Scott Morrison will get the full red, white and blue treatment when he is honoured later this month with a state visit to Washington. He will be feted at a state banquet; he will hold talks in the Oval Office; and, with his wife, Jenny, he will appear in the company of Donald and Melania Trump at various ceremonial events.
This will be heady stuff for someone who, not many months ago, was wrestling with the mundane Treasury portfolio – and dreaming, no doubt, of taking the top job then held unsteadily by Malcolm Turnbull.
On his Washington journey, Morrison's main challenge will be to avoid getting snookered when he is told – as he surely will be – how Canberra and Washington need to stand shoulder to shoulder against those who are up to no good internationally.
In other words, China’s rise will shadow the Prime Minister’s visit at the very moment US-China trade tensions are threatening global economic growth and stability. There is also the hardly insignificant matter for Morrison of risks to his own political survival from a trade war-induced recession.
As things stand, an economic retrenchment constitutes the biggest threat to his government’s re-election. Apart from anything else, it is good reason for him to use whatever leverage he has with his host to persuade him to make a trade deal with China that will not involve a loss of face on the Chinese side.
Morrison should not need reminding that a trade conflict risks reaching a point of no return, in which case a global trading system will be turned on its head. This is far from Australia’s interests, whatever Trump might say about trade wars being “good and easy to win’’.
When it comes to the government’s political survival, it needs also to be kept in mind that despite waging one of the most inept campaigns in Australian political history Labor remains within striking distance of the ministerial bench.
In all of this, you can be sure there will not be more diligent observers of Morrison’s Washington visit than policymakers in Beijing alert to any sign of Australia lurching towards a more overt containment policy.
This brings us to the important issue of how Morrison manages his interactions with Trump. The President will be in full P.T. Barnum mode.
Atmospherics on these occasions are relevant. Protocol and the importance of Australia’s relationship with the US dictates a certain demeanour that resides somewhere between respectful and engaged on one hand and obsequious on the other.
The Prime Minister has prospered as his party’s marketer-in-chief. Statecraft demands a different, more subtle set of skills. His staff could do worse than study the records of prime ministerial visits to Washington, where Australian leaders followed a Goldilocks and the Three Bears rule: not too hot, not too cold, just right.
Morrison should not need reminding that Australians baulk at seeing their leaders behave in a manner that borders on obsequiousness. In this regard, you could say that former prime ministers’ reputations have not been enhanced by their demeanour on visits to Washington. Harold Holt’s invocation in 1966 of a Lyndon Johnson campaign slogan that Australia would be “all the way with LBJ’’ has itself become a parody ever since of the sort of relationship that Australians believe should be avoided.
Since Holt’s abundance of enthusiasm coincided with the beginning of an unpopular engagement in Vietnam, it was a tone-deaf statement in the circumstances. In more recent years, Julia Gillard’s cloying speech to Congress in 2011 in which she recalled childhood memories of the moon landing as testament to America’s ability to “do anything’’ seemed, well, treacly.
The Gillard speech remains a benchmark of what to shun.
What Morrison also needs to bear in mind is that just 25 per cent of Australians have confidence in Trump, according to a Lowy Institute poll. In that poll, Trump rates only marginally better than Vladimir Putin.
Then there is the issue of Trump’s political longevity, leaving aside his gross idiosyncrasies. There is no certainty he will survive the 2020 election. He may, he may not. Morrison needs to keep this mind.
In the RealClearPolitics average of polls, Trump is trailing Democratic frontrunner Joe Biden by 10 points. Not too much can be read into this poll more than a year out from a presidential election, but Trump is far from impregnable.
He is well below the average approval ratings for American presidents at this stage of his presidency, according to Gallup. In its latest poll, he has a 41 per cent approval compared with an average of 54 per cent going back to Dwight Eisenhower in 1955.
Finally, Morrison needs to be wary of a US alliance cheer squad led by sections of the Australian media. He should remind himself that his country’s real interests are not necessarily consistent with those purveyed by excitable media commentary in support of a lock-step approach to managing the alliance. What is required in the time of Trump is that Canberra tread warily.