Scott Morrison is enjoying his first evening in Washington DC as an official guest of Donald Trump, having given the new prime ministerial VIP jet a workout across the Pacific. Briefings, sleep and meetings during Friday, DC time, will be followed by the second state dinner hosted by Trump and his wife Melania. From there, it’s a welcome that’s sure to be as warm as anything the Americans can turn on, and will stretch out to the midwest through Chicago and Iowa.
Of course the most passionate deal-maker to call Pennsylvania Avenue home will have his eye on something in return for the ultimate power and charm offensive a visiting world leader can get in the US capital. To get a line on just what that might be will take time — if it is ever clear.
Most commentary has said we should use the relationship between John Howard and George W Bush as a benchmark for how Trump and Morrison get along. There is something in this analysis — Howard was labelled as Bush’s “deputy sheriff” after a lazy response to a journalist’s observation, and it was when this pair was in power the ANZUS Treaty was invoked for a first time following the September 11 terror attacks.
However, a better historical comparison would be the friendship between Liberal prime minister Harold Holt and Democratic president Lyndon Baines Johnson in the mid-to-late 1960s. Holt was a pragmatic “small l” liberal centrist and Johnson was a big-picture social reformer, but their friendship could not have been closer.
When Holt made the first of two official visits to the United States in June 1966, he laid down an unswerving commitment to his host. “Sir, in the lonelier and perhaps even more disheartening moments which come to any national leader, I hope there will be a corner of your mind and heart which takes cheer from the fact that you have an admiring friend, a staunch friend that will be all the way with LBJ,” he said.
Reports said the lanky Texan president grinned like the proverbial cat. While many Australians reacted with unease at the unctuous nature of the “all the way” remark, it worked for Holt. He was invited back just a month later and treated to a stay at the presidential retreat Camp David north in the Maryland woods north-west of Washington. The Johnsons and the Holts lounged by the pool, played tennis and watched movies.
The price of this hospitality was cementing the Australia-US relationship to a new closeness. Not only was the commitment of troops to fight in Vietnam upped by an initial factor of three (by the end of that war 60,000 Australians had served at a cost of 521 lives and more than 3000 who suffered injuries), but we became the single most important American intelligence listening post outside the homeland. Holt approved the construction of several ground stations used by NASA — for tracking satellites — and the intelligence services, including the CIA and NSA. The pivotal base to be established under these agreements was Pine Gap outside Alice Springs.
Many of the stakes in the ground laid by Holt remain today — as confirmed most recently through the documents leaked by former NSA analyst Edward Snowden — and in this cybersecurity has assumed a much greater importance than it had half a century ago.
The give and take in the Australia-US relationship is always lopsided. The Americans want more and, because of their strategic and economic power, they can get more. Australia goes inevitably cap in hand and we are lucky if we get even the majority of our wish list. The US has much more sway when it makes demands from its shifting agenda of strategic and economic needs.
A recent ministerial bilateral in Sydney — between defence and foreign ministers — led to Australia agreeing to military support for the American-led mission to protect sea passage in the Strait of Hormuz between Iran and Saudi Arabia, without doubt the hottest place on earth right now. Australia did balk at allowing the US Air Force to station stealth bombers outside Darwin although these B-52 Stratofortress Bombers with their never acknowledged nuclear payloads continue to use RAAF Darwin as a staging post for missions in the Asia Pacific.
What else might be asked of Australia — and what Morrison will almost certainly agree to — will probably only become known if the US raises the temperature in the Iran/Saudi conflict.
Australia’s more modest objectives are confined to continued protection from the US-China trade war and possible — although not certain — access to American rare earth markets, something that could be very lucrative for our miners.
What’s certain is a weekend of two-way charm — something that’s rare in Trump’s Washington.
What do you think will you come of the state visit? Write to [email protected] with your full name?
Dennis Atkins is a freelance writer based in Brisbane where he was a national political editor during the Howard Government. He is filling in for part of the time while Bernard Keane is enjoying a break.