Foreign policy: Clinton is the status quo candidate for Australia, but her presidency may not be

‘Most immediately, a President Trump would force Australia to a decision on Japan.’ Photograph: Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

This weekend’s news of renewed FBI interest in a newly found cache of Hillary Clinton’s emails is just the latest twist in this long, strange trip to the White House. For months now, Hillary Clinton has seemed destined to become the next President of the United States.

In recent weeks Trump’s campaign has been in free fall and he remains well behind Clinton in the “ground game”, the voter turnout operation so important in American electoral politics. Yet Trump has made a habit of defying predictions of his imminent political demise – and so long as the content and the implications of the Clinton emails remain unknown – we cannot rule out a Trump presidency completely.

The issue of character has dominated the campaign. Trump’s fitness for office, his persistent appeals to the worst fears and least attractive elements of American public opinion, his unwillingness to accept the results of the election. And Clinton has been plagued by decades-long enmity towards her among large segments of the electorate and persistent questions about her honesty.

For the first time since 1980, unease about America’s standing in the world – and how it should respond to numerous foreign policy challenges – has taken outsized prominence in a US presidential election. For Australia, vastly different implications for foreign and defence policy, as well as trade and investment, would flow from the election of Clinton or Trump.

On the question of a Clinton or Trump presidency, Australian public opinion is utterly unambiguous. Earlier this year, before Trump’s most shameful moments, the United States Studies Centre fielded questions about the US-Australia relationship to the more than 100,000 Australians who took the ABC’s Vote Compass survey: 70% said Australia should distance itself from the United States if Trump is elected (just 24% said Australia’s relationship with the United States should remain unchanged).

Under a Clinton presidency, 87% of Australians would leave the US relationship unchanged, or seek to strengthen it.

Australia’s comfort with Clinton is understandable: she has visited here twice as first lady and secretary of state (including the 2012 launch of our sister centre in Perth). Much has been made of Clinton’s hawkishness relative to President Obama’s, her greater instinct to deploy military force and to take an active stance in global affairs. It seems likely that Clinton’s foreign policy will be broadly consistent with Obama’s, but with renewed vigour, less pensive deliberation, and a determination to stand up to global bullies.

Three of the foreign policy challenges Clinton (or Trump) face are already apparent.

Clinton will need to address ongoing Russian attempts to confront the United States and its interests at the same time as she manages US allies in Europe. Clinton seems determined to take a more active role in stabilising the Middle East, limiting if not eliminating the threat posed by Isis and other extremist groups, and instituting a no fly zone over Syria. Clinton will also need to police the Iran nuclear deal and limit the wider prospects of a Sunni-Shia conflagration stemming from Saudi-Iranian rivalry.

In Asia, Clinton must balance the long term trend of increasing cooperation and dialogue between China and the United States alongside China’s increasing assertiveness and militarisation in places like the South China Sea.

For months Clinton’s Asia team have been working on plans to further operationalise America’s stabilising alliances and partnerships across the Indo-Pacific. North Korea will command immediate attention. Speaking last week, the US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper grimly assessed that denuclearising the North Korean regime may already be a lost cause, suggesting that the US and its Asian allies may soon face the prospect of North Korean nuclear tipped missiles pointed their way.

If the United States is to act to avert this, the next administration will have to make some extremely tough decisions very early in its term. Australia is already committed to play a part in North Korean contingencies by virtue of our role in the UN Command charged with supervising the uneasy armistice on the Korean peninsula.

The pressing question for Australia is how a President Clinton might apportion diplomatic and military effort between the Middle East, Russia, and Asia – and how Australia would seek to shape its contribution.

Conventional wisdom is that a President Trump would lead an isolationist America. This is an incorrect simplification. Trump is a nationalist, not an isolationist. Trump has signalled he would increase the United States Navy by 30% and the US Marine Corps by more than 50%. He has pledged to renegotiate the Iran deal and up the fight against Isis, including through the commitment of US (and presumably allied) ground forces in Iraq and Syria. A Trump foreign policy could be very active indeed.

Trump has declared he will sharply escalate trade tariffs with China and designate that country a currency manipulator. He has simultaneously promised to increase the presence of the US military in Asia (including in hotspots like the South China Sea) and withdraw forces contributing to the defence of South Korea and Japan. All of these moves are destabilising in a rapidly evolving Asian strategic situation.

Most immediately, a President Trump would force Australia to a decision on Japan. Trump’s dislike of Japan is visceral and long held, stemming back to 1987 when he bought full page ads in the New York Times claiming that Japan was taking advantage of the US. Would Australia, hedging against less predictable US engagement in Asia, continue its decade long trend towards a closer security relationship with Japan? Or to assure Trump, would Australia seek to distance itself from Japan, distinguishing Australia’s alliance from one the new President sees as unfair and unrewarding?

Though Clinton is the status quo candidate for Australians, her presidency may not be – she will face pressure to demonstrate that US allies are contributing to US interests.

A Trump presidency however would put the US-Australia relationship under much greater stress. It would be unpalatable to a majority of Australians, and concerning to those with responsibilities for Australia’s foreign and defence policy.

These concerns would be compounded by uncertainty as to which of Trump’s many (and often contradictory) campaign pronouncements would actually be implemented – and by whom. All of this would put immense pressure on the bipartisan consensus that has guided Australia’s relationship with America.

James Brown is director of research and Simon Jackman is professor of political science and chief executive officer, both of the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.