

If Trump’s disqualification saw the unprecedented situation where the Republicans needed to find a new candidate mid-campaign it would bring enormous havoc. The legitimacy of a Biden victory would be hotly contested, probably with violence. Governance would become near impossible.

Were the grounds to disqualify Trump to emerge after his swearing in in 2025 America would enter a deep and serious constitutional crisis. Would Trump go quietly? Whether or not the institutions of state, in particular the military and the Justice Department, would then follow his orders or resist them would probably turn on whether his appointments were in place or not at the time.

If he managed to avoid an attempted disqualification while in office, or to successfully resist it, as the process for implementing section 3 is not clear, Trump would likely surrender to his proclivity extract retribution on his perceived enemies and persecute his rivals. Law-and-order and rule-of-law in America would probably suffer grievously as a result.

These are just some of the many ways the 2024 presidential campaign could lead to violent civil and political pandemonium. At worst it could be a catalyst that inflames secessionist passions in America.
The less liberal, less outward looking, less democratic, and more authoritarian political environment that could emerge should give the Albanese government cause to reflect on the risks. In normal times Australians could expect that their government would be prudent and cautious as a very unusual presidential campaign unfolds in America.

In light of the AUKUS commitments and the unprecedented ramping up of Australian-US relations there is a lot more at stake if an isolationist, anti-internationalist, and radical movement captured the presidency and Congress. If that occurred Australia’s strategic policy, defence force planning, and status in the Asia-Pacific would all be a shambles.

To the outside observer it seems evident that America is on the edge of descending into a parody of the liberal, democratic, and rule-of-law icon painted by Albanese. Does the government have an alternative policy if America becomes dysfunctional or a second Trump Administration emerges? What if America were to renege on AUKUS? Albanese’s blind insistence on pursuing AUKUS would indicate not.
The contingent and tragic nature of AUKUS is becoming clearer.

For more on this topic, we recommend:

A descent into violence? Political polarisation in the US – Part 4

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