It was the meeting we’ve all been waiting for. US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin met on Friday during the G20 meeting in Hamburg, Germany.
The key question was whether Trump or Putin would emerge as the stronger leader, with most backing Putin’s ability to manipulate and control the exchange. Trump’s lack of diplomatic or political experience, and his unwillingness to prepare for the encounter, inspired very little confidence that he would walk away with any serious concessions from Putin.
The meeting was scheduled to take half-an-hour. In fact it lasted more than two hours, and an indication the two leaders found a significant amount to talk about. The only other people present were US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and two interpreters. The little we know of what was actually discussed has come from statements Lavrov and Tillerson gave to the press following the meeting.
Russian interference in the US election
Tillerson said Trump pressed Putin over Russian interference in the 2016 election, but seemed to accept his denial that Russia did any such thing.
President Putin denied such involvement, as I think he has in the past.
Tillerson said the White House was not “dismissing the issue” but wanted to focus on “how do we secure a commitment” that there will not be interference in the future.
The big question going in to the meeting was whether or not Trump would raise the accusation with Putin. While he clearly did, the ease with which he appears to have accepted Putin’s protestations of innocence, and his reassurance that it won’t happen again, is remarkable.
According to journalists’ reports on Twitter, Lavrov had a slightly different spin on Trump’s reaction to the issue. He said:
In light of Trump’s remarks in Poland the day before, when he called into doubt the reliability of US intelligence on the issue, this has further undermined the credibility of the US intelligence community. That Trump did this during a face-to-face meeting with Putin can only deepen the mistrust between the CIA and FBI have for the White House, and further damage morale.
It can also be read as a clear victory for Putin, who came away from the meeting without having to seriously address charges that Russia systematically engaged in what is a gross violation of the democratic integrity and sovereignty of another country.
There was a clear opportunity for Trump to use the meeting to pressure Putin over his continuing support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
While any significant agreements over how to resolve one of the most complex conflicts in the region were highly unlikely, the two leaders did agree to support a ceasefire in an area of southwestern Syria. There were no other details, and Tillerson himself admitted that ceasefires in Syria have tended to fall apart very quickly.
While Russia and the US have a shared interest in fighting Islamic State in Syria, they disagree over the almost every other aspect of the conflict, particularly the future of Assad and the role of Iran.
Trump has recently ratcheted up to anti-Iranian rhetoric and it seems the Russian relationship with Iran could become a significant point of conflict between the US and Russia in the future.
No transcript of the meeting is available so it’s impossible to know exactly what was discussed here. But if Putin was not pressed on these points, it is certainly a missed opportunity.
While both Lavrov and Tillerson highlighted the shared interests the two countries have, neither Ukraine nor the ongoing nuclear crisis in North Korea could be counted among them.
North Korea’s testing of an intercontinental ballistic missile guaranteed that it would be high on the list of issues that would be discussed. Russia has contradicted the consensus among the other G20 leaders over the missile’s range, and blocked a resolution by the UN Security Council calling for “significant measures” in response to the test.
So, what do we make of this highly anticipated meeting?
With very little detail about what was actually discussed, and with the narrative firmly controlled by Lavrov, Trump would seem to have gained very little while conceding much.
Putin has come away with an implicit agreement to move on from the question of election meddling, without promising more than “dialgue” on Ukraine, no agreement on how to deal with North Korea, and no real movement on the horrific human tragedy in Syria.
Retired United States general David Petraeus was a commander of international forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. Later he headed the CIA, before resigning amid a scandal involving his affair with his biographer.
At a Liberal Party gala dinner in Sydney on Friday, Petraeus was interviewed by Brendan Nicholson from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
Petraeus argued there was more continuity than change in American foreign policy under the Trump presidency; warned the “generational” fight against Islamist terrorism would last far beyond its defeat on the military battleground; and declared China’s activities in the South China Sea should be dealt with firmly.
Below is an edited transcript of their discussion.
David Petraeus: I am here, frankly, because of the fondness, the affection, the admiration that I have for, first and foremost those who have worn your uniform – especially in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan where I was privileged to command diggers and developed extraordinary respect for them – but also for the time I have spent with your diplomats, with your development workers, with your intelligence officers.
There are lifetime friendships there that are founded on periods of real adversity. When I most needed help I knew that I could call, for example, Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston and [get it] even more rapidly than I could get forces from my own country.
Although we have vast forces and they would respond after you submitted the request for forces and it went through the chain of command, the services fought over who would do it and it went to the secretary of defence the one day a week that he signed these things if he was there and then they gave him an order to deploy and then they had to prepare for deployment, Angus Houston had 60 Aussies in Baghdad within a week of my calling him.
And it was that kind of relationship that we enjoyed and [with] many, many other individuals over the years.
You heard [tonight] from one of my wartime prime ministers, for whom I had enormous respect and still do, [former] prime minister Howard.
I should note that it was a prime minister of the other party, Julia Gillard, who made the first commitment of any national leader to extend the mandate of the international security force in Afghanistan and that really opened the floodgate to something that was enormously important, which is making sure the mandate literally did not run out and it was affirmed at the summit in Lisbon that year, and her leadership was also very, very important in that.
So, this is an extraordinary relationship between our two countries.
By the way, could I offer one quick anecdote? One of the times I was here, I remember [I] was hosted for lunch by your then minister of communications at his lovely place overlooking the water outside Sydney. And we had a great conversation and at a certain point I said, now minister – you ask these things when you’re trying to make conversation – so I said: where do you see yourself five or ten years from now?
This is a little less than two years ago and he said, well let me put it into military terms for you, and he looked and he got quite serious and he said, I may be approaching the up or out moment of my career.
He flew back to Canberra that night and was prime minister two or three days later.
Brendan Nicholson: You obviously gave him some good advice.
DP: Only in Australia.
BN: General Petraeus, as many of you would know, is an example of a class of very highly educated soldier scholars with a deep knowledge of history in an understanding of the role and responsibility of the military in a democratic society.
In 1987 while he was studying at Princeton University, he produced a thesis on the American military and the lessons of the Vietnam, a study of military influence and the use of force in the post-Vietnam era.
One of your conclusions was that the Vietnam experience … had led to a pattern of caution in the US military leadership when it came to advising the government of the day whether it should use armed force to deal with situations abroad.
The second concern you raised was a lack of focus on counterinsurgency training, which you went on to rectify.
But you’ve had four decades, an extremely crowded military career – much of that time in command in both Iraq and Afghanistan. If you had the chance, how would you mark that thesis now and would you have written it differently with all the experience you’ve had since?
DP: It’s a wonderful question. Another one of the conclusions was that in crisis decision-making … what tends to weigh on you most heavily are experiences you had personally and particularly those that were most visceral.
And I think I would actually use recent events to really affirm that further, because I think what’s happened in the United States and arguably in other, particularly democratic, countries in the world is that after a frustrating, tough, difficult experience like more recently Iraq or Afghanistan, there’s an understandable aversion to this and there’s a tendency to swing and [the] pendulum goes back and forth.
Arguably after 9/11, one could say we got perhaps a bit more, I don’t know if the term would be adventurous, but more willing to intervene and then it swung with the next administration I’d argue a bit too far the other way and it has come back somewhat to what I think is actually a reasonable balance.
I’ll tick off five lessons that I think we should have learnt from the past 15 years, particularly in the Middle East, but elsewhere as well.
The first is that ungoverned or even inadequately governed spaces in the Islamic world will be exploited by extremists. It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when and how big will it be.
The second is that unfortunately Las Vegas rules do not apply in these areas: what happens there does not stay there.
Rather, they tend to spew violence, instability, extremism and a tsunami of refugees, not just into neighbouring countries, but in the case of Syria, a geopolitical Chernobyl meltdown of a country that has actually spewed them into Europe causing the biggest challenges domestically for our allies there.
The third is, by the way, you have to do something. You can’t do what we tried to do in Washington. I’m sure it would never be done in Canberra, but that is to admire a problem until it goes away. These problems aren’t going away. So you have to do something.
And the third is, that in doing something in most cases, not all, but in most cases the US is going to have to lead – and that is because [of] the way that we’ve learned how to do this now, where we are enabling others, they’re doing the fighting on the frontlines.
That’s hugely significant because of when I get to the fifth lesson – that these have to be sustainable.
The US has more of those enablers, more of the intelligent surveillance reconnaissance assets, the unmanned aerial vehicles and other systems, the precision strike, and the industrial strength ability to fuse intelligence. If you total up all of the drones in these platforms, of all the other possible allies and partners and multiply times six, you might get to what the US can bring to the fight and these are all integrated and connected with a global satellite communication system.
So, the US is going to have to do this but we’ve got to have a coalition. Coalitions do matter. I’ve long believed in the validity of what Churchill observed that the only thing worse than fighting with allies is fighting without them.
And allies like Australia – particularly important countries that punch way above their weight class and shoulder far more of the burdens of ensuring freedom, prosperity and this rules-based international order than others.
We also, by the way, need Muslim partners. This is more of a struggle within the Islamic world – within the Muslim civilisation. It’s an existential threat to them, so more of that than it is actually a clash between civilisations – to harken back to Sam Huntington and his book.
The fourth is that in responding you have to have a comprehensive approach. You cannot counter terrorist forces like the Islamic State and al-Qaeda with just counter terrorist force operations. You’re not going to just drone strike or Delta Force raid your way out of this problem. You’re going to have to have armed forces on the ground. You’re going to have all of the elements of the civil military campaign plan that we had, frankly, in Iraq, but we don’t want to be doing all of them and we’re able now to do that in places like Iraq and in Syria and some others.
The reason that we don’t want to do that is because again it has to be sustainable – lesson number five is we are engaged in a generational struggle. And I know the leaders in here recognise that and it’s really important that that be communicated to populations, but they understand that we can carry out this generational struggle in a manner that is sustainable and sustainability is measured in the expenditure of blood and treasure.
So, you have to have a sustainable, sustained commitment. That is not easy, but we’re showing how that can be done now in these places that I’ve listed and also in others. Now there will be some, like in the Philippines, let’s say, where Australia will either lead or play a very significant role; Mali, where the French took the lead. But you will still even there find very substantial contributions from the United States.
So, those five lessons I think provide the intellectual foundation on which you will build policies and again if you come back to this, I think we’ve shifted back and forth arguably too much because of the influence of these very visceral experiences.
Vietnam weighed on that generation of officers inordinately. And I think you can be overly cautious, actually, and miss an opportunity when you should have intervened and then you have to come in later when it’s a much worse situation. But that’s the challenge and that’s the challenge that a wartime prime minister like Prime Minister [Malcolm] Turnbull bears and has to grapple with.
BN: From halfway around the world we watched with some astonishment for the best part of two years, while Americans fought this incredibly ferocious election campaign. There was dire warnings in Australia about the possible consequences, the possible return of a sense of isolationism in the United States and then the election of Mr Trump appeared to herald a more isolationist US policy.
With the benefits of several months of hindsight, do you believe that its allies in Europe and in this region can rely on America?
DP: I do. Look, I think what you have to do is jettison the campaign rhetoric or at the very least contrast it very considerably with what has actually taken place.
In some cases, it is taking a little while to get to a certain location like the presidential declaration of the Article 5 commitment in the NATO alliance that an attack on one is an attack on all. And ironically that opportunity to do that was not taken at the NATO Summit …
And then if you follow the money and follow the troops, don’t follow the tweets, follow what’s going on the ground, you’ll see the NATO forces are moving into the Baltic states and into eastern Poland.
There’s more resources from United States being provided to a European support initiative that will restore actually some of the capabilities that we took down after the Cold War now that there is a resurgence of an aggressive, adventurous Russia led by President [Vladimir] Putin.
If you look at China – most important relationship in the world – lots of accusations about China. A lot of trepidation. A phone call from the Taiwanese president was accepted without some sense of perhaps the historic nature of this and then a tweet followed that added a little bit of insult to injury.
Ultimately, there is a phone call between the president and President Xi [Jinping]. Then there’s the Mar-a-Lago summit. There’s the embrace of the One China policy and just this week, the first of four different groups that were charted by the Mar-a-Lago summit met.
This was between the secretaries of state and defence of the United States and their counterparts from China to start grappling with the really serious issues – the most prominent of which is North Korea and the desire to see China do more to squeeze, if you will, crimp down on this umbilical cord that basically keeps the lights on in Pyongyang.
You can work your way through a whole host of these different issues. The Iran nuclear deal that was going to be torn up on day one, we’re not walking away from. And it’s very pragmatic.
Unless there is really sufficient cause and a violation of that agreement, abrogating it would isolate us more than it would isolate Iran. We will counter malign Iranian influence more sufficiently and I applaud that. The America First does not turn out at all to have been America alone.
Frankly, I think the overall way to characterise American foreign policy that’s emerging is that there is more continuity than change and that even a lot of that continuity I see is improving. You see a commander-in-chief devolving authority down to the Pentagon or the battlefield commanders for decisions that I think should appropriately be made at those levels.
Now don’t get me wrong and by the way, again I remind you I’m non-partisan. I don’t vote. I don’t register. I don’t endorse. I don’t contribute. There was an op-ed that did appear in the Daily Arizonan that talked about saluting an American patriot – senator John McCain – two weeks before his election. But you know, you have to do these kinds of things for truly extraordinary people every now and then.
But so to show that, there are three areas that I do have concerns about and then one major issue that a lot of you have touched on.
Those would be climate … we’re again pledging to come out of the Paris Accord in 2020. Look, the US is going to meet its obligations anyway because of market forces, states, corporations and municipalities, but it does have enormous symbolic value and it is not something that I would have welcomed or advised.
Immigration policy – we’ve still got to work our way through that. You don’t see the wall going up yet between Mexico and I think there will be some wall.
I was asked actually when I had my audition, I guess you’d call it – my reality-TV show moment – with President-elect Trump to discuss the secretary of state job and he asked me, should we build a wall General?
And I said: sure we should build a wall, Mr President where we don’t already have a wall – you know, we’ve got hundreds of miles of wall – where it would actually do some good and in the context of a comprehensive approach that would include a variety of other elements that would actually improve security on our southern border, noting that the flow of people between Mexico and the United States has actually been from the United States to Mexico slightly, rather than the other way around in each of the last three years.
I did not note that perhaps therefore Mexico should demand that we pay for the wall. I thought that might be a bit untoward.
And then the other issue is trade and this is a very serious issue. This affects you very much. TPP, now it’s the TPP 11 – Trans-Pacific Partnership – because the 12th, the US has pulled out.
We’re going to have to see how that can go forward. We obviously have bilateral trade agreements with many of the countries … but this would be hugely significant for Vietnam and for some others. It would be enormous advantageous. Our labour movement should want to see labour treated better in some of these different countries, as would have been required.
And then the last issue is one that I think that is a still very much a legitimate issue for discussion and that is the occasional ambivalence of the United States to continue to lead the rules-based international order. I truly believe in it.
That was established in the wake of the worst 50 years of world history imaginable: two horrible world wars and the great economic depression. And it has stood the world in quite good stead since. The institutions, the financial structures, the norms, the principles, again, have really done well, but as your great foreign minister observed, [at] no time certainly since the end of the Cold War has there been as much strain, as many stresses, as many challenges to this.
And at such a time I do believe the United States has to continue to exercise its leadership and actually I think that it will.
I think first of all that you have a pragmatic president. He’s somebody who’s showed that he would do what was necessary to get elected and I think he will do what he needs to do to be successful and he will come to define that if he doesn’t already in part in that way.
Beyond that, I think the national security team that has been established is arguably the finest in recent memory: a terrific national security advisor [H. R. McMaster]. He and his deputy both had many tours together on battlefields, battlefields on the Potomac as well. [Defence Secretary] General Mattis, long-time combat comrade, buddy, boss, at one time he replaced me when I went down to Afghanistan; stayed close even after government.
The secretary of state I think is very good, superb. You just have to understand he’s an engineer. He takes things apart painstakingly. He wants to understand how they operate then he puts them back together and he doesn’t necessarily love the press. He’s not, you know, a retired four-star, you know. Never stand between an retired four-star and an open mic. You can do that with Rex Tillerson and not fear for your life.
Our US ambassador to the United Nations, former governor Haley, has proven to be superb. She’s the one who has in the early weeks been the one to go out and clarify what came out of the White House in a previous day, such as when the president said with Bibi Netanyahu there, you know, one state, two state for the Palestinian issue … and she came out the next day and announced that the US policy has been and continues to be support for the two-state solution.
So, again, I think this is a very good team and I think American foreign policy has been reassuringly impressive, actually, in the ways that it has evolved with those caveats that I mentioned.
BN: So, I’ve got ask you what sort of people are crossing the American border into Mexico?
DP: Mexicans going home.
Mexico has a manufacturing miracle underway. Monterrey is the hub of this. Anybody who hasn’t seen Monterrey, you should. This is Detroit on, you know, steroids and anything else you could possibly inject into it. They’ve done extraordinarily well. I think they’re already now the fourth-largest car exporter in the world and obviously, they have ground access to the largest economy in the world.
Now, I should note the problem with that border is that’s where Central American country refugees come through and Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras have sent various substantial numbers because of the violence, the instability and the lack of rule of law in those countries at various points.
BN: General, some years ago the Berlin Wall came down. The Cold War ended. I think we all thought we were in for decades of peace and harmony and prosperity.
Relatively recently, some smart people have warned that we might be fighting Islamist terrorism for a century, which is a pretty daunting idea. Do you agree that the threat is likely to be that prolonged and what sort of impact is it going to have on our democracies?
DP: Well, as I mentioned earlier, I think this is at least a generational struggle and the impact therefore is that you are going to have to have a sustained commitment against it, but in a way that is sustainable.
I’d offer as an example: I’ve never doubted that Iraqi forces once reconstituted and supported by the US, Australians and the other coalition members would be able to defeat Islamic State.
I think, literally, within weeks if not days the final old city part of Mosul in which they barricaded themselves and [have been] fighting to the death will be cleared and essentially Islamic State by and large will have been cleared at least in its army form.
There would still be terrorist organisations that are carrying out bombings, but that will have been completed. We’ll put a stake through the heart of [Abū Bakr al-] Baghdadi [the leader of Islamic State] at some point in time and they’ll be defeated in Syria.
But there is still even after the ground caliphate is taken in those two countries, they’ll still be pockets of them in a number of others – North Africa, East Africa, now the southern Philippines, some other places out in the far east, Afghanistan.
They have an affinity for eastern Afghanistan where the 9/11 attacks were planned. Let’s not forget that the reason we went to Afghanistan and the reason we have stayed is because that’s where the 9/11 attacks were planned.
That’s where the initial training of the attackers was conducted and we don’t want to ever allow that to be a sanctuary for transnational extremists again so that they can do what al-Qaeda did.
So, this is going to be a long fight and the difficult area in particular is the so-called virtual caliphate. You could eliminate all of the ground vestiges of this and there’s still going to be on the internet this extremist propagation that recruits, that shares lessons on how to make explosives, on tactics, that proselytises, that tries to encourage. One [message] now is to conduct attacks in the United States.
There’s going to be a very small number of a very large population that will unfortunately be attracted by this and carry out what are termed lone-wolf attacks, but typically it turns out the lone wolf got inspiration from the internet or from some other form.
And so I think we do have to get used to this in a sense, while doing everything we can, obviously, to eliminate the risk of this, to mitigate the risk of when it does happen and so forth, but we are going to be seized with this problem for a very long time I fear.
And again, that implies a lot about how it is that we’re going to have to take this on and again it is always going to take a comprehensive approach. There’s no silver bullet that you can shoot that will make this go away.
BN: The citizens of both our countries would be deeply concerned if they felt that their personal information and transactions online – your banking information and everything else – wasn’t fully and effectively encrypted, but at the same time that would be in conflict, would it not, with the need for various agencies to have access to information right across the internet?
How do you deal with that conflict and are those two ideas heading for collision?
DP: They do collide and so my view has been that on the one hand – CIA, NSA and others – I mean, look, we get paid to steal secrets, to recruit sources, to chase bad guys. That’s what our governments pay us to do and you should expect us to do that.
And I think we ought to have the ability to crack anything, anywhere, anytime when the legal circumstances obtain. And I generally think we shouldn’t talk about it too, which is a little more difficult.
The second ,though, is that I don’t believe we should be able to compel Apple or other producers, manufacturers of devices to have a back door, for the simple reason that the criminals will find this very, very quickly.
It’s actually criminals that are finding the so-called zero-day defects and exploiting them before the firms themselves find them. There’s a whole industry of this now and you can go to the dark web and find this kind of stuff.
So, I do think this a bit in conflict. I should also note that the Snowden revelations were enormously damaging to the relationship that we had between the intelligence community and the internet service providers, the social media platforms, the CEOs and all the rest of it.
It used to be that you could go to them quietly and they would help us and we would help them occasionally, that broke down because these revelations cost tens of billions of dollars just for say Google alone. And we’ve got to rebuild that trust and confidence and that’s going to be very important in the way going forward.
There’s also a very significantly debate that has to be had I think, and I’ll be interested in the prime minister’s view on this, and that is on what [British] Prime Minister [Theresa] May has raised: enough is enough, how far will people be allowed to go in the internet? Where does free speech end and incitement to extremist violence begin? And I think that you will see a pendulum moving on this.
The key, of course, is to get it to move far enough, but not too far because then it will, you know, come back the other way. But I think there is going to be a very significant debate on this in the UK in the wake of the attacks that they’ve suffered, which have been linked back to activity on the internet.
And I think that will be instructive for all of us, and you and we and the UK all share not just a common language, but common values, common heritage and a shared future. And I think that debate is going to be one to watch and I assume that there is going to be something like that here in Australia as well.
BN: Australia is in this sort of paradoxical situation that affects many countries in the region of finding itself in a region that is the subject of some aggression from the main trading partner of most of the countries in that region.
What do you think of China’s activities in creating artificial islands, militarising them, the muscular use of its fishing fleet?
DP: Yep, which have the most sophisticated communications we have ever seen on any fishing fleet.
BN: Well, how do we deal with this? And how important are things like freedom-of-navigation exercises?
DP: Hugely important and I think we have to be firm. You know, let’s get the big idea right – better be firm.
And I would acknowledge that I think there have been times in recent years where the rhetoric at the Shangri-La Dialogue … several years ago when I heard for example, [then] secretary of defence Ash Carter, and his inaugural speech there literally pound the podium and say we will sail anywhere and fly anywhere – and it took us eight months to sail through the South China Sea. That’s not firmness.
Teddy Roosevelt did, I think, have it right on this. You know, speak softly and carry a big stick.
We should just state it, we should just do it and frankly there were opportunities when those islands were first being constructed where we could have said, OK fine, you know, and we’ll help the Philippines build there and we’ll help Vietnam here and if Malaysia wants to get into the act. Every single country that has a maritime border with China has a dispute with it.
And the Nine-Dash Line is an outrageous assertion that is completely without foundation in international law, as we found when the Philippines took their case to the World Court if you will and the case was decided in their favour.
But you know as Thucydides or someone or the Melian Dialogue said, the strong do what they will and the weak submit. I think the weak don’t have to submit, we have to collectively be firm in response.
I do think that Australia has done quite an admirable job in acknowledging this curious duality where their number-one trading partner is also, arguably the number one security cause for concern and the number-one security partner is the United States, which again has China as its now number-one trading partner, but also our number-one strategic competitor.
This relationship between the US and China is absolutely crucial. There’s a wonderful new book out again by the professor up at the Belfer Center at Harvard, Graham Allison. It’s titled Destined for War – there’s no question mark.
You know, it’s about can China and the United States avoid the so-called Thucydides Trap, and it’s called that because Thucydides wrote about the Peloponnesian War – Sparta is the established power, Athens is a rising power and Thucydides writes they inevitably went to war.
And so, of course, we don’t want that in this case. He then reviews a number of cases that go back about five centuries – 75% of the time there was war in that situation – and we need to obviously avoid that this time.
So, I think is where the strategic dialogue with China is crucially important and this is where again I think you see heartening development in the relationship between the president of the United States and the president of China, and now these relationships at the levels below and I think that’s very important.
By the way, I’m the one that believes we should have a strategic dialogue with Russia as well. Yes, we have many conflicting interests. Yes, they have been extraordinarily over-aggressive against Georgia, in Crimea, south-eastern Ukraine, flights that come very near to our aircraft, a variety of other actions. But in Syria, the ultimate resolution is going to require Russia to be at that table.
By the way, I think the ultimate resolution is not going to be what is sought through diplomacy, which is a democratically elected multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian government in Damascus for all of Syria.
I think it’s going to be something that basically just tries to stop the bloodshed with a series of local ceasefires around the periphery of a rump Syria. Some will be guaranteed by Turkey, some by the United States, some by Jordan and the US, and so forth. But Russia is going to have to at least tacitly, if not formally accept that.
BN: Do you think countries like Australia should carry out freedom-of-navigation operations within the 12-mile perceived boundaries round those artificial islands?
DP: Look, I do, but these are tough calls for national leaders. The fact is that the islands have been constructed.
I talked to Ash Carter about this. I said don’t use the term “reclamation”. They’re not reclaiming anything. They’re building islands. These are on rocks that were below the level of the sea at high tide, which gives you no justification for anything if you actually had a claim to use them in the first place, which they don’t.
And so, yeah, absolutely, I think that should be the case and again quietly done. We don’t have to have brass bands and fanfare, but it should be done and I think countries of the world should indeed do that, and I again if it can be done as a coalition I think it obviously says much more.
BN: Again on a subject you touched on: the recapture of Mosul and the capture of Raqqa, which appears to be likely, will clearly, significantly reduce the power of the Islamic State terror group in terms of major military operations, but what comes next?
DP: I’ve actually written about this, that the battle that matters most is the battle after the battle.
There’s been no doubt again that we would enable our Iraqi counterparts to defeat the Islamic State on the ground. The question is: after that can the Iraqis achieve governance that is sufficiently representative of all the different groups? And by the way Nineveh Province, of which Mosul’s the capital, is where I spent the first year of the war after the fight to Baghdad and it is the most complex human terrain of all of Iraq.
Can you get adequate representation of all, reasonable responsiveness to all those groups within means and most importantly guarantee minority rights, not just majority rule? That’s a tall order and it will not be easy. But if you don’t get that right, there will be once again fertile fields for the planting of the seeds of extremism and the rise of ISIS 3.0.
BN: You worked closely with Kurdish fighters in your time in Iraq. Now those Kurdish groups are playing a major role in the campaigns to recapture significant parts of Iraq.
They’ve recaptured significant parts of Iraq all by themselves with help from the United States and allies, but also they’re playing a major role in Syria. Is that likely to lead to the creation of a Kurdish state?
DP: No, and that’s a great point. One of the strategic revelations of what’s happened is recognition that the Syrian Kurds do not want to be part of a greater Kurdistan – that is, part of the Iraqi Kurdish regional government.
In fact, the Iraqi Kurdish regional government has significant political disputes ongoing right now. They will have a referendum on independence. Masoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdish regional government, has pledged this.
But I literally don’t think they can afford to be independent. We calculated at one point – the CIA – that they needed to export about 800,000 barrels of oil at US$105 per barrel. They are only producing 800,000 barrels on a really good day and exporting a subset of that now in the forties per barrel. So, they still need some of what they get from Baghdad.
Keep in mind that Iraq for all of the centrifugal forces pulling it apart has a huge centripetal force and that is the central government’s distribution of the oil revenue. That is absolutely crucial and that is keeping that country together.
The Sunni Arabs, for all of the differences they have with Shia-led government in Baghdad have no alternative, but to getting that. So maybe you get a new deal with Baghdad, gets greater devolution of power to the provinces, the Sunni provinces, as they have and some of the others. But I think they stay part of Iraq and I think that the Kurds will stay part of Iraq for some time longer as well.
I think, ultimately, they probably do have a right to an independent state and an independent people, but again they’re going to have to get a good deal. This has to be an amicable divorce with Iraq and a good deal with Turkey before they can risk that.
BN: You were able, I think, in Iraq to negotiate with diverse and opposing tribal factions. Do you believe that after all the violence and bloodshed that we’ve seen in Iraq and Syria that that sort of rehabilitation is possible again?
DP: I do. And look, by the way, when I was negotiating that I had a great position. I was the sheikh of the strongest tribe in Iraq. Having 165,000 American soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, and then tens of thousands of additional coalition forces and others, was hugely helpful.
But I do actually think the prime minister of Iraq, Haider al-Abadi, knows that there has to be inclusive governance and I think that he is determined to that and I see break-off factions within the Shia, who I think will enable that as well.
Fewer Australians are trusting the US to act responsibly in the world, and they have scant regard for Donald Trump – but this is not translating into people losing faith in the American alliance, according to the Lowy Institute’s 2017 poll.
Only 20% have a “a great deal” of trust to act responsibly in the world. This is a big fall from the 40% level in 2011, when the question was last asked.
Overall, 61% trust the US to act responsibly, 22 points lower than 2011. The contrast is stark when attitudes to other countries are compared – 90% trust Britain and 86% trust Germany and Japan. China is trusted by 54%.
The poll found that 60% of Australians say Trump causes them to have an unfavourable opinion of the US, with younger adults and women being especially likely to be unimpressed. Still, this figure is lower than the proportion who said this about George W Bush in 2007.
Despite people’s feelings about Trump, support for the alliance has actually increased six points since 2016 – 77% say it is “very or fairly important” for Australia’s security. Just 29% believed “Australia should distance itself from the United States under President Donald Trump”.
The institute’s executive director, Michael Fullilove, said that while Australians had come to terms with the Trump presidency, the relationship was not unaffected by him. “The president is not popular in Australia. And Australia’s trust in the United States to act responsibly has declined”.
The survey of 1200 people was conducted in March. The release of the results comes a week after Malcolm Turnbull’s parody of Trump at the federal press gallery’s Midwinter Ball. So far there has been no response from Trump.
The poll found considerable suspicion of China, mixed with strong pragmatism.
Some 46% believe it is likely China “will become a military threat to Australia in the next 20 years”. But 79% see China as more of an economic partner than a military threat.
Only one-third (34%) would favour using Australian military forces “if China initiated a military conflict with one of its neighbours over disputed islands or territories”. But 68% favour Australia conducting “maritime operations designed to ensure freedom of navigation in the region”.
Nearly eight in ten people (79%) are dissatisfied with the direction of the world, but despite the international rise in protectionist and nationalist sentiments, 78% believe globalisation is “mostly good” for Australia.
By 431 BCE, under the leadership of Pericles, Athens had become a formidable maritime power whose empire extended across the eastern Mediterranean region. Its challenge to the supremacy of Sparta, the warrior nation of the Peloponnesian peninsula, was obvious. According to historian and general Thucydides:
Growth of the power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in Sparta, made [the Peloponnesian] war inevitable.
Graham Allison’s new book, Destined for War, suggests a modern parallel in a rising power (Athens/China) causing fear in an established power (Sparta/the US) in which the necessary trust in one another is lost, and war becomes inevitable.
But the analogy has its limits. All too often the who, when and how of the next war have been confidently predicted. Very rarely has anyone got it right.
Athens and Sparta exercised power very differently from their analogous contemporaries. Over the four decades before the war, Athens had become the regional muscle, rather more like the US than China, extracting payment for providing security. The Athenians were primarily traders, providing a maritime security envelope while also securing resources for themselves.
Like the Chinese, the Spartans were focused more on maintaining territorial security. Most of the Peloponnesian peninsula was under Spartan control. Their strength came with the land and their exercise of a military regime depended on an often rebellious population of slaves known as Helots.
Athens had transformed its prosperity into a tightly controlled corporate empire. Similarly, today, the US has exerted considerable influence over strategic hotspots. Countries like Australia have effectively outsourced their security risks.
Sparta maintained a looser confederacy of alliances of which less was demanded, and less given. China too has used soft power, offering aid and investment across the Pacific and Africa, buying influence rather than extracting power.
We might see a certain aggressiveness about the US that reminds us of the image of Sparta as a warring nation. But, in fact, Sparta was somewhat insular and inward-looking. China’s expansion might remind us of the growth of the Athenian empire, but Athens had little land and few prospects – it depended on an empire to secure resources, very different from the Chinese situation.
Allison is acutely aware that his analogy to the fifth-century war is a provocation. With his colleagues at the Belfer Center at Harvard, Allison’s Thucydides’s Trap Project has studied 16 significant conflicts from the last five centuries. Twelve of those led to war. The others only avoided war through significant adjustments in the attitudes and postures of both sides.
There is no doubt that China is rising. The GDP of China surpassed the GDP of the US (on purchasing power parity terms) in 2014. By 2019, it will be 20% larger. While the US can only manage a growth rate of 2.1%, China continues to grow by at least 6.5%.
As former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd once observed, China is experiencing “the English Industrial Revolution and the global information revolution combusting simultaneously and compressed into not 300 years, but 30”.
The fearful West is apt to ignore the considerable internal tensions that China faces. The Chinese Communist Party has a social contract with its citizens: the price of authoritarian rule is to provide economic opportunities for all.
While the vast majority has prospered under its regime, inequality has risen exponentially between China’s urbanised east coast and the rural hinterland. Balancing the forces for social liberalisation on the coast and economic prosperity inland requires withering complexities.
Ironically, as part of the “One Belt One Road” initiative, the Chinese bought the port of Piraeus, the Athenian port that was the axis around which the Athenian empire once turned.
But this highlights China’s distinctly bifurcated view, between a maritime expansion of influence and a new Silk Road, designed to compete with Russia for economic and political dominance in Central Asia. China is a speeding juggernaut, precariously balanced between its international and domestic aspirations.
President Xi Jinping wants to make China great again. Allison’s prescient analysis shows that, despite Xi’s nuanced understanding of China-US relations compared with US President Donald Trump’s infantile floundering on the world stage, the aspirations each has for his country are remarkably similar.
But, unlike the bipolar world of the Ancient Greeks, the international system since the Cold War has been characterised by multipolarity: China, the US, the European Union, Japan, Russia and India each has an opportunity to exercise power more independently, or perhaps interdependently.
Allison’s book makes a fascinating and worthwhile contribution to our understanding of the nature of power as a function of the nation-state.
Through his analysis of the four case studies in which war was avoided, Allison gives us “twelve clues for peace”, including practical examples of how Thucydides’s Trap was avoided. These include insights into the nature of leadership, how power is enacted, the opportunities and entrapments of alliances, and much more.
Thucydides spoke of the motivations of war being fear, honour and interest, and it’s the same today. These motivations come largely from within – they are not imposed by other countries from outside.
Ultimately, countries go to war when their respective grand strategies – the exercise of power in the world for national interest – become misaligned with the expectations of their respective domestic audiences. That is, the trap for both the US and China is to manage domestic expectations, and to harmonise those expectations with the exercise of international influence.
We can presume that even without the assistance of Nine’s Laurie Oakes, Washington officialdom would have heard soon enough about Malcolm Turnbull’s riff on Donald Trump at Wednesday’s Midwinter Ball.
After all, among the hundreds of guests in Parliament’s Great Hall was James Carouso, the US embassy’s charge d’affaires. Any diplomat doing their job properly would inform their government about a speech mentioning their country’s leader, regardless of it being “off the record”.
But there’s a world of difference between a discreet report filtered through the channels of bureaucrats and advisers (who may or may not tell the president) and a blaze of publicity in the media.
Trump is not known for humour when the joke’s on him, and Turnbull’s hilarious send-up is likely to go down poorly with him. Whether this matters remains to be seen.
It was a great speech; I’ll leave readers to hunt for the now readily available detail, as I was present on the off-the-record occasion. It was Malcolm unplugged in a witty, clever way, self-deprecating even when he was sending up Trump.
These ball nights see an informal contest between the prime minister of the day and the opposition leader as to who can perform best. The chatter among guests was that Turnbull’s speech clearly beat that of Bill Shorten.
But, as things turned out, it was a risk-laden exercise.
The leaders prepare their speeches for this night, especially because they have to strike a humorous tone and being seriously funny – as distinct from inserting the odd joke – is not their usual stock in trade.
So it is surprising that someone around Turnbull, if not Turnbull himself, didn’t hear a warning bell.
It is not for lack of precedent. There was that most spectacular “leak” from the press gallery’s 1990 dinner when treasurer Paul Keating’s “Placedo Domingo” speech, seen as an attack on prime minister Bob Hawke, which caused a crisis between the two.
This week’s incident has sparked questions and debate about journalists’ ethics and practices.
Should Oakes have put the speech to air? In my opinion, he had absolutely every right to do so – he wasn’t there and so had not consented to the “off-the-record” terms.
Is the leaker, whoever it was, to be condemned? Whether you think they should be, leaks happen. We journalists encourage them, so we shouldn’t be hypocritical about this one.
We should, incidentally, respond with a horse laugh to the attempt by Mathias Cormann to suggest the leak might be Shorten’s fault. That was quickly denied by Oakes.
Should the ball be off the record anyway? Surely this is an absurdity, given the number of people present, including lobbyists, business figures, politicians, staffers and diplomats, as well as journalists.
Obviously leaders would be blander if they were talking on the record. This is not a credible reason, however, for drawing a curtain over what is effectively a public dinner. It simply looks like excessively “insider” behaviour between media and politicians.
But the debate about ethics is less important at the moment than the consideration of possible consequences of Turnbull’s speech.
The latest incident comes against the background of the up-and-down start to the Turnbull-Trump relationship.
There was the fraught phone call early this year in which Trump denounced the deal the Obama administration did for the US to take some refugees from Manus Island and Nauru. At the other extreme came the over-the-top love-in during their press conference in New York when Turnbull, to his discredit, agreed with Trump that the account of the phone call had been fake news.
The government is pushing the point that Turnbull’s Trump references were all just a bit of fun, showing another side of him. The speech was “affectionately light-hearted”, Turnbull has said.
The US embassy played down the affair, saying “we take this with the good humour that was intended”, as did Australia’s ambassador in Washington, Joe Hockey, who quipped: “The administration hasn’t rung us up and I haven’t been hauled into the White House and sent back to Australia so far as I’m aware.”
But in view of the background and Trump’s prickly nature, the government will be holding its breath.
Trump might have so much on his plate that he doesn’t give Turnbull a second thought.
But if he got hissy, what is the worst he could do? The only immediate serious thing one can think of would be to go even more slowly on the refugee deal, already proceeding at a snail’s pace. That indeed would be a high price to pay for a joke or three.
He could be more difficult in future interactions with Turnbull. After Kevin Rudd leaked his disparaging remarks about George W Bush following a phone conversation the two had about the G20, their relationship became particularly frosty.
But the affair should be kept in perspective. Sometimes the Australian and US leaders of the day are joined at the hip – Lyndon Johnson and Harold Holt, John Howard and Bush. Historically, that can be seen as a good or a bad thing. Sometimes relations are tense – Gough Whitlam and Richard Nixon, Rudd and Bush after the G20 affair.
But as is often pointed out, the Australian-American relationship is based on shared interests. Thus Australia failing to forewarn the Americans that it was leasing the Port of Darwin to the Chinese was a much more serious offence than a bit of close-to-the-bone humour.
And, as a story in the Washington Post that reported Turnbull’s speech illustrated, when it comes to Trump Turnbull isn’t on his lonesome. It noted Trump has become “the butt of jokes in capitals around the world”.
“Fellow world leaders appear emboldened to poke fun at him as a way to bolster their political standing,” the story said. Now that would be an upside for Turnbull.
The US president’s executive powers are a crucial way to fast-track immigration policies without congressional approval. But with Donald Trump’s executive orders barring entry to people from selected countries, these powers are taking on a new flavour.
While we like to think we live in a democracy with a strong separation of powers, in both Australia and the US the executive government has more power than most people realise – especially when it comes to immigration.
In some respects, executive powers are greater in Australia than in the US. In Australia, executive orders relating to immigration are not subject to the same checks and balances as they would be in the US. There are a few reasons for this.
Differences in transparency
In the US, all executive orders must be published in the federal register, the official journal of the federal government. This at least makes them visible to Congress and to the general public.
In Australia, there is no such obligation. A good example of this is the immigration minister’s 2013 order authorising “turn-back” operations against vessels carrying asylum seekers as part of Operation Sovereign Borders.
The order was released only after a three-year Freedom of Information battle initiated by Guardian journalist Paul Farrell. Even then, the details of the turn-back operations were redacted or not released on public interest grounds.
In Australia, the public and the courts may not even be aware of the orders being implemented. That means Australians are unable to scrutinise executive orders to the same extent as Americans can. This, in turn, limits the people’s ability to lodge effective legal actions against the government, as they lack the information to build a case.
Australia lacks a bill of rights
A second major difference is that Australia does not have a bill of rights, unlike the US. The US Bill of Rights is constitutionally entrenched as the first ten amendments to the US Constitution.
Australia’s lack of such protections (constitutional or otherwise) stymies similar legal actions. Still, the Australian government can’t do whatever it wants with immigration. In the absence of legislative authorisation, actions of the executive will only be authorised to the extent they fall under the executive power set out in Section 61 of the Australian Constitution.
However, the precise scope of this power remains a matter of contention. Judges have generally been highly deferential in terms of what immigration measures they uphold.
The Tampa affair in 2001 provides a good example. The MV Tampa, a Norwegian freighter, rescued 433 asylum seekers from a vessel in distress in international waters north of Australia.
When the captain attempted to bring them to Australia, the prime minister, John Howard, ordered special forces to storm the vessel. The asylum seekers were detained at sea for several weeks and later sent to Nauru and New Zealand.
While there was no legislative basis for this decision, the full bench of the Federal Court upheld the action. The decision was based on a broad interpretation of executive powers in the constitution. The High Court has avoided a clear judgment on this issue in subsequent decisions.
Trump tests limits of executive power
In contrast, consider the fate of a series of executive orders issued by President Trump. The most controversial include a 90-day travel ban on people from Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia and Sudan, and a 120-day suspension of the refugee resettlement program.
The original order, issued just seven days after Trump’s inauguration, caused panic and chaos at airports all over the world.
Both measures were claimed to be necessary for the purpose of designing “extreme vetting” procedures to identify and exclude Islamic extremists. No evidence was provided to show how countries were selected, or why existing procedures were inadequate. Nor were the relevant government departments and agencies consulted in advance.
After just one week, the order was suspended. A federal judge in Washington state issued a temporary nationwide restraining order.
The decision was based on two constitutional concerns. The first related to due process considerations arising from barring entry to US visa holders without providing them with notice or a hearing. The second was rooted in the prohibition of discrimination based on religion.
While the executive order did not specifically say it targeted Muslims, the court put two and two together, and found the measures discriminatory. The countries subject to the ban were all principally Muslim, and during his campaign Trump had promised a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”.
The Trump administration responded by issuing a new executive order. This order provided more information justifying why nationals from the selected countries presented a heightened security risk.
The number of target countries was also reduced to six, with Iraq being removed, and permanent US residents were exempt. It was the inclusion of US residents in the original ban that had raised the most serious concerns about due process.
Despite these concessions, the courts also suspended the updated executive order. Appeals are pending. The outcome will depend on how the courts apply the long-standing “plenary power” doctrine that gives the political branches a broad and largely exclusive authority over immigration.
In the past, the courts have used this doctrine to uphold discriminatory immigration laws, which would have been unconstitutional in other contexts. This applies particularly to laws targeting immigrants who are outside the US. However, recent decisions indicate that the scope of the plenary power may be narrowing.
Trump’s other executive orders on immigration have largely flown under the radar. The Executive Order on Border Security authorises construction of a wall on the Mexican border and expands the use of mandatory immigration detention.
Other than court action, what protections are there?
In Australia, protections are provided first and foremost through parliamentary representation, an approach informed by Australia’s British constitutional history.
The government of the day sits in parliament with the assumption that an executive that fails to act in the interests of the public can be thrown out of office at the next general election. The Senate, which is not always dominated by the government of the day, can offer oversight as well.
Unfortunately, these protections don’t always work. New arrivals can’t vote. Even if they become citizens, refugees remain a minority and have little influence over election results. It’s also naive to assume that all waves of migrants operate as a cohesive voting bloc.
The immigration executive can also avoid Senate oversight. Operation Sovereign Borders again provides an instructive example. In 2013, citing national security concerns, the minister refused the Senate’s request for information.
Furthermore, as a result of the way that refugee politics has unfolded in Australia, there is bipartisan support for draconian policies. The executive is unco-operative and the Senate does not always punish non-compliance.
For instance, when the minister refused to provide information about Operation Sovereign Borders, a Senate committee recommended “political” and “procedural” penalties. None of these were carried out.
The parliament is also often willing to retrospectively authorise immigration-related actions once judicial proceedings have begun. This happened during the recent High Court challenge to the executive’s power to have asylum seekers detained on Nauru.
So, as the world reacts with shock each time Trump issues another far-reaching executive order, it is worth remembering that the use of executive power in Australia is, in many ways, more expansive and unchecked than in the US. This is not limited to immigration. Australian courts have been willing to take an expansive view of executive power in a whole host of policy areas.
Both the Australian and the US public need to remain vigilant. Tolerance of the executive’s attack on the rights of non-citizens threatens to pave the way for similar action against citizens.
New South Wales (NSW), a state that has had some success in asset recycling, created an independent agency to oversee its program. The agency is staffed by employees with private sector experience. Senior public figures are on the board to ensure independence.
The result has been an asset-recycling program that received high prices for government assets and has prioritised new projects based on cost and impact. Other Australian states have adopted this model, which will be key for the US too.
Recycling directs money to new infrastructure
Under an asset-recycling scheme, governments lease existing infrastructure assets to private companies and invest the proceeds in new infrastructure projects. In 2013, the Australian government started a A$5 billion incentive program giving state governments an additional 15% of the capital recycled from existing assets and reinvested in new infrastructure.
Between 2013 and 2016, NSW leased about A$15 billion of infrastructure assets to private investors, and allocated about A$6 billion to new projects, without raising additional public debt.
Infrastructure asset recycling manages to fund new projects by addressing the mismatch between government infrastructure promises and the goals of private investors.
Governments often lack the capital to invest in infrastructure and are worried about rising public debt. The World Economic Forum estimates the gap between infrastructure demand and investment is around US$1 trillion a year globally.
But the freed-up capital is not really free — governments forgo the future revenues from the leased assets. If the proceeds from privatising the asset are smaller than the future stream of payments forgone, and new projects do not produce revenues, government might need to levy a new tax or cut programs.
This is why good governance is key to ensuring the scheme works. Governments need to get the highest price for their assets and build the best projects for the lowest cost.
Good governance was key to NSW’s success
Between 2013 and 2015, NSW leased two ports, a desalination plant and an electricity distribution network for close to A$15 billion. The process was fast and the lease proceeds were high compared to similar deals. This indicates that the bidding process was effective at tapping into investors’ interest.
A key point is that the NSW legislature did not directly oversee the asset-recycling scheme. In 2011, the government created an independent statutory body, Infrastructure NSW, to identify and prioritise the delivery of critical public infrastructure in NSW.
Infrastructure NSW is made up of specialised units staffed with skilled professionals. One of these manages Restart NSW, the infrastructure fund into which lease proceeds are deposited.
While a relatively small agency, Infrastructure NSW is staffed with employees with private sector experience and has representatives of key ministries on its board. The private sector experience means employees are able to monitor and work effectively with private partners, and the knowledge and information gap between the private sector and the government is low.
Its prominent board also means Infrastructure NSW has the power to influence and stand up to the state legislators and administration, with sufficient independence to ensure politicians cannot fund low-priority projects in politically advantageous constituencies. The broad skill set of employees also helps to break down administrative silos and enables an integrated vision of infrastructure.
The use of public-private partnerships in infrastructure service delivery is increasing in the US, but has not reached anywhere near the scale of Australia or Canada. Many US states still lack the legislation, processes and structure to manage it effectively.
Another challenge for the US is identifying new projects with a sustainable source of funding. This is what makes asset recycling appealing for the private sector.
Considerable infrastructure governance and planning efforts are needed at the state level to make a success of asset recycling in the US. A federal initiative along the lines of the Australian government’s incentive program would afford states the opportunity to share their experience and work toward more unified legislation and procurement processes.
In Australia, asset recycling came with the creation of independent agencies and state infrastructure funds. If it wishes to follow Australia down the asset-recycling path, the US should also consider these kinds of governance to equip states with an integrated vision for infrastructure development, and the capabilities to work more effectively with the private sector.
The world’s media reached a new low last week with their incessant coverage of the US President Donald Trump and a tweet he sent out containing the word “covfefe” – a supposed mistyping of “coverage”.
This came on the heels of a report published by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, which analyses the media’s obsession with all things Trump.
Looking at the first 100 days of his presidency, the report detailed that 41% of all news stories were about Trump. This was three times the amount of coverage of any previous US president. Even though Trump himself was the featured voice in 65% of these articles, 80% were negative.
The coverage has come at the cost of real reporting about what he has actually done in that time and what else is going on in the US and the rest of the world. The economy has only been discussed in 4% of the news coverage, and health care, despite attempts to repeal President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, managed a not much greater 12%.
It would be tempting to think that the media, especially US journalists, have been obsessed with Trump because of his self-declared war on the press as the “enemy of the people”. But it is likely to be far more prosaic than that. Trump has simply tapped into mainstream media’s evolving role as another form of reality-based entertainment. Articles on Trump become clickbait for those who can’t resist his latest gaff, hoping that this will be the definitive misstep that finally ends his political career.
Ultimately, however, covering Trump is all about driving clicks, and sites like the New York Times and Washington Post, CNN and others have all fallen prey to the single-minded pursuit of revenue-generating clicks.
Unfortunately for the public, this has done them a disservice and reading the Trump-laden news and commentary has become increasingly like stumbling into someone else’s personal and bitter family argument.
Take control with Trump Filters
Fortunately, there is a way that readers can take control of the situation without avoiding all news sites.
For Google Chrome, there is an extension called Trump Filter, written by developer Rob Spectre, which will remove article headlines and paragraphs of text that reference Donald Trump. On Apple iOS there are several blockers, but one that works reasonably well with Safari is “Trump Trump”
These blockers will remove most text that has a reference to Donald Trump but won’t remove images. The image above is the New York Times with several stories about Donald Trump filtered out.
For Google Chrome, there is another extension called “Make America Kittens Again” that replaces images of Trump with cute kittens (see the example below). This app will also replace other people’s images with kittens and allows you to add your own key words. So photos of Nigel Farage, Geert Wilders, Marine Le Pen and Pauline Hanson can also be replaced with kittens.
What does this mean for the news?
Switching these extensions on does a number of things that have important consequences for the future of digital news.
The first is that it highlights why people are increasingly turning to social media to read their news because of those platforms’ ability to deliver news that users want to see, while filtering out the things they are simply not interested in.
This may be seen as a negative in terms of being fed news that has a particular bias, but there is a positive side to it in enabling users to take control and avert a site’s particular agenda.
Of course, these technologies, along with ad blockers, are going to change how news organisations have to deliver news to their customers and are unlikely to be welcomed. Google itself is said to be building an ad blocker directly into Chrome that will be switched on by default.
News organisations have increasingly been battling between delivering content that they believe the public “should” read, and content that they know the public wants to read and so consequently will drive clicks and advertising revenue.
In the case of Donald Trump, it’s hard to justify the sheer volume of stories, including those that are based on every tweet he sends late at night. The media seems to have followed its own interests without considering those of the reader.
President Donald Trump’s announcement overnight that he will withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement comes as no surprise. After all, this is the man who famously claimed that climate change was a hoax created by the Chinese.
While it will take around four years for the US to withdraw, the prospect is complicated by Trump’s claim that he wants to renegotiate the agreement – a proposal that European leaders were quick to dismiss. But the question now is who will lead global climate action in the US’ absence?
As I have previously argued on The Conversation, there are good reasons for China and Europe to come together and form a powerful bloc to lead international efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
China is now the world’s number-one energy consumer and greenhouse gas emitter, and should it combine forces with Europe it has the potential to lead the world and prevent other nations from following the US down the path of inaction.
There are very early signs that this may be happening. Reports this week indicate that Beijing and Brussels have already agreed on measures to accelerate action on climate change, in line with Paris climate agreement.
According to a statement to be released today, China and Europe have agreed to forge ahead and lead a clean energy transition.
While it is too early to predict how Chinese and European leadership will manifest in practice, in the face of American obstruction they are arguably the world’s best hope, if not its only hope.
Decades of destruction
Trump’s announcement only reaffirms his antipathy towards climate action, and that of his Republican Party, which for decades has led attempts to scuttle efforts to reduce emissions at home and abroad. Let’s not forget that it was President George W. Bush who walked away from the Kyoto Protocol.
In just the few short months of his incumbency so far, Trump has halted a series of initiatives executed by President Barack Obama to address climate change. These include taking steps to:
Repeal the clean power plan
Lift the freeze on new coal leases on federal lands
End restrictions on oil drilling in Arctic waters
Reverse the previous decision against the Keystone XL pipeline
Review marine sanctuaries for possible oil and natural gas drilling.
This remains the real problem, regardless of whether the US is inside the Paris climate agreement or outside it. As the planet’s second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, what the US does domestically on climate change matters a great deal.
As a result, if China and Europe are to lead the world in the US’ absence, not only will they have to ensure that other nations, such as Australia, do not follow the US – and some members of the government hope they do – but they are also going to have to think creatively about measures that could force the US to act differently at home. For example, some leaders have already mooted introducing a carbon tax on US imports, though such proposals remain complicated.
In the meantime, while these political battles play out around the world, climate scientists are left to count the rising cost of inaction, be it the bleaching of coral reefs or increasing droughts, fires and floods.