The last few weeks have not been good for Western cooperation. Trump’s recent European tour hardly reassured America’s already anxious European allies. At the NATO conference in Brussels, aside from some frankly bizarre incidents involving handshakes and shoving, the President failed to explicitly confirm America’s commitment to Article 5―NATO’s mutual defence pledge. A few days later, the G7 Summit in Sicily saw the EU and the US divided over numerous issues, including climate change and immigration. To put the icing on the proverbial cake, a few days later, Trump withdrew from the Paris climate Agreement. All of this begs the question: what, if anything, does the apparent fracturing of the European-American relationship mean for Australia?
Considering Trump’s ‘America First’ mantra, the developments of the previous month, whilst alarming, are hardly surprising. Unreservedly supporting NATO, Italian initiatives to create more legal avenues for intercontinental immigration and the Paris Agreement, would hardly be appreciated by Trump’s inward-looking base. Regardless, Trump’s attempts to consolidate his beleaguered position domestically could have serious implications for the future of Western cooperation.
Although Trump begrudgingly consented to the final version of the G7 communique that pledged to fight protectionism, in all likelihood, trade can be added to ever-expanding list of issues over which Washington and Brussels find themselves at odds. Whilst Europe and America have rarely, if ever, seen eye to eye on every issue, current levels of discord appear to be relatively unprecedented. Angela Merkel’s potentially groundbreaking speech, made in the somewhat incongruous surroundings of a Munich beer hall, clearly recognised this new reality. No doubt vexed after her experience in Brussels and Taormina, the German Chancellor acknowledged that the times where Europe could rely on others were ‘somewhat over’. To paraphrase Merkel: Europe must now fight for its future on its own.
To try and strengthen its hand in the upcoming Brexit negotiations, as part of London’s ‘Global Britain’ posture, Theresa May has tried to solidify ties with Washington. May hurried to tow the incoming Trump administration’s line at the Paris peace conference in January. When Trump hosted May in late January, the two discussed a possible trade deal and reaffirmed the importance of the transatlantic ‘special relationship’. These overtures would seemingly place London in the US camp.
What does the emerging rupture in the Western alliance mean for Australia? Logic dictates that in a time of increasing geopolitical uncertainty, Canberra would prefer to work with a united European-American partnership. Insofar as the Turnbull government supports free trade and has committed to the Paris Agreement, recent developments would have also made Canberra uneasy. At the very least, Australia would do well to learn Merkel’s lesson. In an increasingly unpredictable global political environment, old certainties are clearly being tested.
Yet in times of rupture and conflict, opportunity can unexpectedly present itself. Current circumstances provide Australia with an ideal opportunity to increase its ties with Britain. As part of its post-Brexit foreign policy, London plans to ‘reenergise and revitalise’ the Commonwealth, especially in the area of trade. Notably, British Secretary of State Boris Johnson has also been a keen advocate of a free trade deal with Australia, and has mused creating a visa-free migration bloc encompassing the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
The Trump-NATO divide, coupled with the emerging Russian threat in the east, makes it less likely that Europe will be responsive to American requests to boost troop numbers in Afghanistan. Indeed, Merkel has already refused to send more troops. This has provided Australia with an opportunity to increase its security partnership with the US, which Turnbull seized when he announced that extra Australian forces would be deployed in Afghanistan.
If Australia wants to forge a foreign policy that’s more independent of its former and current Anglosphere patrons, however, there are plenty of opportunities for increased cooperation with Europe and Asia. If the current rupture in American-European relations is seen to be symptomatic of a more isolationist and transactional Washington, Australia would be well advised to seek alternative partners.
To start with, China’s One Belt One Road and proposed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership could help fill the void left by the demise of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Canberra is also currently pursuing a free trade agreement with the EU. Moreover, China and Europe are increasingly emerging as global leaders on climate change. Given Australia’s proximity to some of the most vulnerable Pacific Islands and its possession of an environment rich in renewable energy sources, Canberra is uniquely positioned to join EU-Chinese efforts.
But ultimately it may not be a zero-sum game. Australia could probably solidify its ties with the Anglosphere whilst pursuing closer relationships with the EU and Asia. Although as Canberra could come to learn, especially when it comes to its partnerships with Beijing and Washington, such balancing acts may not always prove to be sustainable.
Henry Storey is the Australian Foreign Policy Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.