Everyone knows by now that the current, endlessly drawn-out electoral process in the US is remarkable, even by the standards of an increasingly weird political era. The consensus is that no matter who becomes the next president, it will be bad. If it’s Donald Trump, though, it could be apocalyptic.
Despite growing concerns about declining American power and influence, the US still dominates the region upon which Australia has increasingly come to depend. Therefore, the election outcome will have potentially major and enduring consequences for Australia and the wider Asia-Pacific region.
What do Trump’s foreign policies suggest?
Even though many people have real and understandable doubts about Hillary Clinton’s historical baggage, inconsistency and proclivity for “misspeaking”, most serious analysts hope she wins. The alternative is too awful, unpredictable and frankly alarming to even contemplate.
Consequently, not many people – including Australia’s foreign policy establishment, it seems – have given much thought to what happens if Trump triumphs.
Consistency and measured reflection are not words often seen in the same sentence as Donald Trump, but it is possible to get some idea of what his foreign policy might look like. Most of it is alarming. And none of it is likely to be good for Australia.
Trump’s policies are frequently described as “neo-isolationist”. They resonate with many who are disillusioned with the supposed failings of the Obama doctrine, and sick of American involvement in seemingly intractable conflicts in places they neither know nor care about.
Many Americans are remarkably ill-informed and uninterested in foreign policy. This is not a unique national characteristic, but some of the widely shared beliefs that inform voting intentions in what is still the world’s most-powerful country are striking.
For example, the average American thinks something like one-quarter of its US$4 trillion national budget is spent on foreign aid. In reality it’s less than a miserly 1%.
Trump may share this misapprehension for all we know. Either way, he is threatening to make supposedly freeloading allies pick up more of the bill for America’s implicit defence guarantees.
What might it all mean for Australia?
Given Australians have made disproportionate sacrifices to underpin its alliance relationship with the US over the years, this is a bit rich.
Australia’s major parties seem to have a policy of not having a policy when it comes to dealing with a possible Trump presidency. The reality would – or should – force a rethink of some of the most enduring foundations of Australian foreign policy.
This is why so many of Australia’s foreign policy and strategic elites are pinning their hopes on Clinton. She wouldn’t welcome the label, but Clinton is clearly the establishment candidate and consummate insider who can be relied upon to do the right thing as far as Australia and the world is concerned.
One assumes this may include rediscovering her surprisingly lost enthusiasm for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Her habit of being economical with the truth is one of the reasons she is personally unpopular, such an electoral liability, and no certainty to knock off the most unlikely and unpredictable candidate in recent US political history.
As far as our region is concerned, most analysts will be reassured by the prospect of a Clinton presidency. She is one of the architects of the so-called “pivot”, or shift in American strategic priorities to the Asia-Pacific region and response to China’s seemingly inexorable rise.
Whether she has the will to confront an expansionist China is the big question. Whether smaller countries like Australia would want her to is another question altogether. But this is not an issue that often gets an unambiguous airing here, despite the amount we are currently investing in military modernisation.
The prospects for Australia could be daunting no matter who wins the election. It is conceivable that Trump may follow through on his threat to demand greater self-reliance on the part of traditional allies and simply pull American forces out of the region. This would allow China to assert its dominance, and fundamentally overturn the long-standing basis of Australian foreign policy.
If Clinton wins, though, the options don’t necessarily look any more auspicious, even if they are more predictable. If the US is ever to stand up to China and try to reassert its former dominance of our region, it will have to get on with it.
If we extrapolate from here, it is only a question of time before China overtakes the US on every significant measure of great power status.
Clinton may decide it is her historical destiny to reassert American primacy, not to mention defend the rules-based international order that the US has done so much to develop – if not necessarily abide by – over the last half-century.
Under such circumstances, Australia’s nightmare choice between its principal security guarantor and its most important trade partner may come one step closer. And that’s the good outcome.
Authors: Mark Beeson, Professor of International Politics, University of Western Australia