Last month, Donald Trump famously acknowledged the possibility that in the future Japan and South Korea might develop nuclear weapons. What has the foreign policy establishment so apoplectic is his apparent comfort with that eventuality.
Trump has been misreported somewhat. He doesn't want to see nuclear weapons proliferate, and he'd rather these countries reimburse the U.S. and maintain the status quo. It's just that Trump won't abide the threat of proliferation being used to force the U.S. to bear security burdens that are patently unreasonable.
And again, there is some legitimacy to these complaints. The U.S. has 28,000 troops along the DMZ in Korea. They serve no military purpose other than to die first (thereby triggering an American response in the event of a major North Korean attack), and should be withdrawn.
Japanese leaders have labelled the suggestion they might develop nuclear weapons 'unthinkable'. And yet Tokyo is placing ever greater emphasis on American extended nuclear assurances in their national security posture – precisely at a time when the risks incurred by the U.S. from advancing Chinese and North Korean ballistic missile capabilities are rising exponentially.
Japan hates nuclear weapons, but is willing to incur great sacrifice if they're ever used – fighting to the very last American.
Of course there are serious risks if Korea and Japan do go nuclear. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty would be destroyed and efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons to other parts of the world could be terminally eroded. Moreover, the US is often a constraining influence on allies, reducing the risk of crisis escalation and moderating responses to low-level provocations – this could be complicated if nuclear armed allies are exerting greater independence.
Trump's prescription is a radical departure from the longstanding norm but does reflect one school of thought in American defense circles. Some nuclear strategists argue that just as America benefitted from the UK and France having nuclear weapons during the Cold War, so will it in East Asia against China.
Moreover, America can hardly be held responsible if a country chooses to violate their NPT obligations. If anyone is liable it's North Korea, which levels explicit nuclear threats in flagrant violation of international law.
Underlying all this is Trump's central objective: to get allies to pay their fair share, especially when the ally is the principle beneficiary of America's commitment.
This brings me to Australia.
Australia's most accomplished figure on these matters, former Defense Minister and Ambassador to the U.S., Kim Beazley, has already invoked the Nixon period to provide a nuanced prognostication, and suggests a Trump presidency could mean a reassertion of 'self-reliance' in Australian defense policy.
I would associate myself closely with Beazley's historical comparator. However given the changes in strategic landscape since self-reliance was developed, specifically the centrality of the Asia-Pacific to America's strategic future, I differ on what it means for Australia today.
If I'm reading the tea leaves correctly, either a Trump or Clinton presidency will result in greater emphasis being placed on Australia in America's strategic calculus. I believe this to be even more so if the U.S. were to draw down from Japan and Korea, since pulling back from the first island chain would require a corresponding reinforcement of America's presence in the greater Pacific Rim.
Moreover, I don't think Trump's views on Australia are likely to reflect those of the other allies I've mentioned for several reasons. First, because for over a hundred years Australia has proved itself willing to invest blood and treasure in American wars in ways other allies have not; second, because America's military presence in Australia is at least of equal benefit to itself; and third, because Trump has never mentioned it and would hardly be shy in doing so.
Some may believe that I'm a Trump supporter given I'm defending him as a Nixon-Kissinger realist. One of the many wonders of being an Australian is that I don't need to express a view on whether I personally like an American presidential candidate or not.
But for clarity in explaining Trump's worldview, it's not that I relish the prospect of a Trump presidency – I just don't happen to fear it.
This piece first appeared in The Lowy Interpreter here.
Image: Flickr/Creative Commons.