Malcolm Turnbull is dropping everything and travelling to America to meet a man that only recently subjected him to a very public humiliation. Although members of the Trump administration have tried to make amends for this initial snub to a supposedly valued ally, one might have thought the damage had been done.
One might be wrong, of course. On the contrary, while Donald Trump’s notorious personal qualities and relationships may be redefining the very idea of ‘presidential behaviour’, it seems to matter little to our political leaders and strategic thinkers. No matter who is in the White House or what policy they may propose, Australian leaders continue compete to ingratiate themselves with our key strategic partners.
While Turnbull’s behaviour is in keeping with nearly all his predecessors, it is remarkable, nevertheless. We might have hoped for more from a someone who seems thoughtful, informed and – at times, at least – rather principled. But once in office it seems that any ability to think independently is immediately lost or put aside in the ‘national interest’.
Indeed, it is striking that it is only after or before assuming senior policy making decisions that Australia’s political class seems capable if articulating anything approaching a distinctively ‘Australian’ position, all the ritualistic bleating about the national interest notwithstanding.
The recent interventions in what passes for the debate about the alliance by the likes of Paul Keating, Bob Carr, Gareth Evans and others are welcome, albeit overdue. But they were all notably mute while in office. Bill Shorten may have been an exception when he called Trump ‘barking mad’, but that was presumably because he thought someone like Trump could never actually become president. He has been rather more circumspect ever since.
Strategic hard heads might argue that whatever our leaders might privately feel about Donald Trump, it is simply not responsible to articulate such views because they may damage the alliance and thus Australia’s security. There is plainly something in this: policymakers inevitably succumb to the supposed responsibilities of office and the need to take a ‘realistic’ view of the strategic options.
There is also a certain inevitability in what follows: whatever conflict the US decides to embark upon as a consequence of the way it defines its national interests, Australian leaders dutifully follow suit, no matter how remote the theatre of operation and how tangential the threat may be to Australia.
Turnbull is simply following a well-established tradition, and will undoubtedly be enthusiastic in his willingness to commit young Australian lives to whatever project the Trump administration embarks upon. Australia is still involved in Iraq, Afghanistan and – most bizarrely, perhaps – Syria. Adding one or two more to the list would be entirely in keeping with long-standing tradition.
Any new strategic adventure by the Trump administration may make even the monumentally misguided invasion of Iraq by George W Bush look a model of careful calculation and rationality, however. A ‘surgical strike’ against North Korea is fraught with incalculable risk and consequences, not the least of which is the probable death of hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of Koreans, north and south of the border.
Likewise, following through on the threat/promise to stop China’s territorial expansion in, and militarisation of, the South China Sea threatens to literally unleash World War 3. This is a prospect that ought to fill our policymaking elites with alarm, and perhaps it does, but there is remarkably little evidence that they are trying to encourage restraint on the part of the senior alliance partner.
Australians flatter themselves that they have an unparalleled influence over their American cousins, and can even act as a bridge between China and the US. This looks like wishful thinking and rather underestimates the willingness of the Australians to go along with whatever the US suggests. If we haven’t learned important, sobering lessons about the costs of hubris and folly from the fiasco in in Iraq, we never will.
Turnbull has suggested that his imminent meeting with Trump offers and opportunity to ‘reaffirm the alliance’ and Australia’s uncritical, ever-reliable support of the US, too, no doubt. Donald Trump may be one of the few American leaders who actually doubted this.
Not only is this – yet another – telling indictment of the president’s lack of strategic grasp and sense of history, but it also tells us something about Australia’s profile and importance in the great debates that actually determine American policy. Most Americans know next to nothing about Australia, and have literally no idea about the continuing sacrifices this country has made on behalf of the US.
We remain an ally of convenience rather than consequence. Australia can make absolutely no difference to the possible epochal struggles and conflicts that may lay ahead. The question is why we continue to shape our foreign and strategic policy in the belief that we can.
Mark Beeson is Series Editor, Critical Studies of the Asia Pacific, University of W.A.