Commentary | 03 February 2017

Why the Turnbull and Trump phone call is no passing spat

Yes, it was just a phone call, and the storm will pass. But in the background, history is moving against the US-Australia alliance, writes Sam Roggeveen in the Australian Financial Review.

  • Sam Roggeveen

Yes, it was just a phone call, and the storm will pass. But in the background, history is moving against the US-Australia alliance, writes Sam Roggeveen in the Australian Financial Review.

  • Sam Roggeveen

The alliance has been through worse moments than last weekend's already infamous phone call between Prime Minister Turnbull and President Trump. Clearly, this was an extremely tense discussion – perhaps no Australian leader has ever had such a hostile encounter with a US president. But although it sounds cold to say it about the 1250 poor souls trapped in the middle of this argument, the stakes were not particularly high.

By contrast, consider 1972, when Nixon's dramatic visit to Beijing turned Australia's foreign policy upside down, and the White House didn't even bother to tell us. That created more than a little ill feeling in Canberra.

Then there was Whitlam's furious letter to Nixon protesting the 1972 Christmas bombings in Vietnam, which led Nixon's chief diplomat Henry Kissinger to deliver what historian James Curran called an "icy blast" to the Australian embassy in Washington which implied that the alliance was in the balance.

In more recent times, Howard and Clinton clashed over Timor, and Labor leader Mark Latham's antipathy to the US led to dark warnings in Washington about such a figure becoming prime minister.

So it's tempting to think that this will pass, and that an alliance as deep as that between the US and Australia can survive such spats. But there are three reasons we should be reluctant to be too reassured by history.

The first is that those reassurances about the stability and strength of the alliance are made in a political environment in which no alternative to Australia's present alliance arrangements has really been contemplated.

Claims that the alliance "will stand the test of time" should really be read as pleas that it "must stand the test of time", because Australia's political class has given no thought to the idea that it might not. In fact, since the Howard era leaders of both major parties have engaged in feverish competition for who can describe the relationship in more grandiloquent terms.

Conventional wisdom

Assenting to this conventional wisdom has become the price of power in Australian politics: one-time sceptics and mild dissenters such as Bob Carr, Julia Gillard and Malcolm Turnbull have all paid it.

So Australia's political class has no conception of what a more self-reliant Australian foreign policy might look like, and no language in which to describe it. No wonder they think (hope) the current arrangement will endure.

The second reason to think that the Trump-Turnbull call represents more than a passing tiff is that the political systems of both countries are presently weaker than they have been since the alliance was signed, and more vulnerable to forces which have little regard for political-class shibboleths such as the alliance and the "rules-based global order".

In the case of the US, Trump's very election is testament to this weakness, as is the near victory of Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary.

One of America's two major parties was so moribund that it was rolled by a candidate reviled by its power-brokers. The only reason Sanders didn't do the same was that Trump faced 16 opponents who never united against him, whereas Sanders faced a single opponent backed by the entire misguided Democratic establishment.

The vulnerability of Australia's political order is harder to spot – it is disguised by a voting system in the lower house which favours the two big parties even though their share of the primary vote has been in steady decline for two decades.

But that dam is about to break – as Kim Beazley warned on election night last year, we may be only one or two elections away from a major disruption. Instead of five or six lower house seats held by small parties and independents, imagine 12 or 20, with permanent minority governments the result.

The third reason to suppose that the alliance is more vulnerable than it looks is that it has never before faced the international challenge it faces today.

The Cold War was no cakewalk, but compared to China, the Soviet Union was a small economic power which could not come close to matching the US and its allies militarily in the Pacific.

And when the USSR collapsed, supporting the alliance became even easier, requiring Australia mainly to make tokenistic military commitments to the Middle East. But in China, the US now faces a true economic peer competitor with a military home-ground advantage.

Supporting the alliance used to be easy – all it took was flowery language about shared values and the odd distant troop deployment.

Meanwhile, our defence spending remained largely steady in the post-Cold War period, and we rarely took big risks with our deployed forces.

Now we have to seriously contemplate the idea of taking sides in a war between two nuclear-armed powers, one our ally and the other our biggest trading partner.

So yes, it was just a phone call, and the storm will pass. But in the background, history is moving against the US-Australia alliance.