AFA Monthly logo

20 November 2019

With Jonathan Pearlman

American disengagement

As a businessman and then a politician, Donald Trump has long held a hustler’s suspicion that friends are just as likely to rip you off as enemies – making them doubly duplicitous. This belief has led Trump, as president, to unrestrainedly attack longstanding American allies.

Australia, however, has proven the handy exception which allows Trump to deny the existence of a rule. He has loudly celebrated the US alliance with Australia, including hosting Scott Morrison at a rare state dinner. And the main features of the alliance – such as close military and intelligence ties – have been mostly unaffected by the change of presidency in January 2017, notwithstanding the two-year absence of a US ambassador in Canberra.

But even though Australia has not been the target of Trump’s wrath, it is increasingly clear that the country is being affected by the president’s approach to alliances. This is because Western nations and traditional partners of the United States are either defying it or seeking greater independence. As a result, the US’s global influence is diminishing – which, for Australia, decreases the value of the alliance.

A recent example of this shift was French president Emanuel Macron’s declaration that Europe should become less dependent for its security on a wayward US, and develop its own “European defence union”, rather than act collectively through NATO. Macron’s call for the creation of a European military was not entirely new, and France has a tradition of asserting diplomatic independence. But his comments, in an interview with The Economist, were unusually direct. “To have an American ally turning its back on us so quickly on strategic issues – nobody would have believed this possible,” he said. As Macron put it, Trump sees NATO as a “commercial project”. This approach has led NATO allies to increase their spending – but it is also prompting them to question the US’s commitment towards them.

In Asia, Trump’s attitude is having equally stark effects. The White House, for instance, has been largely unwilling and unable to help its two closest allies in the region – Japan and South Korea – mend a worrying rift over reparations from Japanese colonial rule of South Korea. Earlier this week, the United States Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper, visited South Korea and tried to persuade the country to stay in an intelligence-sharing agreement with Japan. South Korea has so far refused, and is due to leave the deal on Saturday.

During his visit, Esper also urged Seoul to pay more money to Washington for the 28,500 American troops there. South Korea lifted its contribution by 8 per cent last year, but Trump wants a fourfold increase. He is making similar demands of Japan, where the US has 54,000 troops. But these deployments are not mere “commercial projects”. They have helped to ensure that Asia has remained peaceful since World War II. Being the anchor of the region’s stability has given Washington improved status and influence, as well as economic benefits. Of the world’s ten largest buyers of US goods, five are in Asia.

But Trump’s push for allies in Asia to be more self-sustaining will, as in Europe, make them more defiant. Moreover, the current rhetoric from both Republicans and Democrats suggests that this transactional approach is likely to continue under future presidents, albeit without Trump’s belligerence.

At the moment, there are no signs in Canberra or Washington that the alliance is weakening, even under Trump. But as the US rethinks its global commitments, being its ally will no longer be as valuable as it once was, regardless of whether the prime minister and the president stand together and insist that their bond is unchanging.


A requiem for the city of Hong Kong

“We are likely witnessing the end of Hong Kong as we know it … Hard-liners in Hong Kong are strengthening hard-liners in Beijing … The protesters do not seem to understand that President Trump … doesn’t care about democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, and that he has adopted an approach of selective appeasement in his transactions with Xi Jinping.” Richard C. Bush, The Brookings Institution

Ending our China policy fictions

“Xi is doing us a favour by ending the fictions that have defined the Chinese state’s relationships and engagement with many countries, not just Australia … Acting in accordance with Australia’s national interests will not make Beijing happy. Only acquiescing to Beijing’s directions and deferring to its interests when ours conflict will do that.” Michael Shoebridge, The Strategist (ASPI)

A motion towards justice in Myanmar

“The Gambia’s application details widespread ‘clearance operations’ against Rohingya civilians in Rakhine State, Myanmar, from 2016 and particularly in 2017, resulting in more than 740,000 people crossing into Bangladesh … This is the first time that a state not directly affected by an alleged genocide has brought such a case to the International Court of Justice.” Emma Palmer, The Interpreter (Lowy Institute)


Indonesia’s fading democracy dream

“The risk for Jokowi lies in the fact that each move to erode anti-corruption efforts and individual rights makes him ever less distinguishable from the system that Indonesians voted against when they first elected a political outsider as president.” Dave McRae & Robertus Robet, East Asia Forum

Asia is “doing better”, so a review is asking why we should keep giving foreign aid

“Australia’s $4 billion annual aid budget amounts to spending 0.2 per cent of gross national income, or 21 cents for every $100, which is less than most OECD countries. But the Coalition isn’t contemplating changing how much it spends on aid, preferring to consider how the money it does spend can be best used.” Melissa ClarkeABC NEWs

Free from Australian Foreign Affairs

THE FIX – how to rebuild Australia’s diplomatic capacity

“Australia’s current lack of investment in diplomacy smacks of either arrogance or fatalism. It would be arrogance to suggest that Australia doesn’t need to work to promote itself and convince others of its point of view. It would be fatalism to decide that we have no hope of influencing the world and that our only option is to shore up our defences.” Melissa Conley Tyler, HERE



We must be as harsh as them [Uighurs] and show absolutely no mercy.

Xi Jinping, President (China)

The entire report is concerning.

Marise Payne, foreign minister (Australia)

This [is an] Orwellian campaign to effectively erase a religious and ethnic minority.

Mitch McConnell, Senate majority leader (United States)

Sources: The New York Times, ABC News, The New York Times

Read past editions of AFA Monthly

Sign up to AFA Monthly to get each new edition in your inbox