CANBERRA – U.S. President Donald Trump prides himself on not being diplomatic. He proceeded to prove that in a phone conversation with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on Jan. 29. Turnbull followed the leaders of France, Germany, Japan, Mexico and Russia in a courtesy call with Trump.
There was also a practical issue for discussion. Australia has attracted growing notoriety (but also some admiration from European far right groups) for its harsh policy of offshore detention of refugees and asylum seekers arriving by boats. In 2013, the Abbott government decided to implement its “Stop the Boats” campaign promise by forcibly intercepting all incoming boat-borne refugees and resettling them in third countries. Pending that resettlement, the desperate people, mostly from the Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan, were detained in camps outside Australian sovereign jurisdiction (which denied them access to Australian legal remedies).
The policy has run into two sets of problems. First, it has become an increasing cause celebre among human rights organizations for the cruelty akin to torture and mental health effects. Second, and partly in response, one by one the third countries concerned have distanced themselves from participation in the scheme, concluding that Australia should solve its own problem instead of dumping the unwanted refugees on Pacific neighbors. In November, Turnbull had secured an agreement with President Barack Obama to accept, after suitable vetting by the United States, 1,250 of the refugees from Papua New Guinea and Nauru. In return Australia would take some refugees from Central America.
Given Trump’s stated opposition to immigration, and following his Jan. 27 ban on refugees, especially from Muslim majority countries in turmoil, Turnbull sought and claimed to have got reassurance during the phone call that the deal would be honored. According to the sanitized talking points put out by the White House, the two leaders had “emphasized the enduring strength and closeness of the U.S.-Australia relationship that is critical for peace, stability and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region and globally.”
Unfortunately, both sides had forgotten Trump’s disdain for diplomatic niceties, his propensity to tweet and the deluge of leaks flooding Washington these days. On Feb. 1, The Washington Post published almost a blow-by-blow account of the two leaders’ conversation that caused consternation in Washington, Canberra and most European capitals. Trump came across as a bully and a braggart. Speaking from the alternative universe he inhabits, Trump boasted of the magnitude of his electoral college win. He denounced the Obama-Turnbull refugee resettlement agreement as “the worst deal ever” — having earlier used similar language for the Iran nuclear deal, the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Trump complained the deal would kill him politically, that Turnbull was trying to export the “next Boston bombers” to the U.S. and that of the five world leaders he had spoken with that day, including Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, “this was the worst call by far.” The scheduled one-hour call was terminated abruptly after 25 minutes. After the Post’s story made headlines around the world, Trump followed up with a tweet: “Do you believe it? The Obama administration agreed to take thousands of illegal immigrants from Australia. Why? I will study this dumb deal!”
Whatever his misgivings, Trump has confirmed his intention to honor the deal as a “pre-existing international agreement,” but subject to “extreme vetting” of the refugees. Unlike with Mexico with its “bad hombres,” Trump did not threaten to invade Australia. Turnbull’s mild and measured response was criticized by the Labor Party. Opposition leader Bill Shorten condemned Trump’s decision as “appalling,” but the party was forced to defend itself against charges of hypocrisy in that in 2010, the Labor government suspended all processing of refugee claims by Afghans and Sri Lankans for six months.
The Australia-U.S. alliance is robust enough to survive this contretemps. But it throws up troubling questions for all U.S. allies. Australia has a deserved reputation for being America’s strongest ally and it has followed the U.S. into all its major wars since 1945. A recent public opinion poll showed that the three friendliest countries as perceived by Americans, with little to separate them, are Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia. Among Republicans, Australia is rated as America’s strongest ally.
The rippling shock waves from Trump’s leaked conversation with Turnbull quickly rolled across the Atlantic. According to an article in The Wall Street Journal, “diplomats in Europe were stunned by reports of the call. They fretted over the confrontation, given that Australia is one of America’s closest allies and deployed troops to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan.” For the U.K., it adds an extra layer of worry about how the impending exit from the European Union will leave Britain even more dependent on Trump’s America.
The reason the Trump-Turnbull conversation was global news is that an uncouth, loudmouth, volatile and unpredictable U.S. president is globally unnerving. How reliable is any U.S. treaty commitment or verbal guarantee when the occupant of the White House boasts of breaking protocol, announces policy via Twitter and proudly challenges longtime alliances and core tenets of U.S. foreign policy?
If Trump behaves so bumptiously over such a minor matter, can Australia or any other ally trust the U.S. to come to their aid when attacked? In a hard-edged, transactional approach, shared history and military sacrifices going back to both world wars count for nothing, said Andrew Shearer, a retired Australian national security adviser. Trump tried reassurance on Feb. 2 and 3: “When you hear about the tough phone calls I’m having, don’t worry about it. They’re tough. We have to be tough.”
Trump has painted China as the main U.S. strategic competitor and rival in the foreseeable future. He openly challenges Beijing’s claims to islands in the South China Sea and has threatened to prevent Chinese access to them. In any confrontation with China, the U.S. will need its military assets in Australia and the U.S. Navy would welcome being joined by Australian warships in freedom of navigation operations. Trump would seem to lack the cognitive skills to tell friend from foe, ally from enemy.
That said, the obvious question remains: If Australia is not prepared to take these refugees, why should the U.S.? The source of the problem in this particular instance is not Trump’s temperamental unsuitability to be president, but Australia’s harsh, indefensible and inconsistent refugee policy.
Ramesh Thakur is a professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.
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