Turnbull must follow the Goldilocks rule in dealing with Trump

Here's some advice for Malcolm Turnbull ahead of his visit to Washington later this month for talks with Donald Trump: remember the Goldilocks and Three Bears Rule when dealing with American presidents.

Turnbull should strive to be "not too hot" and "not too cold". He needs to be "just right" in his interactions with a president who is by far America's most unpopular relative to his peers after one year in the job.

Illustration: John Shakespeare

Illustration: John Shakespeare

Businesslike is the word one might apply to circumstances in which Australia needs to calibrate its relationships with its security guarantor and its principal trading partner in a rapidly-shifting strategic environment in which China is rising faster than anticipated.

As I said: not too hot, not too cold, just right.

Illustration: Jim Pavlidis

Illustration: Jim Pavlidis

The Prime Minister might look to the example of Canada's Justin Trudea in that leader's restrained engagement with a bombastic President.

A transactional Turnbull would do well to put aside the impression of the over-eager schoolboy we saw on display at his first meeting as Prime Minister with Trump on American soil.

That was when the two met in New York in May 2017 on the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Coral Sea.

Tone in these encounters is important. Australians find the spectacle of their leaders sucking up to American presidents disquieting, and more so in the present environment in which polls show an historically low level of confidence in the presidency.

Donald Trump and Malcolm Turnbull when they met in May 2017. Photo: AP

Donald Trump and Malcolm Turnbull when they met in May 2017. Photo: AP

In its Global Attitudes survey 2017 Pew found that 70 per cent of Australians had "no confidence" in Trump compared with an 84 per cent positive rating for Barack Obama.

One only needed to observe the sullen Democratic response to the State of the Union address this week to be reminded of America's deep fissures.

This has consequences for America's friends and allies. A United States at war with itself politically is not necessarily the most reliable interlocutor, nor one to which we should be "joined at the hip".

These were the words Turnbull used last year to describe a security partnership in the region.

What might be observed is that we should be "joined at the hip" to our own national security interests, first and foremost.

In those remarks Turnbull edged towards echoing unfortunate statements of conservative predecessors in their descriptions of the sort of relationship to which they aspired with a great and powerful friend.

Harold Holt's "all the way with LBJ" in June 1966 as Lyndon Johnson was escalating the war in Vietnam defined a relationship in a way that jarred with a significant proportion of Australians. John Gorton's subsequent "we'll go a Waltzing Matilda with you" in remarks to Richard Nixon in May 1969 were similarly off-key.

John Howard's acknowledgement in an interview with The Bulletin in September 1999 of Australia's role in the Asia-Pacific as that of America's "deputy" sheriff was a characterisation he regretted, and subsequently withdrew.

Howard's role as one of the four amigos – with George W. Bush, Tony Blair, and Spain's Jose Maria Aznar – in the rush to war in Iraq compounded that impression.

Historically, Australian prime ministers struggle with finding the right words to describe a complex relationship in which America is dominant. In an August 1950 address to Congress, Robert Menzies described Australia as a "junior partner in a great and continuing adventure toward human liberty."

At the time, and on the eve of the signing of the ANZUS Treaty, cornerstone of Australian security, Menzies' remarks were unexceptional. That would not be the case now.

If Turnbull's speechwriters were of a mind to apply the Goldilocks rule, they could worse than review Bob Hawke's speech to a joint sitting of Congress in June 1988.

What is notable about the Hawke speech is the last paragraph in which he said this: "In Australia you will have in the years ahead the best kind of friend, independent to be sure, forthright in defence of our own interests certainly…"

If evidence was required of the complexities facing the Turnbull government in dealing with a region undergoing wrenching change it was underscored this week by differences among ministers over America's newly-issued National Defence Strategy (NDS).

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was obliged to slap down fellow cabinet ministers who had uncritically endorsed the latest American position. This referred to "growing threats from revisionist powers as different as China and Russia".

In response to Defence Minister Marise Payne's remarks that Australia shared "similar concerns", Bishop said this: "We do not see Russia and China posing a military threat to Australia."

This unsteadiness should be viewed against the background of the new Foreign Policy White Paper. This is, essentially, a hedging document that acknowledges China's rise while restating the importance of the American security alliance.

In all of this, Turnbull and his advisers should not lose sight of the fact Trump is the most unpopular first term president since World War II. According to the FiveThirtyEight aggregate of polls he rates minus 15 on the first anniversary of his presidency compared with plus 69 for John Kennedy, and a plus 37 per cent average for all presidents since Harry Truman.