Australia has now been enlisted in Trump’s war against the Washington elite. There are costs and risks to Australia in this development.
With the new focus on the release by Donald Trump Jr of a series of emails from the early days of the Trump election campaign last June, detailing his contacts with a Russian lawyer who claimed to be close to the Russian government and to have Russian-sourced damaging material that the Trump campaign could use against Hillary Clinton, Russiagate moves to a new level of intensity. The contact was unproductive – apparently no offered material was used – but a Democrat Senator Tim Kaine already has speculated that it suggests possible treason involving the President’s immediate family.
The outcomes of the Hamburg G20 Summit exacerbated the fury and loathing of Trump’s domestic critics. There is a sense now that the Washington political crisis may be approaching a boiling point.
Unexpectedly, Australia has now become an enlisted participant, rather than just a worried observing ally, in the wars between the increasingly beleaguered Trump family dynasty and apparently most of America’s liberal elite.
Natalie Nougayrede, a Guardian columnist, had an interesting perspective on the character of the Hamburg G20 Summit. She chose an arresting metaphor from atomic physics – of ‘Brownian motion’, a ‘continuous jittery and random movement of molecules, in perpetual, seemingly haphazard fluctuations’. She referenced Angela Merkel’s pre-summit appeal that this is ‘a period of unrest in the world’, and the need for this summit to make things ‘somewhat quieter’. Nougayrede gave examples:
First, Trump’s confusing and confused Warsaw speech, which she claims would have in some respects pleased Putin as much as it pleased the Poles, with its white ethnic nationalism, its strong Christian traditionalist streak ‘in which the legacy of the Enlightenment is all but eradicated’, and its ‘apocalyptic vision of “survival” in the face of migration and Islam’.
More examples of Brownian motion: Xi Jinping lining up with the Europeans in defence of a rules-based international system. According to Nougayrede, Xi is ‘hardly a reliable ally’ for European values: but she speculates about ‘a possible Europe-China grouping against the US’.
She saw the Trump-Putin meeting in Hamburg as a win for Putin, fortifying his preferred narrative about rebuilding a bipolar world with Russia and the US cast as equals. She says it is hard to know whether a political agenda might emerge out of this: ‘a consolidated US-Russia axis of illiberalism’.
She references the hard bargaining in Hamburg on trade, fossil fuels and Trump’s defiance of the Paris Accord, and concludes that the Summit left Trump ‘isolated and friendless, confronted by the G19’. But this Summit left many things unsettled. ‘Nothing was set in stone at this G20, nor perhaps could it be, in a world of unhinged competition and nationalist passion’.
There is now a surprise new ingredient. On Sunday 4 July, Australia’s Chris Uhlmann’s commentary on ABC Insiders went viral around the world – with well over a million Facebook hits. The broadcast has played a major role in crystallising American liberal unease at Trump’s performance in Hamburg: this ‘uneasy, lonely awkward figure at this gathering’, who had ‘pressed fast forward on the decline of the United States as a global leader’, who had ‘diminished America’ and was prepared to ‘cede power to China and Russia’. As Karen Barlow noted in her ‘Huffington Post’ follow-up
‘Americans are still getting over that it took a two minutes and 14 seconds from a senior Australian journalist to best summarise the inexplicable nature of the Donald Trump experience’.
It is not really surprising that Chris Uhlmann’s piece became so prominent, apart from how really well-written it is. For consider what the US-Australian relationship has now become. Australian public life in its political, military and media dimensions has been in recent decades thoroughly colonised by American networks and values. It isn’t just the Murdoch media: it is our armed forces and strategic outlier institutes, our universities, our think-tanks and policy institutes, our public debate venues. Outside the contrarian Left, very little of Australian public life is left untouched now by the imprint of American values and world-view.
In reverse, Australia has earned an affectionate regard in mainstream US media – even more so than in liberal elite US media – as ‘our loyal little friend down under’. The affection, though stereotyped, is strong and sincere on both sides.
Trump’s crude nationalism and lack of manners upset this applecart from the time of his election victory, even as Turnbull valiantly and somewhat humiliatingly kept turning the other cheek. Increasingly, Australian political elite figures free of the responsibilities of intergovernmental diplomacy moved towards more and more openly expressing their contempt for Trump, most prominently senior retired Labor figures Gareth Evans and Bob Carr. Australian top mainstream media editorialists and commentators were quick to follow suit. No one from any side of Australian public life outside government has had a good word to say for Trump, for months now.
Australia in recent weeks has hosted not just Rex Tillerson and James Mattis for the Australia-US annual ministerial-level official ANZUS talks, but two of Trump’s bitterest public critics – Senator John McCain and Obama’s former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. Both have been unsparingly anti-Trump in their public utterances, and no doubt private conversations, here. This is a new experience for Australians.
Quite possibly, Chris Uhlmann went to the Hamburg G20 with a specific brief from the national broadcaster. Not so much to observe and report on the progress of the conference day by day in the traditional way – I saw no daily bylined Uhlmann TV or radio reports, except on the very last day as the Summit was wrapping up. Rather, it seems, Uhlmann may have had a ‘big picture’ brief – to observe Trump in Hamburg, and then to let fly on ABC Insiders with devastating impact on the morning after the Summit ended. Turnbull knew it was coming – he asked Ulhmann on air on the last day, in response to a leading question, ‘It sounds as if you are polishing the lines of your editorial for tomorrow, Chris?’
Imagine the shock of the piece in Washington circles, both anti- and pro- Trump. For the former, it fell on fertile ground. With all the more impact because it came from Australia –our ‘loyal little ally’. For the latter – supporters of the current government of the United States – it left bewilderment and anger. It leaves Turnbull and his ministers now in a difficult position. Australia now appears to have taken sides in the beleaguered Trump family’s war against its multiplying enemies in Washington.
Let us hope that the civil war in Washington is resolved one way or another soon. Because the longer it continues, the more confused America’s ‘loyal little ally’ will become, as both sides compete for our nation’s loyalty and respect. And if Trump survives – we know this man has long memories.
Former DFAT officer Tony Kevin is the author of several non-fiction books, most recently Return to Moscow (UWA Publishing 2017).