Fantasy and emotion were in free play at the White House on Friday 23 February 2018 when President Trump received Prime Minister Turnbull. Trump was well scripted, even getting Turnbull’s name right. He added that Australia was the United States’ closest friend, a claim successive US presidents have made, with variations, about many other countries when their leaders visit the White House. Turnbull gave a predictably gushing response, long on confections about shared values and mateship but short on historical accuracy – a good example of Canberra’s bipartisan delusions about the bilateral relationship.
Turnbull’s inaccuracies began with World War One. He cited combined American- Australian action against the Germans at the battle of Le Hamel in July 1918 as the beginning of 100 years of ‘mateship’. Indeed a token force of ten US infantry companies was to join five Australian infantry brigades under the command of General John Monash, the first time US forces had ever fought under foreign command. But when US General John Pershing heard about it, he immediately withdrew six companies, and was only dissuaded from withdrawing the other four when Douglas Hague, the British commander in chief of all expeditionary forces, intervened on Monash’s behalf.
Yes, the US Navy is to name its latest littoral heavy cruiser USS Canberra, but Trump and Turnbull failed to mention that a second world war Baltimore-class cruiser had borne the same name. It’s not a signal honour. Other US ships with foreign names include Anzio, Bataan, Essex and the Winston Churchill. Not yet a Robert Menzies, a John Howard, let alone a Gough Whitlam among them, and why should there be?
Both leaders rabbited on about shared values – mateship, freedom and democracy, humanitarian principles, and support for a rules-based international order. ‘The United States’, Turnbull declared, ‘is the sheet anchor for peace and prosperity in the Asian Pacific region’. Peace? Tell that to the ghosts of the one and a half million civilians who lost their lives in the Korean War from 1950 to 1953, or to the estimated 600,000 civilian casualties to bombing in the Vietnam War from 1965 to 1975. Rules? The US expects others to be subject to the International Criminal Court, the International Court of Justice, the Law of the Sea Convention, the Geneva Conventions and the Convention against Chemical Weapons, while selectively ignoring them itself.
How many of Trump’s own values does Australia really share? Certainly, the delusion that the United States military supervision prevented the Asia/Pacific region from turning into post-war chaos and disorder. Also, the delusion that the US ‘rules-based’ system of international behaviour maintains peace and commercial predictability. Turnbull shares Trump’s belief that tax cuts to big business will result in higher wages and more jobs for working men and women. And he now has another shared belief: he strips arms exports of any moral value and embraces the view that making and selling weapons are good for industrial growth in Australia, just as they are in the United States.
But there are differences. Turnbull supports multilateral trade and open trade. Trump favours bilateral trade deals and remains deeply sceptical of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Turnbull favours gun control among Australians. Trump backs the National Rifle Association’s refusal to ban any kind of weapon, even military assault rifles, except perhaps to the young. Turnbull did not even try to dignify Trump’s risible idea that since the latest school massacre at a high school in Parkland Florida, every school in the United States should be staffed by gun-wielding teachers trained and willing to use them.
On the ticklish matter of joining US naval vessels to enforce freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, Turnbull simply evaded the issue by saying he would not speculate about operational matters. He will probably become less evasive, and cave in when subject to the full force of Admiral Harry Harris’s personality when that old salt becomes next US Ambassador to Australia.
But where does Turnbull say Australian values lie in the face of President Trump’s unashamed record of harassment of women, his racism towards blacks and Hispanics, and his acceptance of torture and capital punishment? Does Turnbull really share Trump’s scepticism about climate change? He probably doesn’t, but he was not game to say it.
When, in all honesty, will Australian leaders and the major political parties admit, even among themselves, that the United States has throughout modern history been a force more for chaos and war than stability? They are particularly fond of repeating the shibboleth that US forces have kept the post-war peace in the Pacific when the opposite is true. Afghanistan and Iraq are American-made disasters, and Syria partly so. Subservient Australian political leaders have been happy to send Australian soldiers to join US forces in all these wars. Turnbull didn’t repeat to Trump his grovelling ‘joined at the hip remark’ in relation to going to war against North Korea, but he made it clear that the alliance overrules our unshared values.
Richard Broinowski is a former Australian diplomat, now a writer and commentator on international affairs.