Commentary | 20 November 2018

Australia's eight principles for dealing with Trump's America

Originally published in Australian Financial Review 

Originally published in Australian Financial Review 

The American public delivered a slap, not a punch, to Mr Trump in last week's midterm elections. We should not expect the United States to snap back to normality. Indeed, given the likelihood of gridlock in Washington, the President may well get bolder in his foreign policy, both because he has greater freedom to move abroad and because he thinks foreign wins will help him at home.

We should think about what this means for Australia. I would like to suggest eight principles that might inform a larger, more creative Australian policy towards the United States and the international order in the Trump era.

First, we need to maintain our alliance with the US. China's rise makes the alliance more, not less, important. Far from suggesting that Washington retreat from regional leadership, as some suggest, we should urge that Washington reaffirm its presence in Asia. A robust US presence is necessary to maintain a balance of forces in the region.

Second, in our dealings with Mr Trump we should stand up for ourselves and our values. Malcolm Turnbull had his famous phone call with President Trump. But compared to other allied leaders such as Angela Merkel and Justin Trudeau, he got off lightly. Australia's time will likely come. When it does, Scott Morrison or Bill Shorten should stand up for Australian values. They needn't troll the President, but neither should they defer to him.

Third, we should call out challengers to the international order – whether they reside in the White House or Zhongnanhai. In March this year, then-trade minister Steve Ciobo was asked if Australia would consider supporting WTO action by other countries hit by President Trump's aluminium and steel tariffs. He replied that Australia would "practise what we preach on free trade". He was widely criticised for this statement – but he was right. There is too much at stake for us to keep our heads permanently below the parapet. Standing up to Washington when required will give us credibility when we need to stand up to Beijing.

International rules

Fourth, we should be an exemplar in following international rules and observing international agreements. A country of our size benefits enormously from an international order in which the rules of the road are well established and widely observed.

For example, we should bolster the Paris Accord. The last thing we should do is walk away from an agreement we signed under Tony Abbott, thereby weakening the case for concerted international action and also undermining our reputation as a reliable country that sticks to its word.

Fifth, we should thicken our connections to other countries that matter to us. That means doing more with regional powers including Japan, South Korea, India, Indonesia and Vietnam – but also with like-minded extra-regional powers such as the UK and France.

This is easy to say, of course, and hard to do. Canberra should aim to build these relationships out. For example, it is important that Australia and Japan conclude an agreement to strengthen defence ties. We should also boost our cooperation with south-east Asian militaries, particularly at sea.

Stepping up our intelligence cooperation with our neighbours would also be a good thing. I liked Defence Minister Christopher Pyne's idea of providing training in reconnaissance and intelligence gathering to ASEAN countries.

Sixth, we should work with other capitals to support global deals until the fever in Washington has passed. I commend the Turnbull government for working with Tokyo and Ottawa to keep the TPP afloat. The TPP-11, ratified by Australia a fortnight ago, is a liberal development in a world that is increasingly illiberal.

Seventh, we should help to stand up a new concert of middle powers – countries that, like us, have an interest in supporting the international order and capabilities to help do so. It is past time to institutionalise a group of like-minded middle powers – a "coalition of the responsible".

Australia has a distinguished history of institution-building – from the United Nations and ANZUS to the Cairns Group and APEC – where our interests and values required it and the creativity of our leaders enabled it. We should draw on that history now.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we need to bolster our own national capabilities so that we are better positioned to shape our external environment and buttress the international system.

Defence expenditure

We should not be one of those countries that opines furiously on international developments but refuses to stump up for a serious defence force – countries that speak loudly but carry a small stick.

I welcome the progress made by the Coalition government in increasing defence expenditure towards 2 per cent of our GDP. I was also pleased to hear Bill Shorten declare at the Lowy Institute last month that the 2 per cent pledge is "fundamental". For Australia, the era of cheap security is over.

Along with a muscular ADF, we need a better resourced diplomatic corps and a generous aid program. We should undo some of the recent cuts to our aid budget.

The pace of regional diplomacy is picking up. Others are making the running. Meanwhile, we seem to have lost a step. How could it be otherwise when our new Prime Minister will spend most of the time between now and next year's election introducing himself to his counterparts?

Australia needs to rediscover its sense of ambition. In our dealings with President Trump's Washington, we will need to be a busy ally. But that will not be enough.

If we want the United States once again to be a responsible stakeholder in the international order, then we must be a responsible stakeholder too.