Emergence of a new United States

25 June 2018

US President Donald Trump looks set to cast a long shadow over discussions at the 2018 ANU Crawford Leadership Forum.

In a scene-setting fireside chat, ANU Chancellor Professor Hon Gareth Evans AC QC and Dr Elsina Wainwright AM, a US policy expert and senior fellow at The United States Studies Centre, discussed the influence of President Trump in Asia.

Professor Evans queried whether the United States under Trump is a "rogue superpower: neither isolationist nor internationalist, neither withdrawing nor in decline, but active, powerful and entirely out for itself".

The simple answer is a resounding yes, according to Dr Wainwright.

"The Trump administration is not prepared to incur the costs that used to buttress the international rules-based order that the US helped to build. Some of the Trump administration's very animating principles - its transactionalism, its protectionism, its suspicion of multilateralism and of alliances - those principles run counter to the international order that it set up."

Dr Wainwright said it was "too early to say" whether the Trump administration's approach was a permanent change or would revert to the natural order.

"This might be the triumph of hope over reality, but it might not have an enduring effect on the American body politic and we may see a correction in the mid-terms and the next election," Dr Wainwright told Professor Evans.

"But the problem is what damage will be wrought on the global stage in the meantime as a result of the erosion of American credibility, such as the structural credibility of their alliances; the erosion of global norms and multilateral and bilateral institutions." 

Professor Evans said he believed the US's actions would drive Australia to be more self-reliant and more focused on Asia.

Dr Wainwright agreed, noting that it should drive Australia to "strengthen its regional partnerships with countries like South Korea, Japan, Indonesia and India, as well as farther afield."

She said at the same time Australia should be encouraging constructive engagement of the US in the Asia Pacific and that it was time to "stand up and have a frank and open discussion about the cost of defence." 

Dr Wainwright said given the increased militarisation in the region and less certainty about traditional allies like the US, "we need to talk about how much it would cost us to increase our defence spending. It would require trade-offs, but we need to start having that discussion."

Professor Evans said the geostrategic reality of Australia - that we are defending an entire continent - made the notion of full self-reliance difficult, but the political task now was to sell that idea to a "sceptical" public.

Watch the in conversation here