So far, so good - if it really matters
Visits by the truly powerful to this part of the world are such a rarity that there’s always a temptation to over-compensate.
Memorably, when the motorcade of US President Lyndon Johnson sped through Sydney’s streets in the mid 1960s, doves painted with the stars and stripes on their breasts were released into the sky.
Last week, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson didn’t get the full ‘‘release the doves’’ treatment during his five-hour visit to this country. In fact, a New York Times correspondent remarked on how many people were making rude hand signs at the Tillerson motorcade as it sped through the capital’s streets.
At Premier House, the shadow over the entire visit was the man not there in person: President Donald Trump.
Tillerson did his best. According to him, the US remains committed to global and regional engagement on trade, climate change and mutual defence.
Yet on the Singapore and Sydney legs of his journey, Tillerson and his Defence Secretary colleague James Mattis were deemed ‘‘admirable, but not convincing’’ by sceptical leaders in the Asia-Pacific region.
Mainly because the duo do not speak for the Tweeter in Chief whom they serve. On most matters, Trump is listening far more closely to the nationalist voices in the White House, such as his chief strategist Stephen Bannon.
On Trump’s recent trip to Europe, this rift in his administration had been cruelly exposed. At issue was whether a key Trump speech would contain an overt commitment to the Article 5 mutual defence provision in the NATO alliance – a very important matter to eastern European states bordering Putin’s Russia.
Tillerson, Mattis and national security advisor HR McMaster had ample reason to think Trump would make this commitment in his speech. Reportedly, it was only after Trump started talking that the president’s national security team realised their boss had reached a different decision, without consulting or even telling them in advance.
Hot on the heels of that debacle, Tillerson was also on the losing team when he advised the president not to take the US out of the Paris agreement on climate change.
Tillerson and Mattis may be the ‘‘adults in the room’’ as Washington insiders put it - yet unfortunately, it seems that Trump isn’t there beside them. So what weight should New Zealand give to the Tillerson visit? Not much, evidently. For all the nice words uttered at Premier House about our defence contributions in Iraq and Afghanistan, the absence of Mattis – who didn’t make the trip from Sydney to thank us – spoke rather more loudly.
Ultimately, do our diplomats have a plan for how to adjust to the new American realities? Paying respect to the Trump administration as if the New Abnormality is just a quirkier version of business as usual, would be as optimistic as … well, the old joke about the guy who jumped off the Empire State Building and yelled as he passed the sixtieth floor: ‘‘So far, so good!’’
So far, so good: we’re not yet on the White House radar. So far, our ‘‘loyalty’’ hasn’t been tested.
One can safely assume it will be, sometime during the next four years.
‘‘The shadow over the entire visit was the man not there in person: President Donald Trump.’’