An escalating anxiety built around a question that is central to Australia’s foreign policy has been building for more than four years, ever since Donald Trump won the Republican nomination for president. Before Trump, Australia long felt comfortable enough not to ask a simple, but critical, question aloud: Can Australia trust the United States?
The events in Washington, D.C. on January 6, when an insurgent mob, inspired by the president, stormed the Capitol in an attempt to – at the very least – stop the certification of November’s presidential election results, reverberated across the Pacific. The revolt signaled something deeply disturbing to Australia: that its primary security partner, an intimate ally and old friend, was now clearly in the throes of deep internal distress.
After binding itself closely to the United States following World War II, Australia has had the confidence to remain agnostic about which political party – the Republicans or the Democrats – controlled the branches of government in Washington. Either party was considered a reliable and trustworthy actor, adhering to the same overarching liberal democratic principles and norms as Australia. Either party would continue to be committed to the mutually beneficial international rules that mid-sized countries like Australia require to negotiate the world and prosper.
This assumption from Canberra no longer applies.
If the past few years hadn’t provided enough evidence, the behavior of the Republican Party since November’s presidential election will surely have confirmed it; there is only one political party in the U.S. that Australia can now trust. Only one party unequivocally shares Australia’s values, only one party can be counted on to be a predictable and good faith actor, and only one party isn’t mired in negative partisanship, identitarian victimhood, and cultism.
Although the Democratic Party will now control the presidency, House of Representatives, and Senate, this is only a minor relief for Australia because something deeply consequential to the relationship with the United States has been broken. Australia now finds itself in the position of having to choose sides in American domestic politics, a position it has never wanted to find itself in, and one that could produce major difficulties in maintaining mutual trust between Washington and Canberra if the Democratic Party loses power and the Republican Party fails to purge itself of extremist elements.
The latter is currently looking unlikely. Even after the events of January 6, more than 100 Republican representatives still subsequently objected to the certification of the election results, demonstrating that a significant section of the party was not shocked enough by the insurrection and remains intent on transmitting and pursuing the lie of a stolen election as a political tactic. Going forward it is clear that many Republican representatives will continue to utter falsehoods, conspiracy theories, and tap into hostility toward liberal democracy as organizing principles.
Fantasy is the luxury of powerful states. For small and middle powers reality is not a commodity that they can afford to avoid. Countries like Australia are reliant on quality information, and require a clear-headed and rational approach to affairs both domestic and international. The international terrain is currently difficult enough for Australia, given its increasingly cold relationship with its largest trading partner China.
However, Australia has done well negotiating this turbulence, finding ways to stay out of the path of a capricious Trump and maintain as much normalcy in relations as possible. Yet the task was surely not a simple one for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) in advising both the foreign minister and prime minister, trying to understand the decisions Trump was making and how they would affect Australia.
As Anne Applebaum wrote in The Atlantic last week, Trump is an ideology-free politician, and his presidency was a personal – rather than political – project. If any political ideas can be attributed to him this is only due to being aligned by chance with his own unique psychological requirements. His instinctive protectionism, for example, stemmed from his own impulses about how to protect his own wealth, rather than any political-economy theories. For Canberra, this made any attempts to predict how the U.S. might act, and adjust itself accordingly, incredibly difficult.
Needless to say, a predictable figure, such as President-elect Joe Biden, will provide a welcome respite.
However, this won’t subdue the sense that Australia has now entered into a new phase in its relationship with the United States. A phase where, for the foreseeable future, Canberra’s agnosticism on which party governs in Washington will be on hold. It is unlikely that the Australian government would publicly acknowledge this reality, but it will become an open secret that due to the party’s increasing radicalism, Republican control of any of the federal branches of government will be cause for considerable international concern.