The Syrian Kurds were more than allies. They were a US client, recruited by the Obama administration for house-to-house combat against the Islamic State caliphate. This America, however, cares little for core relationships and sweeps them aside. The decision shatters the US reputation in Arab states already doubting the reliability of Trump’s pro-Sunni gestures.
But this abandonment of a good friend will not go unnoticed in Asia.
In a tweet, the US President has threatened to obliterate Turkey’s economy if it invades northern Syria. US troops are being withdrawn from the region in anticipation of the invasion.
Last year, a retired US diplomat was talking to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He explored Indian support for the Quadrilateral, a consultative mechanism linking that nation, the US, Japan and Australia. “I will put something into the quad when you do,” Modi said. Meanwhile, he added, he was off to his Wuhan summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Since then Trump has hit India with a hike in tariffs on its exports to the US.
Now the Foreign Ministry in Delhi absorbs Monday’s revelation that the US can drop allies and reinvent policy with presidential tweets — in this case, that declare it is “time to get out … the endless and ridiculous wars are ENDING”.
While none of the 10 south-east Asian states want America to leave the region, none sees America any longer as the region’s dominant power. According to a Singapore think tank, 73 per cent of south-east Asian business, military and government leaders already see China as more important.
Aware of erratic American behaviour under previous administrations, the leaders of ASEAN resolved this year to work towards an ASEAN-specific definition of the Indo-Pacific, not content with the one handed down from Washington.
Abandonment of the Kurds will feed an existing view of US inconsistency.
Japan and South Korea, are already neurologically sensitive to American unreliability. That’s why Japan for a year has pursued the “New Era” rapprochement with China. How could they surrender policy options to a president who talks of “beautiful letters” from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un? The same for South Korea.
Both countries have diplomats in Washington who would have noticed an article by Farhad Manjoo in The New York Times on September 21 speculating that Trump’s perfect successor as a Republican president would be Tucker Carlson — among the fire-breathing commentators on Fox News, the one with intellectual rigour and fiercely opposed to foreign interventions from Afghanistan to Yemen.
With one-quarter of Americans getting their news from Fox, this makes him, with his white nationalism, a credible successor to Trump. Don’t laugh: in an era when television has replaced membership-based political parties, Carlson is more credible now than Trump was in 2015.
Apart from Joe Biden, there is no Democrat candidate who embodies the spirit of liberal-internationalism that infused Hillary Clinton and, with reservations, Barack Obama. The Democrat who next seizes the White House is likely to be from the party’s Left with views different from the Council on Foreign Relations. When Elizabeth Warren visited Beijing in 2018, her questions were about human rights and the environment, not the South China Sea.
A party being reshaped by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other self-declared socialists, plus the base motivated by Bernie Sanders in 2016, is not itching for what one presidential candidate, Tulsi Gabbard, cleverly brands “more regime-change wars”.
Former Liberal prime minister Malcolm Fraser warned that the US could conceivably “fight a war with China and lose”. As, he added cruelly, “they usually do”. To conclude the dystopia, he said America might then withdraw from Asia. Which Australia can’t.
The recent prime ministerial visit to Washington was imbued with alliance romanticism. But behind this celebration of US-Australian amity, someone in the Office of National Assessments in Canberra should be testing the proposition that Trump’s dumping of the Kurds is a signal for the future, a prelude not a denouement.
Bob Carr is a former premier of NSW and former Foreign Affairs Minister. He is industry professor of climate and business at the University of Technology Sydney.