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Risk and imagination in the Trump era

16 February 2017

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Senior Lecturer

Convener ASEAN Australia Defence Postgraduate Scholarship Program

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The most important quality in statecraft is imagination. The capacity to imagine consequences of actions, as well as inaction, and devise a path through what are often a range of unappetising alternatives.

The George W Bush Administration was conspicuously lacking in imagination. Neocons Rumsfeld, Cheney and Wolfowitz were unable to envision the difference between constructing democracy in sectarian Iraq compared with homogenous Japan.

Obama’s eight years of careful stewardship were not without mistakes, Libya most significantly. But by comparison with the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, a misjudgement of colossal proportions, the spillover consequences have been far less. Under Obama’s leadership his country and the world have managed a creaking recovery from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

Australia now must deal with an inexperienced American leadership inclined to reject expertise. Intelligence chiefs have been removed from the most important decision-making apparatus, the National Security Council, and replaced with ideologues. The potential for grave errors of judgment appears greater than for some years.

Obama’s China policy frustrated many, including in Australia but also within the Washington “beltway”. There is a smouldering sense that China has been allowed to get away with too much in the South China Sea. The fact that it has been able to construct its islands, building a defensive buffer zone below the level which would require a military response rankles rather than reassures. Appeasement analogies have arisen; conceding maritime territory to China looks like “Sudetanland in 1938”.

It is thought that China’s unilateralism in the South China Sea is a dangerous precedent likely to see it taking similar liberties with its neighbours. Somewhat contradictorily, there is also a belief that without greater demonstrations of US resolve, smaller Asian countries will fall under China’s control. In the Trump Cabinet there is as yet no coherent policy, but some want to take riskier courses of action, including blocking China’s access to the islands.

Read the full article by Dr Greg Raymond on APPS Policy Forum.

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