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One year of President Trump: What has it meant for Australia?

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From that tense first phone call with Malcolm Turnbull to the failure to appoint a US ambassador to Australia, we ask the experts how delicate the bilateral relationship is 12 months on.

It has been an unprecedented 12 months in United States history under the Trump Administration, and it hasn't gone by without some sticky situations involving Australia. 

SBS Chief Political Correspondent Daniela Ritorto spoke to two of Australia's most eminent US experts: Dr Michael Fullilove, the Executive Director of the Lowy Institute, and Professor Simon Jackman, CEO of the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, about how the events of the past year have affected the relationship between the two countries, and what could happen next. 

Donald Trump and Malcolm Turnbull at the opening of the ASEAN summit in Manila in November 2017.
Donald Trump and Malcolm Turnbull at the opening of the ASEAN summit in Manila in November 2017.
Jim Watson / AFP / Getty Images

On that 'awful' first phone call

Dr Fullilove: What's surprising is how prominently Australia is playing in a lot of these debates about the Trump administration. First of all, the awful phone call between Donald Trump and Malcolm Turnbull, through to the rapprochement on the USS Intrepid a few months later (the two leaders met on seemingly good terms in May to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Coral Sea — a WWII clash between Japan and allied US and Australian forces). 

And now (Australia's Ambassador to the UK) Alexander Downer's involvement in the passage of some of this information to the US government about alleged Russian collusion (in the US election). It's been a while since Australia has played such a prominent role in discussions in Washington about a new administration.

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Trump and Turnbull's phone call leaked
Trump and Turnbull's phone call leaked

Professor Jackman: The relationship did get off to a rocky start with that phone call. But I’d say behind the scenes, an awful lot of work was being done by our US Ambassador Joe Hockey, by our Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and many, many other points of contact between the Australian government and the American government, between the business communities, between our militaries.

An awful lot of work was being done by Joe Hockey and Julie Bishop

Those parts of the relationship are incredibly strong, have been for many decades, and although we couldn't help but focus on the phone call, I think that it didn't give enough credit to just how strong, how deep and how functional the relationship is in many other domains.

On Trump and Turnbull today

Dr Fullilove: You've got to look at the relationship these days at two levels. The first level is what Mr Trump would call the 'deep state': the military, the civilians, the officials, on both sides of the ocean. At that level, I think the relationship is pretty good, there are good personal relationships and people are getting on with things.

But the second level is the level of leaders, and there, things continue to be rocky and unpredictable because Mr Trump is a president we have never seen before in terms of his character, his instincts, his approach to the world. We have a leader of the free world who doesn't believe in the free world and doesn't want to lead it, and that's something that no Australian prime minister has dealt with.

We have a leader of the free world who doesn't believe in the free world

Professor Jackman: I know that Foreign Minister Bishop and Vice President (Mike) Pence established a close working relationship very early on - before there was a secretary of state. I think that sort of a visit (Mr Pence came to Australia in April) was no accident and an act of reassurance to a close ally like Australia.

Mike Pence and his wife Karen, with Julie Bishop, right, are welcomed to the Australian Museum in Sydney in April 2017.
Mike Pence and his wife Karen, with Julie Bishop, right, are welcomed to the Australian Museum in Sydney in April 2017.
David Moir / AFP / Getty Images

On what Australia can do to strengthen ties

Dr Fullilove: Leaders around the world are trying to come to grips with this at the moment - how do you deal with somebody who is the most powerful person in the world, but is also thin-skinned, angry, poorly informed and focused on revenge? I think the Australian approach is right, I think you do have to be businesslike about it. But I think all leaders need to remember that this too will pass, and all of us will be judged on how we dealt with this very unusual, unorthodox period in American public life.

How do you deal with somebody who is thin-skinned, angry, poorly informed and focused on revenge?

Professor Jackman: I think whatever you might be doing behind the scenes, I certainly think a straight-up, business-as-usual approach between the two principles is probably the only thing you can do. And meanwhile use every asset at your disposal, as you should in any event, by the way, with the United States.

It is a diverse political system. There is Congress to pay attention to, there are the states, and you would be doing that in any event, making sure you have contacts right across the width and depth of the American political and economic system. I think though with President Trump, you may even double down on that strategy - while you maintain orderly good relations principle to principle, you work especially hard on other points of access to power in the American system.

On the failure to appoint a US ambassador to Australia

The US has failed to appoint an ambassador to its embassy in Canberra for the entirety of Mr Trump's presidency. Former Australian deputy prime minister Tim Fischer said earlier this month that the 16-month delay was a "diplomatic insult".

Professor Jackman: I would tend to put the blame back on them (the US) to be honest, to the extent there's any blame to apportion here. We have to face a few facts. One thing the (Michael) Wolff book (Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, released this month) does make clear is that the Trump team were not prepared to win the election.

Getting up to speed with appointments, particularly an important appointment like ambassador to Australia, is taking them perhaps an inordinately long time. In the meantime, I think the Charge d’Affaires James Carouso is doing an outstanding job representing the US here in Canberra.

Some of the names that have been mooted as possible ambassadorial appointments are otherwise occupied at the moment. They are extremely serious names, including Admiral Harry Harris, currently Commander of Pacific Command there in Honolulu, and with North Korea brewing he's just simply not available right now. But if anything, I believe the deliberateness with which this is being considered speaks well of Australia and the importance of the Australian relationship with the United States, rather than we see it as a slight on Australia. 

Donald Trump and Malcolm Turnbull at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York in May 2017.
The two leaders at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York in May 2017.
Brendan Smialowski / AFP/ Getty Images

Dr Fullilove: We shouldn't take the delay in appointing a US ambassador here personally in any way. It goes much more to the dysfunction and chaos in the US system, many ambassadorial posts a year in remain vacant, in fact, many key positions that in any normal administration would be staffed within the first six months have not been filled yet. So this is not a personal reflection on the relationship, it's a reflection on Mr Trump's administration, or maladministration, of his own government.

This is a reflection on Mr Trump's administration, or maladministration 

There's a professional civil servant in the role at the moment (Mr Carouso) who is a professional American diplomat, very professional person and the embassy is functioning fine as far as I can see. So I think this is one thing we should not get upset about.

On the increasing threat of North Korea

Professor Jackman: Long-time observers of Australian foreign policy, of defence around the world, say that there is a substantial likelihood that the United States may take pre-emptive action with respect to North Korea. That would pose a very interesting moment for the Australian government: what role we may be asked to play in any action against North Korea.

That would be a very interesting moment indeed in terms of managing the US-Australia relationship, particularly with a view to Australian public opinion, that may not look favourably on a first strike by the United States into North Korea.

Dr Fullilove: I still think it (a US limited strike on North Korea) is unlikely for the reason that it's a bad option and every military expert that I'm aware of who looks at it doesn't like it.

A TV screen in Seoul, South Korea, shows the faces of Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un.
A TV screen in Seoul, South Korea, shows the faces of Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
AP

In North Korea you've got a nuclear-armed power lead by a young, ambitious leader who feels very few restraints on his actions ... so the risk of escalation, the risk of massive casualties, is very great.

When the crisis hits and we look in the offices, we've got Donald Trump on the one hand and we've got Kim Jong-un on the other hand. It's hard to think of two individuals you would feel less comfortable with in leadership positions at a moment of crisis like that.

It's hard to think of two individuals you would feel less comfortable with at a moment of crisis 

On Trump's approach to foreign policy

Dr Fullilove: There are two problems: The first is his character, we see that all the time, but underneath that and perhaps even more concerning, are his foreign policy instincts. This is a president who is sympathetic to isolationism, who is sceptical of alliances, who is dubious of free trade, who is weirdly attracted to strongmen like (Russian President) Vladimir Putin.

The autopilot is on, the officials are doing their job in trying to moderate him, but in the end, they're not the Commander in Chief, Mr Trump is the Commander in Chief and his instincts about the world, his world view is very different from almost all of his predecessors.

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'I'm not a racist': Trump's denial after 's***hole countries' controversy
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Professor Jackman: It is an image problem to be sure. An American president who, for various reasons, is unpopular in public opinion among America’s allies, can't help but constrain the ability of political leaders in those allied countries to transact business with the United States. So I think we have to concede that.

Inside America though, I would say the political institutions are being tested by Trump's unconventional approach to government and they are winning right now. Trump is learning about the limits of presidential power, as are the rest of us, by the way.

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