Trumped (Part 1): America's gimp

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Turnbull is underestimating the extent to which Trump will change the Australia-U.S. landscape, rendering "back to normal" impossible, writes Andrew Elder.

AUSTRALIAN FOREIGN policy has changed profoundly in the past few weeks, more so than at any time since — but with the important difference that the current Commonwealth Government seems at a loss for how to deal with it.

Our information about what was important to U.S. voters, and how they might use that information to choose their president and Congress, was poor. The Government has sources of information that go beyond the traditional media, such as an ambassador who was a recent member of the cabinet, and a golf course designer who has done business with the president-elect. The rest of us, however, are left with this sinking feeling that we've all been had in assuming U.S. voters would head off Trump, and this will get worse as media both deny any culpability and assert an exclusive and indefinite right to misinform us under the guise of reliable, factual, and relevant information.

First, let's go around the media and work out how Australia's relationship with the U.S. and other countries is likely to be changed. Then, let's aim squarely at those Australian media dipsticks trying to crawl from the wreckage of their credibility, and remind them of the conditions under which they are to go forward, if at all. Finally, I want to explore the media's obsession with this idea of the "alt-right", while at the same time failing to examine the idea in any depth.

Since U.S. troops were first committed to the battlefields of World War I in 1918, Australians have fought beside them. In World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and other operations besides, Australia has joined U.S. combat aims and suffered losses of blood and treasure. This relationship has shaped the foreign policy behaviour of both countries.

In Australia, it has bred a political monoculture across the governing parties that the U.S. is the guarantor of Australia's political and economic success (and that of other countries, such as Japan or the Philippines) in the Asia-Pacific region. This is supported by a range of institutions, such as the Australia-America Leadership Dialogue or Fulbright Scholarships, which reinforce this relationship. Australians seeking a career in foreign policy, whether partisan (by becoming a member of a political party) or not (by eschewing party politics and following a career in academia or diplomacy), looked to U.S. foreign policy as the star by which all vessels steered.

There is no way of regarding Australia's relationship with the U.S. as anything other than closely intertwined with the broader aims of U.S. foreign policy: outlooks and proposals that might have seen Australia break with the U.S. altogether, or diminished the relationship (such as by closing Pine Gap. or banning nuclear warship visits) were cast to the fringes of Australian politics and not entertained by serious careerist pragmatic people.

In the U.S., we have seen a bifurcation between official rhetoric warmly praising our alliance and a sub rosa commentary taking Australian support for granted, verging on contempt.

"We think you're an easy lay", recalled Jack Waterford, in outlining occasional Australian disagreements within a generally close relationship. 

Yesterday we saw the prime minister admit that he tried and failed to secure a meeting with Trump, along the lines of Trump's meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Abe. One missed meeting need not have much long-term significance — but it hints at something more foreboding for the relationship, certainly as far as Australia's political monoculture is concerned.

Donald Trump's method of campaigning collapsed the difference between official high-sounding rhetoric and sub rosa contempt in almost every area of policy. While other conservatives were happy to mouth platitudes about freedom and equality while courting bigots through "dog whistling", Trump was openly racist, sexist, and dismissive of people with disabilities —- including veterans. Let's not pretend Trump is different to what he is. Let's have no truck with the fatuous media make-work scheme that is "the walkback" and apply this pattern – seen throughout this campaign and beforehan– to U.S.-Australian relations into the foreseeable future.

Former PM Malcolm Fraser argued for Australia to step back from the Australia-U.S. ANZUS military alliance. Published May 2014.

Trump will be openly dismissive of the Turnbull Government and of Australia. Trump will openly state that Australia needs the U.S. more than the reverse and will make demands not even the most craven Washingtonphile Australian could support or even entertain. He and his administration will be dismissive of the women who are ministers for foreign affairs and defence in this government, and of their shadows. Political opponents of the current government will titter at this new scope of failure, but the sheer effrontery will transcend partisanship and go to the regard in which our nation is held.

Nothing transforms a relationship (any sort of relationship) like stripping back the honeyed words and seeing it for what it is. It will be a massive break from the norms of the Australia-U.S. alliance. 

U.S. presidents have hung Australian PMs out to dry from time to time, as collateral damage for broader geostrategic reasons. In 1956, President Eisenhower refused PM Menzies' request to intervene in the Suez Canal crisis because of the U.S.'s wider interests in western Asia at the time. In 1972, PM McMahon condemned his political opponent Gough Whitlam for visiting and recognising the People's Republic of China — unaware President Nixon was about to do so, again playing a wider game.

Trump will wrongfoot Turnbull. He will do the same to any other putative Australian PM you might name. This is how the man does deals.

The best way to catch Trump out will be to catch him when he's distracted, as we've seen from his hasty and inadequate settlement of Trump University lawsuits. The current government may well be canny enough to do this — or not.

In his address to the Australian Parliament in 2011, President Obama said that the U.S. would be less inclined to unilaterally enforce international rules and norm, and called upon allies in the region to do more to support shared aims, and expected allies to step up and share more of the burden. Australia is building warships at a rate never seen before because the U.S. has indicated that it's in our best interest to do so. 

Some commentators noted Trump's remarks along similar lines of making allies shoulder more of the military burden that had fallen to the U.S., and compared his approach to mafia shakedowns — but he was, in his crude way, aligning with bipartisan U.S. policy. None of the Republican candidates Trump defeated in the primaries – certainly not Hillary Clinton and still less Bernie Sanders – were arguing for a Pax Americana, where a rules-based global system is set up and enforced by the U.S. military commanded by its president.

Criticism of Trump's rhetoric on this issue is just hype, snobbery, and bullshit — the central flaws of all his opponents' unsuccessful campaigns.

This isn't to normalise Trump. It's to do what the Australian media should have done, but failed to do: take his record and project it forward onto how a Trump administration might treat Australia within its view of the world. Australian journalists, observing U.S. politics, whether from Australia or on assignment in the U.S., tend to avoid original sources of information: they read The New York Times and The Washington Post and other established media outlets, not realising the audience in Australia for U.S. politics can and does access those same sites — and more.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation covered the U.S. election by sending reporters to Washington and having them relay banalities from CNN and Politico, which they could have done from Ultimo or Canberra. Shipping those people all that way gave no additional insight at all (except that ABC News thinks their audience are mugs and should stop gibbering about resource constraints).

Most of the reasons why this deeply weird man was elected have nothing to do with us. The political class in Australia will hunker down and wait for him to pass, assuming the Democrats can and will come up with a candidate in 2020 that can beat Trump. The hunkering down will mean Australia both misses real opportunities in Trump-led U.S. and underestimates benefits awaiting us after he goes. They will underestimate the extent to which Trump has and will change the landscape, rendering "back to normal" impossible; there is no normal, there is no back.

Our leaders will not, however, do the hard but necessary work of rethinking the Australia-U.S. relationship from first principles. The information isn't available; the very act of doing so is way outside our Overton Window

Foreign policy wonks have said for a long time that we are moving from a world where the U.S. calls the shots to a multipolar world, where other powers (think Russia, China, India and maybe the EU, if they can hold it together) play an important but not final role, along with the U.S. playing a similar, diminished role. The trick, as they saw it, was to manage the transition peacefully. Part of this managerial assumption was that the people of the U.S. would go along peaceably with their country's diminished role, diminished expectations thing. What else are they wrong about?

Australia will have to operate across a much broader front than they have; there will be fewer (expected, positive) options from Washington and more options from Beijing, Jakarta, Delhi, Lima, Nairobi, Berlin, etc. Politicians can't do this. Big corporates can't do this. "Pragmatic people" will blame everyone but themselves. There will be opportunities through sport or other means that are not directly linked to politics or trade, but which will open opportunities in those areas, which Australian politicians and corporates will miss and whinge about when their passing becomes clear. You won't need an app to disrupt foreign policy. Australians are heading into a time of missed opportunities. Coal and hobbled broadband will hold us back. Traditional media will barely notice. 

Australians are heading into a time

of missed opportunities.

Coal and hobbled broadband

will hold us back.

Traditional media will barely notice! 

For all its longueurs and ponderousness, foreign policy moves quickly when needs must. In 1910, Britain was indisputably the world's mightiest power; ten years later, it was a whimpering basketcase of debt and pain, and Australian foreign policy (such as it was) didn't cope well then either. In 1941, John Curtin reached out to the USSR as the pre-eminent military power of the time; ten years later, Australia's postwar consensus had hardened against the Soviets and the Menzies Government sought to ban the Communist Party. We are again in such a moment of transition.

Nobody has any grounds for believing that our current ministers or their shadows have what it takes to set the nation on a new course in terms of foreign policy, defence, trade, or anything else involving the U.S.; only hacks will pretend; only fools will believe them.

Trumped (Part 2) to come ...

You can read more by Andrew Elder on his blog Press Gallery Reform and follow him on Twitter @awelder.

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