When Turnbull Met Trump…

A “contentious” telephone call between the U.S. President Donald J. Trump and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Photo courtesy of ABC News.

So, by now you’ve heard it: Donald Trump had a bit of a row with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. But what was the context of this argument? Is America’s relationship with its fellow democracy, Australia, about to come crashing down? Will Australia and the United States tear their diplomatic (and cultural) bond apart? Certainly not. This piece will detail why the Australian-American relationship will be mostly unaffected by this recent–temporary–disagreement between President Trump and Prime Minister Turnbull.

The truth is, this entire ordeal is happening in the larger context of, you guessed it, immigration flows and a massive negative reaction to globalization.

Australia is a great big island-state. What’s more, it sits at the geographical bottom, on the southern periphery, of the Asia-Pacific (the most economically dynamic region of the world). Until recently, Australia enjoyed a relatively quiet existence since the end of the Cold War. However, with the rise of the Chinese juggernaut, Australia has walked a fine line between China and the United States. At the same time, Australia’s biggest neighbor, Indonesia, the largest Muslim state in the world, has been sending (literally) boatloads of young immigrants (illegally) down toward Australia.

Australia entirely relies on maritime trade to keep its economy going. Indeed, Australia possesses the 19th largest economy in the world. Most of its exports ship via sea lanes into China and Japan. Indeed, China is its largest trading partner. Yet, in order for Australia to maintain its economy, it needs to ensure the security of its maritime trade.


While Australia is a strong military, it simply cannot do this on its own. That is why traditionally, Australia has aligned closely with the dominant global maritime power. At first, that was their former colonizer, Britain’s Royal Navy. Then it came to rely on the United States Navy.

Australia is torn between the United States for its security guarantees and the People’s Republic of China with its economic promise. While the U.S. is far away on the horizon, its Navy is ubiquitous. What’s more, Australia and the United States share a common history and cultural heritage. In the long run, Australia will continue to prefer its American military partners over its Chinese economic partner, if for only the simple fact that their global trade is not assured unless America’s Navy keeps the sea lanes safe.

The maritime trading routes of Australia (highlighted in green).

Plus, while the Chinese may be in the midst of a great military modernization, the fact remains that their navy is unlikely to be able to match the capabilities of the U.S. Navy for some time. As such, the Australians will likely prefer to place their faith behind their long-time ally in America.

However, this is not to say that the alliance is not without its pitfalls. The U.S.-Australian alliance has been both a source of pride for the two countries over the decades, but also, a crtical point of contention between them. It is important to note also that, much like Western Europe and Canada, the Australians are generally far more to the Left on the political spectrum than in America. There are two main political parties in Australia: the far Left-wing Labour Party and the center-left (with elements of the moderate right) Liberal Party.


Even conservatives in Australia are usually considered more moderate-to-Left-leaning folks by their counterparts in the United States. National healthcare, a large entitlement system, and a massive central government located in Canberra (Australia’s capital) are all endemic of the Australian political system. So, despite the fact that it is a fellow democracy governed by a legal code inherited from the British (not unlike the United States), there are still enough differences between Australia and the United States to justify some pointed disagreements.

Labour PM Kevin Rudd and President George W. Bush had a frosty relationship.

Point in fact, the last bout of tensions in the U.S.-Australian relationship was during the George W. Bush years. At that point, President Bush, a conservative Republican, lost his key ally in Canberra, John Howard (a stalwart conservative). Howard was replaced by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd of the ultra-Left Labour Party. Mr. Rudd vehemently disagreed with Mr. Bush over the Iraq War in 2003, causing a deep rift between the two governments.

Under Barack Obama, however, the Labour government of Julia Gillard, Rudd’s successor, and the Leftist administration in America got along swimmingly. Much like Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Australia’s former Prime Minister Gillard and Barack Obama were one in their worldview. This, then, brings us full circle to the issue of illegal immigration.

Democratic President Barack Obama and former Labour Party of Australia Prime Minister Julia Gillard toss a football around in the Oval Office. Talk about kindred spirits, eh?

For some time now, the Australians have been beset (or, besieged, depending on who you talk to in the country) by waves of illegal immigrants. Now, I know what some of you may be thinking: Australia is an island relatively isolated away from most other countries, how can they possibly be suffering from illegal immigration?

Indonesia is their largest neighbor to the northwest. Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world. Indonesia is also an archipelago of hundreds of barely connected islands. In many of these islands, the people are left with a stark reality: remaining in poverty or, board a boat, and try to make it to economically prosperous Australia.


Many choose the risky venture to Australia. Thus, not unlike Greece with Syrian refugees, Australia faces scores of boats full of people seeking to gain entry into Australia illegally. Many of them are asylum seekers also.

A large cohort of Australians are opposed to this illegal immigration for much of the same reasons that many Americans and Europeans oppose illegal immigration flows into their countries: they cause economic dislocations and place undue burdens on already-strained government programs.

Therefore, in order to placate understandably dyspeptic Australians over the issue of massive illegal immigration from places like Indonesia (and from elsewhere in the Mideast, Africa, and Asia), successive Australian governments devised a plan intended to split the difference.

Nauru Island is one of two islands where the Australians have indefinitely detained illegal immigrants and refugees in an effort to discourage further illegal immigration via boats to Australia.

The Australians did not fully attempt to turn away the scores of “refugees” coming into Australia. Instead they chose to maneuver these refugees to two small islands. One such island is the small, desolate rock known as Nauru. The other, Manus, is off the coast of Papua New Guinea, a neighboring state to Australia’s northeast. However, these small islands are becoming overcrowded with refugees and living conditions on those islands are tenuous at best.

Asylum seekers indefinitely detained on New Guinea’s Manus Island.

Plus, the Australian people are still burdened with having to pay to provide for the masses of refugees on these islands. As time progressed, and the conservative Malcolm Turnbull took power, he insisted that the international community come to his aid. The funny thing is, according to The Guardian, “In comparison with the size of the world’s forced migration challenge, the numbers are tiny.” This indicates the benefit of being a far removed island-state: while the Australians do have to contend with a lot of illegal immigration, the numbers compared to, say, illegal immigration/refugee flows coming across the U.S.-Mexico border are infinitesimal. Still, understandably, the Australians do not want to have to deal with indefinitely holding scores of people nor should they feel obligated to automatically embrace them in Australia.

Nauru island’s population of refugees protesting their harsh treatment by the Australians.

Thus, toward the end of the Obama Administration, Turnbull appealed to the United Nations, who insisted that, while the Australians were obligated to lend assistance to anyone seeking refuge in Australia, they could enter into deals with other states around the world to take some of the refugees. President Obama agreed to do so.

However, the transaction was not to be completed until after the Obama Administration had left office. When the Trump Administration came into power, they were surprised to learn about the deal. It was in that context of being surprised that Mr. Trump had the tense phone call with Turnbull. But, let’s be fair here, when the deal with President Obama was completed, Prime Minister Turnbull knew full well that Mr. Obama was a lame duck. Turnbull understood fully that Obama was leaving the implementation of the deal to his successor.

Indeed, in December of 2016, after the U.S. election ended in a victory for Donald Trump, the Australian media asked the PM whether or not he had informed then-President-elect Trump of the pending deal. Turnbull’s response was telling. He coyly stated that it was “customary to only deal with one administration at a time.” Or, rather, Mr. Turnbull, looking for a domestic political win, decided to lay low until Trump assumed office until the actual day of reckoning. He should have known better.

Another classic Trump Tweet heard ’round the world.

To say the least, President Trump, who had campaigned on a largely anti-illegal immigration (as well as an “America First”) doctrine, was nonplussed with this arrangement made by his predecessor.

This was the context of the contretemps between Trump and Turnbull. And, while the quarrel was fraught with diplomatic fallout and geopolitical ramifications, the fact remains that this is a minor incident in an otherwise healthy and vital relationship (especially for the Australians). You see, even though some Australian policymakers believe that the future of Australia lies with their economic trading partner, China, this is a minority view. Indeed, since Australia’s economy depends on international maritime trade, the Australians will always ultimately value positive relations with the U.S.

The U.S.-Australian alliance needs to constantly be viewed in the context of China.

Essentially, the Australians need the U.S. more than America needs Australia. Therefore, the Trump Administration is likely to keep this fact in mind when dealing with the next immigration-related row with Australia. The Australian government should take heed of this fact also. Trump being the ultimate deal-maker (and a highly successful businessman to boot) means that he views the world in cost-benefit analyses. He may decide that the potentiality of “the next Boston bomber” being from among this lot of 1,250 refugees from Australia is simply too high of a cost. He might decide to scale back America’s maritime defense commitments with Australia.

Think about it: Australia has consistently fallen in line with American interests since the U.S. became its primary protector on the high seas. Australian forces have fought alongside American forces in just about every major war that the U.S. has fought from WWI until the Iraq War in 2003. In fact, 50,000 Australian soldiers were deployed to fight alongside the U.S. military in the unpopular Vietnam War. This has been done as a sort of payoff for the U.S. Navy ensuring safe passage on the high seas.

With China behaving more aggressively in the Asia-Pacific, Australia has become a key strategic pivot point for U.S. forces seeking to complete the failed Obama pivot to Asia. For the first time in decades, U.S. Marines were stationed in Darwin, Australia. U.S. Naval warships have made higher numbers of port calls in Australia than in times past. The entire U.S.-Australian alliance is predicated upon close military ties. Meanwhile, Australia’s economy is almost entirely dependent on international maritime trade which only the USN can protect globally.

What occurred between Trump and Turnbull, then, was nothing more than a spat that both sides will soon forget about. The Australian government will have to deal with the persistent flow of illegal immigrants coming in from neighboring Indonesia (and beyond). While Mr. Trump ultimately embraced the deal that his predecessor had made with Australia, I suspect that this will be a one-off event.

An American aircraft carrier makes a port call into Sydney Harbor.

Trump will likely find a way to prevent anymore Australian illegal immigrants from being transferred into the U.S. After all, he has consistently delivered on his campaign pledges. And, stopping illegal immigration flows into the United States was probably the leading campaign pledge that he made.

All in all, the Australian and American alliance is strong, despite what occurred between Trump and Turnbull. President Trump is unlike any American leader in decades. Many of America’s partners, and still many more of America’s enemies, are used to dealing with U.S. leaders who are either indecisive or are perceived as being too weak. Plus, most American leaders agree with the general premise that the world operates along globalist lines. As such, open borders is a sine qua non of that system. But, that system is dead as of November 2016.

screen-shot-2017-02-03-at-11-06-15-pmTrump is indicating that the end of globalization (or, at least, a long term pause of it) has occurred. His policies reflect this reality. It will take some time for world leaders to get used to Mr. Trump’s methods. But, since he leads the most powerful country in the world–and since Australia is almost entirely dependent on the U.S. Navy–the Australian leadership will adapt. Besides, Trump’s actions have put the Australians on notice.

His intransigence on the issue of accepting anymore illegal immigrant flows from Australia (or elsewhere), might be the jolt that the Australian leadership needs to take more decisive steps in stemming the flow of illegals coming into Australia. There will likely be a few flaps in the relationship between the U.S. and Australia, as the Australian government realizes that there is no going back to the way things were.

While this will produce shocks in the relationship (it may even lead to a brief cooling of relations), it will not end the relationship. What’s more, I suspect that it will not even cause the Australians to scale back their embrace of allowing for the U.S. military to use Australia as a key staging ground for the pivot to Asia. It is simply far too important that Australia ensure the free flow of its goods on the global market.

Trump is simply letting the world leaders understand that business-as-usual is no longer the accepted norm. These actions are throwing the system off-balance. Through that imbalance, Trump is pushing through a decidedly America First foreign policy. Eventually, the world will adjust to Trump. Indeed, the U.S.-Australian relationship will likely be stronger than ever once it does adjust. There should be little doubt that the U.S.-Australian relationship is fine.


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