No meeting between an Australian prime minister and an American president has ever been more keenly anticipated – in Australia, at least – than the one that has just occurred. Whether Malcolm Turnbull’s meeting with Donald Trump will make much of an impression on the public in the US is another matter, but it is fair to say that the chattering classes in Australia are agog with interest.
Given the lead-up to this event, it’s not hard to see why. The initial phone call between the pair not long after Trump’s entirely unexpected election win was nothing short of disastrous for Australia – recent attempts to put a more positive spin on it notwithstanding. Trump treated Turnbull with disdain, even contempt, thoroughly humiliating an Australian leader desperate to demonstrate his country’s loyalty to the US, no matter who might be running it.
One might think that after such a very public dressing down and dismissal, Turnbull might be wary of taking on Trump again.
One might think that after such a very public dressing down and dismissal, Turnbull might be wary of taking on Trump again. Nothing could be further from the truth, as Turnbull’s willingness to rush to New York at a moment’s notice despite a pressing political agenda at home demonstrates.
This enthusiasm for the alliance relationship and willingness to curry favor with what former Australian premier Bob Menzies described as a “great and powerful friend,” is not an especially conservative (or Liberal in an Australian context) trait, however. On the contrary, Australian Labor leaders are generally just as keen to ingratiate themselves as their Liberal counterparts, as another former PMs – Julia Gillard – toe-curlingly embarrassing address to the US Congress demonstrated.
Why is it that Australian leaders are so desperate to impress their American counterparts? The simplest explanation is that since the Second World War when strategic ties with Britain were forcibly broken by Japan, Australia’s political class and strategic elites who have grown up with the idea that the country’s security is ultimately dependent on the US.
Despite Australia’s remarkably benign geographic position, this remains the case. Australia’s policymaking elites continue to believe that Asia is as much a threat as it is an opportunity, even if it is rather impolite and politically incorrect to say so these days. However, this doesn’t stop government defense white papers from routinely suggesting that China looms large in the list of possible threats to national security.
Concern about China’s intentions and its actions in the South China Sea have only reinforced the perception that the region to Australia’s north is potentially dangerous, and that the best way of countering such threats is by cleaving ever more closely to our principal ally. Seen in this light, Turnbull’s actions may become more explicable, but are they actually justified? Do Australian leaders really have to ingratiate themselves quite so enthusiastically?
Perhaps not. The simple reality is that while Australia may not be able to confidently defend itself on its own, the flipside of this idea is that it can make no difference to the outcome – or even the likelihood – of a regional great power conflict. If war does occur between China and the US – or America and North Korea, for that matter – Australia can make absolutely no difference to its outcome.
Nevertheless, in the event of any conflict, Australia will undoubtedly side with the US, no matter what the cause or the opponent, in precisely the way it has in every conflict the US has embarked upon since the Second World War. Although American officials and even Trump are currently saying nice things about Australia’s importance, the unquestioning loyalty of the junior alliance partner means it can be taken for granted or even publically abused at times with little fear of blowback.
It also means that the US can be confident that Australia will do its bit when it comes to defense spending, too – despite its negligible impact on any conflict. At a time when Australia is experiencing major budget problems, this is no small sacrifice.
Even more significantly, perhaps, Australia’s very significant investment in eye-wateringly expensive military hardware will do little to make the region as a whole more secure. On the contrary, arms races are one of the most frequently observed consequences of the – ultimately futile – pursuit of national security. An arms race is something neither Australia nor its neighbors can really afford or justify to populations demanding economic development.
Given Trump’s enthusiasm for expanding America’s already unrivaled naval capabilities, however, Turnbull will no doubt feel obliged to reinforce his support for the evolving policy. When China and especially North Korea are acting in ways that appear to justify such military responses, other options and possible strategies are likely to be given short shrift. The region is likely to be quite literally poorer and possibly more unstable as a result.