The Donald Trump presidency: how will it affect Australia?

Monday 20 March, 2017

James Curran may be a professor of history at Sydney University, but when he visited Warrane on Wednesday 8 March, he kept it very current. As someone who teaches courses in Australian political culture and foreign policy, as well as the history of America's relations with the world, what do you think his topic of choice was? None other than the Donald Trump, President of the USA – and what his election might mean for Australia.

“Many allies around the world...took a breath; took a very deep breath, because America is taking a plunge into the unknown,” said Curran.

“Even when Donald Trump talks about American dominance, and about America winning again, and about American power, there’s still a great deal of uncertainty about to what uses he is going to put that power.”

Why was Trump elected?

For Curran, the election of someone like Donald Trump is quite understandable – in fact, he was surprised that it’s taken this long for a populist candidate to emerge.

“When you think about the grievances coming out of ...the American heartland, about ...decades of wage inequality; wage stagnation. Their frustration at a broken Washington, a dysfunctional Congress; where the polarisation of politics has become so poisonous; where it’s very hard to get reform through the system. When you think about their frustration at what many in middle America see as the excesses of American foreign policy... they are asking (were asking, and still are indeed): why is it that America spends so much blood and treasure in the Middle East...when the heartland of America is suffering from crumbling infrastructure, and where the jobs have been leaving the country?”

“So Trump was elected on this platform of grievance,” continued Curran. “He was able to fuel, if you like, an existing sense of national malaise... of America losing its direction.”

Trump is a different kind of president – even apart from the obvious

It’s true – Trump has certainly proved himself to be ‘different’ from other American presidents in a multitude of ways. However Curran shed light on a deeper difference between Trump and his precursors: the language he uses to speak about American nationalism.

“Now I’m sure you know as well as I do that Americans have a very powerful sense of nationalism,” said Curran. “Their nationalism is very different to the nationalism of a lot of other countries, in that it’s not based on race or culture – it’s based on an idea: on this idea that America has particular values, which are not only unique to itself but are universal, and should be spread to all humankind.”

“But what’s interesting about Trump,” he continued, “is that during his election campaign, and during his inauguration address, he spoke a very different language about America! He didn’t talk about America ‘going abroad, in search of monsters to destroy’... When he talked about making America great again, he’s talking about bringing jobs back to America from all the countries that have left the continent; he’s talking about restoring jobs; he’s talking about a more inward looking  America.”

“He said in his speech to Congress the other day words to the effect of: ‘I am not the president of the world. I am the president of the United States and my responsibility is to this country’. Now that, as I said, is a very different language to pretty much all the presidents speaking on those sorts of occasions since the end of WWII. He has raised a great deal of questions about this sacred American mission – which is to spread democracy to the rest of the world. This is a very different kind of America; a very different kind of America. And I think Australia will be concerned if these inward-looking, and protectionist, and sometimes isolationist, trends start to embed themselves more deeply into American political culture.”

So what does this all mean for Australia?

Curran made it clear that Trump as the US president will indeed have repercussions for Australia and other allied nations.

For one, Trump expects more economically. “As part of this idea to fix America, and to put America first, he said he wanted allies around the world to pay more,” said Curran. “And this sent a shiver up virtually every allied spine in both Europe and throughout Asia, including here in Australia as well.”

Trump has been putting allies on notice – saying that they shouldn’t expect America to be there for them unless they’re going to pay more of the fair share of their self-defence. He told the Japanese and Koreans that they need to pay more for the cost of feeding and housing the American troops stationed in their countries; and has attacked the Europeans for not spending enough of their GDP on defence.

Curran went on: “In Australia this again had resonances back to earlier parts of our history such as when the British pulled out their military from East of Suez and when Nixon recalibrated America’s Asian posture in 1969... So in many parts of the Australian debate, there was panic about this language from Trump. What is this going to mean for us? How much more will he want Australia to do? And why is this important for Australia?“

There are a few main concerns for Australia, Curran told the Warrane boys. “The speculation is that there will now be increased pressure on Australia to provide another battalion of troops to the Middle East in the fight against ISIS; or that American pressure will ramp up on Australia to do a freedom of navigation operation through the contested 12 nautical mile zone of the South China Sea.” This last one is of particular concern since Australia ideally would not want to needlessly antagonise China.

Another concern for Australia is in terms of values, Curran pointed out. “Here is an American president who is attacking minorities; who has attacked the disabled; who is attacking the freedom of the press... and who has also been known to attack fairly vigorously the American judiciary. Often you hear in rhetoric about Australia and the US that we share such common values... but there’s a view that Australian leaders might not be too comfortable standing too close to Trump on some of these questions.”

Curran made it clear that Australia will have to learn to say ‘no’ to America more often; which it doesn’t often do. Australia’s self-reliance will have to be re-learnt. “I think we’re in for a bit of tension,” said Curran, “but I think the alliance will survive. I think the alliance is still in Australia’s national interest. The bottom line is it would cost this country a great deal more money to defend itself without the American relationship... but even so, as I said, this is going to become trickier for Australia.”

In conclusion

“With Trump, the name of the game is volatility – his watchwords are volatility and unpredictability,” said Curran.  He continued on to say that while in some cases, Trump does bring that presidential gravitas, the next day he’ll do something like go onto Twitter and accuse Obama of wiretapping. There’s a real war within him as to what kind of president he is. Curran agreed with former head of DFAT Peter Varghese’s questions about Trump, namely that we know that he’s a man of strong impulses, but to what extent do these make a coherent view of the world, and in particular, to what extent does Donald Trump have the capacity to change in the job? And much of the answer to that will be played out in the coming six to nine months...”

Curran finished off: “So as Australia looks out over this region, the tectonic plates are shifting – we don’t yet know what the settling point will be... I think the best way to deal with Trump is to take him piecemeal and pragmatically; take him one step at a time – we know history often has an ace up its sleeve. So we’re in an unpredictable, very fluid, strategic environment: we’re waiting for things in Washington to settle down. I suspect that the adults in Washington will, over time, have a more moderating and tempering influence on some of Trump’s instincts, but that game is still to be played out.”

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