Tom Burton: Turnbull trumped by the new order

By Tom Burton

February 3, 2017

Donald Trump’s blunt public description of the US agreement to take refugees from Manus and Nauru island as “dumb”, is a sharp reminder of the challenge of dealing with the new neo-nationalism that is infecting world politics.

The deal with the former Obama administration came after Australia also surprisingly agreed to take Central American refugees from one of the most violent areas of the world.

The agreement was cooked up as part of an attempt by Australia to close the politically contentious Manus and Nauru detention centres.

The fact the deal even got put together, is a signal of the sophisticated relationship Australia has with the US. These deals are the bread and butter of international diplomacy and alliance building, Australia — as a mid level power — regularly cuts to further our security and trade interests. Witness Australia’s agreement to lease a large slab of North Queensland land to the Singaporean military.

The US refugee deal was cooked up after hours and hours of diplomatic lobbying, led from our Washington embassy, centrally located just down the road from the White House. Whatever else was included in the deal is yet to be revealed, but Trump’s horror about the agreement should not be surprising.

Open diplomacy without the niceties

Trump campaigned on a much tougher immigration policy — a policy he quickly put into action with his controversial ban on travellers and migrants from the very same countries the Manus and Nauru refugees come from.

Declaring the US is no longer going to be taken advantage of, Trump has called it out as the sort of deal America is no longer going to do.

For our diplomats this is a sharp signal of the demise of the global liberalism that has framed Australia’s post cold war foreign policy.

Much of this liberalism has been founded by the Anglo-American block that has driven the prevailing global hegemony for several centuries.

“That much of the refugee problem stems from US flawed invasion of Iraq seems to have been forgotten.”

The new nationalism — led by a triumphant Trump and the Brexiters — means Australia has to recalibrate how we navigate a world that paradoxically has never been more economically and technically connected.

Australia, and the rest of the world, are quickly having to rethink how they deal with the iconoclastic Trump and his tyro oval office.

Whereas global diplomacy at the leadership level has been traditionally done behind closed doors, Trump has embraced the new social world in a very public way.

Governments have been slow and reluctant to use social media, other than for puff and promotion. But Trump, the first president for a long time who has never been in government, is using his medium of choice, Twitter, to bluntly and directly communicate his views, at warp speed.

Shirt-fronting, Trump style

The wholesale leaking of the Trump conversation with Prime Minister Turnbull can only be seen as a move by the Trump office to highlight that it will no longer be “taken advantage” of.

While the leak has shocked the Canberra political and diplomatic establishment, the reality is this type of leaking and backgrounding has become part and parcel of modern political life. Just read The Australian newspaper on any one day.

That this has now extended to throwing even your allies under the bus, is again a reminder of the new operating environment officials are going to have to get used to.

That much of the refugee problem the world is struggling to deal with, stems from US flawed invasion of Iraq in the early 2000’s, seems to have been forgotten.

Turnbull may have been bemused to have his willing conversation with billionaire Trump on the front page of the Washington Post. But Turnbull is as sharp a sword fighter as any, and has never been shy to give as good as he gets, especially when dealing with the rich and powerful.

Witness his dealings with the late Kerry Packer and Canadian media mogul Conrad Black. Some still remember how Turnbull scuttled their deal to buy the once mighty Fairfax group in the early 1990’s, passing controversial diary notes to the then media regulator.

About the author
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

The essential resource for effective
public sector professionals