The impending US presidential election will be the most crucial in modern history. As claimed by the Guardian Weekly on its Oct. 2 cover, it is “the election that could break America.” Rampant inequality, continued racial injustice, environmental degradation, a public health disaster, and crippled democratic and electoral institutions have left the United States on the edge of a precipice.
However, it’s not just at home that America is bleeding. The post-Cold War period, variously described as the “unipolar moment,” the “age of American hegemony” or “pax Americana” now appears to be a bygone era. The days of preeminent US leadership are over.
This decline has been identifiable for much of the 21st century, but has accelerated under Trump, whose chaotic politics represents a radical break from the US foreign policy consensus that has held firm since World War II. American global leadership now faces its most significant test.
Hugh Riminton, a senior Australian political reporter and foreign correspondent, acknowledged in a conversation for this article that “the United States will decline in relative terms against the rising global power, China, regardless of who wins this election.”
A United States led by Donald Trump in 2021 will continue to exacerbate geopolitical tensions, undermine alliances and peace-building coalitions, and jeopardize global climate action. It would destabilize global flows of goods, people, and ideas, resulting in a more polarized and more divided world.
A Joe Biden presidency would face seemingly insurmountable challenges in restoring faith in American leadership and developing more coherent and effective strategies for dealing with adversaries and allies alike.
Suffice to say that a lot is at stake. Riminton said that “the decision to be made by Americans on Nov. 3 will affect all life on the planet in some way.”
Countries across the globe are monitoring developments closely, and no country will be unaffected by the outcome. But in few states will the effects of the election be felt more acutely than in Australia.
The view from Australia
As a country of only 25 million people, Australia has enjoyed a close economic, cultural, and military partnership with the United States since the end of World War II. For many decades, Australia has relied on US military power and the US nuclear umbrella for its security. This relationship has been formalized in many documents, most notably the ANZUS military treaty and the AUSFTA free-trade agreement. American and Australian diplomats on both sides of the political spectrum often describe the other as one of their country’s most enduring friends and allies.
Yet the relationship is entering turbulent waters, and may already have been there for some time. For many Australians, the “hostile and charged” conversation between Trump and former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in January 2017 set the tone for the new reality of “Australia’s uneasy American alliance.”
I have no doubt that the US election will affect Australian lives and policy contexts in several ways. As Riminton pointed out, the US has spent four years under Donald Trump’s undermining and abandoning of allies. Trump’s “America First” doctrine threatens all US allies, including Australia.
What does the ANZUS treaty really mean with Donald Trump as Commander in Chief? Should Australia take greater steps to increase its sovereign defense capabilities?
How will Australia navigate the increasingly fraught relationship between the US, its ”closest friend” and enduring ally, and China, the country’s largest trade and investment partner?
What do the US presidential candidate’s climate policies mean for Australia’s future, particularly in the aftermath of the country’s worst ever bushfire season?
And what does America’s disastrous Covid-19 response and the hyper-partisan nature of the American response to the pandemic say about the future of American soft power in Australia?
These are but some of the questions that Australians are posing in the lead up to the election. Let us engage with each in turn.
America’s erratic treatment of its allies has undermined Australian confidence in the ANZUS treaty, and has led to calls for increased investment in Australia’s sovereign defense capabilities. Hugh White, one of Australia’s leading defense strategists, has for many years advocated for a more independent Australia that is less reliant on the US for its security. The government seems to have got the message, with a significant investment of $270 billion over ten years announced in June 2020.
A re-elected Trump administration would only strengthen calls for greater sovereign defense capabilities and the end of a perceived over-reliance on the US for Australia’s security.
To understand just how deep the seeds of doubt have been sown, consider the title of a recent issue of the prominent journal Australian Foreign Affairs: “Can we trust America?”
Indeed, Australia has recently become more assertive in its diplomacy with the United States, with Foreign Minister Marise Payne reiterating, under pressure from the US to adopt a confrontational policy towards China, that “we make our own decisions.”
Both Joe Biden and Donald Trump promote a hawkish stance on China, so US-China tensions seem unlikely to dissipate anytime soon. Fairly or unfairly, Australia suffers when the U.S. and China compete, in part due to Chinese perceptions of Australia as a “giant kangaroo that serves as a dog of the U.S.” The series of punitive trade restrictions China has placed on Australia in recent months is evidence of this.
For two decades, successive Australian Prime Ministers have claimed that we do not need to choose between the U.S. and China. Although Minister Payne continues to thread a diplomatic and non-confrontational line, this win-win narrative is increasingly hard to defend, and Australia seems increasingly stuck between the two superpowers.
Undoubtedly, a Biden presidency would be more favourable to the Australian foreign policy establishment. This is particularly true in light of current US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s increasingly belligerent claims of a battle “for the soul of the world” in which we must choose sides “between freedom and tyranny”. Australia does not want and cannot afford a new cold (or hot) war.
Both Australia and the U.S. are on track to miss their emission reductions targets in the 2015 Paris agreement. Australia, at least, remains a signatory to the agreement.
However, the Trump administration’s lack of meaningful action to address the climate crisis affects Australia in two ways.
Firstly, it will result in worse climate change for decades and centuries to come. I need not outline the severity of these impacts on current and future generations.
Secondly, policy paralysis in Washington makes it easier for Australian government to escape criticism for its own climate inaction. Admittedly, there are many reasons for Australia’s complete lack of a genuine climate policy, and many have nothing to do with America.
However, Australia looks to America for leadership. Right now, there is none.
Although Joe Biden’s target of zero net emissions by 2050 is not ambitious enough, a lacking climate policy would leave Australia as a pariah among other developed nations, and increase pressure on the political class to take decisive action.
The American response to the Covid-19 pandemic has been abysmal. This has resulted in a palpable shift in Australian attitudes towards the U.S. After three years of the Trump presidency, 2020 feels like the year in which the true extent of American dysfunction has dawned upon Australians. The “American dream” increasingly seems like the “American nightmare.”
If Trump remains in the White House in 2021, Australian attitudes towards the US will likely continue to harden. Between 2014 and 2019, the number of Australians who believe the U.S. to be Australia’s greatest friend in the world declined from 35% to only 20%. A further comparison of Lowy Institute data shows that in 2011, 83% of Australians trusted the United States to act responsibly in the world. By 2020, this has declined to only 51%, with 15% of Australians having no trust at all in the U.S. These statistics show that US belligerence at home and abroad is having real consequences for the essence and integrity of its closest relationships.
Australians will not have a say in choosing the next president of the United States of America, but the outcome will affect us.
The 21st century is increasingly defined by polarization and populism, while unprecedented security challenges, from pandemics to climate change, are reshaping the ways our societies operate.
In this uncertain and unstable environment, all countries need to chart their own futures. The current dysfunction of the United States of America is putting incredible strain on Australia’s population and policy makers. Never in my lifetime has there been so much debate on the future of Australia’s foreign policy.
I do not think it would be an exaggeration to say that Australia’s future prosperity and stability, both in its internal affairs and its foreign relations, will be affected by the decision America makes in November.
Whether this is a democratic decision, reflecting the true will of the people, or the penultimate crisis in the unravelling of a democracy, is a script that remains to be written.