While still considered unlikely, there is now a real and growing possibility that Donald Trump will be the next president of the United States. And yet, despite the fact that Bill Shorten apparently considers him to be “barking mad”, there has been almost no serious discussion about what this might mean for Australia.
Indeed, there has been precious little foreign policy debate so far in the election campaign. No surprise about this, perhaps: foreign policy is usually something of an afterthought during election campaigns.
Australians are not unique in being rather uninterested in foreign affairs, but one might have thought this time things would be different. We are subjected to a fairly relentless bombardment about the supposed threats to national security and the deteriorating regional strategic environment, after all.
One of the reasons there is so little discussion of foreign and strategic policy is that there are few significant differences between the major parties, or about the received wisdom among most of the commentariat. Whatever your views of the Greens’ policies in this area may be, they are at least willing to question the basis of a conventional wisdom that has seen Australia take part in every major conflict since the second world war.
Such a debate looks timely, given that prominent figures from both Labor and the Coalition have expressed deep concern about the implications of a Trump presidency. Even John Howard, who is now held in remarkably high esteem throughout the country, has suggested that Trump is “too unstable to hold that high office”.
One might have thought that under such circumstances, where there is a bipartisan consensus on the dangers of a Trump presidency, there would be an informed discussion of what this might actually mean for the security policy that has formed the foundation of Australia’s defence since the second world war.
On the contrary, though, Malcolm Turnbull has attempted to shut down debate by suggesting that there should be no commentary on the politics of other countries during an election.
Opening up this debate might raise uncomfortable questions that neither of the major parties want to discuss. Most importantly, does it make sense for this country – or any other for that matter – to rely so heavily on a foreign power, no matter how intimate the relationship may have grown over the years?
Australian policy is essentially hostage to the preferences of the US and the expectations that they will always coincide with ours.
The dangers of such a strategy were revealed in the disastrous but entirely predictable decision to take part in the invasion of Iraq. Not only was this a folly of the grandest proportions, but it was also one that had no bearing on or relevance to Australia’s own security.
Important lessons could and should have been learned from this experience, which might be used to guide policy now when the potential threat is even more direct and unambiguous.
Australian policymakers and commentators have always assumed that what’s good for America in foreign policy terms will necessarily be good for Australia. This always looked like an exercise in wishful thinking and a dereliction of responsibility on the part of generations of Australian policymakers.
With the ascent of a potentially dangerous figure like Trump, who even prominent conservative commentators in the US have described as a fascist, the dangers of this policy are becoming painfully apparent.
Some debates are plainly too discomfiting to contemplate. It is noteworthy that, 40 years after the end of the Vietnam War, Barack Obama has been attempting to develop a close strategic relationship with the still notionally communist government in Hanoi. Quite why two million Vietnamese had to die in the conflict, not to mention 60,000 Americans and some 500 Australians, is not entirely clear in retrospect.
One of the problems of failing to confront uncomfortable realities in the past or the present is that it becomes impossible to learn potential lessons and adjust policy in the future. Vietnam and Iraq look like entirely avoidable and pointless conflicts from this distance, especially for Australia, which was not threatened by either country and had little to gain – other than the good opinion of our notional security guarantor.
But it’s an odd sort of security that involves the continuing expenditure of so much blood and treasure to ingratiate ourselves with another country. The potential folly of this policy could be demonstrated by president Trump, who has nothing but contempt for loyal allies that are judged to freeload on American power.
Outsourcing responsibility for foreign and security policy is not wise at the best of times. There is undoubtedly much to admire about the US. As hegemonic powers go, things might have been a lot worse. But the time has come to have a mature debate about our relationship with the US and the world more generally.
There is potentially much that Australia could do as a creative middle power in conjunction with regional partners like Japan, South Korea or Indonesia. However, until we have an independent policy position on critical foreign and strategic policies that affect this country, the chances of such initiatives coming about look remote.