The spectre of a second Trump presidency has given US allies in the region cause for alarm.

One need not look far back to see why: during his time in office, Donald Trump not only courted the affection of Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-un and briefly Xi Jinping but also casually floated the idea of pulling US troops from South Korea. He has since dangled a peace plan to Putin based on abandoning military support for Ukraine.

Yet, US allies in Asia would do well to exhale. Despite Trump’s bluster in office, bipartisan support for US alliances prevailed in the US Congress. Today, support for AUKUS remains rock-solid on both sides of the aisle.

And far from renouncing Trump’s strategy in the Indo-Pacific region, President Joe Biden has taken considerable steps to build on it. The US-Australia-Japan-India Quad was formalised as a foreign ministers’ forum under Trump and then elevated to a leaders’ summit under Biden. The Free and Open Indo-Pacific framework introduced by former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe was embraced by the Trump administration and remained the core of Biden’s approach to the region.

Trump is one of the most demagogic political figures in American history but there is a robust consensus in the US Congress and among the American public that China is a big challenge and that US allies such as Australia and Japan are more valuable than ever.

Thus, when Trump mused about withdrawing US troops from South Korea and NATO, his Republican allies in Congress introduced amendments making that impossible without their consent. In the end, Trump acted on few of his threats to US alliances and his administration took several important steps to strengthen them. There were plenty of cringeworthy moments, but as the humorist Mark Twain commented after first hearing the music of Richard Wagner, “It wasn’t as bad as it sounded”.

“Ah,” but the readers of The New York Times will retort, “next time we will not be so lucky”. Organisations such as The Heritage Foundation and The America First Institute are indeed developing plans to depopulate the “deep state” and install thousands of Trump loyalists across the US government. Presidential campaigns often feature self-appointed custodians of their candidate’s agenda on the ideological extremes.

However, attention should also be paid to the long list of experienced Republican senators and Wall Street executives who are more likely to be asked to run major departments such as State, Defence, or Treasury – in part because they actually know how to run something, in part because the Senate can confirm them, and in part because underneath all the provocations, Trump does at some level want to succeed as president.

A Trump administration would be likely to be a mix of Jacobins and institutionalists – probably with more continuity than cut-and-run.

That does not imply a second Trump term would be risk-free. Trump’s dreams of grand bargains with Putin and Kim would be destabilising and require Australia to coordinate closely with Japan, South Korea, NATO and key players within the administration and Congress to prevent the worst outcome.

On trade, regional allies will also have to contend with rising protectionism in the US. Although Trump has been the loudest in this area – pledging a 10 per cent tariff on all global imports and 60 per cent on Chinese goods – the Biden administration has also signalled a fresh appetite for tariffs, particularly on clean energy goods such as electric vehicles.

It is worth remembering that the US remains one of the most open economies in the world, with an average tariff rate last year of only 2.3 per cent – well below that of Europe. Still, Trump’s longstanding passion for protectionism will have to be managed by US allies as well as American corporations and farmers who would suffer in any trade war.

What if Biden wins?

Meanwhile, it would be a mistake to become preoccupied with Trump to the exclusion of planning for a second Biden administration, particularly since this will probably be another extremely close election. Democratic Presidents such as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama became more proactive on trade and foreign policy in their second terms. Support for big free trade agreements is not what it was in those days, but Australians should think creatively about pushing the next US administration on sectoral agreements around digital trade or critical minerals, irrespective of who wins in November.

The most important thing is to have a clear-eyed vision of Australian interests and how to advance them in either a Trump or Biden scenario. This does not mean, as some commentators have suggested, that Australia would have to base the alliance on interests and not values if Trump wins. Trump’s values may be out of sync with many Australians, but America will still be a democracy and Americans will continue to believe that our alliance is based on more than just coldly calculated interests. It would be a big mistake for Australian political leaders to suggest otherwise.
There will be much debate early in a Trump and even Biden administration about how to reconcile internal disagreements on policy. Australia has unparalleled levels of respect and influence in Washington and can be in that scrum. A more detailed assessment of possible policy directions under a Biden or Trump administration can be found in the US Studies Centre’s new Red Book/Blue Book, which will be updated as we approach the election and transition. As a close ally, Australia has agency in US policy decisions if not in American politics … and forewarned is forearmed.