Donald Trump Malcolm Turnbull Phonecall

Three months ago, the American President insulted the Australian Prime Minister.

In the now infamous telephone call, the Prime Minister might’ve managed the asylum seekers issue more nimbly. But he didn’t deserve what was dished up to him. Donald Trump did not just have a “frank” or “robust” conversation with Malcolm Turnbull. He was talking as President to Prime Minister, not as one man to another in a bar. In such circumstances, his behaviour publicly impugned Australian national dignity.

While Anzac Day can sometimes take on a flavour of mawkish sentimentality, the degree to which we honour it indicates that Australians take national dignity more seriously than our sardonic humour might suggest.

So, doesn’t it seem a bit odd that Turnbull should this week be standing alongside Trump celebrating past glories and a spirit of mateship as if nothing had happened?

There’s a story of a small boy who, having been humiliated by a bully in front of other boys, asked his father what to do about it. The parent advised his son to avoid the bully, but if pushed, to stand up to him. He also told the boy not to worry about his popularity with the other boys. That would come with respect.

Turnbull should ponder that. You don’t run after bullies. They smell obsequiousness. At worst they bully again. At best they respond with benevolent condescension. They have you where they want you. And for a country that claims to pride itself on its independence, that isn’t the place for Australia to be.

And even if Trump were a nice fellow, we should still reflect on the nature of our relationship with the United States. America’s a great and inspiring country and the people who rise to the top of it are generally capable and farsighted. Americans tend to like us because of a partially accurate perception that our national qualities are similar to their own. But in the end, as they should, they put their own interests first. Single-minded loyalty by an ally to the US doesn’t necessarily engender reciprocity.

Allies can differ from Americans and remain allies. Neither Britain nor Canada were in Vietnam. Canada, France and others in NATO were not American partners in the first Iraq war. We must keep those two factors at the front of our minds in the testing months ahead.

For all that the new king in Washington might’ve assembled good men around him, he remains an untested and untrusted king. So it’s more incumbent than ever on the Australian leadership to use its own judgement about our international posture. We can’t adopt the posture of a deputy sheriff, to use the term falsely but damagingly attributed to John Howard.

We’re already doing much with the US in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq. Even if the argument’s accepted that such contributions are in Australia’s national interest, it’s hard to argue that we need to do more, given that we already exceed the contributions of most NATO countries closer to those theatres.

And as storm clouds gather over north-east Asia, we should eschew any precipitate enthusiasm for military options. It’s perhaps a sign of the times, and a harbinger of things to come, that we’re looking to China’s influence as the primary lever in an effort to dismantle the North Korean stalemate.

Australian leaders of stature have expressed concern about Australia’s increased tilt towards surrogate status since 9/11. These include the late Malcolm Fraser, Gareth Evans and Bob Carr. Only last week Paul Keating opined that “one thing not to do with the Americans is keep bowing down”.

While other Australians might disagree with these men politically, few would suggest that they were other than Australian nationalists who think deeply about our role in the world.

And surrogacy doesn’t impact only on Australian self-respect. It affects how we’re regarded elsewhere in the region.

In the wake of that telephone call, it would’ve been better to have the next leaders’ exchange at an international meeting at what’s euphemistically termed “a mutually convenient time”. In the meantime, we could’ve worked with Mike Pence, James Mattis and the rest.

Instead, we’ve waited for the summons we encouraged. Let’s hope we can still rescue a modicum of self-esteem.

In 2011, in the wake of President Barack Obama’s announcement about the use of Darwin by US marines, Malcolm Turnbull, then in opposition, questioned “extravagant professions of loyalty in relation to the United States” and “dewy eyed fascination with the leader of the free world”.

In terms of the intertwined concepts of national interest and national dignity, Turnbull got it right in 2011. Let’s hope he still has the courage of those convictions when caught up in the hype of celebration of our alliance on an American warship in New York.

You don’t run after bullies.

* This article was originally published at The Strategist

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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