Australia- United States relations and the Trump Administration

Australia’s foreign policy is currently in a precarious position. It is in a delicate position at the best of times, firstly having to balance many competing interests and nations in a complex South-East Asian region. There is also the issue of maintaining deep ties in trade between the United States and China, the two most powerful nations in the world who have in many ways opposite interests. The election of Donald Trump and his subsequent rhetoric on several issues, particularly on international trade and security arrangements as well as his positions on institutions such as the United Nations and NATO has caused many nations around the world to re-evaluate their relations with the United States. Australia is no exception to this speculation, despite being historically tied closely with the US. Since the election, there have been widespread calls for Australia’s government to closely re-evaluate the relationship with the United States.

These potential differences have become much more clear in recent days, in a temperamental phone conversation between Trump and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. The call, scheduled for an hour, ended after just 25 minutes. According to the Washington Post, the main point of contention between the two leaders during the call was a refugee deal brokered at the end of Barack Obama’s presidency. This deal involved 1250 refugees being taken in by America that are currently being held in Australia. Though neither Trump nor Turnbull would elaborate on the allegations, the report gives an indication that some of the norms of the Australian-US partnership may no longer be a given.

Aside from this conversation, there have been other indications that Australia is willing to part with the United States on key issues, such as international trade. Just days after inauguration, Trump signed an executive order to withdraw the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade deal. In keeping with Trump’s promise for an ‘America First’ approach to trade, Trump appears to be reviewing all of America’s trade deals. By contrast, Turnbull is pushing hard to keep the TPP alive, willing to re-negotiate the deal even with America’s withdrawl. He has reached out to key nations such as China and Japan in order to salvage a deal, despite indications that a United States withdrawal would lead to the TPP being scrapped altogether. Reaching out to China is another move which will likely cause a clash with the Trump administration, given the administration’s trade policies toward China.

These disagreements suggest that Turnbull is heading toward a foreign policy agenda which, while still valuing the United States as a close ally, is willing to disagree and clash on issues. There is, of course, a long history of deep economic and security ties between the two nations. Despite Trump’s early actions, this is unlikely to fundamentally change. It is likely that unlike previous American administrations, the Trump administration will have to be dealt with on an issue-to-issue basis. Unlike his predecessors, Trump does not agree with every aspect of the world order as it currently stands. This is particularly true on the issue of trade and to a lesser extent to security arrangements. There will inevitably be conflicts as Australia, as with every other nation, comes to terms with the Trump administration and its approach to governance.

2016 US Election -Donald Trump as US President

Donald Trump is the new President of the United States. This statement, thought impossible by most political pundits, pollsters, journalists as well as much of the Western world, has come true. In what some commentators and political websites are describing as the biggest political upset in American history, Trump defied the odds and has become the new POTUS.

As outsiders observing the US election from afar, it can seem perplexing at first glance to see Trump elected as POTUS. Unlike traditional presidential candidates, his policy details are often lacking, sometimes even incoherent. He has been embroiled in innumerable personal controversies which seemingly would have disqualified other candidates from being in the conversation as a serious candidate for POTUS. I am among those who think that Donald Trump is not a worthy candidate for POTUS for these reasons (for what it’s worth, I think the same of Hillary Clinton). Despite this, it is important to note the context for how a candidate as deeply flawed as Donald Trump managed to become POTUS. Only by taking a serious, measured look at these circumstances can the necessary lessons be learned to ensure another candidate as inept and unqualified as Donald Trump does not get elected POTUS.

Firstly, despite a level of recovery since the financial crisis of 2008, many Americans are still in a precarious economic situation. Half of all Americans have no savings at all, and 70% of Americans have less than a thousand dollars in the bank. Whilst Americans in metropolitan centres have largely resumed living at a pre-crisis standard, this has not been the case in rural America, which Trump virtually swept in the final vote. Jobs are scarce and opportunity to advance in life is even more scarce. The rural/city divide extends to cultural issues. In rural America, people felt alienated and forgotten, lacking control over their lives. In many instances, these Trump voters had voted for Obama four and eight years ago. Despite this, having felt ignored by the current administration and the nation at large, they felt no other option but to vote for Trump, despite often having reservations about specific policy issues and his personal character.

The big question now is what exactly a Trump administration will look like. His presidential campaign was based on challenging Republican policy orthodoxy, particularly on key issues such as trade, immigration and America’s place in the world. In all these instances, Trump won the rhetorical debate first against the Republican establishment and ultimately the voters. On trade, Trump promised to put America first, including promises to rip up or renegotiate trade deals as well as taking measures to prevent jobs from leaving the country. On immigration, Trump has argued against current immigration levels and has promised to build a wall along the southern border of the United States to help deal with illegal immigration from the Mexican border. Trump has also repudiated America’s role as the world’s foremost power on international issues, particularly in relation to issues such as the Middle East and Russian involvement throughout Eastern Europe. This is in sharp contrast to the neoconservative doctrine which has been a GOP staple since the presidency of George W Bush.

Whether Trump will firstly follow through on these specific policies or policy directions and whether he can make significant reform in these areas remains to be seen. Throughout the Republican Primary and the general election, Trump has taken several different positions on a variety of issues, including cornerstone issues of his campaign such as immigration and trade. Many of his policies, including many of his proposals on tax are either unworkable or would require significant adjustment to be feasible. Other proposals which Trump has raised, particularly in relation to combating terrorism would be in violation of the United States Constitution. Examples of these include his proposals for torture and to place a blanket ban on Muslim immigration from the Middle East.  More importantly, despite the Republican Party having a majority in both the Senate and Congress, he may face significant opposition to many of his proposals. Many Republicans in both the Senate and Congress are opposed to Trump ideologically and may vote against his policies on a variety of issues.

From an Australian perspective, a Trump presidency could have significant ramifications for the Australia-United States alliance. Trade deals will likely have to be re-negotiated, quite possibly on terms less favourable for Australia. On significant geopolitical issues, such as the ongoing situation with China, Trump’s aggressive rhetoric toward China, if followed through in policy and action, would leave Australia in a particularly precarious position. Australia has major trade ties with China despite being allied closely with the United States and were America to engage in a trade war or a military conflict over the South China Sea, to name two examples, Australia would be in a severely compromised position, being obligated to side with America in these circumstances. So far, the Australian Government has been diplomatic and insisted relations with the United States will not change. It is hard to imagine, however, if Trump is serious about his positions on international relations, how a reworking of the Australian-American alliance will not occur.