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The Australian National University

We must be prepared to defend fragile democracy

For Australia, the 2016 US presidential election is a bad dream come true, writes Rory Medcalf in the Australian Financial Review.

Chinese moneyThe prospect of a Trump presidency is what futures analysts call a black elephant. A strategic shock or so-called black swan combined with the elephant in the room.

In other words, this is a problem so big, so troubling and so obvious that we have refused to accept it as real – or to prepare for it.

Whatever the final outcome of yesterday's extraordinary and surreal US election, Australia's security environment will never quite be the same.

As this year's Defence white paper affirmed, a strong and deep US alliance is at the core of Australia's security and defence planning. Our security in an uncertain world seems unimaginable without America's lead and America's help.

Woe betide, then, when so much of the uncertainty is now manifest within the United States itself.

The spectacle in America has dealt Australia three lessons it dearly needs to heed if it is to protect its interests in the difficult years ahead.

These are about politics, sovereignty and alliance.

On politics, we have seen the rampant dangers of division. We have seen what happens when the political centre is all but crushed in a relentless vice of partisanship and personal advantage.

So many of the challenges facing Australia – societal, economic, security, environmental – can only be addressed through a radical revival of moderation, negotiation and compromise in our politics: a quest for common ground accompanied by a respect for difference.

On sovereignty, we have witnessed something shockingly new that threatens democracy as we have known it.

This is blatant interference in the internal affairs of another country – through cyber intrusions, media manipulation and attempted political influence.

The vandalising trinity of Russia, WikiLeaks and the Trump campaign have fused espionage and the mass manipulation of social media to violate the democratic process.

In this atomised, post-truth information environment, we have seen the bewildering effect of hyper-propaganda directed from afar.

Don't think such orchestrated cyber interference can't happen elsewhere, including here.

After all, this has also been the year that the Chinese Communist Party's involvement in Australian domestic affairs has become widely apparent, through media ownership, political donations and the creation and mobilisation of social organisations to change Australia and its foreign policies.

The shambles of the US election has shown how easily authoritarian powers and their proxies can disrupt and defame democracy.

The security establishments of democratic countries do not know how to respond: it is not even clear whose job it is to detect, deter or retaliate to such subversion.

But Trump's sharpest lesson for Australia must surely be about our international security strategy and its critical dependence on the alliance with the United States.

The uncomfortable truth is that Australia cannot protect its extensive national interests without America.

With a Trump win, the Australia-US alliance will survive but sustain real harm. He would demand much more of allies than previous presidents, deliver less in return, take us entirely for granted and have no real grasp of the kind of country we are.

Yet for all of this, we need to assume that any new US administration will permanently have one eye on domestic fractures, and the risks of further foreign involvement in US internal affairs.

Washington will have to pick its fights in the world with extreme care, and can no longer assume popular support or consensus for taking big risks in the name of other countries or international order.

So a country with Australia's finite security capabilities is going to have to learn to do more with what we have. We will need to increase our own strategic weight to contribute to protecting our maritime and cyber lifelines.

We will also need to hedge by embedding our re-imagined US alliance in a wider network of partners in our region. This will involve the likes of Japan, India, Indonesia, Singapore and even France, the European power most strategically engaged in the Indo-Pacific.

Whether Trump turns out to have been a bad dream or the new normal, Australia will need to be on guard.





This article was first published by the Australian Financial Review and is reproduced here with permission. The National Security College is a joint initiative of the Commonwealth Government and ANU.



 


 

Updated:  10 November 2016/ Responsible Officer:  Head of College, National Security College/ Page Contact:  Web administrator, National Security College