Trump: a sideshow?

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Richard Butler.

Republished with permission from the influential blog of John Menadue.

Donald Trump. Gage Skidmore. flickr cc.

It is not only Trump who has assumed power in the US, but also a set of deeply ideological and introverted Republicans. Both will shape US policy and actions. Australia should now review the conduct of its relationship with the US, and develop an independent foreign policy, freed from the dictates of internal US politics.  

The commentary on Trump’s election, his character, the disappearance of verity in public information, the arrival of ‘alternative facts’, to mention only a minor portion of current topics, have become major preoccupations of journalists and the public discourse. There is no end to this in sight.

That Trump is now President is a deeply important reality, and his continuing antics are spectacular, from raging about how many people attended his inauguration, to phantom illegal immigrants voting for Hillary, to telling the staff at CIA Headquarters he had always loved them. Today the New York Times has felt compelled to put on its front page a report that the President has lied again, just four days into his presidency.

This theatre can be understood, and it is of critical political importance to do so.

Republican in name only

Trump is a Republican in name only. Most of the senior figures in that party had spent months distancing themselves from him, and still find him distasteful, and, above all, not really their kind of conservative, if he is one at all. Trump’s deputy Vice President Pence is a devoted Christian fundamentalist. He surely has to hold his nose frequently and take much comfort in the notion of ends justifying means.

But Trump delivered to the Republicans a political El Dorado: the White House, control of the Congress, and just about every other Congress and Governor’s Mansion in the country. This gives them the opportunity to fix the economy for their supporters and conduct the cultural wars of their choice. And they are having him sign up immediately through Executive Orders on, for example, the oil/gas pipelines, TPP, blocking funding for development assistance, where abortions might be provided as part of overall reproductive health assistance to tens of millions of women in developing countries. Further such executive orders are promised in the days immediately ahead – all very Republican ideological.

It is essential to recognise that the election has brought into office not just Donald Trump, but also a set of senior Republican politicians – Pence, Paul Ryan, for example – who now have immense power, provided they manage their loose cannon boss.

Consequences for Australia and world

For us in Australia, and indeed for all others who will need to manage anew their relationship with the US under Trump’s doctrine of ‘America First’, it will be important to resist the continued insistence, especially by the media, that Trump is the issue. For example, the question of whether or not he and Vladimir Putin will like each other is crucial.

Such things are a sideshow, and thus can be glittering, but they do not constitute a remotely full or rational picture of what has happened and what is going to unfold.

While, obviously, there is some distance to go yet, it surely can be relied upon that the expectations Trump has raised amongst his popular base will not be fulfilled, and possibly glaringly so. Or he will resile from them, ditch his promises, self-evidently betray the populism he has stoked. There is surely great danger in this, and not only to America.

President Trump 12017. mccauleys-corner. flickr cc.

Of at least equal concern is Trump’s descriptions of what he proposes to deliver with respect to the US role in the world and in its relations with other countries and international structures such as trading regimes, climate change accords, UN organisations. His strident declaration that, in all of these areas, his single principle will be ‘America First’, is merely declaratory, and is yet without known substance.

The depressing thing about this declaration of untrammelled national selfishness is that Trump seems to think it’s original, breaking new ground. It isn’t. Isolationism, America First, has a long cyclical history in America. Trump’s chosen leitmotif is simply a part of his macho package for domestic consumption. But it holds the same danger of disappointed expectations as his promise to fix everything for everyone at home.

Trump’s declaration comes at a very bad time. It pours petrol on the flames of an agitated world – Brexit, the European migration crisis, and the stirrings of populist/nationalist/nativist movements in such major countries as France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Hungary, Poland.

He posits the existence of states and multinational agreements, such as EU and NATO, which act in ways which reduce US ability to maximise its gains and advantages. This costs the US, and Trump says he will make them pay, bilaterally and multilaterally.

In those places, his pledge will increase the considerable wariness already in existence about US bullying and its notion that it is the exceptional country. Then relationships with the US will begin to be reviewed.

How Australia should respond

The question of what all this will mean for Australia, and in relation to the Alliance, is now major. At least four issues need our attention.

First, We must address the fact that we have lost our way, our independence at the very least, since we joined the US in the illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003, and possibly since our participation in the war on Vietnam.

We have gone everywhere with the US in its military adventures, on the basis that this was what the alliance required. This has meant our leaders have repeatedly misrepresented to Australians what the Treaty actually provides, and we have violated our own laws and international law in doing so. This has cost us much in lives and resources, and no one can demonstrate credibly what it has given us.

So, these remarkable current events from within the US polity should be seen as giving us a much needed and overdue opportunity to review our relationship with the US, in terms of our interests, values, and legal obligations, as a member of the United Nations.

Secondly, we should stop misleading the Australian people about US extended nuclear deterrence as a source of protection to us. We would do a lot better for ourselves and for the region in which we live by resuming active pursuit of strengthened nuclear arms control and disarmament measures.

Thirdly, we should examine the extent to which we are enmeshed in US nuclear war capability and what that means in terms of Australia being targeted in a situation in which nuclear weapons are used or threatened.

Fourthly, we must take steps towards disengaging from what is emerging, as the US wishes to identify China as the next global threat, and to take part in its growing military posture against China. It is contrived and unnecessary for us to be obliged to make some sort of choice between our relationship with the US or China. We can and should maintain a constructive relationship with both. This would strengthen our national security.

Finally, as a generic conceptual point, the US arms sales industry is massive. Those arms are sold to states and groups which often do not remotely meet the US’s proclaimed standards of democracy and human rights, or our own, although our view of such standards has increasingly reflected America’s.

There is an odious degree of hypocrisy at issue here, and surely the policy of America First will only enlarge it. The US arms industry has branches and factories in almost every State of the USA. It influences elections to virtually every office subject to election. Countless credible analyses have demonstrated that the US military/corporate complex has an interest in wars. That is its marketplace.

The Republican electoral majorities mentioned earlier have relied for some time on understandings with arms manufacturers and of course with the NRA (National Rifle Association). Trump’s arrival on the scene is a sideshow to this. His peppering his Administration with military figures is not.

In considering Australia’s future foreign policy, we need to ask, to what extent are we prepared to continue to take national decisions on the basis of outcomes forged within the US political system and the interests of its arms industry?

Richard Butler AC was Australian Ambassador to the United Nations, and subsequently Professor of International Affairs at New York University and Penn State University.

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