The Monthly (Australia) - - FRONT PAGE - COM­MENT BY HUGH WHITE

That a per­son with Don­ald Trump’s char­ac­ter should now be pres­i­dent of the United States is so strange and strik­ing that it can be hard to see past that char­ac­ter and con­sider the prob­lems he con­fronts, and the pol­icy choices he must make over the years ahead. But in the end this is what counts. What Trump’s pres­i­dency means will de­pend less on his char­ac­ter it­self, and more on how that char­ac­ter shapes the de­ci­sions he makes. So, to un­der­stand the im­pli­ca­tions of Trump for Australia, we need to con­sider the is­sues and choices he will face that mat­ter most to us. And they are, of course, about how he deals with China’s chal­lenge to the US-led or­der in Asia.

Manag­ing China’s rise is the most mo­men­tous strate­gic ques­tion Asia has faced for many decades, and manag­ing it ef­fec­tively is es­sen­tial to Australia’s fu­ture se­cu­rity and pros­per­ity. To see why, we need to un­der­stand just how Amer­ica has kept us so se­cure for so long. It has very lit­tle to do with the ANZUS al­liance it­self, or the in­tel­li­gence, tech­nol­ogy or train­ing that goes with it. It has much more to do with the role Amer­ica has played in Asia more broadly, as the re­gion’s strate­gic leader. We take this role for granted, but we shouldn’t. To­day China is con­test­ing Amer­ica’s lead­er­ship, and pos­ing real dan­gers. We could eas­ily find our re­gion riven by ma­jor-power ri­valry, as it was for so much of the 20th cen­tury, and once again we’d be di­rectly af­fected. Or Amer­ica might back away and leave Asia un­der China’s sway. Whether things go bad, and how bad things get, de­pends a great deal on Wash­ing­ton, and how Australia fares de­pends a great deal on how far we can in­flu­ence what it does.

So far, our lead­ers have re­posed com­plete faith in Wash­ing­ton to work it out with­out our help. They have con­vinced them­selves that Wash­ing­ton can make the whole prob­lem go away by show­ing such over­whelm­ing power and re­solve that Bei­jing will aban­don its chal­lenge and go back to ac­cept­ing US lead­er­ship. This is what Barack Obama was try­ing to do with his Pivot to Asia, but it didn’t work. Bei­jing was only em­bold­ened by Obama’s mixed mes­sages, to­ken de­ploy­ments, and own goals such as the Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship de­ba­cle.

Now it is Trump’s turn. As far as Can­berra is con­cerned, Australia’s fu­ture se­cu­rity de­pends on Trump suc­ceed­ing where Obama failed. Be­fore the elec­tion, that prospect seemed ab­surd. Trump’s pol­icy in­stincts, his po­lit­i­cal and ad­min­is­tra­tive ca­pac­i­ties, and his tem­per­a­ment and moral val­ues made him quite un­fit for this task. Af­ter elec­tion day,

how­ever, the gov­ern­ment from Mal­colm Turn­bull down saw no need to doubt Trump’s ca­pac­ity to sus­tain US lead­er­ship in Asia and keep Australia safe.

Are they right? What dif­fer­ence does Trump make, re­ally? Amer­ica’s prob­lem with China is not, af­ter all, Trump’s fault. It is the re­sult of the mas­sive growth in China’s wealth and power. Who­ever be­came pres­i­dent this year would have faced the same ques­tion: how can Amer­ica im­pose costs and risks on China that are heavy enough to com­pel Bei­jing to back off, with­out in­cur­ring costs and risks that it is it­self un­will­ing or un­able to bear? None of the other can­di­dates, in­clud­ing Hil­lary Clin­ton, had an an­swer to this ques­tion. Their only idea was to keep plug­ging away at the Pivot in the hope that it might start work­ing.

That would never suc­ceed, be­cause the Pivot se­ri­ously un­der­es­ti­mated the scale of the prob­lem in two ways. First, it mis­read how far power has shifted China’s way in Asia to­day. Of course, Amer­ica re­mains im­mensely strong, but on home ground China now has the eco­nomic, diplo­matic and military weight to hit Amer­ica hard. The days are long gone when Amer­ica could threaten grave pun­ish­ments for China with­out run­ning big risks it­self. That means, se­cond, that Amer­ica can only de­ter China and pro­tect its re­gional lead­er­ship if it can plainly dis­play greater re­solve to bear the costs and risks of con­fronta­tion. The Chi­nese con­sider lead­er­ship in Asia theirs by right of both an­cient sta­tus and present power. Bei­jing is con­vinced that it is more com­mit­ted to re­gain­ing re­gional lead­er­ship than Amer­ica is to re­tain­ing it. And that is prob­a­bly ac­cu­rate, be­cause it is, af­ter all, their back­yard, not Amer­ica’s.

Any as­sess­ments of Amer­i­can re­solve will have to be re­vised mas­sively be­cause of Trump’s elec­tion and the whole spec­ta­cle that came with it. Un­til then, Amer­ica’s po­lit­i­cal and for­eign pol­icy es­tab­lish­ment took for granted that the great ma­jor­ity of Amer­i­can vot­ers were un­shak­ably com­mit­ted to sus­tain­ing US global lead­er­ship. It fol­lowed that no one could be a cred­i­ble pres­i­den­tial can­di­date who did not share that com­mit­ment. As­pi­rants had no choice but to pledge them­selves to up­hold the net­work of al­liances and the ro­bust military pos­ture that un­der­pinned the US-led or­der in key re­gions of the world, in­clud­ing Asia.

But that proved to be wrong. Bernie Sanders won huge sup­port in the Demo­cratic Party’s pri­maries by promis­ing a re­treat from US global com­mit­ments, and Trump won the pres­i­dency on the most iso­la­tion­ist plat­form of any can­di­date since Wen­dell Wil­lkie cam­paigned against Franklin D Roo­sevelt to keep Amer­ica out of World War Two. So on both sides of the aisle Amer­i­can vot­ers have re­jected the model of US global lead­er­ship on which Amer­ica’s strate­gic po­si­tion in Asia de­pends.

This shouldn’t re­ally be so sur­pris­ing. Af­ter the Cold War it seemed that global lead­er­ship was go­ing to be cheap and easy for Amer­ica. Ev­ery­one as­sumed that the US would re­main by far the world’s rich­est and strong­est power, and that no “peer com­peti­tor” would dare to chal­lenge it. Amer­ica could af­ford to ex­er­cise global lead­er­ship and still de­liver the Amer­i­can Dream at home. But it hasn’t worked out that way. En­gage­ment in the Mid­dle East has been a costly and bloody dis­as­ter, and Amer­ica faces ma­jor, nu­clear-armed chal­lengers in East­ern Europe and Asia. Fix­ing the Mid­dle East, con­fronting Rus­sia in Ukraine or re­sist­ing China’s chal­lenge in Asia would each re­quire an im­mense na­tional ef­fort.

Mean­while, at home, Amer­i­can vot­ers suf­fer from poor schools, de­crepit in­fra­struc­ture, dwin­dling op­por­tu­ni­ties and stag­nant in­comes. So it’s quite pre­dictable that those vot­ers have rethought their pri­or­i­ties. Why should they pay to sus­tain the re­gional or­der in Asia or keep Rus­sia out of Ukraine when so much needs fix­ing at home? To them, grand talk of US global lead­er­ship is just another in­dul­gence of the priv­i­leged and out-of-touch elites, and “Amer­ica First” makes a lot of sense.

There is a lot more to Amer­ica’s iso­la­tion­ist turn than Trump, and this will start to re­shape pol­i­tics more broadly as ris­ing stars in both par­ties trim their sails to the new winds. Among main­stream Democrats, the Clin­ton brand of mus­cu­lar in­ter­na­tion­al­ism will give way to ideas much closer to those of Sanders, while Repub­li­cans will try to at­tract Trump vot­ers by aban­don­ing the or­tho­dox­ies of old war­riors such as John McCain. So we can­not as­sume that Trump’s iso­la­tion­ism is just an aber­ra­tion. Some ver­sion of “Amer­ica First” is here to stay.

It is wish­ful think­ing to as­sume that in of­fice Trump will some­how be forced to be­come a nor­mal for­eign­pol­icy pres­i­dent by the weight of prece­dent and the power of the Wash­ing­ton sys­tem. We have seen al­ready since last Novem­ber’s elec­tion how will­ing and able Trump is to defy the sys­tem he is now sup­posed to lead. Wit­ness his phone call with the Tai­wanese pres­i­dent, his ap­point­ments to key po­si­tions in his ad­min­is­tra­tion, his open dis­dain for the US in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity, his crit­i­cism of ma­jor US de­fence projects like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter pro­gram, and, above all, his ap­proach to Rus­sia in the light of ev­i­dence of the Krem­lin’s in­ter­fer­ence with the US elec­tions. Don’t ex­pect Congress to stop him, or the De­part­ment of State, the CIA or the Pen­tagon.

But there is another rea­son why we should not ex­pect Trump to sus­tain the vi­sion of US lead­er­ship on which Australia’s for­eign pol­icy has de­pended. This is where Trump’s char­ac­ter comes back into the pic­ture. Trump is not just un­will­ing to bear the costs and risks of con­tain­ing ri­vals like Rus­sia and China who chal­lenge the ideas that un­der­pin the US-led global or­der. He seems to share their reser­va­tions

about those ideas. This is most ob­vi­ous re­gard­ing Rus­sia. He likes and ad­mires Vladimir Putin, and ap­par­ently sees noth­ing wrong with Putin’s way of con­duct­ing pol­i­tics at home or abroad. He seems to ac­cept and even wel­come the idea that Rus­sia as­serts a sphere of in­flu­ence over its neigh­bours. Putin is his kind of guy, so Trump is ap­par­ently happy to step back from US claims to global lead­er­ship to al­low Putin the space to cre­ate that sphere of in­flu­ence.

Trump’s view of China and its lead­ers is more com­plex. China as an eco­nomic com­peti­tor im­pinges on the wel­fare of Amer­i­can vot­ers, and Trump has made much of his de­ter­mi­na­tion to push back. But there is scant ev­i­dence that Trump is much con­cerned by China’s strate­gic am­bi­tions in Asia. His threat to re­pu­di­ate the “One China” pol­icy gov­ern­ing re­la­tions with Tai­wan seems in­tended to gain ne­go­ti­at­ing lever­age over eco­nomic is­sues rather than con­tain China’s bid for re­gional lead­er­ship. In fact, Trump might find much to ad­mire in Xi Jin­ping and the sys­tem he leads, just as he ad­mires Putin. He might be just as re­laxed about the idea of a Chi­nese sphere of in­flu­ence in the Western Pa­cific as he is about a Rus­sian sphere of in­flu­ence in East­ern Europe. Some around him may pro­fess to be “China hawks”, but Trump seems will­ing to do a deal on any­thing, in­clud­ing, it seems, Tai­wan, if the price is right.

There is, of course, another side to the Trump per­sona. His touchy ego and im­petu­ous vin­dic­tive­ness make him just the kind of per­son to stum­ble into a war for no co­her­ent strate­gic rea­son, and heed­lessly al­low the war to es­ca­late with­out se­ri­ously think­ing about the con­se­quences. That car­ries big dan­gers when nu­clear weapons are in­volved. So with Trump we get the worst of both worlds. He is less likely to sus­tain an ef­fec­tive US strate­gic role in Asia, but more likely to start a war with China.

That is the key to un­der­stand­ing what Trump’s pres­i­dency means for Australia, and to un­der­stand­ing the chal­lenge it poses to Aus­tralian pol­i­cy­mak­ers. For decades our en­tire for­eign pol­icy has been pred­i­cated on as­sump­tions about Amer­ica’s ca­pac­ity and will­ing­ness to sus­tain its lead­er­ship role in Asia. In re­cent years we have clung to those as­sump­tions more and more tena­ciously, even as they have be­come less and less ten­able.

Trump’s as­cen­dency makes it es­pe­cially ur­gent to re­think our ap­proach to Asia, and to recog­nise that sim­ply re­ly­ing on Amer­ica to man­age it for us will not work. It makes it es­pe­cially re­gret­table that our gov­ern­ment has been so de­ter­mined to pre­tend that noth­ing has changed. And it makes it es­pe­cially im­por­tant that the shadow min­is­ter for for­eign af­fairs, Penny Wong, has de­fied the in­do­lence and timid­ity of the gov­ern­ment and of any in her own party to state the plainly ob­vi­ous: that Australia has to start think­ing much harder for our­selves about the fu­ture of Asia and our place in it. It was a mis­take to rely so much on Obama’s Amer­ica. It is stark folly to leave our fu­ture in Trump’s hands, which is what our gov­ern­ment seems in­clined to do.

John Tag­gart / Bloomberg via Getty Im­ages

Don­ald Trump

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