20 November 2016

Trumped part I: America's gimp

Australian foreign policy has changed profoundly in the past few weeks, more so than at any time since 1942 - 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 US 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 US 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 US 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 US 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 US 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 US 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 US foreign policy as the star by which all vessels steered.

There is no way of regarding Australia's relationship with the US as anything other than closely intertwined with the broader aims of US foreign policy: outlooks and proposals that might have seen Australia break with the US altogether, or diminished the relationship (e.g. 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 US, 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 beforehand - to US-Australian relations into the foreseeable future.

Trump will be openly dismissive of the Turnbull government and of Australia. Trump will openly state that Australia needs the US more than the reverse, and will make demands not even the most craven Washington-phile 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-US alliance.

US 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 US'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 US would be less inclined to unilaterally enforce international rules and norms 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 US 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 US, and compared his approach to mafia shakedowns - but he was, in his crude way, aligning with bipartisan US 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 US 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 US politics, whether from Australia or on assignment in the US, 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 US politics can and does access those same sites - and more.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation covered the US 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 US, 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-US 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 US calls the shots to a multipolar world, where other powers (e.g. Russia, China, India - maybe the EU if they can hold it together) play an important but not final role, along with the US 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 US 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.

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 basket-case 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 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 US; only hacks will pretend, only fools will believe them.


  1. Thanks Andrew. Clear-eyed as usual.

    Our leaders and media seem to believe that it is perfectly acceptable to lie in order to con voters to win an election. Why else would they display such capacity to delude themselves that Trump will back flip again and again and again rather than face reality that the president-to-be might actually do what he says.

    Recently I saw a compilation of TV Interviews dating from the 1980s in which Trump was expounding many of the forthright views which were on display during that interminable presidential campaign. It does not seem to me that Trump does not mean what he said during the campaign or that he will ever be guided by the 'wise counsel' of genuine conservatives. Have they not noticed some of the people who will be on Team Trump in the White House?

    All I have heard this week from Canberra is wishing and hoping. Hoping that we can ship asylum seekers to the US in time, hoping that Trump really values The Alliance as much as we need it to, hoping and hoping that he was only foxing about free trade. In other words they hope Trump has told the American people a truck load of lies. Big ones.

    Clearly our government had no idea that Trump was going to win. It didn't even have a contact number for him and had to rely on Greg Norman. Wouldn't you have thought Joe Hockey had some contacts by now or Julie Bishop?

    1. I suspect the government sees Trump as the same kind of bullshit artist as Abbott, so they're expecting all his campaign statements to have been as expedient as Abbott's on election eve.

  2. I remember Kerry O'Brien in his brief interview with Obama asking his one allowed question about how the US would cope with diminished power: he rejected the premise outright.

  3. Excellent post again Andre. There are big changes in the wind and most western governments are seemingly totally unaware of whats going on....just plow along with business as usual and she'll be right! She isn't going to be "right", as they know it perhaps ever again.

  4. In a clear example of doublethink, the Australian (and US) media seem to simultaneously believe that : (1) Trump's statements and behaviour reduced (significantly) his chance of being elected (check out the multitude of opinion pieces prior to the election) and (2) He 'only' said those things for the purpose of getting elected.

    Trump lies frequently, but there's no subtlety about his intentions. He views the victory in the election as an opportunity to feed his ego and to enrich himself and his family.

    1. If the purpose of winning for the Pres Elect is enriching himself and his family that suddenly (or not suddenly) puts the US in the same class as most so-called Third World countries. Think of all Filipino Presidents prior to Duterte who reportedly lives modestly, Cambodia, all of South Asia, etc. We have liked to think that in our "First World" countries politicians retire well off but not excessively enriched.
      Rais, Perth.

  5. Good piece, and much of the Australian commentariat need to get serious in challenging much of our foreign policy positions.
    The big concern is that the institutions charged with policy development have shifted or changed. Foreign policy discussion has become excessively militarized in Australia, with Defence dominating, and the once national building role of immigration becoming a money-grab and beating up of a handful of refugees. In turn, it is too focussed upon tactics and procurement. DFAT has become a poorly resourced outpost too focused on assisting dingbat tourists (if there was ever evidence of how ineffective Julie Bishop is as foreign minister in cabinet, look at the DFAT budget cuts). The staggering neglect of the Pacific, the continued lame overtures toward the region in the hope 'Asia likes us', and the lukewarm support of a multilateral rules based order has left us rudderless (see East Timor and UNCLOS). Our approach to our international relationships has thus been consumed by will they/wont the US honour ANZUS and the avoidance of hard thinking and choices.

    1. But Julie Bishop looks so confident and stylish and dresses so well and..... so the MSM keeps telling us.

  6. Well, technically, the US fought with *us* in WW1 and WW2, as we had already been at war for 3 years and 2 years respectively.

    But, you know, whatever.

  7. What are the first principles of FP in the shifting global order?
    Good relations with immediate neighbours?
    Splendid isolation?

  8. Did Curtin reach out to the USSR?
    I had thought it was the USA, he reached out to, Britain being in grave peril and defeated at Singapore. The USSR was at peace with Germany when WW2 began (Molotov/Ribbentrop, or Hitler/Stalin pact).
    Did Curtin reach out to a non-enemy of Hitler??

    Shurely shome typo, as "Private Eye" might put it.