RICHARD BUTLER. Turnbull, Trump and the Alliance

Jun 14, 2017

Trump’s presidency is in deep jeopardy. There is serious instability in the US polity. Political leaders of virtually all countries comparable to Australia are stepping back from, loosening, their relationship with the United States. Prime Minister Turnbull, alone, is not. Instead we are buying massively costly US military equipment and Turnbull thought it useful to announce, publicly, that Australia’s purpose in the Middle East is to kill as many ISIS as possible.

Prime Minister Turnbull’s public fawning over Trump, in New York, was disturbing. It went beyond obligatory diplomatic courtesy. One can only wonder what further pledges of fealty were given in private.

When concerns are expressed about: the current state of the Alliance as depicted by Turnbull, as the consequence of which we ever deepen our client status and, the obvious unfitness of President Trump for his job, the typical response by Australian Ministers, and pro-US lobby groups, is to say that the Alliance is larger than any individual, and stronger than ever.

With this insulting dismissal, it is implied that there is no basis for concern deriving from the facts that: the Commander in Chief of the world’s most massive military, with unique authority to initiate the use of US nuclear weapons, is profoundly ignorant of contemporary international relations and uninterested to learn about them; prone to reject advice from experts; a serial liar; and, in possession of what leading US psychiatrists have discerned as pathological narcissism. But, we are told, none of this should lead us to think again about the management, from our side, of the Alliance.

Why not?

The Americans are desperately examining their circumstances, as was seen, for example, in James Comey’s performance at the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Its examination is formally into Russian hacking, but is substantively also into Trump’s conduct and character.

Comey explained to the Committee that he made careful notes immediately after each of his four main meetings/conversations with Trump, before he was fired, because of his conviction that Trump would subsequently lie about what had transpired. No serious person disputes Comey’s account and his reason for keeping notes.

On Trump’s side, he has walked back from his earlier threat to produce tapes of the meetings, after Comey said he earnestly hoped they existed. Trump’s actions in not producing the tapes and in refusing to answer a reporters question about the existence of them, suggested that either they do not exist or are still being made.

Trump’s Presidency is now in deep jeopardy. But, it will take a little while yet and there will be much more agony, before his removal, by legal means, can be achieved. And, to that end, here’s the gut problem. It has two parts.

First, Trump’s serial lying, constantly issuing threats, switching messages, mainly through tweets, has come to constitute such a shifting target that conventional means of attempting to hold him to account, even to seek clarification of what in fact is going on, have often proven hopeless.

Secondly, the effort in mainstream media (MSM) to respond to these circumstances, to chase down and decrypt Trump’s lies, has so expanded that it has begun to obscure the elemental question: how has the system sunk so low? Instead, they are being effectively directed by Trump to focus on and discuss his latest lie, and thus leave aside the reality that what is happening is, overall, a monstrous aberration, which iself needs to be addressed.

Highly respected commentators are warning of the catastrophe that is being built by Trump, affecting not only the US but overall global relations.

Surely Prime Minister Turnbull is aware of these realities. No doubt he follows the news from the US: for the obvious professional reasons, but also because he has lived and worked in New York, in the milieu inhabited by Trump the business man; he owns property and reputedly has investments there; and highly relevant to current circumstances, he has met and had conversations with President Trump. Indeed, he has endorsed some of Trump’s key contentions. “Fake news” is one of these, from which Turnbull declared, in public, he has also suffered.

His recent statements: at the celebration in New York, in May, of the 75th anniversary of the battle of the Coral Sea promising a continuation of Australian political and military fealty to the US. (Pearls and Irritations: Trump and Turnbull: Everything is Illuminated, 10th May);standing in front of a new newly delivered RAAF F-35 Strike Fighter, that our purpose in the Middle East is to kill as many ISIS fighters as possible. We are purchasing 72 F 35’s from the US for some $17 billion. It has been identified as the most expensive such weapons system ever built ( Daniel Soar, LRB, 30th March 2017).

What an extraordinary decision; to declare publicly that we’re hunting down ISIS, in the Middle East. Was this the need to appear to be militant and tough, based on his assessment of what his party expects of him, the electorate will admire, or was he simply channeling Trump. Whatever motivated him, it’s a fair assessment that his statement has increased the possibility of terrorist action within Australia.

Almost no other State in good relations with the US manifests the degree of sycophancy that we do. Indeed, the Israelis, who are in fact so deeply dependent on the US regularly stand up to them. And, as was seen just a few weeks ago, the Saudis played  Trump like a Stradivarius.The Saudis achieved all their main objectives with Trump and at little cost; some money, a relatively trifling amount given that they have so much of it,a willingness to remain silent onTrump’s subsequent misrepresentation of the trumpeted arms sale to them( the exact amount has been overstated by the Trump camp) and the award to him of a very large gold medal.

The cost of this realpolitik is being borne by 7 million starving Yemenis and now political strife amongst Gulf States and an ostracised, Qatar.

Instead of always asking the US how high we should jump, we need to conduct a searching private assessment of: just how far it is in our national interest; how dangerous it is to us to be so thoroughly enmeshed in US global policy. That policy is imperialist, by any rational definition of that term and militaristic. It has brough continuous war, mainly wars of choice, with disastrous outcomes. Alison Broinowski’s brief outline of this reality is factual and compelling (Agents of Influence and Affluence, Pearls and Irritations, 6th June).

At present, whether they are comfortable in admitting this or not, our policy makers are driven by their belief that the world is very simply divided into them and us. We are inherently good and just, the others whose main characteristic, in fact, is that they have interests different from ours, are seen as evil. To seek to defeat them is, thus, virtuous. John Howard and Tony Blair’s Angloshere versus the rest.

This is relativistic nonsense and leads, as it always has, to terrible war and conflict. A country as well educated and modern as ours need not fall into this trap. It rests on empty subjectivity and defeats intelligent calculation of peaceful outcomes to problems posed by competing interests.

It also exposes people to the evils of xenophobia, of which in our own case John Howard, was the extreme exponent. Tony Abbot was his eager acolyte. Remember he exposed the depth of his thought about international relations when he told us that the world was composed of “goodies and baddies”. No prize for guessing into which category we, and our US Alliance, fitted.

Turnbull needs to make up his mind where he next wants to go with all of this. Is there a principle supporting our conduct of Australia’s international relations other than, Australia First? Where he is now is harmful to Australia and immensely costly. For example, what is the domestic opportunity cost of $50billion on submarines, $17 billion on F-35’s.

Perhaps he could be assisted in any reflections he may be considering, by looking at the opinion published by the Editorial Board of the Observer, London, on 11th June:

   “Donald Trump is not a fit and proper person to hold the office of  President of the United States”…(he is a man of).. “stupefying ignorance …an habitual liar”

“Plainly, Trump is no friend to Britain. On the contrary, he is a menace. His divisive policies, his authoritarian tendencies, his disrespect for the US constitution, his ignorance and fear of the world, his mendaciousness and grubby personal instincts amount to a clear and present danger to British interests.”

We need to re-think, deeply, our assessment of the goals and methods of US foreign policy and determine how best to relate to them and preserve our own integrity. The presence in the White House of Donald Trump is not the reason for this. It goes far deeper than that, but his presence there and its likely consequences, gives us every reason to get on with this, urgently.”

This Observer editorial was written to address the state visit to the UK, proposed to Trump by Prime Minister May in January: the proposal which then attracted more than a million signatures, in the UK, against it. The Observer urges that the invitation should be cancelled, because of Trump’s character, not- withstanding the so-called UK-US Special Relationship.

Richard Butler AC formerly Ambassador to the UN, Diplomat in Residence at the Council on Foreign Relations, New York.  

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