The recent visit of Vice President Mike Pence to Sydney – and Prime Minister Turnbull’s forthcoming meeting with President Trump in New York - is bringing forth the usual round of reassurances and reflections on the state of the US-Australia alliance.
Following in the footsteps of Defense Secretary James Mattis’ visit to Tokyo and Seoul earlier in the year, Mr Pence made all the right noises in assuaging anxious regional allies that America will not retreat entirely into a protectionist or isolationist shell under the Trump administration.
Politicians and pundits in Australia derived a great deal of satisfaction from the Vice-President’s day of meetings in Sydney. This was not just because he committed the U.S. to honouring the controversial refugee settlement deal – signed by President Obama – whereby asylum seekers held by Australians in offshore detention camps will be resettled in the U.S.. Nor even was it because the potential benefits Australian business might reap from President Trump’s plans for a corporate tax cut.
Far more important to Australian ears, it seems, was the use of familiar, wartime rhetoric from their American guest. The Vice President spoke of a relationship “forged in the fire of sacrifice” and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull followed him by referring to “100 years of mateship, side by side with our American allies.”
The Australian press were similarly effusive. According to The Australian Financial Review, the visit had “removed the doubt” that flowed from the tempestuous conversation between Mr Trump and the Australian prime minister in February over the refugee deal. The Australian too believed the visit should “end any misgivings about the bilateral relationship” that flowed from that heated exchange.
All this is to be expected. Australians registered a profound deal of shock at Trump’s telephone tirade, even though the relationship has seen far greater moments of disagreement and divergence than this since the treaty was signed in 1951. It is somewhat inevitable, too, that in times of strategic flux allies will reminisce about past struggles and sacrifice. The visit, after all, took place against the background of North Korean bellicosity and the continuing strategic nightmare in the Middle East.
But the old war talk only indicates that the hard thinking on Australia’s relationship with Washington is still to be done. Yet another opportunity has been missed to dispatch an American leader back over the Pacific with perhaps a more complicated picture of Australia’s strategic outlook.
The tendency to retreat into the comfort that the past provides will only be reinforced when the President and the Prime Minister meet on May 4 aboard a U.S. warship docked in New York Harbour to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Coral Sea. On the one hand, the symbolism is powerful: two close, longstanding allies marking a pivotal moment in which the threat of Japanese imperialism was turned back. On the other, it projects a view of the relationship that is literally moored to memory, failing to engage in the more difficult conversations about what the American posture in Asia will look like in the years ahead, and what that means for Australia.
It is a matter of regret that the Australian prime minister, though, has long since abandoned the more nuanced position on the U.S. alliance that he held before he got the top job. When President Obama visited in 2011, it was Turnbull who said publicly that Australians should not get “doey eyed” the moment the leader of the free world came to town. “Extravagant professions of loyalty and devotion to the United States,” he quipped, were simply unnecessary, and he made the case that Australia’s job was to prevent US-China competition from spiralling out of control and towards military conflict.
These latest episodes of nostalgic reverie in the alliance – the yearning to pluck for the familiar – only masks the ongoing uncertainty Australians, like others, have about Trump’s evolving foreign policy. The danger however is that whilst policy incoherence reigns in the White House, Australians display a studied refusal to accept that America has changed. Thus, during a recent speech in Singapore, Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop, drawing on language reminiscent of her predecessors in the late 1960s appealing to Britain not to withdraw its military from southeast Asia, stated that the U.S. “is obliged to use its power and influence to provide public security goods to the region and not simply pursue its narrow national interests.”
That may be an unashamed pitch to the better angels of America’s foreign policy nature. But doubts about American staying power persist. The contours of the President’s China policy and America’s broader regional stance are still in formation. As promised, Trump dumped the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but he has not yet applied the fiscal blowtorch to the Japanese and Korean bellies, and there has been no pressure as yet for allies to follow the U.S. through the South China Sea in conducting freedom of navigation patrols. Yet his capacity for impulsiveness and kneejerk reactions continues to unsettle.
Far from adopting a policy of incrementalism, of taking Trump one step at a time, Australia has on the other hand looked to fall in behind U.S. policy wherever it can. Thus, Turnbull and Bishop rushed to support Trump’s missile strikes on Syria, seemingly heedless of the lack of a wider American strategy for what might follow. Similarly they have engaged in tough talk on North Korea’s nuclear ambitions – failing even to mention that a policy of deterrence can still work. And government ministers are starting to sound more hawkish on China. During the same speech in Singapore, Bishop not only seemed to back a U.S. led containment policy of China, but warned leaders in Beijing that unless they embraced democracy their country would not reach its economic potential.
Previous Australian foreign ministers and prime ministers have tended not to lecture the Chinese on their political system. As the respected analyst Tom Switzer pointed out recently, the Australian “brand of diplomacy is not the stuff of human rights sermons from the U.S. Congress and White House pronouncements about good and evil.”
Paradoxically, then, Trump’s rise to the presidency – far from inducing a more watchful Australian examination of the direction of American foreign policy – seems to have prompted older reflexes.
Cynics, of course, will point out that the Australian leader is not being invited to the White House or to Mar-a-Lago for his much anticipated first head to head with President Trump. But Turnbull needed this meeting: he needed to be able to show that the relationship with America still guarantees access at the highest level. The risk, though, is that this event – which after all is taking place aboard a floating museum – will be literally awash with cosy sentimentality, putting on display an alliance that appears to be cruising in its own sea of complacency and nostalgia.