Peering behind the alliance curtain

What lessons should we draw from the Turnbull-Trump phone call?

Iain Henry

PHOTO: EPA/ PETE MAROVICH / POOL

Government and governance, International relations, South China Sea | Australia, The World

6 February 2017

The refugee deal which sparked a spiky conversation between the two leaders may still go ahead, but at what cost to Canberra? Iain Henry looks at what this could mean for the alliance relationship.

For cheerleaders of the ANZUS alliance, the statements released after ministerial meetings and leadership phone calls are manna from heaven. The soothing and predictable words are almost like religious recitations: the alliance continues to grow stronger, deeper, wider and more intimate, the interests of Australia and the United States will never diverge, and no problems will ever arise in our alliance.

Academics have long argued that trusting such statements is folly. Stephen Walt, a Professor at Harvard, wrote that the ‘litmus test’ of an alliance does not come at summit meetings, or phone call readouts, because these stage-managed events are ‘designed for the ritual incantation of unifying rhetoric’. Leaders use a façade of flowery language to conceal any issues that might, in reality, be slowly damaging the alliance.

President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull spoke on the phone just a few days ago. According to the White House’s readout of the conversation, “Both leaders emphasised the enduring strength and closeness of the US-Australia relationship that is critical for peace, stability, and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region and globally.” Although only two sentences long, the readout language was quite standard.

Rarely are analysts afforded an opportunity to peer behind this curtain of unifying language. But thanks to a jaw-dropping report from the Washington Post, we can see the yawning chasm between reality and rhetoric.

According to the Post, Trump told Turnbull that their conversation was “the worst call by far” for that day. This was no mean feat, given that Trump had spoken earlier with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Not only was this the worst call, but a pre-existing deal for the US to accept 1,250 asylum seekers (currently in Australian detention facilities) was the “worst deal ever,” despite Australia agreeing in 2016 to accept refugees from Central America.

It’s not clear if Trump was posturing for negotiation purposes, dismissive of a deal he did not personally negotiate, tired and weary, or just in a bad mood. But apparently, the scheduled one-hour phone call was abruptly ended—by Trump—after only 25 minutes.

This phone call episode suggests that Canberra must carefully consider two points in the months and years ahead. The first is that, as Walt wrote, the real litmus test of an alliance comes “when member-states are called upon to do something for each other.” This is one of those moments. The Turnbull Government will soon probably try to insulate the alliance from the refugee deal, and insist that a failure of the latter would say nothing about the former.

But if Trump reneges on the refugee deal, it will further damage domestic Australian support for the alliance. Many Australians already disapprove of President Trump, and fear his temperament and policy decisions could damage Australia’s security. The Australian Government should always be ready to make the case for the alliance, but using the emotive language of common liberal-democratic ideals will no longer be adequate, because under President Trump these may no longer be shared values. Instead, it will be necessary to talk about the alliance in terms of shared interests. Uncomfortably for Canberra, this means talking plainly about the security risks posed by the rise of China.

The second point is that Australia’s popular understanding of the alliance is usually defined by the idea of reciprocal loyalty. Australians feel that just as we help America out on the world stage, they should help us out when we need a hand. This idea persists, despite the fact that when we asked for American support in 1999, for operations in East Timor, the Clinton administration was extremely reluctant, and only supported us when it became clear that their own “boots on the ground” involvement could be limited.

Australian leaders should be sceptical of making alliance decisions based on the idea of reciprocal loyalty. Being loyal to an ally is no guarantee that the ally will behave likewise. US officials have already flagged their intention to record a ‘favour’ owed if the refugee deal goes ahead, despite the fact that Australia is also doing the United States a favour in accepting refugees from Central America.

Another media report has suggested that the Trump administration will seek to collect this debt by getting Canberra’s agreement to adopt a more aggressive posture in the South China Sea. Loyalty to the alliance under Trump may mean escalating security tensions in Asia, at a time when there is great uncertainty about America’s reliability.

Would endorsing an American policy of confronting China really be in Australia’s interests, especially if we cannot guarantee America’s future loyalty to us? Thorny alliance questions will confront Canberra at every turn, and we can no longer answer them through overwrought appeals to shared values. We must peer behind the alliance curtain, and let our interests—either convergent with America’s, or not—guide our decisions.

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