For­eign pol­icy in the age of Trump

As Julie Bishop com­pletes her first meet­ings with Trump’s key ad­vis­ers, the al­liance ap­pears strength­ened by Mal­colm Turn­bull’s heated phone call.

The Saturday Paper - - Front Page - By Karen Mid­dle­ton.

At his hec­tic 77-minute news con­fer­ence last week, United States Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump mo­men­tar­ily con­fused his ally Aus­tralia with an­other coun­try start­ing and end­ing with A.

Dis­cussing the fact that de­tails of two of his early phone calls with for­eign lead­ers – from Mex­ico and Aus­tralia – had leaked, he de­scribed his re­ac­tion.

“When I was called out on Mex­ico, I was shocked,” Trump told re­porters. “… But it wasn’t that im­por­tant a call … Same thing with Aus­tralia; I said, ‘That’s ter­ri­ble that it was leaked but it wasn’t that im­por­tant.’”

He had or­dered an in­ves­ti­ga­tion, fear­ful more im­por­tant fu­ture con­ver­sa­tions might also leak.

“So I’m deal­ing with Mex­ico,” the pres­i­dent con­tin­ued. “I’m deal­ing with Ar­gentina …”

The Aus­tralian of­fi­cials lis­ten­ing to ev­ery word of his news con­fer­ence knew what – and who – he meant. But it did serve as a re­minder of this new pres­i­dent’s style: not be­ing too both­ered with the finer de­tails – not pub­licly, any­way – and pos­si­bly re­quir­ing oc­ca­sional prompt­ing on who his coun­try’s close friends are and why they mat­ter.

In the case of Aus­tralia, one month since in­au­gu­ra­tion day that prompt­ing is un­der way.

While the foun­da­tions of the Aus­tralia–US al­liance hold from one gov­ern­ment to the next, it’s the per­sonal re­la­tion­ships that de­ter­mine how smoothly things run and how much in­flu­ence the smaller part­ner’s views are af­forded in Wash­ing­ton. The dash across the Pa­cific by For­eign Min­is­ter Julie Bishop this week, for meet­ings with Vice-Pres­i­dent Mike Pence and Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son, was all about that.


“The vice-pres­i­dent and the ad­min­is­tra­tion more gen­er­ally are ask­ing for ideas from peo­ple,” Bishop told The Satur­day Pa­per from Wash­ing­ton. “… I took the op­por­tu­nity to share some of our think­ing. They ap­peared to wel­come it.”

It ap­pears the leak of the con­tents of Trump’s phone call with Prime Min­is­ter Mal­colm Turn­bull is prov­ing to be more help than hin­drance, plac­ing the Aus­tralia re­la­tion­ship tem­po­rar­ily front of mind among se­nior ad­min­is­tra­tion fig­ures.

But there is a view among some in Wash­ing­ton that Turn­bull erred in choos­ing to raise the refugee deal in the way he did in the first place.

While they main­tain Trump’s re­ac­tion and the sub­se­quent leak were un­ac­cept­able, they say it would have been wiser for Turn­bull to have let of­fi­cials press the case on the refugee deal and used his own con­tact with the new pres­i­dent to re­in­force what Aus­tralia gave in the al­liance re­la­tion­ship, not what it wanted to take.

They point to Ja­panese prime min­is­ter Shinzō Abe’s diplo­macy as a bet­ter ex­am­ple, con­sult­ing re­gional lead­ers in­clud­ing Turn­bull on is­sues of con­cern be­fore jet­ting to Wash­ing­ton.

In that re­gard, the leak saved Turn­bull. The wide­spread re­port­ing of Trump’s in­tem­per­ate re­sponse her­alded a flood of good­will and re­as­sur­ance. Ev­ery­where from TV talk show stu­dios to the halls of the Capi­tol, Amer­i­cans spoke out about Aus­tralia’s im­por­tance, and peo­ple asked pri­vately and pub­licly: if we can’t get along with Aus­tralia, who can we get along with?

The na­ture of the Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment’s ap­proach to the new ad­min­is­tra­tion is en­cap­su­lated nicely in the ti­tle of a pa­per the Aus­tralian Na­tional Uni­ver­sity’s na­tional se­cu­rity col­lege pub­lished re­cently about the new pres­i­dency’s se­cu­rity chal­lenges for Aus­tralia: “Don’t panic, don’t re­lax”.

Cen­tral to the gov­ern­ment’s ap­proach is the premise that de­spite pre­dic­tions to the con­trary, Trump’s be­hav­iour is not go­ing to change. As one of­fi­cial put it, it has worked for him in real es­tate, in re­al­ity tele­vi­sion and in his per­sonal life, so why would he change it? What’s more, he was elected declar­ing he was not a con­ven­tional politi­cian and he can’t af­ford to be­come one.

Rather than dwelling on Trump’s ram­bunc­tious, un­ortho­dox style and self­con­tra­dic­tions – and un­til the op­por­tu­nity arises for Turn­bull and Trump to meet face-to-face at an in­ter­na­tional sum­mit or in Wash­ing­ton some time this year – Aus­tralian min­is­ters and of­fi­cials are fo­cused on form­ing re­la­tion­ships with those around him.

They point out that Trump did not say any­thing dur­ing his com­bat­ive news con­fer­ence that im­pinged on Aus­tralia’s in­ter­ests, and warn that ob­servers “need to sep­a­rate out the­atre from sub­stance”.

And they de­scribe Trump’s key re­cent appointees as solid, prais­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence of both for­mer gen­eral James Mat­tis and for­mer oil ex­ec­u­tive Tiller­son.

One of­fi­cial told The Satur­day

Pa­per the re­place­ment of Mike Flynn as Trump’s na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser with Lieu­tenant-Gen­eral Her­bert Ray­mond “H.R” McMaster “could not have been bet­ter”. And of­fi­cials are con­fi­dent the phone call leak has guar­an­teed the refugee deal will be up­held and the US will, in­deed, take up to 1250 peo­ple from the Nauru and Manus Is­land de­ten­tion cen­tres while Aus­tralia takes an un­spec­i­fied num­ber of refugees from what is known as the Cen­tral Amer­i­can “north­ern tri­an­gle” of El Sal­vador, Hon­duras and Gu­atemala, cur­rently re­sid­ing in camps in Costa Rica.

The phone call and its sur­round­ing pub­lic­ity also prompted a bi­par­ti­san res­o­lu­tion in the US congress, cel­e­brat­ing the two coun­tries’ se­cu­rity al­liance, and gave Aus­tralia a fleet­ing promi­nence in Wash­ing­ton that it would not oth­er­wise have had so soon into this set­tling-in pe­riod.

Min­is­ters have been quick to cap­i­talise. Be­tween meet­ings with se­nior mem­bers of the ad­min­is­tra­tion this week, in­clud­ing Pence and Tiller­son, Julie Bishop said both sides had moved on from the phone call. “There’s a view in the ad­min­is­tra­tion that the re­ports have been ex­ag­ger­ated,” Bishop said.

Hav­ing had sev­eral less ro­bust phone con­ver­sa­tions of her own with both Pence and Tiller­son, Bishop em­pha­sised the im­por­tance of meet­ing both men in per­son. “It’s in our in­ter­ests to have the clos­est pos­si­ble con­nec­tions,” she said.

One month into the new ad­min­is­tra­tion, there has been no ad­just­ment to Aus­tralian pol­icy set­tings, no change to how in­tel­li­gence is han­dled and, gov­ern­ment sources in­sist, no shift in the po­lit­i­cal ap­proach an Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment al­ways takes to forg­ing ties with a new US ad­min­is­tra­tion.

But for all the noth­ing-to-see­here protes­ta­tions, there is a laser-like fo­cus on the bi­lat­eral re­la­tion­ship and

The Satur­day Pa­per has been told the gov­ern­ment is not rul­ing out ad­just­ments down the track.

Mal­colm Turn­bull is un­der­stood to be in con­stant con­tact with Aus­tralia’s am­bas­sador in Wash­ing­ton, Joe Hockey.

Hockey’s pre­de­ces­sor, Kim Bea­z­ley, has lamented the lack of a sub­stan­tive one-on-one con­ver­sa­tion be­tween Turn­bull and Trump on mat­ters be­yond the refugee deal, which stole oxy­gen that should have been de­voted to other is­sues.

“It won’t be easy or pleas­ant for Mr Turn­bull to re­sume the con­ver­sa­tion,” Bea­z­ley wrote last week in the Aus­tralian Strate­gic Pol­icy In­sti­tute’s jour­nal, The Strate­gist.

He said the out­pour­ing of sup­port and Turn­bull’s low-key han­dling of the fall­out would help. “The con­ver­sa­tion, when a peg de­vel­ops to hang it on, must re­sume.”

In the mean­time, the vice-pres­i­dent is a par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant con­nec­tion, as some­one who has the pres­i­dent’s ear.

The Aus­tralian side took it as a good sign that Pence, back from Europe only the night be­fore, had squeezed in a meet­ing with Bishop and her of­fi­cials in his White House of­fice and let talks sched­uled for half-an-hour run twice as long. It was, they said, a “very warm” en­gage­ment.

The no­to­ri­ous Trump–Turn­bull phone call was not raised in Bishop’s meet­ings. Nor was the refugee deal, which she said was “pro­ceed­ing” and be­ing dealt with “at of­fi­cials level”.

What was raised, and is be­ing dealt with much higher up, is both the new US gov­ern­ment’s at­ti­tude to en­gage­ment with Asia – es­pe­cially in re­la­tion to North Korea and the South China Sea – and the press­ing ques­tion of fu­ture mil­i­tary com­mit­ments in the Mid­dle East.

“They are clearly re­view­ing all cur­rent pol­icy po­si­tions in re­la­tion to their com­mit­ments over­seas,” Bishop said. “I thought it was ap­pro­pri­ate that we pro­vide our thoughts.”

She de­clined to de­tail them but ex­plained they re­lated, in part, to how suc­cess against Daesh in Iraq would be de­fined and what would hap­pen af­ter.

It has be­come ac­cepted wis­dom re­gard­ing the pre­vi­ous Iraq con­flict that too lit­tle post­war plan­ning was done, with dis­as­trous re­sults that al­lowed Daesh to rise and flour­ish.

With the Iraqi city of Mo­sul on the brink of be­ing seized back from Daesh, and Don­ald Trump talk­ing up a rapid de­feat of the group across the world, the Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment is mov­ing to en­sure its ex­ist­ing com­mit­ments are ac­knowl­edged and its views heard.

Suc­ces­sive Aus­tralian gov­ern­ments have been re­luc­tant to be­come in­volved in post­war re­con­struc­tion – what for­mer prime min­is­ter John Howard used to call “na­tion-build­ing ”. Yet, in Afghanistan, that’s ex­actly what he did, in a com­mit­ment that saw Aus­tralian op­er­a­tional forces there for more than a decade.

In a pos­si­ble sign of re­quests to come, the com­man­der of in­ter­na­tional forces in Afghanistan, Gen­eral John Ni­chol­son, told the US se­nate armed ser­vices com­mit­tee two weeks ago he needed “a few thou­sand” more per­son­nel.

Specif­i­cally, he needed them to train and ad­vise the Iraqi army – tasks Aus­tralians and oth­ers are do­ing there now – and said that per­haps al­lies could be asked to con­trib­ute.

Asked about Aus­tralia’s com­mit­ments, Bishop said: “I wasn’t asked to make any change.” While she was not ex­pect­ing any re­quest for more from Aus­tralia, she added: “Our mil­i­tary de­ploy­ments are al­ways un­der re­view.”

The US’s whole Mid­dle East strat­egy is un­der much more ac­tive ex­am­i­na­tion. The 30-day re­view Pres­i­dent Trump or­dered is due to con­clude in about a week.

Like gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials, an­a­lysts in Aus­tralia are watch­ing closely. Be­yond the bat­tle for Mo­sul, there are moves to also blast Daesh out of Raqqa in Syria.

One an­a­lyst told The Satur­day Pa­per he would not be sur­prised if the US moved to put more forces on the ground in Syria.

De­fence Min­is­ter Marise Payne has been in talks with her US coun­ter­part, too, meet­ing Mat­tis dur­ing NATO talks in Brus­sels last week.

Payne says she has not heard any sug­ges­tion of ex­tra troops for Syria but that fu­ture op­er­a­tions are “very much part of the de­vel­op­ments they are putting to­gether in the re­port they are pre­par­ing for the pres­i­dent”.

“I’m not go­ing to pre-empt that be­cause we don’t have a pre­sen­ta­tion to the pres­i­dent yet which will form the ba­sis for a dis­cus­sion,” she said.

Like Julie Bishop, Payne made Aus­tralia’s views known. “Those views are be­ing taken on board,” she said.

Mat­tis, a widely re­spected for­mer gen­eral, has a very dif­fer­ent per­sonal style to that of his pres­i­dent. “He takes a very con­sid­ered, very strate­gic ap­proach to these things,” Payne said. “He knows it is very im­por­tant to be very mea­sured and care­ful in pub­lic commentary.”

Some ob­servers note there is a kind of split per­son­al­ity to the ad­min­is­tra­tion so far, fea­tur­ing on one side the steady, con­ser­va­tive ap­proach of Pence, Mat­tis, Tiller­son and White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, and on the other the more un­pre­dictable for­mer chief of hardright web­site Bre­it­bart and now se­nior pres­i­den­tial ad­viser Steve Ban­non and Trump him­self.

Mat­tis, Tiller­son and Pence have all been in Europe in the past week calm­ing fears of dra­matic pol­icy changes on en­gage­ment with NATO and the Euro­pean Union or pos­si­ble ac­tion in the South China Sea. Both Bishop and Payne pressed the need for de-es­ca­la­tion. Both say they are con­fi­dent the US re­mains com­mit­ted to strate­gic en­gage­ment in the Asia-Pa­cific re­gion. Payne points to Mat­tis’s re­cent visit to Ja­pan and South Korea as proof.

But some say Aus­tralia is not well enough pre­pared for the pos­si­bil­ity of a US pol­icy shift that could in­crease pres­sure on Aus­tralia’s ties with China.

ANU pro­fes­sor of strate­gic stud­ies Hugh White says there should be ad­just­ments in both Aus­tralia’s pol­icy and ap­proach. “The gov­ern­ment seems very fo­cused on pre­tend­ing that noth­ing has changed,” White told The Satur­day Pa­per. “It’s per­haps not sur­pris­ing that Mal­colm Turn­bull would be cau­tious in his pub­lic commentary. What is sur­pris­ing is he’s upped his rhetoric in sup­port of Don­ald Trump.”

White also points to China’s in­creas­ing as­sertive­ness. “We have no model for how Aus­tralia con­ducts its re­la­tion­ships in Asia and pro­tects its in­ter­ests in Asia when the US is not the dom­i­nant force in Asia … Aus­tralia’s po­lit­i­cal lead­ers have got to stand up and ac­knowl­edge we’ve got a prob­lem.”

For­mer de­fence force chief Sir An­gus Hous­ton told the Na­tional Press Club this week that Aus­tralia must hold fast to the al­liance or face a dou­bling of mil­i­tary spend­ing in self-de­fence.

Wash­ing­ton-based Aus­tralian An­drew Shearer, who was for­eign pol­icy ad­viser to prime min­is­ter Tony Ab­bott and is now with the Cen­tre for Strate­gic and In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies, says Aus­tralia must “work harder at the al­liance”.

“We get enor­mous ben­e­fits from the al­liance but we only get those ben­e­fits if we are pre­pared to be use­ful,” he told The Satur­day Pa­per. He meant through diplo­macy, in­tel­li­gence and mil­i­tary con­tri­bu­tions.

“There’s been a lot of in­con­sis­tent mes­sages out of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion,” he said, “es­pe­cially on al­liances, but one thing that is clear is al­lies across the board are go­ing to have to be pre­pared to lift their game.”

Se­cu­rity an­a­lyst Keith Suter sug­gested all was not quite as re­laxed in the se­cu­rity com­mu­nity about the risks in Trump’s hot-headed pub­lic en­gage­ment – in­clud­ing his out­bursts on Twit­ter – as the gov­ern­ment’s sooth­ing rhetoric would sug­gest.

“It’s clearly wor­ry­ing that we’ve got this per­son in the White House who has dif­fi­culty sleep­ing,” Suter told Sky News. “And he’s giv­ing the rest of us dif­fi­culty

• sleep­ing as well.”

KAREN MID­DLE­TON is The Satur­day Pa­per’s chief po­lit­i­cal cor­re­spon­dent.

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