RICHARD BUTLER. Turnbull and Trump: Meeting of Mates

It is not clear what this weeks US/Australia summit meeting will achieve. Both participants might welcome its optics, but each have other political needs. The critical issue for Australia is likely to be what exactly will Trump ask of Turnbull and will he get it. It is depressingly unlikely that Turnbull will address any of the areas in which Trump’s policies have been destabilising, destructive and widely rejected.

It would be foolish to predict what, in substance, will come out of the meeting at the White House between President Trump and PM Turnbull. But, the likely dynamics of it seem clear.

On Trump’s side there would appear to be two key determinants: whatever he may think, say or tweet, his presidency and administration is widely regarded to be in chaos. Key commentators on all sides of domestic politics, and indeed his own staff, are saying so; and, whatever takes place in the meeting, he will state publicly that it was outstanding, historic etc. Best we leave it to him to mine the superlatives.

On Turnbull’s side, curiously his situation is not so much different. He is traveling badly in the polls, indeed not far off the 30 bad polls mark he set for the late PM Tony Abbott; his numbers in Parliament are razor thin, his party is divided, the coalition arrangements are presently toxic and, incredibly dependent on what he might do with respect to the fatuously self-absorbed, apparently mendacious, Barnaby Joyce.

Clearly Turnbull, like Trump needs to be able to parlay the meeting as an outstanding success, a leap forward in the historic relationship.

Typical of such meetings is the need for some new agreement or policy to be announced. Turnbull, if he follows the long established pattern, will have sought from senior officials, ideas, proposals; something he can take home. I don’t think any of us know what that might be.

Given Trump’s nature; particularly his breathtaking lack of interest in policies, intelligence reports, history etc. and utter confidence in his own political judgments, that is, in his gut prejudices, it seems unlikely that Trump will have, similarly asked for proposals. But this does not mean he won’t have been offered some, particularly by those people he calls; “my Generals”.

So, its pertinent to ask what, specifically, might Trump want from Turnbull and what Turnbull might want from Trump; leaving aside, in both cases all the optical stuff – just being there, on the world stage, opposing the forces of evil together, warm handshakes and body language, as we would say, “best mates”.

Leaving the optics aside, and on the Aussie concept of mateship, Turnbull has been gazumped. Julia Gillard lectured a joint session of the Congress on that subject in 2011, and then gave the US the Marines base in Darwin.

My guess is that Trump’s Generals will have put to him that he should ask for more; for an even larger US military foothold in Australia, to further surround the Chinese. If he does, what’s the betting that Turnbull will agree.

Remember, Turnbull will soon be fighting an election and his side believes  deeply, as sadly some Labor politicians also do, that to question the alliance, in almost any way, is to court electoral disaster. Besides, militarized, so- called khaki elections, have been a specialty of the Liberal Party, from Menzies, through Howard and onwards.

We don’t know what Turnbull will ask for from Trump. Presumably the PTT will be judged to be a dead horse. Its possibly easier to think what its possible he will not ask: to stop pressuring us to make a choice between our relationship with the US and that with China; stop threatening to use nuclear weapons against DPRK; do not destroy the Iran nuclear agreement; think again about supporting not subverting the global trade system. It will be detrimental to our self- respect if he fails to raise such concerns. Diplomacy does not compel such cowardice.

This list, describes only the more significant examples of policies Trump has proclaimed, which are destabilizing, dangerous and rejected by almost all other countries. There are many other such products of “America First”, proclaimed, but mercifully in many cases not yet able to  be realized, such as the US’ attempt to neuter the Paris Agreement on climate change.

I doubt that our Prime Minister will surprise us by insisting on a real conversation. So, he will need to spend a little time thinking about the questions some of our media will ask him afterwards. They may not be prepared to acquiesce in the optics approach, a goodwill visit etc. There are too many disturbing issues around and, of course, the media have a nose for political weakness.

Trump won’t need to similarly prepare for the media, because its all fake anyway; a concept with which, that is “fake news”, Turnbull stated his agreement when he and Trump met the press last year at the Coral Sea celebrations in New York.

Greg Norman was there on that occasion and he’s claimed publicly, to have set up this weeks Summit in Washington. If all else fails, maybe we should ask him, and to be fair, Jared Kushner as well, what the meeting achieved. Neither of them have security clearances, but golf and marriage should ensure that they get a full read out, at least from Trump.

Richard Butler AC former Ambassador to the United Nations


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