Tough phone calls between Australian prime ministers and other world leaders are nothing new; I have been present for a number of them. Even when the messages are firm and the differences great, invariably they remain civil.
Harsh words between a prime minister and a US president are still rarer – although the alliance almost fractured over differences between Gough Whitlam and Richard Nixon, relations with the Reagan administration were strained when the Hawke government declined to host US missile tests in the 1980s. John Howard sparred with Bill Clinton over lamb tariffs and his refusal to provide US ground troops for the Australian-led intervention in East Timor.
By any standard, however, the accounts of Malcolm Turnbull’s recent phone conversation with President Donald Trump is extraordinary.
Trump reportedly complained about the refugee deal negotiated with the outgoing Obama administration, boasted about his electoral performance and then cut short the call, rebuffing Turnbull’s attempt to discuss Syria and other pressing foreign policy matters.
In the Washington Post an unnamed senior administration official described the conversation as “hostile and charged”. The language of diplomacy is usually formal and elliptical; that description would be more in keeping with an exchange between the leaders of two countries on the brink of conflict rather than of two of the world’s great democracies, and oldest and closest allies.
Apparently, Turnbull isn’t alone in finding himself at the wrong end of a Trump tirade: other allied leaders including Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto have reportedly had a similar experience.
But presumably the Prime Minister would draw little consolation from the administration official’s assurance that Trump’s interactions with the leaders of Japan, Germany, France and Russia had been “productive and pleasant”.
A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE
Trump’s humiliating treatment must rankle even more when Turnbull is being attacked at the same time by Labor and his other political opponents in Australia for not publicly criticising the President’s refugee announcement. Talk about being between a rock and a hard place.
Convincing the incoming Trump administration to accept the refugee deal was always going to require deft diplomacy. The Australian embassy team in Washington DC had delivered, securing in Trump’s executive order suspending refugee admissions language that in effect exempted the deal with Canberra.
Trump tweeted on Wednesday night Washington time that he intends to “study this dumb deal”, less than 2 hours after the US embassy in Canberra stated that it had been told by the White House that the arrangement stands.
Were it to founder, Australia’s strong border protection policies would suffer a serious setback, and the personal relationship between the US and Australian leaders would become very difficult.
So what, if anything, does this episode mean for Australia’s alliance with the United States, the bedrock of our security for more than 60 years?
SHEDDING A HARSH LIGHT
The first point is that the alliance will survive, as it did each of the difficult periods mentioned above. It is simply too important to both countries, particularly at a time when threats are rising, whether from nuclear-armed North Korea, Chinese assertiveness in the western Pacific, or global terror networks.
But the Trump-Turnbull phone call does shed harsh light on the President’s attitude to alliances – and will feed anxiety created in Europe and North Asia by Trump’s previous pungent comments about NATO and the United States’ long-standing alliances with Japan and South Korea.
While he often subsequently contradicts himself, Trump has called NATO “obsolete” and criticised Japan and South Korea for not contributing enough to their own defence – views that might have been fairer in the 1980s and 1990s but certainly aren’t justified now.
The word most used by commentators to describe Trump’s approach to allies – and other powers, for that matter – is “transactional”. The report of his phone call with Turnbull bears that out.
It is understandable that Trump wasn’t wild about the refugee deal with Australia, considering that admitting them ran directly counter to the message his controversial executive order was seeking to send.
What is telling, however, is that he seems to have focused exclusively on the deal itself – in zero-sum, ‘you win, I lose” terms. Trump is quoted as telling Turnbull “This is the worst deal ever”, and complaining it would hurt him politically. Officials reportedly said Trump could not see any “specific advantage” the United States would gain from honouring the deal.
THE REAL PROBLEM FOR ALLIES
This seems to be a view Trump has brought into the White House from his own business experience. Every interaction is a one-off deal, sui generis and unrelated to any previous transaction.
If true, that’s deeply disturbing for allies.
For one thing, it’s historical and shows no understanding of the shared sacrifices, values and interests that have underpinned the US-led alliance system since the Second World War, delivering more than half a century of global prosperity and relative stability.
It also misunderstands how alliances work, and the day-to-day efforts that have to go into to managing and nurturing them – what former US Secretary of State George Shultz called “tending the alliance garden”.
Alliances are about give and take. This time Australia was seeking a favour. Next time there’s every chance that it will be the Trump administration asking. That’s how it works.
Australia was one of the earliest and largest military contributors to the international coalition assembled by the United States to combat Islamic State in Iraq and Syria – supposedly President Trump’s highest national security priority. The Australian government made that decision because it was in our national interest, and the right thing to do. But it also wanted to support the United States, as former Prime Minister Tony Abbott made clear to Barrack Obama in the Oval Office.
Australia and other staunch US allies will continue to do the right thing both because it is in their interest and because strong alliances weather passing differences between leaders.
But personal relationships matter in diplomacy, and President Trump may soon find that other leaders aren’t quite so quick to pick up the phone when he calls.
This article originally appeared in the Australian Financial Review.