Let’s hope it’s worth it. Malcolm Turnbull has sacrificed whatever remaining credibility he may still have had as a small-l liberal in a desperate effort to save his tawdry asylum-seeker deal with the US government.
Those hoping for great things from Turnbull will be disappointed but unsurprised, perhaps. What looked like a brilliant political ploy to resolve the running sore of offshore detention has now come back to bite him.
It’s hard to summon much sympathy for his plight. The reality, however, is that it could – and still may – have been so much worse. If the unpredictable xenophobe who currently runs the US and much of the rest of the world shows any consistency, there is no way the asylum seekers on Naru and Manus Island ought to be allowed into the land of the free. After all, most of them are from the countries that have been hit by Trump’s blanket ban on travel from several Muslim-majority countries.
The question is what Turnbull had to say or even promise in his 25-minute phone call with US President Donald Trump to persuade him to honour an agreement forged with his predecessor.
Given that Barack Obama was routinely dismissed as being weak on terrorism, border protection and unambiguously naming supposed threats to American security, getting Trump to agree is no small achievement – if he actually follows through on it. At the very least the would-be asylum seekers will be subjected to “extreme vetting”, which many may not pass.
One assumes that Turnbull must have pointed out the immense political damage that reneging on this deal would do to him personally and to perceptions of the alliance relationship with the US more generally. For the first time in recent history there is a serious debate about Australia’s alliance with the US, and a repudiation of the deal would have been a political nightmare for Turnbull.
It would have been extremely difficult for him to mount a continuing defence of a relationship that is regarded in such a cavalier, instrumental and seemingly expendable fashion by the US.
Trump’s “transactional” approach to allies is entirely dependent on what benefit they bring to the US, not the stability of the international system, much less the wider collective good. It is not even clear whether Trump or many of his key advisers would actually recognise the idea of a collective interest at the international level as a meaningful concept.
The question, therefore, is what Turnbull had to offer as his part of a deal between two famously successful businessmen.
Not criticising the Trump regime would be a given in such circumstances, and Turnbull is dutifully fulfilling his part of the bargain, tacit or otherwise. Giving a running commentary on the domestic policies of other governments is not part of his job, apparently – something the likes of Kim Jong-un and Rodrigo Duterte will be delighted to hear, no doubt.
More immediately, has Turnbull given an explicit or in-principle commitment to support the Trump administration in whatever actions it may decide to take in the “war on terror”, or – more consequentially for Australia – “standing up to Chinese aggression”, as key Trump advisor Peter Navarro might put it?
The stakes here could hardly be higher, especially for Australia. It is not simply because Australia is bound to be adversely affected by any deterioration in the bilateral ties between our principle strategic and economic partners, but because there is the very real possibility that the relationship could descend into actual conflict.
Despite the fact that Australia could make absolutely no real difference to the outcome of such a conflict, there is every chance that it could get sucked into it as a compliant, ever-reliable and obliging American ally. Australia’s propensity to do America’s bidding is high at the best of times.
The worry is that Turnbull has, as the Americans say, doubled-down on our implicit strategic obligations with a renewed commitment to act – whatever policy the Trump regime embarks on. It is the very least Trump would expect in return.
The asylum-seeker problem is nightmarishly complex and offers no easy solutions. While it is possible to have some sympathy for a problem that wasn’t entirely of the Turnbull government’s making, it is difficult not to see the “American solution” as yet another illustration of the dangers of strategic dependence. It reeked of dubious political expediency under Obama; it is fraught with dangerous uncertainty under the Trump regime.
The growing band of critics of the alliance will feel vindicated and emboldened. If the relationship with the US causes Australia to become embroiled in yet another questionable and unnecessary war on behalf of our supposed protector, it can only be a question of time before wider public confidence in the relationship is eroded, too. That really would be a problem for the Turnbull government.
This piece was originally published on John Menadue’s blog, Pearls and Irritations, and is republished with permission.