Relief may be Malcolm Turnbull’s overwhelming emotion as he settles back for the long flight home from New York before a crucial budget.
Returning to his home town and the inevitable protests for the first time since the inauguration, President Trump may have kept the PM waiting for a few hours. But it was worth it.
Trump was welcoming, warm and – dare one say it – presidential, putting the two leaders’ testy February phone call behind them and declaring his love for Australia.
For a leader who is often criticised for lacking discipline and disrespecting history, he stuck to the script throughout a thoughtful and often passionate speech about the the two countries’ shared military history and sacrifices. His remarks were made poignant by the presence of surviving Australian and US servicemen at a gala event commemorating the 75th anniversary of the crucial Battle of the Coral Sea.
MEETING THE PRESIDENT MATTERS
It is always a big deal when Australia’s Prime Minister meets the US President. Irrespective of party politics, the vast majority of Australians recognise that the US alliance is important to Australia’s security, and the voting public expect the prime minister of the day to manage the alliance effectively.
Gough Whitlam’s clash with President Richard Nixon strained the alliance and contributed to public anxiety about his leadership; Mark Latham’s petulance towards the George W Bush administration fed into a narrative that he was too erratic to be allowed to remain Labor opposition leader, contributing to his political downfall.
The stakes were higher than usual this time following the phone call – demonstrated by the fact that Turnbull took the time to make the trip the week before the budget. Australian diplomats worked every avenue to get the President to attend the commemorative event.
The setting provided a good opportunity. The commemorative event on the USS Intrepid – herself a veteran of the Pacific campaign – was the perfect setting to underline the long history of shared interests, values and sacrifice that underpin today’s Australia-US alliance. It was an ideal opportunity for the two leaders to patch up their differences and get their relationship off to a fresh start.
A REMINDER OF SERVICE
It served as a timely reminder of the vital contribution US maritime power and alliances have made to both countries’ security and prosperity – and to the wider Indo-Pacific region – since the Second World War.
It also highlighted the daunting array of threats and challenges facing the United States, Australia and their allies today – whether from a nuclear-armed North Korea, Islamic State and other Islamist terror networks, a revanchist Russia, an increasingly bullying China, or the domestic forces of populism and protectionism.
Hopefully Turnbull reinforced the efforts of his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe to convince the President and author of The Art of the Deal that for the United States strong alliances and partnerships mean significantly more negotiating leverage rather than unnecessary cost. Over the long term they bring the United States benefits that a transactional approach can never equal.
The same can be said for open regional economic arrangements such as the now defunct Trans Pacific Partnership.
TRUMP IS CHANGING ON FOREIGN POLICY
Many of the serious figures around the President such as Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, National Security Advisor HR McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson know this, and Trump has changed course on a number of important foreign policy issues, including the role of NATO, US alliances with Japan and South Korea, and – seemingly – initiating a trade war with China.
Nonetheless, there is still work for Australia and other US allies to do to convince a sceptical President that alliances and free trade serve American interests.
The New York summit provided a forum for the two leaders to compare notes on how to tighten the screws on North Korea, including by inducing China to take real action to rein in its belligerent ally (rather than continuing to go through the motions).
With US, Australian and other coalition forces making ground against IS in Syria and in Mosul, its capital in Iraq, Turnbull will have been able to remind the President of Australia’s significant military commitment and to discuss strategy in that campaign, as well as in Afghanistan and the Middle East more broadly.
It is also an important time for US and Australian political leaders to compare notes on the Indo-Pacific region, including with an eye to the forthcoming APEC leaders’ meeting and East Asia Summit.
AUSTRALIAN LEADERS ARE LISTENED TO
Going right back to prime minister Robert Menzies and his peerless foreign minister Percy Spender, US presidents listen when Australian leaders articulate a thoughtful, coherent agenda for how the two countries can work together, and with other allies and partners, to reinforce security and promote prosperity in the region – particularly when allies step up and show a preparedness to accept the inherent risks and costs.
North Korea and Islamic State are serious threats (in different ways). But the strategic trajectory China seems embarked on will be of greater long-term consequence for the United States, Australia and the rest of the world.
China is adept at leveraging its cooperation on the issue of the day to obtain time and space to pursue its salami-slicing coercive strategy to erode US influence, weaken alliances and extend its own influence in the Western Pacific. Beijing repeatedly used non-binding promises on climate change as a bait-and-switch gambit with the Obama administration, and it has gamed the last few administrations on North Korea. Getting Australia, other key allies and the Trump administration on the same page will be vital to avoid the same trap this time round.
Ultimately both sides shared a modest goal for the New York encounter: smiling media images to show they have put the phone call behind them. To that extent, they will be satisfied. But Australians – and Americans – have the right to expect their leaders to aim higher, and to show that they have agreed a solid plan on how their countries will work together to deal with current and future challenges and to shape a secure and prosperous future for their peoples.