Originally published in The Australian, 12 July 2018
Whatever our judgement on the Trump presidency so far, he’s got two and half more years in the world’s biggest job and has every chance of being re-elected. He is the reality we have to work with.
For Australia, Trump has been a good president. Despite a testy initial conversation with Prime Minister Turnbull, he’s honoured the “very bad deal” that his predecessor had done to take boat people from Nauru and Manus Island and to settle them in the United States.
As a country that’s “paid its dues” on the American alliance, we have been treated with courtesy and respect but that’s no grounds for complacency in dealing with a transactional president.
As more-weighty US allies are likely to find at the NATO summit, Trump is mightily reluctant to help those who don’t pull their weight, even “family” like Britain, Canada and Australia.
And who can blame him? America has been the world’s policeman: the guarantor of a modicum of restraint from the world’s despots and fanatics.
No other country has had both the strength and the goodwill for this essential task.
And its thanks for seven decades of watchfulness and prodigious expenditure of blood and treasure, has been arch-condescension from the intellectuals whose freedom America has protected; and commercial exploitation from the competitors that the American-led global order has created.
It’s little wonder that Trump wants trade that’s fair as well as free and it’s little wonder that he’s tired of so-called allies who give sermons from the sidelines while America keeps them safe.
For Trump, “America First” doesn’t mean “Only America” – yet. America hasn’t lost its pride, its values or even its sense of “manifest destiny”; it’s just that it’s weary of “pay(ing) any price, bear(ing) any burden….(or) support(ing) any friend….to assure the survival and success of liberty” (in JFK’s stirring words) on behalf of countries that aren’t equally committed.
Trump is clearly impatient with the liberal internationalism that has shaped American policy for seventy years because he worries that it’s been much better for others than it has been for America.
America has disproportionately shouldered the burdens. Others have disproportionately gained the benefits, so enough is enough and there will be no more one-sided alliances.
There are two possible versions of the Trump doctrine that’s evolving: one goes: America might help those who help themselves, but will be more likely to help those who help America. A kinder version might be: they’re your values too, so don’t expect us to be the only ones fighting for them.
President Obama spoke beautifully about American values but was always cautious and sometimes slow to stand up for them. On his watch, the rules based order was already unravelling.
Trump is much more honest about the limits of American power. For all the former president’s out-spoken high-mindedness on fringe issues like climate change, Trump’s America is more robust than Obama’s.
It’s certainly less apologetic and still ready to use force, so at least for those allies that don’t shirk their responsibilities, Trump’s America should remain a reliable partner. Just don’t expect too much.
A new age is coming. The legions are going home. American values can be relied upon but American help less so. This need not presage a darker time, like Rome’s withdrawal from Britain, but more will be required of the world’s other free countries. Will they step up? That’s the test.
As PM, I wanted to be a welcome change from those visitors to the White House seeking what America could do for them; offering instead what we could do for America.
Being America’s partner, as well as its friend, will be even more important now, given Trump’s obsession with reciprocity. Indeed, it may be the only hope of keeping America engaged in troubles that aren’t already its own.
The defence white paper that my government commissioned said that Australia’s armed forces should be able successfully to defend our country from any likely aggressor, intervene effectively in a regional conflict, and contribute meaningfully to our allies’ military operations around the globe.
China’s rapidly growing military strength as well as the increasing capabilities of other regional countries will inevitably make it much harder to do that than the white paper anticipated.
I fear there will have to be a much greater focus on strategic deterrence, especially if a rogue state like North Korea has long range nuclear weapons and especially if the American nuclear shield becomes less reliable.
For Australia, obtaining the capacity to shoot down incoming missiles could easily become a multi-billion dollar necessity. Almost certainly, our navy will need routinely to be enlarged and strengthened.
There will almost certainly have to be more of our planes rotating constantly through the Butterworth air base in Malaysia. Our ships and submarines might need to spend more time operating from Singapore if they are more readily to be where they could be needed.
Can our ships be expected to operate, for instance, without the air cover that an over-stretched America may no longer provide? Can we afford to wait at least 15 years before just the first of the next generation of submarines becomes operational – and does it really make sense to take a French nuclear submarine and re-design it for conventional power to be less potent than it currently is?
My instinct is that acquiring a capacity to strike harder and further and the need to give our country and our armed forces greater protection could soon require military spending well beyond two per cent of GDP.
Our armed forces need to be more capable of operating independently against even a substantial adversary because that is what a truly sovereign nation must be prepared to do.
John Curtin’s famous plea to America in the darkest days of World War Two actually exposed our engrained tendency to look to someone else for our own protection.
When you think of it, what Trump is making clear – to us and to others – is what should always have been screamingly obvious: that our nation’s safety now rests in our own hands, far more than in anyone else’s.