Let’s hope it’s worth it. Malcolm Turnbull has sacrificed whatever remaining credibility he may still have had as a small ‘l’ liberal in a desperate effort to save his tawdry deal with the American government. What looked like a brilliant political ploy to resolve the running sore of off-shore detention, has now come back to bite him.
It’s hard to summon much sympathy for his plight. The reality, however, is that it could – and still may – have been so much worse. If the unpredictable xenophobe who currently runs the United States and much of the rest of the world shows any consistency, there is no way the asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island ought to be allowed into the land of the free. After all, most of them are from the countries that have been hit by Trump’s blanket ban on travel from a number of Muslim majority countries.
The question is what Turnbull had to say or even promise in his 25-minute phone call with President Trump to persuade him to honour an agreement forged with his predecessor. Given that Barak Obama was routinely dismissed as being weak on terrorism, border protection and unambiguously naming supposed threats to American security getting Trump to agree is no small achievement – if he actually follows through on it.
One assumes that Turnbull must have pointed out the immense political damage that reneging on this deal would do to him personally and to perceptions of the alliance relationship with the US more generally. For the first time in recent history there is a serious debate about Australia’s alliance with the US, and a repudiation of the deal would have been a political nightmare for Turnbull.
It would it have been extremely difficult for him to mount a continuing defense of a relationship that is regarded in such a cavalier, instrumental and seemingly expendable fashion by the US. Trump’s ‘transactional’ approach to allies is entirely dependent on what benefit they bring to the US, not the stability of the international system, much less the wider collective good. It is not even clear whether Trump or many of his key advisors would actually recognize the idea of a collective interest at the international level as a meaningful concept.
The question, therefore, is what Turnbull had to offer as his part of a deal between two famously successful businessmen. Not criticizing the Trump regime would be a given in such circumstances, and Turnbull is dutifully fulfilling his part of the bargain, tacit or otherwise. Giving a running commentary on the domestic policies of other governments is not part of his job, apparently, something that the likes of Kim Jong-un and Rodrigo Duterte will be delighted to hear, no doubt.
More immediately, has Turnbull given an explicit or in principle commitment to support the Trump administration in whatever actions it may decide to take in the ‘war on terrorism’ or more consequentially for Australia, ‘standing up to Chinese aggression’, as key Trump advisor Peter Navarro might put it?
The stakes here could hardly be higher, especially for Australia. It is not simply because Australia is bound to be adversely affected by any deterioration in the bilateral ties between our principal strategic and economic partners, but because there is the very real possibility that the relationship could descend into actual conflict.
Despite the fact that Australia could make absolutely no real difference to the outcome of such a conflict, there is every chance that it could get sucked into it as a compliant, ever-reliable and obliging American ally. Australia’s propensity to do America’s bidding is high at the best of times. The worry is that Malcolm Turnbull has, as the Americans say, doubled down on our implicit strategic obligations with a renewed commitment to act – whatever policy the Trump regime embarks on.
The asylum seeker problem is nightmarishly complex and offers no easy solutions. While it is possible to have some sympathy for a problem that wasn’t entirely of the Turnbull government’s making, it is difficult not to see the ‘American solution’ as yet another illustration of the dangers of strategic dependence. It reeked of dubious political expediency under Obama; it is fraught with dangerous uncertainty under the Trump regime.
The growing band of critics of the alliance will feel vindicated and emboldened. If the relationship with the US causes Australia to become embroiled in yet another questionable and unnecessary war on behalf of our supposed protector, it can only be a question of time before wider public confidence in the relationship is eroded, too. That really would be a problem for the Turnbull government.
Professor Mark Beeson from the University of Western Australia, is Series Editor, Critical Studies of the Asia Pacific.