Commentary | 03 February 2017

Australia needs to adapt to the new circumstances of Trump’s America

Malcolm Turnbull was right to stand his ground over his refugee deal with the US but the episode reveals the limitations of his interpretation of the new administration, writes James Curran for the Guardian on 3 February.

  • James Curran

Malcolm Turnbull was right to stand his ground over his refugee deal with the US but the episode reveals the limitations of his interpretation of the new administration, writes James Curran for the Guardian on 3 February.

  • James Curran

In the wake of the dramatic revelations about the weekend phone conversation between the American president and the Australian prime minister, one almost has to feel a certain measure of sympathy for Malcolm Turnbull. He conducted a negotiation in good faith with the Obama administration over the resettlement of refugees from Nauru and Manus Island to the United States. And, in any normal turn of events, he would expect a successor administration to honour the deal.

Even as the flurry of messages from different parts of this fledgling administration in Washington have only thickened the fog over the deal’s future, he has stood – resolute if alone – by his absolute conviction that the deal will be finalised. Against the advice of a frenzied left, he has refused to flick the rhetorical switch to intemperate abuse of the president. He knows, surely, that screaming at the White House will produce little.

But these are not conventional times in American politics and in how Washington approaches relations with close allies. Turnbull now finds himself among the first foreign leaders on the brusque receiving end of this impulsive, volatile new president. It is as if all the unpredictability and recklessness displayed by Trump during his campaign for office and in his first days in power has now been focused on Australia.

In truth, it should have come as no surprise. Australia should have seen this twitter tirade coming. If Trump has been consistent and coherent on anything over the past year, it has been his pledge to protect America’s borders. And if he has been consistent on anything over the past few decades it is that some US allies have been extracting too much from Washington for so little in return.

The refugee deal with Australia offends, if not violates, both those Trumpian faiths.

Turnbull has no option now but to wait and see whether the White House will keep its word. The portents are not good.

But even if the so called “favour” to a close ally such as Australia inks the deal, there is every reason to study these dramatic events for what they reveal about the limitations of the Australian government’s initial approach to the alliance under Trump.

The first point to note is that the alliance will survive this frosty episode. Recall that in the early 1970s Richard Nixon placed Australia at number two on his “shit list” – behind Sweden – of least favourite countries, and even subsequently ordered his national security officials to look at a list of options that would have effectively terminated the alliance. That was because of his and Henry Kissinger’s distaste for strident Australian condemnation of US policy in Vietnam. But the alliance survived this period of tension and trauma, and indeed was strengthened because of it. America gained new respect for an ally that did not play the role of uncritical supplicant.

The second is that this kind of treatment of an ally by Washington – leaking the details of a president to prime minister conversation – is unprecedented. And so is the abusive tweet that followed it. That should send a shudder down the spine of politicians and policymakers in Canberra. Can Canberra be confident in future that its confidential discussions with the White House will remain so? If this sets the tone for the relationship, how will Turnbull – or indeed any Australian leader – deal with Trump when the stakes are much higher, such as in the midst of a genuine international crisis?

The more alarming dimension, of course, is the suggestion, as yet unconfirmed, that a transactional president like Trump will demand something in return for the refugee deal: perhaps an Australian battalion in Iraq, or a freedom of navigation patrol through the contested waters of the South China Sea. We don’t know what, if anything, Turnbull conceded in seeking Trump’s agreement to the deal. But it would be the height of irresponsibility for an Australian government to trade away its key national security interests in such a fashion.

In my recent Lowy Institute essay, Fighting with America, I made the point that since 1951 the Anzus treaty had evolved from a simple treaty relationship to become a template for the relationship as a whole. And now we see the alliance being wheeled in as the foundational stone for Australia’s asylum seeker policy.

Finally, if this episode – when all the tumult and the shouting recedes – reveals anything, it is the limitations of the Turnbull government’s initial interpretation of Trump’s America.

Both the prime minister and the foreign minister have been trying desperately to make the new circumstances fit the established pattern. That, in some ways, is understandable. Leaders feeling their way in a swamp of uncertainty will often cling to the familiar rhetorical and historical life rafts of yore. But that approach will simply not do now.

The foreign minister’s remarks in Los Angeles last week in particular seemed to treat the whole notion of the US-Australia alliance as if nothing had happened on the first Tuesday of November last year. There was the familiar incantation of shared values, common sacrifice and a ritual recitation of what Australia has done for the US in the Middle East. Bishop even praised the two countries’ “corresponding world view”: surely a vain hope with a president who has made no secret of his disdain for much of the post-war liberal international order. Only towards the end of her speech did the minister get to the heart of the matter: Australia and the United States’ need to engage more meaningfully with Asean.

Australian leaders of this generation, coming to maturity at the time of the cold war or in the unipolar moment following the collapse of communism, are not used to this kind of America and this kind of president. They have no model to follow, no shining star to guide. But previous governments in Canberra have found the means of expressing a greater degree of self reliance both within and without the US alliance. Some adaptation of this approach to the new circumstances is required. And the time to do it is now.