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Trump disruption to prompt greater allied autonomy, despite Biden

Trump disruption to prompt greater allied autonomy, despite Biden

There can be no doubt, President Donald Trump’s transactional approach to alliances forced the hands of many who had long been seen to take advantage of the US. This push towards greater allied autonomy is now being seen as a net benefit to the US and global security, with interesting implications for Australia.

There can be no doubt, President Donald Trump’s transactional approach to alliances forced the hands of many who had long been seen to take advantage of the US. This push towards greater allied autonomy is now being seen as a net benefit to the US and global security, with interesting implications for Australia.

For many, the election of Donald Trump as President in 2016 was an aberration, an anomaly that would wreak disaster for the US, its economy, its populace, the nation's standing as the "Leader of the Free World" and importantly, its alliance networks in an era of global disruption.

Both sides of the political spectrum, both within the US and increasingly around the world, have taken up arms against one another, as is evidenced by mounting social, economic and political tensions in the aftermath of the 2016 election.


The outgoing-President has largely stood true to his word; he has moved to hold communist China more accountable for the economic manipulations, strategic ambitions in the Indo-Pacific, while seeking to make long dependent US allies across Europe more accountable and invested in their collective security. 

In doing so, President Trump has drawn the ire of many political, media and strategic pundits who have seen his actions akin to taking an axe to the post-Second World War order established by the US and which has in large part encultured a sense of dependence upon the US for strategic security.

These provocative actions, more tangible than the complaints of former president Obama served to embolden many, particularly in Europe to criticise the US for taking unilateral action, an ironic response to a President who has actively, albeit rather confrontationally, sought to withdraw American troops from foreign wars and limit America's costly expeditionary, interventionist doctrines. 

Former vice president turned President-elect Joe Biden is viewed by many as a return to the status quo of America's post-Cold War political, economic and strategic establishment, committed to increasing levels of free trade and globalisation, seemingly a firm believer in the US at the apex of the global power structure and the intricate web of alliances designed to encircle and limit the disruptive potential rivals like Russia, China, North Korea and Iran.

President Trump's policy shift in Washington has seen myriad hostile responses from traditional 'allies' of the US, nations that have become dependent upon the overwhelming and unrivalled economic, political and strategic might of the US for their security, all of whom have seen such actions as an attack upon their "right" to live under what has become known as 'Pax Americana', or the American Peace. 

In response, many, particularly in Europe, have sought to break this dependence upon the US, with German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, speaking to the European Parliament, explaining the growing rationale behind consolidating and collaborating on collective defence post-US drawdown in the region, stating: "If that is the case, it means we Europeans must become able to act more so than is the case today."

Building on this, Daniel DePetris, a fellow at Defense Priorities and a columnist for Newsweek writing for Defense News, has detailed the net positive benefits for the US and broader global security, should traditional US allies embrace greater autonomy. 

We can't return to the pre-2016 status quo

DePetris details, "You can’t help but feel that most of Europe’s leaders are relieved US President Donald Trump’s term in office is coming to an end. From trade to defense spending, Trump was a different kind of president — one more likely to excoriate NATO allies for pinching pennies on their military budgets than extol the importance of the NATO alliance.

"With President-elect Joe Biden preparing to enter the White House in two months, there will be an urge for European leaders to turn the clock to the pre-2016 status quo. As the most powerful country in NATO by far, the United States can’t allow that urge to set in.

"While one can certainly disagree with Trump’s methods, he was right to reprimand Europe for not taking its defence responsibilities seriously enough. Trump may have used harsh words in making his point, but the point itself is legitimate: It is unacceptable for a wealthy continent with a $15.5 trillion gross domestic product to purposely sit back and rely on the US for its security needs."

Building on this, DePetris stresses the importance of President-elect Biden completely overturning the disruptive yet necessary approach to economically capable allies who have long depended upon the US for their broader national security. 

"President-elect Biden will come into office with this intra-European discussion hovering in the background. Instead of simply phoning European capitals and declaring that 'the US is back', he should take full advantage of the circumstances by encouraging the strategic autonomy [French President Emmanuel] Macron and [High Representative of the European Union Josep] Borrell have strongly supported," DePetris added. 

"For many in Washington, this will be an uncomfortable exercise. Washington has typically been hesitant to support autonomy because it could undermine NATO as the primary security alliance. But if burden-sharing and burden-shifting is a top US objective in Europe, autonomy in the realm of defence is precisely what US policymakers should be advocating for."

Perhaps most interestingly in the face of the of this positioning, the French and German foreign ministers recently detailed the glaring recognition in European capitals that the US will not be blindly baring the burden for European security, writing: "We Europeans are no longer only asking ourselves what America can do for us, but what we should do to defend our own security and build a more balanced transatlantic partnership."

Lessons for Australia to learn

Australia has taken proactive steps, particularly following the announcement of the 2020 Defence Strategic Update and supporting Force Structure Plan backed by a record $270 billion worth of funding over the next decade. The limitations of US power and resolve are increasingly being revealed and clearly cannot be taken for granted. 

However, these capabilities are still framed within the lens of a largely defensive conflict scenario, whereby Australia's critical economic, political and strategic interests in the region, namely the critical sea lines of communication, are still at the mercy of regional partners and a limited level of Australian area-denial, while Australia's major military platforms remain committed to the defence of the continent. 

This approach fails to acknowledge that Australia's limited military capabilities, largely limited as a result of the budgetary and doctrinal constraints established by dogmatic adherence to the now clearly outdated 'Defence of Australia' doctrine and the arbitrary 2 per cent of GDP defence expenditure rate and relegates Australia to a protracted period of isolation, until larger allies either in the region or beyond come to our aid. 

Ashley Townshend and Brendan Thomas-Noone of the Sydney University's US Studies Centre (USSC) believe a Biden administration would be more focused on other parts of the world. 

Townshend and Thomas-Noone explain the scene: "Biden might be commander-in-chief but with half a country unconvinced by his agenda to restore US leadership and the liberal international order. Much like Barack Obama, he’d be a centrist Democrat in an internationalist White House that might find itself frequently at loggerheads with a Republican Senate and its power of the purse.

"Australia’s outlook is uncertain. Given the president’s latitude on foreign policy, we would expect a return to steady alliances, multilateral diplomacy, investment in America’s economic-technological strength and a competitive but sensible strategy on China and the Indo-Pacific."

Expanding on this, they add, "But with a debilitating national deficit, declining defence spending and a likely expansion of international and domestic commitments under Biden, paying for reinvigorated US global leadership would be next to impossible. Trying to do so risks distracting a Biden administration from prioritising our part of the world.

"Canberra will need to keep stepping up its own leadership contributions in the Indo-Pacific, working with like-minded friends to pool resources and sustain US attention on our collective Indo-Pacific priorities.

"Biden’s foreign policy team doesn’t need to be sold on the need to compete with China for a stable and rule-governed region. Leading advisers such as Michele Flournoy and Ely Ratner agree with the Trump administration’s focus on 'strategic competition' and the need to strengthen US military deterrence in the western Pacific." 

Regardless of the potential return to what many would define as a traditional approach to foreign relations, the increasing economic coercion attempts by Beijing, which have increased overnight, leave more questions for a potential Biden administration. 

Nowhere is this more evident than across the Indo-Pacific as an emboldened Beijing continues to punish Australia for pursuing a global inquiry into the origins and China’s handling of COVID-19, while also leveraging the comparatively diminished presence of the US military in the region to project power and intimidate both Japan and, critically, Taiwan. 

Townshend and Thomas-Noone add, "But problems would begin for Australia when this sensible Indo-Pacific strategy met the reality of Biden’s domestic and global foreign policy ambitions, fast-declining resources and a gridlocked congress.

"Beyond his Asia hands, Biden’s foreign policy team has a strong trans-Atlantic orientation that is likely to pull the US towards prioritising NATO repair and standing up to Russian transgressions. This — coupled with Democrats’ belief that Biden must restore the liberal international order and promote democratic values globally — could sidetrack the prosecution of a robust Indo-Pacific strategy.

"While the US can invest in European and Asian security simultaneously, its shrinking pool of national resources imposes constraints. Following trillions of dollars in COVID-19 stimulus and lost revenue the US debt is likely to reach 98 per cent of gross domestic product by the end of this year, the highest since World War II. The scale of this economic fallout combined with a Republican Senate is likely to hail the cynical return of deficit politics and austerity."

In doing so, this not only leaves Australia at the mercy of these 'great and powerful friends', who may have conflicting tactical and strategic interests thus stretching their capabilities and means, Australia's 'commitment' to the Indo-Pacific once again defers all the heavy lifting in the region to other nations, while we continue to believe that we can dictate the balance of power, economic relationships and security partnerships for our own interest and benefit without any real skin in the game. 

Your thoughts 

Australia’s position and responsibilities in the Indo-Pacific region will depend on the nations ability to sustain itself economically, strategically and politically.

Despite the nations virtually unrivalled wealth of natural resources, agricultural and industrial potential, there is a lack of a cohesive national security strategy integrating the development of individual yet complementary public policy strategies to support a more robust Australian role in the region.

Enhancing Australia’s capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability serves as a powerful symbol of Australia’s sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia.

However, as events continue to unfold throughout the region and China continues to throw its economic, political and strategic weight around, can Australia afford to remain a secondary power or does it need to embrace a larger, more independent role in an era of increasing great power competition?

Further complicating the nation’s calculations is the declining diversity of the national economy, the ever-present challenge of climate change impacting droughts, bushfires and floods, Australias energy security and the infrastructure needed to ensure national resilience. 

Let us know your thoughts and ideas about the Prime Minister's $270 billion announcement and the Force Structure Plan and Defence Strategy Update in response to Beijing's economic and strategic coercion and ambitions, and what you would like to see from the nation's leaders in the comments section below, or get in touch with This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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