Lambert here: If Trump did, in fact, hang up the phone on Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, he expressed the power relationships involved with bracing clarity. This post works through the implications.
By David Llewellyn-Smith, a regular contributor at The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, and The Drum. He is also the co-author of The Great Crash of 2008 with Ross Garnaut. He edits MacroBusiness. Originally published at Macrobusiness.
From The Lowy Institute’s Sam Roggeveen:
The alliance has been through worse moments than last weekend’s already infamous phone call between Prime Minister Turnbull and President Trump. Clearly, this was an extremely tense discussion – perhaps no Australian leader has ever had such a hostile encounter with a US president. But although it sounds cold to say it about the 1250 poor souls trapped in the middle of this argument, the stakes were not particularly high.
…So it’s tempting to think that this will pass, and that an alliance as deep as that between the US and Australia can survive such spats. But there are three reasons we should be reluctant to be too reassured by history.
The first is that those reassurances about the stability and strength of the alliance are made in a political environment in which no alternative to Australia’s present alliance arrangements has really been contemplated.
…So Australia’s political class has no conception of what a more self-reliant Australian foreign policy might look like, and no language in which to describe it. No wonder they think (hope) the current arrangement will endure.
The second reason to think that the Trump-Turnbull call represents more than a passing tiff is that the political systems of both countries are presently weaker than they have been since the alliance was signed, and more vulnerable to forces which have little regard for political-class shibboleths such as the alliance and the “rules-based global order”.
…The third reason to suppose that the alliance is more vulnerable than it looks is that it has never before faced the international challenge it faces today.
The Cold War was no cakewalk, but compared to China, the Soviet Union was a small economic power which could not come close to matching the US and its allies militarily in the Pacific.
And when the USSR collapsed, supporting the alliance became even easier, requiring Australia mainly to make tokenistic military commitments to the Middle East. But in China, the US now faces a true economic peer competitor with a military home-ground advantage.
…Now we have to seriously contemplate the idea of taking sides in a war between two nuclear-armed powers, one our ally and the other our biggest trading partner.
So yes, it was just a phone call, and the storm will pass. But in the background, history is moving against the US-Australia alliance.
All fair points. But the problem is deeper and older than Roggeveen conceives and this goes to the heart of his failure to frame the question in the light of reality. Australia has never run a “self-reliant foreign policy” not out of choice. Our first one hundred and fifty years of foreign policy was as a British Colony. Foreign policy was simply an extension of legal, cultural, military and economic dependence. Soft and hard power were in alignment.
The next seventy years we relied upon a different liberal imperial overlord, the United States. Again soft and hard power were in alignment. There was no choice other than to embrace it just as most other Asian nations did. We were advantaged at least by the new order being “liberal”, favouring democracy and multi-lateralism but that was not not some natural order of things. It was the predilections of the imperial centre.
So, what happens if we give away membership of that liberal empire? We’ve already done it in some large part by selling everything not bolted down to an autocratic China, taking for granted that benevolent US overlordship would be there forever.
We can try to generate some new liberal order by ourselves. Australia’s greatest strategic thinker, Coral Bell, wrote a decade ago that Australia should aim for a “Concert of Powers” structure to manage the emerging giants of the region. That would have been a system in which many middle powers entangled the giants in a rules based regime that shared power. That would have offered independence. We could still aim for some loose web of democracies in Europe, India, Japan, Indonesia and Brazil. That’s what Lowy’s chief Michael Fullilove reckons we should do, via the FT:
Australia will also need to prosecute a larger foreign policy. It cannot look at everything through an alliance prism. It needs to strengthen relations with Asian powers such as India, Japan and South Korea and do more with like-minded European partners such as the UK and France, which will supply the next generation of Australian submarines. Australia also needs to defend international institutions, such as the United Nations, towards which Mr Trump is ill-disposed.
And I agree. But let’s face it, we’ve ignored this option for a long time and the world is not going that way. Rather, it is going the other way, with “strongman” regimes spouting sovereignty popping up in China, Russia, the US and SE Asia. In that environment, without hard power to back up our soft power effort, it’ll be very difficult. Perhaps, we could build an enormous military of our own to generate hard power independence. Perhaps a nuclear capability. To be honest, given our size, it’s not very likely!
In the absence of that countervailing force, then, if we elect to turn away from the US and ANZUS then what we are most likely going to achieve is to accelerate the rise of a new imperial order. The economic dependence at the heart of Chinese soft power will engulf the country. We won’t be “independent” or self-reliant, our foreign policy will be set in Beijing.
And it will go further. Client states tend to take on the political economy trappings of their imperial betters. We can already see this in parts of SE Asia and Africa where Chinese power is reshaping the political economy in its image. That means Australian democracy would be in severe jeopardy (unless Beijing decided to let us keep it but why would it given its plan is clearly to keep it away from home?)
Just imagine for a moment if in ten years an independently-minded political party ran for office with popular support but Beijing disapproved so it parked an aircraft carrier in Sydney harbour for a “friendly” visit as it made it gently plain that the offending policy platform might result in Chinese investment finding NZ more attractive. Is that election going to be free? It wouldn’t even get that far. Chinese soft power would have already derailed such a party via its plentiful local stooges. We can already see this at work among the grasping mavens of the political class.
Let’s not kid ourselves here. We can do our best to find a multilateral solution that preserves an independent outlook but it is basically a figment of the US’s liberal empire. Without ANZUS, a new and different empire will rise in its place and occupy our choices.
So, what to do? Play the Trump game. Japan is well ahead already, via Reuters:
Japan is putting together a package it says could generate 700,000 U.S. jobs and help create a $450-billion market, to present to U.S. President Donald Trump next week, government sources familiar with the plans said.
The five-part package, to be unveiled when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visits Trump on Feb. 10 in Washington, envisage investments in infrastructure projects such as high-speed trains and cybersecurity, said the sources, who declined to be identified as they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Investing in overseas infrastructure projects dovetails with a key plank in Abe’s growth strategy, which is to export “high-quality” infrastructure technology.
Japan will invest 17 trillion yen ($150 billion) in public and private funds over 10 years, the sources said. That would include helping develop high-speed railways in the northeastern United States, and the states of Texas and California, and renovating subway and train cars.
The package also includes cooperation in global infrastructure investment, joint development of robots and artificial intelligence, and cooperation in cybersecurity and space exploration, among others.
The government may tap its foreign exchange reserves account to fund part of the package, the sources said.
It may also get funding from megabanks and government-affiliated financial institutions, as well as the Government Pension Investment Fund, the Asahi and other newspapers reported.
America First, peeps, cough up.