The election of Donald Trump has set a dangerous precedent for all democratic governments. As with the British vote to leave the EU, above all else, this farcical election period has demonstrated that truth is no longer a necessity. We now must assume that the informed and rational elector is a minority. What decided this campaign was not experience or policy, but emotion. It was not so much what the policy proposals of either candidate were, but rather how they made the electorate feel that were decisive. Trump’s rhetoric that was heavy on emotive and nostalgic language, harkening back to an age when he and his supporters believed America was great, tapped into a sense of apathy, hopelessness, and powerlessness felt by much of the American electorate. There is no greater example of a man who played the role of a demagogue in recent memory than Donald Trump.
The international climate today is one of fear, anxiety and bigotry, and what were once open-minded and tolerant nations are beginning to elect governments that tap into that fear. The recent high profile terrorist attacks have led to a shift in the immigration policies of many Western governments, with the most draconian of course being our very own. The economies of many developed countries are also wavering, with Europe teetering on the brink of recession after Brexit and the Chinese economy struggling to stay abreast of significant debt problems and a severe failure to effect free market reforms.
The collective result of these myriad problems has been a climate of uncertainty and doubt. People are no longer certain that they will be leaving a better world to their children. Sadly, they are not mistaken. The election of Donald Trump occurred with strong support from the older generation, from the white working class, and from those who have become embittered toward their own system. The fact that Trump was able to get away with his ridiculous policy proposals, his poor articulation, his general lack of propriety, and the numerous allegations of sexual indecency or assault is because he tapped into a raw desire amongst many Americans to overthrow a system they thought no longer worked for them. There was a greater nostalgia, a sense that the past was better than the present, and no matter how vague or baseless Trump’s campaign slogan ‘Make America Great Again’ seemed, it tapped into the raw emotion of many Americans, and saw Trump elected to the office of highest authority in the free world.
Though we may worry or grieve for the fate of our American allies, we must needs first look to our own interests and what a Trump Presidency will mean for Australia. Among the greatest powers of a President of the United States is responsibility for the country’s foreign policy. In many ways, this is the area where the Trump Presidency will directly impact Australia. Here too there are a great many worries that Trump will need to address to assuage doubts in Australia and amongst other American allies.
NATO and Europe
The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), founded as a bulwark against the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War, still stands as the most powerful military alliance in the world. The Alliance is a linchpin of the present balance of power. An American withdrawal from NATO, a possibility that was repeatedly broached by the Trump campaign, is the single greatest danger posed by his election to office. Whatever may be thought of the President-elect, it is now beholden on him to assure citizens and electors alike that this was not a serious proposal, as the interests of the United States are inextricably linked with the maintenance of the Treaty Organisation.
Of course, the threat of the breakdown of the alliance is most relevant in Europe, and it is there that a withdrawal of American martial power would lead most directly to a fracturing of the fragile peace we enjoy. It is not secret to anyone who is in any way knowledgeable of foreign policy that belligerence and expansionism are the two most notable traits of the Russian foreign policy in recent memory. Whether it be Georgia, or more recently in the Ukraine, Russia has been slowly but surely nibbling at the fringes of Europe, exploiting discord or strife to enforce hegemony over regions it previously ruled with impunity. Of particular note of course is the lack of constructive response to the Russian annexation of the Crimea. In fact, our President-elect when questioned on the matter wasn’t aware of the Russian annexation. This is the man who will, come January, hold the highest office of honour in the land, and his ignorance of such an important development in the foreign theatre leaves much to be desired.
Together with the European Union, NATO is a key pillar of collective European security against Russian aggression. As the balance of power now stands, no subordinate alliance, or single European nation would be able to withstand a war with Russia. In fact, though the Russian economy has languished and struggled to diversify or exploit its rich natural resources, Russian military innovations have progressed full throttle. Together with a foreign policy that is equal parts Machiavellian and zero-sum, Russian martial power is the sharp end of the stick.
Though it exercises but a portion of the clout of the former Soviet Union, the Russian Federation is not a threat to be underestimated. Rapprochement between Russia and the West, and a thawing of relations towards a constructive dialogue have been repeatedly frustrated by a combination of Russian expansionism, frustration, and a significant lack of liberal reform in the Russian political system and economy. As more and more power has accumulated in the person of Vladimir Putin and his fellow oligarchs, the possibility of any measure of understanding or amity between the Russian government and the West remains remote.
It is in this climate of mutual distrust that the possibility of an American withdrawal from NATO, however slim, has been broached. However, it is unwise to dismiss the sentiments of the President-elect and his supporters (at least those who have considered this policy) out of hand. It is true that the Alliance is not truly a two-way street. In recent years, people, particularly in Western nations such as Australia or in Europe, have come to take for granted the alliance that maintains our present peace. In fact, the prevailing wind amongst youth and the left-wing intellectuals seems to be that American imperialism is the single greatest threat to world peace, and threats such as Russia and China are comparatively unimportant. This election is a wake up call to these people.
US foreign policy and use of military power is far from perfect. Debacles in Vietnam and Iraq, based on poor decision-making and ill formed policy, have left a legacy of destruction and a severe blow to American prestige. However, make no mistake, it is American military power that forms the backbone of Western security. An American withdrawal from NATO and its security commitments in Europe and Asia in favour of a nostalgic return to isolationism risks the rise once again of the fascists, nationalists, and expansionists that will again drag humanity back into another great war.
China and the Asia-Pacific Pivot
It is not only Europe that is threatened by the possibility of a new era of American isolationism. Australia too, by its proximity to Asia and the Pacific, is threatened by the newfound reluctance of its most important military ally. Anyone who is intimate with the Australian military or intelligence community will tell you that American military power is a core factor considered in Australian security policy. Whether it be the stationing of Marines in Darwin, or joint-military exercises, or the possibility of Australia forming an anchor point for the ‘pivot’ of American strategic resources to the Asia-Pacific, an about face in American foreign policy could undermine decades of Australian security policy and trigger a fundamental rethink of our fundamental foreign policy.
The purpose of the pivot to the Asia-Pacific region by the Obama administration, taking strategic emphasis away from the Middle East, has been of course the rise of China. It is no secret that the dragon has finally started flexing its wings, and it is no understatement to say that American power and alliances have been integral to preventing Chinese aggression in the region. Of course there will be naïve apologists or members of the anti-American bandwagon who will argue that Chinese foreign policy is far from expansionist or hegemonic, and that it is the United States that is the real aggressor.
However, these are people who are either ignorant, or blind. One need only consult the long history of Chinese border disputes, ranging from the border war with India, to the invasion of Vietnam, or the Sakhalin islands to understand that China has not been shy in using military force to enforce its territorial claims. Another example is the Chinese position on Taiwan, with assurance made at the highest levels of Communist party leadership that a Taiwanese declaration of independence will result in war. These are the actions of a nation that is not opposed to the use of military power to enforce its agenda and it is only the guarantee of American support that has allowed Taiwan to remain in relative freedom and autonomy, where Hong Kong now suffers under the yolk. The fate of Hong Kong, the gradual erosion of its liberties, and a return to authoritarian rule, is what awaits Taiwan in the event of a withdrawal of American forces.
Why is any of this relevant to Australia?
Put very simply, Australia has significant interests in the Asia-Pacific region, and though threats to Taiwan or Japan may seem relatively remote to our interests, these are not the limits of Chinese ambition. The South China Sea territorial dispute strikes much closer to home, and involves Chinese territorial claims over an area where the majority of the world’s traffic in trade goes. Excepting even the strategic significance of the South China Sea to the Asia Pacific, the natural resources of the area are also substantial. Given that a radical government has been elected in the Philippines, and countries such as Malaysia are attempting rapprochement with the Chinese, it seems that the Chinese policy of the carrot and the stick are paying dividends. The militarisation of the South China Sea is something that Australia cannot afford to ignore. It is only with the solidarity of the American-Australian alliance that we can seek to maintain peace in the region.
The election of Donald Trump has made significantly more uncertain the future of our country, and it is now fundamental that Australia work through its foreign service and ministers to seek assurances from the President-elect and his advisors as to the foreign policies that will define the Trump administration and its engagement with our nation. However, though the future seems grim, this is not the time for self-pity or complacency. This is a time for utmost vigilance. When the world was plunged into chaos by war, when our need was dire, the United States came to the aid of Australia. We owe the United States a debt of honour, and no amount of cynicism should undermine the bond between our two nations. We must look to work with policy-makers and planners in America, in whatever way we can, to ensure that the future is one where peace remains, and the interests of both our countries are protected. Difficult times lie ahead for our country, but we shall struggle forward, with a stiff upper lip, as we always have.