Two recent events must give pause to Australia’s foreign policy establishment and prompt some serious thinking about our alliance with the United States.
First is Donald Trump’s behaviour at the NATO and G7 meetings last week, in which Trump not merely flagged the US might withdraw from the Paris climate accords, but refused to confirm the United States’ commitment to mutual defence with its NATO allies. Forget the oafish body language and the sight of the slovenly president — who may be struggling with the early stages of dementia — needing a golf cart to transport him in the wake of other G7 leaders walking to a photo op. His words — and more particularly their lack — were far more significant.
Indeed, Trump seems to see NATO as an ATM, rather than an alliance. “Many NATO countries have agreed to step up payments considerably, as they should. Money is beginning to pour in,” he tweeted afterwards (falsely). During his campaign, Trump repeatedly called NATO obsolete and refused to commit to helping defend NATO countries. That has now been carried through into his first meeting as president with NATO leaders.
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The fact that Trump’s family, staff and close associates have, at the most generous interpretation, inappropriate relationships with the murderous Putin regime, and Trump himself has had extensive financial relations with Russian interests in the past, makes his refusal to endorse mutual defence all the more threatening for Europeans.
Senior European leaders understood the import of his failure. “The times in which we can fully count on others are somewhat over, as I have experienced in the past few days,” Angela Merkel said over the weekend.
The other is the repeated incidences of leaks of intelligence information from Trump himself and his administration. Famously, Trump himself, in a jovial Oval Office meeting with the Russian Foreign Minister that only Russian media were allowed to photograph, shared secret Israeli intelligence on Islamic State with the Russians. Last week Trump bragged to another thug, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, about the location of US nuclear submarines. But more seriously, in yet another of what is a torrent of leaks from US intelligence services under Trump, the Americans infuriated the UK government by revealing the identity of the Manchester bomber. This one wasn’t from Trump himself, or from the White House, but from US intelligence services now apparently happy to leak virtually anything to the media.
At estimates hearings last week, our own security agencies blithely dismissed any concerns about intelligence sharing with the Trump administration.
Australia might believe it has a special status as a Five Eyes member, that our Prime Minister has readily truckled to Trump in order to cultivate relations with him, that American billionaire Rupert Murdoch might always intercede with his friend on our behalf and that Trump appears far more hostile to the regional power in our own neighbourhood, China, than to his friend Putin. But it would be irresponsible for policymakers not to be devoting some serious thinking to whether we can rely on the United States while a leader as reckless and inexperienced as Trump is president. And whether he is an aberration or represents a long-term trend toward US disengagement.
More extreme, but still plausible, scenarios present themselves. What if Trump attempts some sort of extra-legal strike, or even a coup or state of emergency, to forestall the threat posed by the investigation into his Russian connections? Do Australian politicians pretend it’s business as usual and continue their traditional vassal state theatrics as the price of a security guarantee that might not be fulfilled if needed?
It’s not, admittedly, a pleasant policy scenario to work through. There are, of course, some foreign policy thinkers — Hugh White is the most notable example — who think Australia should already be grovelling not in Washington, but to Beijing — an appeasement mentality that has adherents within the Department of Foreign Affairs as well.
But a more self-reliant foreign policy that accepts Australia can’t rely on the United States requires substantially greater defence spending at a time when we’re in no fiscal position to meet it — a government couldn’t even rely on using the capital budget to keep such spending out of the budget deficit. It would increase the pressure to make existing spending more efficient, rather than simply as a tool for a protectionist industry policy that readily accepts a 30% protectionist premium on 10-figure procurement projects. It involves choices few officials, let alone any politicians, would like to face about fiscal policy. But the antics of Trump require it.