Australia is between a rock and a hard place

Australia should no longer be the US' lackey, argues Dr Allan Patience

By Dr Allan Patience. Honorary Principal fellow, Asia Institute

The bizarre campaigns of both the US presidential candidates, Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton, have left many security and foreign policy experts scratching their heads over what the United States’ security policy will look like after the new President takes office early next year.

As a rusted-on American ally, this country has much to be concerned about, no matter who wins the election. 

Nonetheless the great complacency that has always characterised Australia’s attitude to ANZUS continues unabated, as if there is little to be concerned about.  

The arrogation of the view that Australia is the USA’s “deputy sheriff” in the Asia Pacific persists in the populist interstices of our political culture. Too few Australians realise that their country is now at a security policy crossroad. 

America is in the throes of a tectonic shift at the heart of its political culture that will have profound consequences for it, and for its allies, into the coming decade.

The US is fractured and paranoid

In his 2014 book Dangerous Allies, Malcolm Fraser argued that it was time for Australia to remove itself from the ANZUS alliance, even suggesting that it had become inimical to Australia’s security. It’s time, he argued, for this country to chart a new, independent and self-reliant security policy for itself. His reasoning included the fact that Australia has been to all of the United States’ wars since the end of the Pacific War (1945), at great cost in terms of Australian blood and treasure but with almost no obviously successful outcomes. 

At the same time it has set itself up as a target for potential US enemies in the future – whether from hostile states or terrorist organisations. Fraser also drew attention to fact that the America that gifted ANZUS to Australia in the early 1950s has, in the post-Cold War context, changed dramatically. 

What was once a relatively self-confident superpower is now a querulous, fractured and paranoid big state increasingly under pressure from a belligerent Russia and a re-emerging China, while struggling with an appallingly complex crisis in the Middle East. 

Domestically its economy has been ruined by destructive neo-liberal policies and its social fabric is in tatters. Even that champion of neo-liberalism in Australia, Paul Kelly, has acknowledged that “the US-led liberal economic order [has been] plunged into a prolonged crisis originating in flaws arising from its banking and financial systems” (The Australian, 2/11/16). 

Whoever wins the presidential election will be confronted with social and economic crises of mammoth proportions at home, and even more daunting security crises abroad. What will this mean for Australia?

Trump should be setting off alarm bells in Canberra

Trump’s election campaign has probably been the most policy-vacuous campaign mounted by any presidential candidate ever. So much of his electioneering has been all bombast and boasting, failing to provide a coherent policy architecture taking America forward. However amidst all the blather and hype there have been some security policy straws drifting in the wind. 

He has expressed contempt for NATO, complaining that its European members are not doing enough compared to America’s contribution to that organisation. He seems to be saying that America needs to scale down its commitment to NATO, or even pull out of it. This has encouraged Vladimir Putin to continue his tough course in Crimea and Eastern Europe. 

In East Asia Trump has accused the South Koreans and Japanese of not contributing enough to the USA’s strategies in the region. He has said little about the quixotic regime in North Korea although he has proposed that Japan and South Korea may need to develop nuclear arsenals of their own to counter threats from Pyongyang and Beijing. 

Simultaneously, he has threatened to engage in a trade war with China that could undermine whatever gains have been made by the global economy.

In short, Trump is a classic American isolationist. His vision of America in the world is of an in-ward looking country, licking its wounds caused by globalisation and muttering belligerently about real and imagined enemies. He has said nothing of consequences about Australia and ANZUS. 

It is likely he either knows little or even nothing about the alliance or couldn’t care less. In either case that should be setting off alarm bells in Canberra.

Clinton expects continuing Australian support

Hilary Clinton is relatively well-informed about Australia and appears to value ANZUS. As the main architect of America’s “rebalancing” (or “pivoting”) of its security focus in the Pacific she would presumably require Australia to play its compliant role in American strategies on China while embracing cooperation with Japan and other US allies in East and Southeast Asia (and possibly India). 

Clinton is hawkish on China’s robust adventurism in the South China Sea and is equally hawkish about Russia the Middle East. Her expectation that Australia will stay loyally by the USA’s side in any, or all, of these conflicts hardly needs stating.

With either a Clinton or a Trump presidency looming, Australia is between a rock and a hard place. 

As Malcolm Fraser noted so wisely, the America we are dealing with today is definitely not the America with which we formed the ANZUS alliance way back in 1951. 

Both Trump and Clinton are equally, if differently, dangerous for Australia’s security prospects as China asserts its presence in the region and as this country’s dependent middle power posturing becomes increasingly awkward as trans-national threats to its security mount by the day. 

If nothing else, Trump and Clinton both mean that it is time for Australia to stand on its own feet, a friend of America for sure into the future, but no longer its lackey.

This article was co-published with the Age

Banner image: Former US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta, Former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard and then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Australia on an official visit in 2013. Credit: Wikipedia

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foreign-policy; national-security; election; policy Foreign Policy; National Security; Election; Policy