Donald Trump was right, but then we’ve known that for years. “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters,” he joked on the campaign trail in early 2016.
Now, seven years later and once again his party’s leading candidate for the presidential nomination, his indictment on charges of conspiring to overthrow the result of the 2020 election in the United States has only confirmed for his substantial base the existence of a vast persecutory plot. So too all the other indictments: for the unlawful and reckless retention of classified documents, for the payment of hush money and for the falsification of business records.
Within hours of the publication of his mugshot – instantly iconic, and signifying for millions either American dysfunction or Trump’s martyrdom – The Don’s campaign team was selling the image on T-shirts and coffee mugs. And he was promising to throw his opponents in jail.
Might Trump return to the White House? And what could this mean for Australia? Would he resume costly trade wars with China? What is the health of American democracy, the likelihood of armed conflict with China, and, within this, the significance of the AUKUS deal, which profoundly and unambiguously ties Australia to the US? I asked these questions of Bob Carr, who was minister for foreign affairs in the Gillard/Rudd governments, and of Sam Roggeveen, a former defence intelligence officer, a former senior analyst at the Office of National Assessments and today the director of the Lowy Institute’s International Security Program.
In the July edition of Australian Foreign Affairs, published by Schwartz Media, Roggeveen had a widely read and passionately debated essay on Australia’s military posture that was critical of the AUKUS deal. He’s expanded upon his analysis in the recent book The Echidna Strategy, the title of which is an Aussie-fication of “the porcupine strategy” – that Australia should make itself unthreatening but extremely painful to attack.
Roggeveen argues we must re-emphasise our influence as regional diplomats, rather than serving as a militarised proxy of the US. And we must help broker a regional balance of power rather than upholding America’s quickly declining primacy in the Pacific, a primacy that will soon become too costly to maintain and to which the United States seems indifferent to committing itself.
He argues the AUKUS arrangement – which would extend Australia’s naval reach much further north via the use of nuclear submarines, and effectively transform this country into a regional stronghold for the US military – could prove disastrously and unnecessarily provocative. He says Australia would be surrendering the safety of distance and increasing the likelihood of a Chinese attack, something that currently is highly unlikely. “One of the most baffling absences in Australian public debate about China is a clear analysis of the military threat that it poses to Australia,” he tells The Saturday Paper.
For Roggeveen, the US is “wealthy, powerful and unmotivated”. It’s not American decline that should concern us, but indifference. More than a decade has passed since president Barack Obama’s so-called “Pacific pivot”, which excited many in Canberra at the time, but resulted in little. Earlier this year, when several senior US military figures issued grim warnings of the imminence of war with China, several analysts expressed caution to me: they were not seeing a commensurate development of American troops and capacity in the Pacific. There was – and remains – a curious discrepancy.
“I think the debate that’s arisen around American power, because of Trump, is really centred on its democratic stability – its class divisions, its racial divisions, and so on,” Roggeveen says. “And really, my point is that we should be thinking less about the strength of America as a nation, and much more about America’s motivation to maintain its power in Asia. So no matter who is in office, whether it’s Trump or Biden or anybody else, the basic factors around America’s motivation, that won’t change, because that’s external – that’s coming from China.”
Roggeveen says he’s relatively optimistic about the US as a democracy and as a powerful economy. “I think America does have the capabilities … to remain a great power indefinitely and has many ingredients for long-term prosperity. But what it doesn’t have is sufficient motivation to take on another country of similar size, which is what China now is … I think Trump will accelerate the kind of trends that I’m talking about with regard to American power and American resolve. He’s not at the root of it, but he can accelerate them.”
A popular characterisation of the United States is that it’s a faded star suffering a nervous breakdown, incapable of bearing the weight of its contradictions. But if the US is experiencing a breakdown, it has had worse ones. The 1970s, for example, was a period of vastly greater violence, economic instability and domestic terrorism. FBI records show that in an 18-month period across 1971 and 1972, there were 2500 domestic bombings. Which is not to disregard the country’s profound divisions today, but the US is a messy, mercurial beast: both powerfully destructive and inventive, and, history suggests, unusually resilient. It may be that America’s sum remains greater than its strange parts, and its decline overstated.
“I’ve never plugged the argument that America is in decline,” says Bob Carr. “There are too many moving parts. You could say that America can experience all kinds of turmoil domestically, but still have a serious international character and be taken seriously by its extensive alliance network. So I think we’ve got to be careful defining decline. The American economy is famously resilient. Political dysfunction, and all of America’s pathologies, may be able to coexist with continued great power status.”
Donald Trump’s pathologies are manifold: he is narcissistic, ignorant and mythomaniacal. Despite his impulsivity, though, he has several long-held political fixations. “There are a handful of things that Trump has remained entirely consistent about throughout his public career,” Roggeveen says. “One of those is that he thinks America is getting a raw deal from its allies. He’s said that since the 1980s – he’s campaigned for the removal of American troops from Japan, from Europe and from Korea, because he thinks the United States is being exploited by crafty allies who prefer not to pay for their own defence, and he remains entirely consistent in that belief. I think that’s the real fear with Trump.
“The notable thing about the first Trump administration – and I guess we have to call it that at the moment, the ‘first Trump administration’ – is that despite that belief, he never managed to get anything done in that regard. His administration resisted him. There’s some qualification to that – the withdrawal of troops from Germany, or Trump’s reluctance to endorse Article 5 of NATO in 2017. That’s the all-for-one, one-for-all article of collective defence. [But] there is plenty of evidence in the open sources that his own senior officials worked against his own tendencies to devolve from these alliances.
“So the big question about a second Trump term would be: is there still enough gas in the tank for those foreign policy elites to actually resist Trump a second time? I don’t know the answer to that. But that is the big question for me.”
Bob Carr counsels that we should look beyond Trump and consider the precedent he’s established for a kind of rabid populism, streaked with America First isolationism – and, more broadly, the surprises that American volatility can generate. He mentions Vivek Ramaswamy, the young Republican candidate and biotech entrepreneur, whose glib chutzpah, scripted provocations and tireless media engagements have seen him rise from obscurity to prominence very quickly as a Trumpian protégé. “We’ve got to be ready for those surprises like a post-Trump president who’s going to be in the Oval Office in the 2030s,” Carr says. “Who becomes the next Trump? And how will deep state instincts live alongside isolationist instincts in a future Republican president? The Ramaswamy candidacy is very interesting in this respect.”
The AUKUS deal, quickly endorsed by Anthony Albanese as opposition leader, and which he then inherited unfussily as prime minister, signals a profoundly more intimate relationship with the US – and it remains inadequately explained. Within Labor there are misgivings about the deal – misgivings that were insipidly debated during the ALP’s recent national conference, where the inclusion of AUKUS in the party’s platform was endorsed. The historic arrangement was thrown into sharp relief by the recent obituaries for former Labor leader Simon Crean, all of which referenced his opposition to the Iraq War and his belief that Australia’s support for the US then was recklessly and belittlingly unconditional. I asked Carr what had changed in the past 20 years.
“I think America’s intense phobic response to China’s altogether predictable rise has created an atmosphere in which Australian politicians have thrown maturity out the window – the maturity or confidence that would have enabled a more measured and cool-headed attitude by Australia,” Carr says. “Where we are now is the comprehensive loss of sovereignty. It’s seen first in the closing off of the option that we might choose in our national interest to stand aside from a US–China showdown in Taiwan, and, without any discussion with the Australian people, we’ve opted to multiply targets on Australian soil that would attract Chinese interests should there be a war.”
The AUKUS deal, and broader questions about our relations with China and the US, have often been debated and analysed with good faith and seriousness. But that doesn’t extend to the government, which has failed to offer a sophisticated rationale for it. “We shouldn’t dismiss the possibility that at least some or maybe all members of the cabinet believe sincerely in AUKUS,” Roggeveen says. “But my working assumption is that they found themselves, when Morrison was about to announce this, in a very tight political spot. And they made a political calculation that it simply wasn’t worth demonstrating any opposition to this – and that that basic calculation remains true to this day.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 2, 2023 as "Trump stakes".
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