Turnbull, Trump and the Intrepid
5 May 2017|

I’ll defend to the death John McCarthy’s right, facilitated by The Strategist, to uphold the dignity of the Prime Minister in the face of insults from the American President. There’s no excuse for bad, belittling and bullying behavour. Thank goodness we never see that in Australian politics or in public service life. All this huffing about national dignity, self-esteem, obsequiousness and stature sound more like the diplomatic playbook from some fictional Balkan principality. It takes more than a nasty phone call to derail an alliance. Did anyone pause to notice that Trump really delivered Turnbull a massive favour in that phone call? Donald Trump accepted what I believe diplomats might call un sac de merde in the form of President Obama’s parting gift to Trump—a promise to accept asylum seekers from Manus Island and Nauru. Only the strength of the alliance relationship persuaded Trump to honour his predecessor’s promise. That tells you we still have some standing and respect in Washington.

Malcolm Turnbull isn’t noticeably lacking in self-esteem. He seemed to handle the call and then welcomed the outpouring of support from America’s establishment that followed it . Others of our political elite have described President Trump as ‘barking mad’, ‘terrifying’ and a ‘dropkick’. (The CIA is presumably working on a suitable translation of that last epithet for the President: ‘It’s a sporting analogy, Sir, implying good physical coordination.’) Let’s not shirtfront Trump on the USS Intrepid with that one. While the Americans are sufficiently self-assured not to be bothered by small-scale slings and arrows, this all points to a reality of Australian international life: that the one country we can safely, endlessly and joyously insult without fear of retaliation is the United States. But look at the reaction when the hard words get flung in our direction. Faced with a snappy response from a new President who has just been handed an unpalatable request, our elites are strapping on their top hats and spats to defend the honour of Ruritania.

Turnbull and Trump are both pretty smart cookies. Barring the remote possibility of an unscripted disaster, the meeting on the Intrepid will provide a basis for two savvy leaders to confirm the alliance relationship is a good thing, a beautiful thing no less, with a GREAT future. And full marks to the unknown Australian official who selected the gift for Mr Trump. A happy Turnbull told SBS: ‘We have a beautiful timber gift, it’s made of jarrah and silver ash, by an Australian craftsman from Bungendore and it’s designed to hold golf balls.’ You bet it is, Prime Minister!

Meantime our own Greek chorus of alliance belittlers should perhaps tone down their wailing over the passing of the alliance relationship. There’s no doubt that a number of ‘Australian leaders of stature’ (as John McCarthy calls them) have identified the Trump ascendancy as the right moment to start back-peddling furiously on cooperation with the US. Listening to them, it seems the only time Australia wasn’t kowtowing to the Americans was during the all-too-brief moments when the same leaders-of-stature were steering the ship. It didn’t seem that way at the time.

It’s time, though, for our current and prospective political leaders to start paying attention to some of the Greek chorus. The more their claims are ignored, the less it looks like the current establishment is prepared to set out the case for the contemporary US alliance.

The argument for the alliance should be a vital component of DFAT’s forthcoming White Paper. The Prime Minister might also consider making a parliamentary statement after the budget about the Australia–US relationship. That was the old-fashioned, pre-Twitter, way governments used to tell Australians about what was really important.