Former Australian Prime Minister John Howard was in Washington, DC, on September 11, 2001, having earlier met with then-President George W. Bush to mark the 50th anniversary of their nations’ military alliance. Howard later invoked the ANZUS treaty governing that alliance — even as it explicitly relates to conflict in the Pacific — in offering unwavering support for the American response to the terrorist attacks. The commitment was enough for Bush to bestow the sobriquet “man of steel” and a Presidential Medal of Freedom on his fellow conservative.
A decade later, Bush’s successor Barack Obama praised the man who had defeated Howard, Kevin Rudd, as “somebody who I probably share as much of a world view [with] as any world leader.” At the time, Australian and U.S. troops were still fighting alongside one another in the ongoing War on Terror, but the simpatico nature of Obama-Rudd politics was based more on an embrace of post-2008 Keynesian stimulus, social justice commitments, and efforts to fight climate change. Though Rudd’s tenure ended abruptly, Obama was able to forge a strong partnership with his successor, Julia Gillard. This, among other things, allowed a 2011 deal to house U.S. troops near the Asia-facing port of Darwin as part of the attempted rebalance toward the region.
Strong working relationships between leaders are critical to the success of any bilateral ties. To gain Australian support for U.S. foreign policy, it also doesn’t hurt for the president of the day to extend prominent regard to his counterpart in Canberra. To begin with, Australians have a keen interest in stateside politics — studies have often found them at least as invested, and often more so, than Americans themselves in U.S. presidential elections, for example. Given their geographical isolation and a population that is smaller than that of Texas, Australians also regularly seek validation of their actions on the world stage.
It’s fair to say that Donald Trump has so far failed to live up to past examples in this regard. His relationship with current Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has to date been exclusively characterized by the famed “worst call by far” of Trump’s first week in office, during which he blasted a deal Turnbull had struck with Obama to take unwanted Australian refugees. In the aftermath, the U.S. media and political establishment were quick to condemn what they saw as Trump’s callous disregard for one of Washington’s oldest and closest allies.
Close observers of the bilateral relationship often note that Australians and Americans have fought side-by-side in every major conflict since World War I. Indeed, Trump and Turnbull will today meet for the first time on the USS Intrepid in New York, to mark the 75th anniversary of their participation in the Battle of the Coral Sea. Yet ties are as much about the future as they are the past: Australia is a middle power country located firmly in the Asia-Pacific, with coastlines on both the Indian and Pacific Oceans, as well as deep economic and cultural ties throughout the world’s most dynamic region. It is thus a critical ally to the United States should it still wish to preserve its importance in the region.
Turnbull, at least, is fully aware of these facts and was eager to brush off the significance of his initial ill-fated call with Trump. A visit by Vice President Mike Pence to Australia in April, during which Trump’s deputy said all the right things about the “strong and historic alliance,” helped to further calm the waters. That Pence also confirmed Washington would honor the contentious refugee deal ensured Turnbull can meet with Trump without major concern for saving face.
Anticipating how the U.S. president’s position has evolved since his call to Turnbull is another matter entirely and has likely been the source of considerable consternation in the Australian camp. It will not have helped matters that Trump continues to offer fulsome praise of hardline leaders in countries such as Egypt and the Philippines while antagonizing traditional friends of the United States elsewhere in the world.
The president’s key criticism when dealing with longtime allies of Washington has more often than not concerned defense spending commitments. Despite their long record of fighting in tandem, this is an area in which Canberra has already proven vulnerable to U.S. criticism. When Australia’s military budget fell to 1.6 percent of GDP under the Rudd-Gillard government of 2007-2013, the country was said to risk becoming a “free rider” in the alliance by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage. Yet Turnbull has since pledged to maintain spending of 2 percent of GDP over the next decade, with a particular focus on modernizing the Royal Australian Navy. He will thus hope that Trump’s information is up-to-date in the respect.
Were he to properly investigate, Trump would find much further ground on which to build a relationship of mutual respect with Turnbull. The derided refugee deal is, for example, part of an increasingly nativist Australian political platform that makes it more and more difficult to settle in the country on compassionate, economic, or other grounds. Just last month, the prime minister erected new barriers to citizenship, pledging a test of Australian values and English language proficiency. This followed curbs on the country’s short-term skilled migrant visa.
Trump might also come to appreciate that Australian leaders’ continued support of the American relationship is not without significant costs. As well as being drawn into several Washington-led wars that were at best tangential to its own national interest, Australia has been exposed to greater risk of terrorist attack by fighting for American causes. This included heavy losses of Australian tourists in the bombings in Bali in the early 2000s and more recent “lone wolf” violence in its own cities.
Most often the backlash against the U.S. alliance has involved a negative response from China, which is Australia’s most important economic partner. When Turnbull unveiled the new defense spending in a white paper, Beijing issued a forceful call for all parties to “cease constant reinforcement of military build-up in the Asia-Pacific.” This was similar to the official Chinese response to the U.S. troop deployment in Darwin. More overt flashpoints related to distrust of Canberra have also occurred, including the detention of executives from Australian companies and, more recently, academic institutions.
In his short time in office, Trump may have already raised the stakes for Australia in this regard, potentially to a level higher than many in the country are unprepared to deal with — just last week, North Korea drew Australia into a list of targets for the nuclear warheads it might one day be able to deploy, with a statement directly connecting this to Canberra “blindly and zealously toeing the U.S. line.”
What was most remarkable about Pyongyang’s words was how similar they were to those of many domestic critics of Australian support to the United States. Chief among the detractors has been former Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating. Speaking shortly after Trump’s election, he decried how the bilateral relationship had moved beyond simple treaty obligations and had taken on a “reverential, sacramental quality.” Even before Trump’s ascendance, Keating had been arguing for Canberra to move on from its obsession with Washington and find its security “in Asia, not from Asia.” Another former leader, the late Malcolm Fraser (a conservative from John Howard’s party), warned Australia risked being pulled into a deleterious war against China due to recent leaders having “surrendered the nation’s strategic independence to Washington.”
Meanwhile, notable strategic thinkers such as the Australian National University’s Hugh White express a degree of frustration with the inability of most political thinkers to even entertain the necessity of choosing between the United States and China. The typical response of these individuals, such as the Mandarin-speaking yet Obama-embracing Rudd, is to profess that Australia can “both walk and chew gum,” i.e. maintain its security ties with the United States while deepening its integration with China elsewhere. Yet even Rudd — now head of the Asia Society Policy Institute — has continued to argue for a broader Asian region security architecture that might realize Keating’s vision. Should Trump’s actions bring the threat of conflict closer to Australia’s doorstep, the question of choice will increasingly be posed, and potentially answered in China’s favor.
Even if Australians can remain convinced of the enduring appeal of the U.S. security umbrella, there is a strong chance that it will take a back seat to more pressing economic concerns, as the country’s 25-year plus economic expansion increasingly hits speedbumps. With the international commodities boom fading into memory, Australia has sought to develop other economic links in Asia that will only deepen its regional interdependence. This includes a lucrative international education sector targeting students from China and India, which is now Australia’s third most valuable export sector.
At the same time, Trump has taken actions likely to diminish America’s economic importance in Australia’s region, including abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, without proffering a vision for what comes next. China, by contrast, has made its future intentions abundantly clear through its “One Belt, One Road” initiative and its embrace of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership trade deal.
Further complicating matters is the fact that Turnbull is himself on thin ice at present, with low polling numbers, a slim majority in parliament, and internal party politics hampering the achievement, or even the demarcation, of a clear agenda. The next federal election is not due until 2019 but on current form a Labor government — likely with a less American-friendly position — could be in power toward the end of Trump’s first term, by which time the future direction of the United States will be much clearer to Australians, along with the value of their own country continuing to travel in its wake.
Until then, even managing to forge closer, more productive ties with Trump — assuming no evolution of the president’s character — will be potentially problematic for Australia’s leader. Polling by the Lowy Institute think tank ahead of last year’s presidential election found an overwhelming 77 percent of Australians would have preferred Hillary Clinton as their partner in Washington, and close to 60 percent said they would be less likely to support future military cooperation with a Trump White House. Should the president continue to diminish America’s stature, particularly relative to China, domestic support for the alliance may come to seem an elitist opinion with little connection to the economic and cultural realities of a sizable number of ordinary Australians, just as membership in the European Union and embracing multinational trade deals was interpreted by a significant percentage of voters in the U.K. and U.S., respectively, in 2016.
There is, of course, good reason to believe that after Trump’s presidency — possibly in four years’ time, or even earlier according to the most sanguine of his opponents — a more conventional U.S. establishment will emerge and renew its worth to Australians. Even given this eventuality, the great test will come if and when Trump and his foreign policy team so badly manage the volatile security dynamics of Australia’s region that Canberra is asked to join in the fight. Should the circumstances involve potential economic ruin or otherwise domestically unpopular action, the government of the day may choose to simply not answer the call, which could have ramifications that carry through to subsequent administrations.
The third party to ANZUS, New Zealand, effectively abandoned the treaty after disagreements over U.S. nuclear submarines in the 1980s. Australian leaders have largely kept the faith until now, even with the disastrous aftermath of the War on Terror, the misgivings of China, and other major challenges. Any future decision-makers called to respect it in response to the actions of an unpopular, unorthodox, and seemingly uncaring Trump may, however, find that option far less enticing.
James Bowen is a former Australian government speechwriter and a widely published analyst of international affairs, including in The National Interest, World Politics Review, New Europe, The Interpreter, and many others. He is the Editor of the Global Observatory at the International Peace Institute in New York.