This was supposed to be a week of reassurance for Donald Trump’s Asia policy after a rocky start, with U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis paying a visit to Japan and South Korea to shore up Washington’s commitment to two of its five treaty allies (See: “What Will Donald Trump’s Asia Policy Look Like?”). Instead, revelations disclosed by The Washington Post this week about the fist phone call between Trump and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull have cast serious doubts about the state of the U.S.-Australia alliance.
The incident has without question gotten the alliance off to a rough start, and could have broader implications as well if the initial state of the relationship persists. But one should also be careful not to overestimate its impact on one of America’s most steadfast alliances so early on in the Trump administration that is just two weeks in office.
The report by the Post, which neither of the two leaders has explicitly denied, details a tense exchange between Trump and Turnbull, chiefly over a refugee deal struck with the Obama administration that would allow mostly Muslim refugees rejected by Australia to be resettled in the United States. Trump reportedly characterized the agreement as “the worst deal ever” and accused Turnbull of seeking to export the “next Boston bombers.” He also described the call as being the worst he had had that day, in line with his penchant for hyperbole.
As I have pointed out before, it is not uncommon for the nature of actual phone calls from leaders to diverge – sometimes significantly – from the boilerplate readouts (See: “The Real Trouble With Trump’s Taiwan Call”). What is unique in this case is simply the fact that the content of the call was leaked, thereby exposing the apparently wide disparity between what actually occurred and what was registered.
That should not detract from the fact that the episode is certainly a poor start for the alliance under the Trump administration. Personal relationships among leaders matter. And though it is still early days, the Trump-Turnbull one is not looking good so far relative to some of the other Asian leaders the U.S. president has engaged with, most notably Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
The reverberations could also potentially further exacerbate challenges that the alliance has already been facing. Should tensions persist or worsen, public support for the relationship, which is still quite high, could dip during the Trump era, thereby widening the divide between elites and popular opinion. As it is, last year, one poll by the Lowy Institute for International Policy, an Australian think tank, showed that nearly five in ten Australians would seek a move away from Washington and nearly six in ten would be less likely to support Canberra taking part in military actions with the United States under Trump.
The incident could also affect the ongoing domestic debate in Australia about how Canberra should approach the alliance. Although popular support for the relationship remains strong, there are some voices that have already begun questioning the benefits and highlighted the risks of the alliance for Australia over the past few years, especially in light of the rise of China. This hands those voices a valuable opening to push that narrative even further.
But just as one should not underestimate the potential implications of the incident for the U.S.-Australia alliance, one should not overestimate them either.
First, the U.S.-Australia alliance is longstanding and remains vital today for both sides. The two countries have fought together in every significant conflict in the past century, and they share a range of common challenges today, from the Islamic State and the rise of China to sustaining the global rules-based order and climate change. And the alliance is underpinned by not just these common interests, but shared values as well as deep historical and cultural links too.
To be sure, the United States and Australia do have points of friction in their alliance today, whether it is on broader strategic issues like the rise of China or granular ones like burden-sharing. But seasoned observers know that the relationship has withstood previous pressures that have arguably been far greater, from differences over Vietnam and Iraq as well as challenging leadership transitions on both sides.
Second, it is much too soon to conclude that this one incident will continue to undermine the alliance for the foreseeable future. Trump himself is not known to evince much interest in foreign policy beyond its domestic implications – as evidenced by his so-called “America First” approach – and he has thus far been viewing the alliance largely from the prism of the refugee deal, since it affects his tough stance on immigration which was a key campaign promise. If that issue can be resolved and both sides can move on and make progress on other fronts, that may improve the overall relationship.
It is certainly true that first impressions do matter a fair bit to Trump, so a course correction may not be as easy as it sounds. But if he is convinced by his advisers of Australia’s importance to his other key priorities, such as confronting the Islamic State or getting tougher on China on the South China Sea – which is already clear for all to see – that could help turn things around. As for his personal relationship with Turnbull, that could change too with a face-to-face meeting, or remain frosty with the alliance only really having the prospect of recovering once Turnbull leaves office in the next few years.
Though the alliance has no doubt gotten off to a rough start, those prone to doom and gloom scenarios would do well to remember where Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama was when he came in on several U.S. Asian alliances and where he ended up. The U.S.-Japan alliance that was initially at a historic low point ended up rebounding once Abe returned to office, and the U.S.-Thailand alliance initially soured following a coup but then began to recover. Meanwhile, the U.S.-Philippine alliance that had blossomed under Benigno Aquino III endured a sea change with the election of Rodrigo Duterte, and the U.S.-ROK alliance experienced some uncertainty with the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye. The point with these examples is that it is unwise to assume that where an administration starts is where it will end up.
Third and finally, the U.S.-Australia alliance is a mature one that is far bigger than just Trump and Turnbull. As the Trump administration begins to take shape at the lower levels later this year, with not only a cabinet in place but also senior Asia appointments, there will be more channels of communication for the two sides to engage. This will provide opportunities not just to form relationships, but institute policy as well that could end up being far more consequential than a single bad phone call.
Furthermore, given the maturity and significance of the U.S.-Australia alliance, these relationships at the official level will also be buttressed by alliance bureaucracies – individuals and institutions with extensive knowledge of and a deep commitment to maintaining ties between the two countries beyond official channels. It is these voices that help sustain these alliances through troubled times, and their role will be even more important under this unconventional Trump administration.
So even though Trump has once again raised questions about America’s relationship with one of its key allies, this needs to be kept in proper perspective.