President Donald Trump’s rebuke of the Australian alliance is the latest act of recklessness in an unprecedented week that has undermined the viability of many of Washington’s staunchest alliances.
The president’s aggression has thrown his chief allies under the bus, making relations with the White House politically damaging for countries like the UK, Canada, and Australia, domestically.
It began with President Trump’s callous executive action at the weekend, limiting the entry of Muslim citizens in Yemen, Syria, Libya, Sudan, Somalia, Iran and Iraq indefinitely to the US.
To most rational observers — particularly experts on terrorism and immigration — it is clear that this reckless policy will only inflate the terrorist threat, not abate it. And for America’s allies, the executive order has caused unprecedented complications, with almost all of Washington’s closest allies confused as to whether it affects their citizens or not.
As an Australian citizen, I am deeply concerned. Not just for the fate of legitimate refugees, dual U.S. citizens, and others who are America-bound. I’m concerned for my own country, for its security, and about the damage the president’s actions have inadvertently done to Australia’s own global standing.
On a day-to-day level, I fear that the bellicose, ill-considered and objectively ill-founded pursuits of the U.S. president have emboldened those in my own country who share the same views. Australian elections are won or lost in the political center. But that political center-point is shifting towards a space in which previously intolerable views on key policy areas, such as immigration, have dramatically lurched to the right. Trump’s presidency only compounds this new reality.
And on a broader political level, Trump’s actions have made the job of the leaders of American allied states — not only Australia, but the other members of the Five Eyes security alliance, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom — that much harder. These core U.S. allies all demonstrably desire a strong partnership with the United States, but Trump’s willingness to promote a valueless agenda that undermines these nations’ core beliefs is beginning to make that pursuit politically unviable for the leaders of each of these U.S. allies.
Trump has particularly made life extremely difficult for Australia’s prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull.
First, the immigration ban caught Australia off guard. Turnbull — aiming to advance a refugee resettlement deal struck during the Obama administration — was unable to vocalise his opposition the executive order, for fear of damaging Australia’s tenuous new relationship with the White House. Instead, Turnbull was forced to demure, damaging his already shaky political standing at home in the process.
And the revelations broken by the Washington Post on Wednesday regarding Trump’s recent aggressive and insulting phone call to Turnbull have caused further headaches. It is, simply, unprecedented for a U.S. president to excoriate an Australian leader for a deal struck in good faith between the two countries.
Trump’s behaviour on that phone call, shocking as it is, only encourages those within Australia that want to see Canberra less reliant on its U.S. alliance. It is a truly nonsensical development in the bilateral relationship, one that has seen Australia so willing to help advance U.S. interests globally for three-quarters of a century.
Most Australians want to see a continuation of deep Australia-U.S. relations. But by engaging in a threatening and derogatory conversation with Australia’s prime minister, Trump is doing as much as he possibly can to undermine this public sentiment.
While there is a strong bipartisan consensus in Australia to continue to deepen U.S.-Australia ties, Trump’s actions make it that much harder for Australian leaders to explain why.
In this context, however, Malcolm Turnbull should be admired for his demeanour this week, particularly in contrast to his U.S. counterpart.
Turnbull is in dire straits politically at home, having started the new year on the back foot after a largely unproductive 2016. In the new year, Turnbull’s fortunes have gone from bad to worse, with a ministerial expenses scandal occupying much of January, and recent revelations that he helped bankroll his own narrow election victory last July, to the tune of AU $1.75 million.
But despite the headwinds, and Trump’s apparent determination to rupture the U.S.-Australia relationship, Turnbull remains a picture of civility and diplomacy when confronted with this new and challenging reality.
He is trying to demonstrate that, despite the insults and bombast, the U.S.-Australia relationship is bigger than the reckless actions of one man, and should be admired by Americans and Australians alike for doing so.
I hope that Trump comes to his senses, and doesn’t continue to actively undermine the healthy and friendly relations between my country and his. But, after just twelve days in office, the signs suggest otherwise.