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.’’

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