Here’s some advice for Malcolm Turnbull as he prepares for his first face-to-face meeting with US President Donald Trump: reflect on how his predecessors as prime minister have performed in their interactions with a great and powerful friend.
Turnbull can choose from various examples that have reflected well – or poorly, as the case may be – on Australia’s sovereignty and independence of thought and action.
There are too many examples of poor judgement to ignore. They are born, unfortunately, from the sort of clichéd definitions of the relationship that inevitably surface at times like these.
In that regard, Turnbull’s speechwriters might give the first world war’s Battle of Hamel – in which Australian troops under the command of Sir John Monash prevailed with the help of a small number of Americans – a rest.
The Hamel connection – American involvement was scaled back by its commander – is exaggerated for reasons that have less to do with its importance in the scheme of things than it does with an Australian desire to remind the US of its ongoing security obligations.
Let’s go back to John Curtin in 1942, when he requested American assistance in waters to Australia’s immediate north in defence of what is now Papua New Guinea. This came after Winston Churchill – under enormous pressure at home – could not answer the call. Bear in mind the might of the British Navy in the Pacific had been decimated when, on December 10, 1941 – three days after Pearl Harbour – the battleship Prince of Wales and battlecruiser Repulse were sunk in a few short hours.
The US responded without delay to Curtin’s pleas, and joined the Battle of the Coral Sea. Australian and US naval forces combined to defeat a Japanese naval armada. Australia’s security policy was redefined in the process.
From that moment, Australia would look not to Britain – which no longer ruled the waves – but across the Pacific to the US as its principal security guarantor. The ANZUS Treaty giving effect to that alliance was signed in 1951.
The Battle of the Coral Sea between May 4 and May 8, 1942 – whose 75th anniversary will be marked on board the aircraft carrier USS Intrepid in New York this week – is an event in Australian diplomatic and security history whose importance cannot be overstated.
Curtin died in office prematurely. His Labor successor, Ben Chifley, presided over a continued strengthening of security ties as the allies pushed the Japanese from their Pacific strongholds until the war ended in 1945.
Robert Menzies built on these security foundations during his long reign as prime minister from 1949 to 1966 – even though his heart remained in Westminister.
Here begin the teaching moments for Turnbull.
Menzies mistakenly aligned Australian policy with the US on recognition of the reality in China after the Nationalists were expelled to Taiwan in 1949. Here he might have been better off following the UK’s example. Britain under a Clement Attlee-led Labour government was one of the first to recognise the People’s Republic of China.
Australia would not do so until the Whitlam government of 1972, 23 years after Mao Zedong prevailed.
Australia persisted in the fiction that the Nationalists on Taiwan were China’s legitimate government, and thus entitled to its seat on the Security Council – even as US President Richard Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, were reaching out secretly to the communists in Beijing.
When this secret diplomacy was revealed, Gough Whitlam – who had visited China as opposition leader in 1971 for a meeting with Mao amid a welter of criticism from government ministers – was handed a propaganda windfall.
But back to Menzies as an example of risk and reward in the US relationship. This has relevance today, as pressures on Australia will surely ebb and flow to support US initiatives that will have a military component.
In 1965, Menzies committed Australian troops to Vietnam against Labor opposition. Labor leader Arthur Calwell’s speech in the House of Representatives opposing the commitment was almost certainly his finest hour. Seven years later, 500 Australian troops had been killed, as had many thousands more Americans. Saigon was subsequently renamed Ho Chi Minh City.
Argument will persist as to whether US engagement in Indochina gave nascent states in a post-colonial era in Asia breathing space to resist China’s attempts to spread its revolution. But proponents of this point of view are hard put to justify material losses and the Vietnam debacle’s impact on US self-confidence.
From an Australian perspective, Vietnam produced some of the more dispiriting moments in our diplomatic history – from Harold Holt’s “all the way with LBJ” to describe Australia’s fealty to the alliance, to John Gorton’s “we’ll go a Waltzing Matilda with you”.
Then came Whitlam. His relations with Nixon were so bad that speculation has persisted to this day – without credible evidence, it must be said – that the CIA played a role in his downfall.
Prime ministers Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating maintained what might be regarded as fairly conventional relationships with the US during the Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush presidencies. This included Australia’s naval support for the US in the first Gulf War.
Then came John Howard, and the fateful events of September 11, 2001. But even before 9/11 Howard had reverted – if we can put it that way – to some of the clichés that had bedevilled ties with the US in earlier years.
His description of Australia’s relations with the US as that of a “deputy sheriff” in Asia was unfortunate. And it was compounded, it might be said, by him joining George W. Bush’s other amigos – Britain’s Tony Blair and Spain’s Jose Maria Aznar – building the case for the rush to war in Iraq.
If there is a recent indelible teaching moment for Turnbull it is the rushed invasion of Iraq, which has cost the US in excess of US$2 trillion and counting, and helped destabilise the Middle East. Turnbull would be wise to resist pressure to commit Australian ground troops to combat in the Middle East under present circumstances.
Labor prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard avoided, for the most part, mistakes of some of their predecessors – although Gillard’s cloying speech to the US Congress in 2011 might have been avoided. This ended with a lachrymose prime minister talking about her belief the US could “do anything” after viewing the moon landing.
Rudd should be given credit for his efforts in pushing for the establishment of the G20, and then its important role in combating a global financial crisis in 2007-08.
Tony Abbott made no secret of his belief that a Barack Obama presidency was not sufficiently forward-leaning in its efforts to contain Islamic State, and its reluctance to exercise a more muscular approach to its security obligations more generally.
This brings us back to Turnbull and his meeting with Trump.
Turnbull has not been short of advice from former ambassadors, commentators and virtually anyone else with access to a media megaphone. But he should disregard the sort of advice that suggests he might seek to pander to a US president like no other in recent memory.
What Turnbull needs to do in his private meetings with Trump and his advisers is assert Australia’s belief in the need for a continued – possibly expanded – US presence in the Indo-Pacific, and the absolute requirement for the administration to manage its relationship with China effectively.
Concerns about North Korean adventurism might be an immediate preoccupation. But, in the longer term, nothing is more important from an Australian perspective than continued US engagement in Asia, and thus its ability to manage a relationship with a rising power.
History confers on Turnbull an obligation to get the balance right between Australia’s economic and security interests.
He should also be mindful of a shift in Australian domestic opinion regarding the US relationship, and take it upon himself to acknowledge it is better if alliance policy rests on a bipartisan consensus.
Calls by prominent Labor figures, including former prime minister Paul Keating and former foreign minister Gareth Evans, for Australia to be less “reflexive” in its dealings with the US – as Evans put it – represent significant viewpoints in the centre and on the left of Australian politics. But Turnbull should resist the temptation of his predecessors – notably Howard in particular – to deploy differences that might exist in Australia about the alliance as a wedge issue.
Most of all, Turnbull needs to define Australia’s relationship with the US as partner not supplicant.
Whatever judgements might be made about Trump – good, bad and indifferent – what is clear is he is above all else a transactional player. In other words, what value might he place on the US relationship with Australia and his own personal relations with Turnbull?
Turnbull might look to Canada’s Justin Trudeau for guidance in getting the tone right – not too hot, not too cold, and certainly not too mushy.