The Australia-US relationship right or wrong?

Feb 1, 2024
Holding note paper with Question Mark on blurred American flag.

The likely nomination of Donald Trump as the Republican candidate for November’s US presidential election has many asking whether Australia should remain as committed to its close relationship with the US as it has been. Setting aside that a vocal minority has long questioned Australia’s commitment to the relationship, two matters make this time around different to Trump’s election in 2016.

The first is that, in 2016, very few in Australia seriously believed that Trump could win the presidency. Ahead of the 2016 election, Reserve Bank head Philip Lowe was asked about the impact of a possible Trump election on Australia’s economy; Lowe laughed and dismissed the question as so unlikely as to be unimaginable.

The second is that following Trump’s election, Australia – and the rest of the world – took a ring-side seat to watch Trump’s often bizarre and certainly unconventional presidential style, capped by his refusal to accept his loss in the 2020 election and the consequent attack on the Capitol Building. The world may have been by turns shocked and entertained by his comments and behaviour, but his shift towards protectionist economic policies and cozying up to autocrats were more disturbing.

Since then, to use the Americanism, Trump has ‘doubled down’ on his populist autocratic tendencies and, if elected, can be expected to further personalise the presidency. The question arises then, should Australia loosen the ties that bind, certainly because of a potential Trump presidency but, perhaps more disturbingly, because of what is starting to pass for the new normal in US politics.

Among Australian decision-makers, the prevailing view is that the relationship between Australia and the US is not based on personalities but on institutions. That is why a liberal Australian prime minister can get along famously with a conservative US president, and vice-versa; the relationship is between the institutions they represent, rather than their ideological outlooks.

In this, there is an abiding faith in Australia that US institutions will remain intact and that the worst excesses of a particular US president will be constrained. That view also predominates in the US, including among Republicans who have not fully swallowed the Trumpian line.

There is certainly a question, though, if Trump is elected, whether the US’ key institutions will be able to weather his personalisation of power and his desire to bend institutions to his will. But, as we have seen in that most conservative of US institutions, its military, it has cleaved towards its institutional foundation.

Even the US Supreme Court, packed with Trump appointees, is likely to continue to vote in favour of Trumpain social policies, but would be very much less likely to abandon its judicial independence on other matters, including taking instruction from the president. The principle of trias politica, or the separation of powers between the judiciary, the presidency and the legislature, is likely to hold firm.

There are, of course, dooms-day scenarios in which Trump is elected and then proceeds to ride rough-shod over the US’ key institutions, which in this scenario they largely acquiesce. But, if we look at the history of Western authoritarianism, even the most autocratic and least democratic of its exemplars took several years to dismantle institutional checks and balances; Trump will have four.

It is also important to note that, a century ago, Western authoritarianism rose on the back of a nationalism that competed for primacy with a fledgling understanding of democracy. Both arose towards the end of the 19th century and, for many then, nationalism had a more immediate romantic appeal.

The West has since largely had seven decades of democratic experience, in the case of its Anglophone members considerably more. This is not the 1920s, but the 2020s.

However, disenchantment with democracy has been growing, primarily in response to the homogenisation of political choices based on an increasing technocratic response to policy that has favored economic policies which have produced a growing gap between rich and poor across virtually all Western societies. Many ordinary voters want something different and, in some cases, are looking to populist – and less democratic – options. It takes little, then, for a populist politician to provide simple answers to complex questions and the stylise themselves as ‘the people’s saviour’.

But, on balance, this remains a minority view in the US, at least for now. Trump will likely win Republican nomination for the presidency, and President Joe Biden is certainly not dazzling voters with his stellar performances. But the US 2024 presidential election will be notable less for who wins than how many potential voters don’t actually vote. Trump will get out his welded-on voting base, but many more established Republicans, appalled at what he has done to their party, will simply not vote.

Australia will watch how this year unfolds in the US, quietly hoping for a ‘rational’ outcome but, as always, accommodating whoever occupies the office of president. However, should, in some dark scenario, US institutions falter and the political character of the US fundamentally change towards the more sinister and less predictable, Australia’s position could change.

It is reasonable to expect that, if the US moved away from democratic bedrock, Australia would similarly mark that decline by quietly step back from the relationship and looking to enhance alternative ties. This, of course, assumes that Australia does not go down a similar path but, thankfully, the drivers of US-style political change are not as pronounced here and, for the time being, it appears we may be spared that fate.

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