Watch­ing as Amer­ica loses its moral author­ity

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - DANA MILBANK Twit­ter: @Milbank

Itrav­eled with my fam­ily in Aus­tralia for three weeks as a guest of the Uni­ver­si­ties of Syd­ney and Mel­bourne, in­vited to ex­plain what’s hap­pen­ing in Pres­i­dent Trump’s Amer­ica. As if there were an ex­pla­na­tion. Of more in­ter­est was what I learned from the Aus­tralians. To visit this stal­wart ally and talk with its peo­ple was to see how the United States, in the space of just a few months, has ut­terly lost its moral author­ity.

You see it at the street level: Off Syd­ney’s Cir­cu­lar Quay, where, just down the street from the fe­lic­i­tously (if co­in­ci­den­tally) named Trumps Alto Ego sa­lon, Trump look-alikes wear­ing orange wigs and too-long red ties amuse passersby with boor­ish an­tics; on Mel­bourne’s Hosier Lane, a street-art haven now fea­tur­ing a mu­ral of chil­dren throw­ing rocks at a tank em­bla­zoned with Trump’s scowl­ing face; and even in lit­tle Port Dou­glas in the trop­ics, where anti-Trump graf­fiti is spray-painted on the trash bin in the ma­rina.

You see it, too, in only slightly more diplo­matic terms, at the high­est lev­els:

Paul Keat­ing, the for­mer La­bor prime min­is­ter, de­clared in re­sponse to Trump’s elec­tion that Aus­tralia should “cut the tag” with the United States. He later warned that the United States “threat­ens to in­volve Aus­tralia in war.”

Penny Wong, shadow for­eign min­is­ter for La­bor, which is fa­vored to win the next elec­tion, wrote that Trump’s views are “counter to what are core val­ues for most Aus­tralians” and sug­gested Aus­tralia ori­ent it­self more to the Asia-Pa­cific re­gion.

Mal­colm Turn­bull, the prime min­is­ter, as­serted last month that the “U.S.-an­chored rules-based or­der” can no longer be “taken for granted.” Turn­bull said for­eign pol­icy should be de­ter­mined by Aus­tralia’s in­ter­ests “alone,” and he de­clared that the U.S. al­liance isn’t “a strait­jacket.”

It isn’t just rhetoric. In late June, Aus­tralia, one of the coali­tion part­ners in Syria, sus­pended air operations over that coun­try af­ter the U.S. military downed a Syr­ian jet.

Si­mon Jack­man, chief ex­ec­u­tive of the U.S. Stud­ies Cen­tre at the Univer­sity of Syd­ney, sees a dra­matic re­think­ing in the coun­try about the United States. Aus­tralians, he says, are ask­ing: “So why are we so close to this coun­try again?”

There were al­ready dif­fer­ences on gun laws (Aus­tralia’s are strict) and in­equal­ity (Aus­tralia is more egal­i­tar­ian). But Trump has pushed for­ward on a new set of is­sues that of­fend or frighten Aus­tralians: build­ing a bor­der wall, aban­don­ing the Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship trade deal and the Paris cli­mat­e­change ac­cord, try­ing to take away health in­sur­ance from mil­lions of Amer­i­cans (Aus­tralia has uni­ver­sal cov­er­age) and mak­ing noises about war with North Korea. “The chang­ing U.S. do­mes­tic pol­icy leads peo­ple to be­lieve our military pol­icy ought not to be so closely en­twined with Amer­ica’s,” says Jack­man.

Polling by the U.S. Stud­ies Cen­tre finds that in the past two years, the num­ber of Aus­tralians who say the United States has the most in­flu­ence in Asia has dropped by half. More Aus­tralians see the United States as a force for harm in the re­gion and in Aus­tralia than did two years ago.

Trump is the rea­son. When a half-sam­ple of poll re­spon­dents were asked the U.S.-in­flu­ence ques­tion with the phrase “now that Don­ald Trump is pres­i­dent” in­serted, neg­a­tive re­sponses jumped 20 per­cent­age points. Sim­i­lar re­sults were found in In­done­sia, Ja­pan and South Korea.

This is con­sis­tent with the Pew Re­search Cen­ter poll of 37 coun­tries re­leased while I was down un­der. A me­dian 22 per­cent of those sur­veyed have con­fi­dence in Trump to do the right thing in in­ter­na­tional af­fairs, down from 64 per­cent who had con­fi­dence in Pres­i­dent Barack Obama. The per­cent­age abroad with a fa­vor­able view of the United States has fallen by 15 points. Some of the sharpest drops were among al­lies.

This will have con­se­quences. Cana­dian For­eign Min­is­ter Chrys­tia Free­land says that Amer­ica’s ques­tion­ing of “the very worth of its man­tle of global lead­er­ship puts in sharper fo­cus the need for the rest of us to set our own clear and sov­er­eign course.” And Ger­many’s An­gela Merkel me­morably said in re­ac­tion to Trump that Europe must “take our fate into our own hands.” This be­came only more clear af­ter the re­cent Group of 20 meet­ing, where Trump was the sole dis­senter on the Paris ac­cord and his pro­tec­tion­ist talk set off fears that a trade war was form­ing.

Al­lies’ alien­ation from the United States will in­crease, I sus­pect, when they come to re­al­ize what they’ve seen over the past six months is un­likely to change soon. At al­most ev­ery stop in Aus­tralia, I de­tected an in­no­cent op­ti­mism that the Trump ef­fect would be short-lived: How long un­til he’s im­peached? Can’t he be re­moved on grounds of in­san­ity? Surely his fel­low Repub­li­cans won’t tol­er­ate this for long?

I wish I could have re­as­sured them.

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