By Sam Wolfe
The Trump administration, nascent though it be, has featured such a blink-inducing succession of executive actions, firings and leaks that the news media can do little but squawk “chaos!” The whirlwind pace of President Trump’s regulatory rollback is the fulfilment of every conservative fantasy, unseen since “Contract with America”-era Newt Gingrich. Perhaps even more striking, though, has been his disdain for diplomatic flummery. Of course, Trump was never going to be Obama 2.0 on the White House phone, but his campaign refrain about “getting along” with foreign leaders appears to involve considerably more bickering than the phrase evokes in my mind.
I am referring particularly to the call that President Trump had this week with Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, dubbed the “Blunder Down Under” by The Atlantic. Scheduled for a full hour, the president abruptly hung up after 25 minutes, declaring it the “worst call by far.”
In certain respects, I’m unsurprised. Turnbull and Trump are far from kindred spirits. Turnbull is a Rhodes scholar whose blend of economic conservatism and social liberalism calls to mind Nelson Rockefeller more than it does Steve Bannon, and Trump is, well, Trump. It was hard to see them becoming best mates.
But this kind of pugnacity on a private phone call is something else. The source of Trump’s ire was an Obama-era deal struck between the U.S. and Australia, whereby the U.S. agreed to resettle 1,250 refugees from Australia’s offshore detention facilities. In light of his recent immigration ban, Trump was incensed at the idea and accused Turnbull of trying to export the next “Boston bomber.”
It’s hard not to wonder, though, whether Trump’s outrage was performative. He probably did feel genuinely irritated when talking to Turnbull, but his subsequent histrionics give me pause. His tweet decrying the “dumb deal,” and his huffing and puffing about having to implement it seem a little too extravagant (even for Trump). Trump is probably most frustrated that it might be a bad look politically to be accepting refugees now (rather than actually caring that much about their presence in the country) and, to assure his supporters that he totally wouldn’t be doing this if he had any choice in the matter, he has done what he does best — put on a show.
The narrative that this was a warning shot to foreign leaders also appears misguided. It would, of course, fit perfectly with Trump’s campaign rhetoric about the U.S. no longer being a secure ally if you don’t do well by them. But Trump’s subsequent tweet criticizing the “FAKE NEWS media” for portraying the conversation as anything other than “civil” suggests to me that Trump is cognizant of how shouting at another world leader might look — a little too Trumpian for even the man himself. Of course, the tweet was sent out a fair while after the initial reports, so perhaps it was his advisors who convinced him to correct the narrative. Either way, it looks like Trump doesn’t want to spook his international counterparts.
The media have sadly missed the boat a bit when determining the significance of the call. Turnbull wouldn’t have particularly cared — I’m sure part of him finds the whole thing amusing — and the call alone won’t open a “rift” between Australia and the U.S. Moreover, the idea that Australians now view Trump as a vulgar madman implies that the Australian media hadn’t done a comprehensive job of painting that picture already.
It isn’t harmless, though. What the call will do is embolden the voices in the Australian political establishment calling for a pivot away from the United States and towards China. If the dissolution of the TPP weren’t enough, this has surely done the trick.
And, more universally speaking, it provides some dangerous but far too tempting political points for opposition parties to score against world leaders who don’t “stand up to Trump.” The opposition leader in Australia, Bill Shorten, has had a wild old time asking Turnbull to denounce the President’s antics, then castigating him when he (of course) refuses to do so. It is ugly, myopic mudslinging, but it resonates with Australian voters and energizes Shorten’s progressive base.
It’s not hard to see “diss Trump” becoming a popular political tactic across the West. If Trump feeds politicians more fuel to do so (by, say, disrespecting world leaders), he could empower a host of hostile opportunists. And while Trump might claim that he doesn’t care — “America first” and all that — it’ll become pretty hard to enact any kind of foreign policy agenda without complicit allies across the globe.
So no, Trump hasn’t imperiled America’s alliance Down Under — not yet. But one hopes that this was a calculated move, symptomatic more of a coherent rebranding attempt, and not his personal erraticism. If it’s the former, expect to see the dynamic between the United States and traditional allies change but remain durable and to see Trump and Turnbull become best of friends by the time they need to cooperate on something. If it was the latter, and this grouchiness becomes a staple of Trump’s diplomatic behavior, world leaders might start looking East in search of a new global hegemon.
Contact Sam Wolfe at swolfe2 ‘at’ stanford.edu.