Old friends and opportunity cost
15 Feb 2017|

Image courtesy of Pixabay user robbrownaustralia.

President Obama was a good ally. His agreement to take up to 1,250 refugees placed by us in the Pacific was as extraordinary as it was helpful. As ambassador in Washington I found a degree of discomfort with our approach to border protection, particularly at mid-levels in his administration. When doubts were raised, the embassy pushed back. When the New York Times editorialised against Australia’s ‘brutal and ruthless treatment’ of refugees, my response was that ‘brutal and ruthless’ described ISIS against whom we fought and whose victims were eligible for consideration in our refugee program. We wanted to deter those contemplating a dangerous journey.

In the end Obama got that. The agreement represented our ally’s grasp of our sensitivity to securing our maritime approaches and an appreciation of the proportionately large Australian immigration program and refugee intake. It’s not surprising really that Trump was taken aback by an agreement, scarcely a ‘deal’ that required quite a detailed interaction with us to comprehend. The response of some of our commentariat—that Trump’s questioning of that agreement was a major strike on the alliance—displayed a level of self-awareness Trump’s critics assign him.

Hard talk is common between allies. As a minister and ambassador I have been involved in a lot of it over matters much more consequential than this and over much longer than 25 minutes. None were, I must admit, quite so brusque. This is a reflection of the rollout gone wrong in the US. The PM had to stick to his guns. The issue is important to us and couldn’t be let go, but it’s a real pity it had to be done, and that it was the only part of the president’s broader initiative we got to discuss. The PM had no space to mention critical regional issues, let alone broader aspects of the Trump order.

We needed to talk to Trump about his initiative, not to criticise his desire to tighten US vetting, which is already very tight. Loose talk by the administration that it targeted Muslims in areas where the struggle with ISIS is most intense posed a challenge to our interests, particularly those of our service personnel in Iraq. Our troops run one of three major bases training the Iraqi Army. The coalition presence is a mixed blessing to the Baghdad government. It knows its authority requires that indigenous forces, particularly those under their control, are perceived to be freeing Iraq from ISIS. But it’s under pressure on two flanks. Shia militia backed by Iran are sceptical of the US and allied presence and sometimes threaten to make their objections kinetic. On the other flank, and heavily entailed in the training effort, is the attempt to reattach the minority Sunni Arab tribal elements, many of whom have gone over to ISIS. The language around the administration’s initiative plays into some bad narratives in Iraq, potentially increasing the risk to our troops. We need a chance to point this out.

The PM also needs the opportunity to talk to Trump about East and Southeast Asia and our concerns about trade, particularly the TPP and our East Asian trading partners and US approaches to institutions like the East Asia Summit. We are worried about mixing trade and security agendas and anxious about the administration’s views on activities in flashpoint areas in the South and East China Seas and on the Korean peninsula. The foreign minister has had useful conversations on these matters with her new US counterpart and Vice President Pence. We need the PM to have one with President Trump.

Last week, outside the White House, policy stabilised. Defense Secretary Mattis toured North Asia with a message of guarantees and continuity. Secretary of State Tillerson calmed his agency and moderated his tone from his confirmation hearings. Former national security adviser Flynn contacted his Chinese counterpart, arranging a friendly presidential letter to Xi. The subsequent Trump call to Xi addressed no major issues in detail but assured US adherence to the One China policy.

The week concluded with a bonding visit by Japan’s PM Shinzo Abe, who has conducted brilliant regional diplomacy following Trump’s election. He has assured the administration’s support for the inclusion of disputed islands under the American guarantee. With Trump he positioned himself closer to the idea of a bilateral trade treaty. One can’t help thinking both Xi and Abe might be concluding Trump has strong views, weakly held.

One pattern seems to be emerging. While Trump’s views appear disruptive, they don’t carry a detailed policy tail. He has reactions on issues where he argues the US has been disadvantaged and demeaned. These are not framed policies. He does not have a plan for relief let alone revenge. His appointees have detail but not for his apparent agenda. This does not mean that much more aggressive US policy challenges won’t emerge. It does mean they can be shaped.

Abe is already well down the shaping road. We have a well-developed perspective on the issues the Trump administration has decided to confront. We became a very effective ‘muse’ for the Obama administration on Indo-Pacific politics. A reward was this refugee agreement. Unfortunately, having to defend it cost us temporarily the opportunity to play the muse again. It won’t be easy or pleasant for Turnbull to resume the conversation. At least he has the advantage of a huge bipartisan outpouring of affection for Australia, together with the acknowledged significance of the alliance in Congress and with the American commentariat. They will also have noted Turnbull’s restraint and the minimal leaking of internal Australian government thoughts. The conversation, when a peg develops to hang it on, must resume.