Donald Trump is turning out to be quite the rampaging Rottweiler at home and abroad, hell bent on unsettling longstanding norms, relationships and institutions. The latest instance of his unpredictability is his outburst at Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, during a phone call on January 28.
The Washington Post reported that Trump “blasted” Turnbull when the latter brought up the issue of honouring the Obama administration’s undertaking to take in 1,250 refugees who are in Australia’s offshore detention centres. Trump reportedly informed Turnbull that he was the fifth world leader he was speaking to that day and that it was “the worst call by far”. Trump abruptly ended the call after 25 minutes; CNN reported that each of his other calls that day with the leaders of Japan, Russia, France and Germany “lasted close to an hour”. Trump tweeted calling the refugee arrangement a “dumb deal” – and then at a ‘national prayer breakfast’ referred to tough phone calls and said “we have to be tough, folks…we’re taken advantage of by every nation in the world, virtually.”
He has since tried to make amends by saying he “loves” Australia but the country will not easily be mollified. The issue has dominated its media and headlines. Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, the newspaper’s chief political correspondent Mark Kenny called Trump the “Mad King: volatile, vainglorious, and untrustworthy” – terms normally reserved for contemptible dictators, not US presidents. Paul McGeough wrote in The Age that the leak of this unflattering exchange showed that Trump and his team “will throw anyone under the bus to make the new president look good.”
David Crowe in The Australian said the “nightmare of dealing with Donald Trump has been made plain to the Australian government and its citizens with extraordinary shifts... in the US President’s official position on a refugee deal that is barely three months old.” Historian James Curran felt this kind of treatment of an ally and the “abusive tweet” that followed it “should send a shudder down the spine of politicians and policymakers in Canberra.”
The reason the outburst rankles is because Australia is a major alliance partner of the US; it has joined America in every major war over the last century, and it is a member of the US-led Five Eyes intelligence sharing network, along with the UK, Canada and New Zealand. Also, Australia has chosen to stick with the US despite conflicting pulls in the region. It belongs in a neighbourhood that is dominated by China, its own two-way trade with China is worth $670 billion and it sees the latter as a big part of its economic future, even though the US is the biggest investor in Oz. It seeks to avoid confrontation but is very wary of Beijing’s assertion in the South China Sea and thus wants to, as its 2016 Defence white paper puts it, deepen its partnership with the United States, “including enhancing our already high levels of military integration and interoperability, cooperation in intelligence sharing…and participating in United States-led operations against shared challenges such as …terrorism.”
Trump has advertised his keenness to scale back US’s commitments abroad but powers like Australia Japan and South Korea would nonetheless be pressing him for assurances that Washington will stick to treaty commitments on security and remain engaged on challenges in the continent, particularly pertaining to an assertive China and North Korea’s nuclear programme.
What they see instead is Trump’s rant, which will liven up the debate in Australia about its own outlook towards the US and China. Australia’s former foreign minister Bob Carr said the call dispelled notions of a special relationship with America and would lead to Canberra’s reassessing its ties to Washington. Carr made three compelling points in his remarks: that the outburst forces Australia “to drop romantic notions of the alliance and now be more realistic; it liberates leaders to say no to Washington if it seeks to recruit [us] for any reckless adventure” and that “America has taken a nationalist direction and won’t be returning to global leadership as we’ve understood it.”
Other experts have expressed concerns:
This is a very disturbing way for President Trump to start his relationship with the leader of America's most reliable ally. https://t.co/vm3RiQogpX— Michael Fullilove (@mfullilove) February 2, 2017
If this is Trump's attitude to Australia, then we are at no risk of getting too close— Rory Medcalf (@Rory_Medcalf) February 2, 2017
And the discussion has immediately moved to implications for the US-Australia alliance.
Trump has just done China a big favour in its efforts to weaken the US-Australia alliance - and thus harmed US strategic interests https://t.co/w3jx3xoTDD— Rory Medcalf (@Rory_Medcalf) February 2, 2017
The prospect of undermining a longstanding alliance has prompted strong reactions from the American policy community:
Senator John McCain called the Australian ambassador to the US to express his “unwavering support” for the alliance:
Some, however, do not foresee an “operational impact” from this incident since senior officials in the Trump administration want closer ties with Australia, including National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. A writer has argued that the “US needs Australia, not just the other way round” – because of the 2,500 US marines stationed in Darwin and also owing to Australia’s promixity to “flashpoints of Asia” which will be useful as China and others develop long-range ballistic missile capabilities.
The dust may settle soon but policymakers in Australia and Asia will be aware of the chilling effect a figure like Trump has on bureaucratic outreach. They will perhaps come to assume unpredictability as the default stance of the Trump administration, owing to his need to posture abroad for burnishing his domestic credentials. This episode will, however, reinforce doubts about Trump’s temperament and those around him like Steve Bannon, who is now in the National Security Council. Curran has been quoted as saying “If you have this sort of tension this early in the life of the administration over relatively small beer, what will happen in the event of a major crisis?”
Embassies around the world will continue to wonder if Trump and his team understand the gravity of the office they hold, the effect their actions have on world politics and the state of strategic play in Asia at the moment. And if they conclude that the former do not have that understanding and that Trump is resolute about rolling back globalisation (which countries benefited from), then we may see subtle but significant shifts in relationships across Asia.
Author’s twitter handle is @SushilAaron