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Trump will stretch our stance

At a time of deep uncertainty about what Donald Trump’s presidency portends for Australia and countries across the world, former army chief Peter Leahy, writing in our pages, has provided valuable insight that leaves no doubt about the challenges ahead even for close US allies.

It is insight that must be heeded. Nothing is more certain than that Mr Trump’s arrival in the White House promises radical change in the conduct of strategic and foreign policy by Washington on a scale not seen under any other US leader in modern times. His propensity to make major announcements in 140 characters — as in disclosing plans to expand America’s nuclear arsenal — is an indication of how different things are likely to be.

Professor Leahy discerns signs the Trump administration will be “more robust and confrontational”. This “will require Australia to review its national interests and its alignment with Washington’s policies and actions”. It is important the Turnbull government prepares for this: as Professor Leahy suggests, “a new, more aggressive American operational approach (to combating global terrorism) may present a problem and is likely to reignite the debate about troops on the ground in the Middle East”.

Mr Trump’s national security adviser Michael Flynn has indicated there is unlikely to be a more important issue than the global threat posed by Islamist extremism. It is vital, as Professor Leahy says, that Mr Trump be left in no doubt about the challenge posed by the menace of Islamic terrorism in our region, with Australia well-placed to play a greater role.

The Asia-Pacific is, indeed, shaping up as an immediate crisis, with North Korean despot Kim Jong-un boasting he is about to test-fire an intercontinental ballistic missile. Success potentially would lead to the unthinkable: a deliverable nuclear weapon capable of striking the US and across our region. Mr Trump has tweeted bluntly: “It won’t happen!” He must make good on that. Chinese pressure on Pyongyang could help. But it is by no means certain it would be forthcoming after Mr Trump’s attacks over China’s trade policies, his controversial contact with Taiwan’s president and the deepening crisis over China’s aggressive territorial advances in the South China Sea. It is, however, imperative that once in the White House Mr Trump works closely with US allies such as Australia, Japan and South Korea to co-ordinate action over the South China Sea.

The Syrian ceasefire brokered by Russia and Turkey, with Iran, underlines the extent to which the Obama administration has been abysmally outmanoeuvred in the Middle East. Incredibly, Vladimir Putin has emerged as the most powerful influence. While Sunni Turkey, a pivotal Western ally with NATO’s second largest army and a vital partner in the fight against Islamist terrorism, is in turmoil, Shia Iran is working stealthily with Russia to expand its regional influence. Yet Mr Trump persists with his view Mr Putin is a friend, defending him against charges of cyberespionage and indicating he even may be willing to recognise Moscow’s illegal seizure of Crimea and lift sanctions. In a year likely to see further post-Brexit upheaval in Europe, with far-right parties gaining ground in crucial elections in France, Germany and The Netherlands, the Baltic States will be justified in looking to Mr Trump for strong leadership over territorial threats from Mr Putin.

In contrast, to Mr Trump’s credit, he has shown clear signs of acting immediately to undo the Obama administration’s abysmal mishandling of relations with Israel and providing that state with the backing needed to deal with the unrelenting threat it faces.

The election showed Mr Trump has no strong ideological commitments on global issues. But whatever he does is likely to dominate world affairs for the foreseeable future. There seems little doubt that a more robust and confrontational US approach to the global fight against Islamist terrorism will follow. As a close ally we must be prepared to play our part.


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