Malcolm Turnbull has flagged he expects to meet US President Donald Trump in New York next week, although late Tuesday his office said the government was still waiting for the formal invitation.
The occasion is the 75th anniversary of the Coral Sea battle.
Speaking at the Al Minhad Air Base in the United Arab Emirates during an Anzac commemoration trip that included Iraq and Afghanistan, Turnbull said he looked forward to discussions with Trump “at an early opportunity”. “We’ll be making announcements very shortly about that,” he said.
Turnbull would only make the visit for the Coral Sea anniversary if it provided an opportunity for his first face-to-face meeting with Trump. Even though it would be brief, the timing is awkward – he would be overseas only days before the crucial May 9 budget.
Turnbull, who has had talks with senior administration figures in the past few days, is anxious to get a first-hand feel for Trump.
During his visit to Australia at the weekend, US Vice-President Mike Pence briefed Turnbull on the new administration’s defence and foreign policy assessments, as tensions ramp up with North Korea.
Pence also reaffirmed the US would honour the deal to take refugees from Manus Island and Nauru, while again making clear Trump’s dislike of the agreement the Australian government forged with the Obama administration. Trump expressed this displeasure forcefully in his now-notorious phone conversation with Turnbull earlier this year.
While in Kabul, Turnbull had the opportunity for talks with US Defence Secretary James Mattis.
Asked at his news conference whether Australia needed to do more in the Middle East region, Turnbull said that in both the Afghan and Iraq theatres “there is going to need to be a long-term commitment”.
“But it is one of supporting, above all of training, the Afghan and Iraqi security forces, both military and police, to ensure that they have the ability to defend their own country, to push back the terrorists where they’ve made gains, and to secure the territory that the government is holding.”
He said that as the situation evolved “we’ll consider requests for further support”.
The government on Tuesday announced humanitarian and stabilisation help for Iraq worth an extra A$110 million over three years. This brings to more than $530 million Australia’s humanitarian help for Iraq and Syria since 2014.
During his trip Turnbull met both Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
Pundits often cite the North Korean regime’s crimes against its citizens as proof of Kim Jong-un’s irrationality as a leader. These crimes, as exhaustively documented by former High Court justice Michael Kirby for the UN Human Rights Council, are monstrous and inexcusable.
Grave as they are, they do follow a discernible logic from the perspective of Kim’s efforts to consolidate his regime’s hold on power. Perversely, US President Donald Trump’s sabre-rattling plays into Kim’s logic of domestic power that positions the US as a dire threat, justifying the regime’s political repression.
William Perry, US under secretary of state during the Clinton administration, has contended that Trump’s military brinkmanship increases the likelihood of coercing North Korea back to denuclearisation negotiations. This is the ground that a heightened threat of American attack will prompt Kim to recalculate the benefits of continued nuclear proliferation.
But this scenario is only credible if Trump intends following through on the threat. This now appears more questionable given the controversy over the exact location of the USS Carl Vinson.
Having established the foolishness of attacking North Korea in my previous article, I’d now like to prompt discussion on a couple of points.
The first is how the “irrational Kim” rhetoric limits our ability to understand the complexity of the crisis in North Korea. This creates risks that perversely would compromise human rights and humanitarian goals.
The second is to explore other options for improving human rights and humanitarian outcomes for North Koreans beyond the threat and application of military force.
There is much emotion in debates over North Korea, and rightly so. Many North Korenas have experienced much suffering and trauma, as well as the lingering anguish of the Korean War and the separation of families by the partition of Korea.
This is precisely why analysts need to carefully weigh up the risks and rewards of policy choices: to do justice to that suffering, and to ensure we do not recommend misadventures that could add further misery to the North Korean people.
First, don’t make things worse
Considering the risks to civilians posed by a war of regime change, it is difficult to mount a case for war as a vehicle for improving human rights and humanitarian outcomes for the North Korean people.
The discourse on human rights in North Korea has long been framed through the lens of national security. Policy issues become “securitised” when proponents of an issue area frame it as an existential security threat, of high priority, that requires extraordinary measures and rapid action to tackle.
Because such issues become framed in the language of security, military-based solutions often come to dominate policy prescriptions. The “crazy Kim” argument has been central to the security rhetoric around human rights in North Korea. This locks possible solutions into a narrow spectrum focused on military force and coercion.
Just as doctors undertake to “first do no harm”, so too should foreign-policy-makers be wary of strategic choices that carry a high risk of making things worse.
Many Korea analysts have pointed to Seoul’s vulnerability, and the risk to millions of South Koreans, posed by a cascading escalation of US military action into full-scale war. That risk also applies to people living in population centres north of the demilitarised zone.
As the Iraq example again illustrates, removing a dictator in a war of regime change is not a guarantee that human rights and humanitarian outcomes will improve.
Either way, this death toll and suffering escalated well beyond the scale of human rights abuses and deaths that occurred under Saddam Hussein’s regime. This is not to downplay the suffering of those persecuted under Hussein, but to recognise that the invasion of Iraq made a bad situation worse.
Could we see similar casualty numbers in a war in North Korea?
North Korea is an urbanised country. Approximately 60% of people are concentrated in larger urban centres. In the event of full-scale escalation, air strikes are likely to target critical infrastructure in an effort to weaken the fighting and logistical capacity of the Kim regime. Many of these targets will be in urban centres, exposing civilians to attack.
We should be mindful of the humanitarian cost of the damage of war to the North Korean economy, industry, agriculture and key infrastructure. Targeting of critical energy, transportation and sanitation infrastructure will no doubt weaken North Korea’s fighting capacity, but also eliminate those critical services for civilians. Food production and distribution networks are likely to be disrupted.
For a country that is already chronically food insecure, any damage to food production and distribution systems will have immediate impacts on increasing malnutrition and starvation. Consider that estimates of deaths from North Korea’s “Arduous March” famine in the mid-1990s sit at approximately 600,000 after the collapse of the country’s food production and distribution system.
The elimination of services for civilians is likely to increase the risk of non-combat casualties from malnutrition, disease, and the elements – particularly during North Korea’s harsh winter.
If such a war ends quickly and an occupation force arrives in North Korea to restore security, casualty figures will be still be high. However, some of the longer-term impacts of human insecurity might be avoided.
However, in the event the post-regime environment is unstable, then casualty figures for North Koreans on a scale similar to Iraq become more likely.
Creating an environment for positive human rights outcomes
Removing Kim Jong-un as the head of the regime does not automatically translate into a win for human rights. A lot of post-conflict nation-building has to take place if a war scenario is to transcend the immediate humanitarian disaster and create an environment in which human rights for the North Korean people can be improved.
Human rights are best guaranteed by stable governance, strong political institutions, legal protections, active civil society, and broad material wellbeing. A post-conflict North Korea in which the Kim regime has been removed would effectively be a failed state. None of these facilitating conditions for human rights guarantees would yet exist.
It takes time and resources to cultivate the institutions of a stable state. It requires many years of patient networking, conversation and compromise to develop a social movement that could evolve into an active civil society. It takes even longer to cultivate a political culture in which the citizenry respects the integrity of the political system even when their faction is not in power.
Without this social infrastructure, Kim Jong-un’s removal is likely to lead to the disintegration of North Korea into a failed state, paving the way for the emergence of another authoritarian strongman.
In South Korea, it took more than 40 years after the conclusion of the Korean War, an ongoing American military occupation, and the development of a broad-based pro-democracy movement, for an imperfect democratic political system to evolve.
To suggest this process could be circumvented in North Korea does not accord with the findings of research into democratisation and social movements. These norms, rules and institutions should ideally be developed by the North Korean people over time, not impatiently imposed from outside by other powers.
It is doubtful that Trump – and, more importantly, his core political support base – has the stomach for the massive long-term, high-cost commitment that nation-building in a post-Kim North Korea would entail.
Where to from here?
One could be forgiven for observing the current US-North Korea standoff as a game played by privileged men in suits on either side, gambling with the lives of ordinary citizens. Millions of lives on both sides of the demilitarised zone and beyond are placed at unnecessary risk through such high-stakes brinkmanship.
It is easy for leaders to talk tough on non-proliferation and human rights enforcement. But it is quite another to bring about international norms in these fields in such a tricky strategic context as the Korean Peninsula.
Unfortunately, Trump’s penchant for military posturing does little to increase the likelihood of denuclearising North Korea, or improving human rights outcomes for its citizens.
Instead, the Trump administration’s bellicose rhetoric inadvertently legitimises North Korea’s justifications for its nuclear weapons program, along with the domestic coercive apparatus that persecutes North Korean citizens.
Guaranteeing human rights in North Korea will ultimately require new institutions, new laws, a domestic civil society, cultural change, and a process of justice for past abuses.
This is a project far beyond the scope of military action, requiring patience, innovative thinking and disciplined strategic restraint on the part of policymakers. And they must recognise the unique strategic circumstances of the Korean Peninsula.
Today, a by-election was held in Kansas’ fourth Congressional District (CD) for election to the US House. This CD is very conservative, and voted for Donald Trump by 60-33 against Hillary Clinton at the 2016 election. At this by-election, the Republican prevailed by 53-46, a net improvement of 20 points for the Democrats from Trump’s margin in 2016.
The Kansas result is not the only poor outcome for Republicans. A by-election was held in California’s 34th CD last Tuesday. This is a Democratic fortress, which Clinton won by 84-11. This by-election used a “jungle primary”, where candidates from the same party, and those from other parties, run on the one ballot paper. Unless one candidate wins a vote majority, the top two, regardless of party, proceed to a runoff.
As California’s 34th CD is a Democratic bastion, about 20 Democrats and only one Republican ran, and the top six vote winners were Democrats. The sole Republican won a risible 3.2% of the votes, well down from Trump’s 11%. The top two candidates, both Democrats, will proceed to a 6 June runoff.
While party control did not change in either by-election, the swing from Trump to the Democratic candidates is encouraging for the Democrats, and indicates that the November 2018 midterm elections could be good for the Democrats.
Next Tuesday (results Wednesday morning Melbourne time), a “jungle primary” by-election will be held in Georgia’s Republican-held sixth CD. The lead Democrat, Jon Ossoff, has a chance to win a vote majority, and thus avoid a runoff against a single Republican. This CD voted for Trump by a 48.3-46.8 margin.
Trump’s ratings in FiveThirtyEight’s poll tracker are currently 52.5% disapprove, 41.5% approve for a net of -11. After dropping briefly below 40% following the health care debacle, his ratings have recovered a point or two after the Syrian missile strike.
Daily Kos elections has calculated the Presidential results for all 435 CDs. Presidential results by CD are not generally published by election boards, and need to be calculated from each county’s precinct information.
Republicans change rules to get Gorsuch confirmed to US Supreme Court
On Friday, staunch conservative judge Neil Gorsuch won a confirmation vote in the US Senate, 54-45, and will now be a Supreme Court Justice. Gorsuch replaces Antonin Scalia, who died in February 2016, restoring a 5-4 conservative majority on the Supreme Court. Gorsuch is aged 49, so he could be on the Court for the next 30 years, delivering conservative verdicts.
Barack Obama had nominated Merrick Garland to replace Scalia, but the Republicans, who controlled the Senate, had refused to even grant Garland a hearing, arguing that Obama’s successor should select the next Supreme Court nominee. When Donald Trump upset Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, this strategy was vindicated.
Under Senate rules, Democrats could have filibustered Gorsuch’s confirmation. For a filibuster to be defeated, 3/5 of the Senate (60 Senators) are required to vote for cloture. With Republicans only holding a 52-48 Senate majority, a Democratic filibuster of Gorsuch would have succeeded.
However, the filibuster rule has never been part of the US Constitution, and a Senate majority can change the Senate’s rules. On Thursday, Republicans used the “nuclear” option, removing the ability of a minority to filibuster Supreme Court confirmations in a 52-48 party-line vote.
Democrats themselves had used the nuclear option to remove the ability of a minority to filibuster lower court and Cabinet confirmations in 2013. The filibuster now only exists for legislation, and that filibuster is likely to be abolished in the near future.
French Presidential election: hard left Melenchon surges
The French Presidential election will be held in two rounds. The first round is on 23 April, and the top two vote winners proceed to the second round on 7 May.
Current polls have the centrist Emmanuel Macron and far right Marine Le Pen tied at 23%, followed by conservative Francois Fillon on 19% and the hard left Jean-Luc Melenchon on 18%. A few weeks ago, Melenchon had just 10% support. His gains have come mainly at the expense of Socialist Benoit Hamon, who has fallen into single digits.
Many on the French left have been frustrated with the current Socialist government’s pro-business agenda, which Macron would continue. In contrast, Melenchon’s policies include a 100% tax on the part of any income over 360,000 Euros a year (about $AU 500,000).
If Macron makes the runoff against any of the other three contenders, he should win easily. While still unlikely, it is possible that Macron could be knocked out of the runoff. If this happens, there would be two candidates that most voters would probably object to, and the runoff would not be predictable.
NSW by-elections: Liberals suffer large swings, but hold their seats
On Saturday, by-elections occurred in the Liberal-held seats of Manly and North Shore, and the Labor-held seat of Gosford. Manly and North Shore became vacant following the retirements of former Premier Mike Baird and Health Minister Jillian Skinner, while Gosford’s vacancy was caused by a cancer diagnosis for its former member, Kathy Smith.
Labor easily held Gosford by 62.5-37.5 vs the Liberals, a 12.3 point swing to Labor from the 2015 election. The Liberals suffered a 24 point primary vote swing against them in Manly and a 15 point swing in North Shore, which Labor did not contest, but held both seats against Independent challengers. Vote shares in both these seats were 43-44% for the Liberals, 22-24% for the main Independent challenger and 16-18% for the Greens.
A Liberal vs Independent two candidate count in North Shore and Manly is not yet available, but Antony Green expects comfortable Liberal wins, especially given NSW’s optional preferential voting. Update Thursday afternoon: The Liberals won North Shore by 54.7-45.3 and Manly by 60.5-39.5
A NSW Newspoll, taken from February to March from a sample of 1580, had the Coalition leading by 51-49, unchanged from November to December 2016. Primary votes were Coalition 40% (down 1), Labor 34% (down 2), Greens 10% (down 1) and One Nation 8%. Premier Gladys Berejiklian had initial ratings of 44% satisfied and 21% dissatisfied, while Opposition Leader Luke Foley’s net approval was up 2 points to -4.
The 2015 NSW election result was 54.4-45.6 to the Coalition, so Newspoll implies a 3 point swing against the Coalition. The by-election results suggest a larger swing, but by-elections are not good guides to general elections. Governments usually do badly at by-elections because people are inclined to vote against the government, knowing that such a vote will not change the government.
The United States’ unilateral missile strikes against a Syrian airforce base are a dramatic escalation of its participation in that country’s civil war. The US government has attacked a Syrian government asset for the first time.
The attack also marks Donald Trump’s first major foreign policy test as US president. It represents a 180-degree shift from his previous position of opposing intervention in Syria. And the sudden about-face sends a worrying signal for how his administration may handle future crises in international relations.
On Thursday, the US unilaterally launched strikes against the al-Shayrat airforce base in Homs. This base primarily houses Mig-23 and SU-22 strike craft and Mig-25 interceptors.
The attack consisted of 59 sea-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles, which targeted airframes and supporting infrastructure. It reportedly led to casualties among Syrian military personnel.
The attack has been justified as a punitive response to the Syrian military’s likely use of sarin chemical nerve agents against civilians in Idlib province. This led to at least 70 deaths and drew worldwide condemnation.
The Idlib incident was a much smaller repeat of a major sarin deployment in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta in 2013. That attack led to hundreds of civilian deaths – many of them children.
The Ghouta atrocity led the US to the brink of war with Syria; the Syrian government was alleged to have crossed Obama’s infamous “red line”. Ultimately, however, diplomatic manoeuvring by senior US, Russian and Syrian officials de-escalated the situation. They were able to negotiate the apparent dismantling of Syria’s chemical weapons program.
Recent events, however, suggest this dismantling was not as extensive as previously thought.
Trump’s humanitarian intervention?
What’s concerning is how the strikes have been rationalised. Trump has described the strikes as aimed at protecting a “vital national security interest”. However, this appears to contradict one of the fundamental themes that buoyed Trump’s rise to power.
The then-presidential candidate was criticised for appearing to be open to accommodating the anti-human-rights predilections of authoritarian rulers provided they served US economic and security interests.
Trump condemned the Obama administration’s response to the Ghouta attacks when strikes were under consideration. He explicitly and repeatedly indicated that, as president, he would adopt a non-interventionist position in Syria in spite of the humanitarian crisis.
However, the strikes clearly contradict this position. Trump now claims intervention was a matter of “vital national security interest”.
Given the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons threatened no US citizens – nor allies – one is left to conclude that preventing further use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians is now seen as vital to US national security.
A point of concern for some has been Trump’s inability to fully grasp the consequences of his actions and his general reflexiveness to the conditions he confronts. Aswithmany of his domestic policy promises on the campaign trail, Trump’s Syria stance appears to be a flip-flop.
Shifts in domestic and foreign policy are generally to be expected and afforded some latitude as a candidate transitions to the presidency. But the degree and speed of Trump’s foreign policy switches are of serious concern.
Unpredictability in international relations has particularly high stakes. It can lead to rapid escalations, collapse of long-term relationships and partnerships, and even war.
This is of particular concern in Syria, given the close proximity of Russian forces actively fighting to defend the Assad regime.
The US apparently ultimately alerted (telling, not asking) Russia to the strikes against the Syrian regime. Yet the speed with which such an operation was organised, along with its unilateral and non-consultative nature, does little to dispel the fears of foreign policy realists about the Trump administration’s inconsistent and chaotic approach to world affairs.
The US military’s strikes only intensify that debate. Will the system ultimately force Trump to fall in line with a more consistent and predictable approach to foreign relations? Or will the policy bedlam ultimately prove sustainable, and make unpredictability the new norm in the international system?
Even those of us who didn’t have high hopes about what a Trump presidency might look like in practice have been astounded by his incompetence, ignorance and refusal or inability to confront reality.
As the old saw has it, you can have your own opinions, but not your own facts. Donald Trump clearly feels this is another idea that doesn’t apply to him or his administration.
Any doubts that the 45th president of the United States really is a thin-skinned blustering bonehead with appalling judgement and little understanding of the complexity of the job he is supposed to be doing were put to rest by his latest press conference. It’s not hard to see why he doesn’t like giving them.
It’s not just that his behaviour was “unpresidential” that was so striking – surely no one expects a man with his personal track record and “life experience” to be a role model for his country or anyone else’s – but that he refused to acknowledge even the most basic, well-documented claims about his administration and its operations.
The “fine-tuned machine” Trump claims to have created at the centre of America’s government is in reality chaotic, dysfunctional, and still populated with some deeply divisive, potentially dangerous individuals. A number are either the representatives of precisely the sorts of vested interests Trump promised to eliminate or – in the case of the Rasputin-like figure of Steve Bannon – ideologues with a Manichean worldview that sees chaos as necessary and potentially cleansing.
The demise of National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, who was belatedly fired because of his close ties to Russia – not to mention lying to the vice-president, the FBI and the public-at-large – is emblematic of Trump’s poor judgement. This “captain’s pick” was a compromised figure who should never have been considered for such a crucial role.
Even more worrying, however, is that Bannon has been appointed as a key security advisor, too – over the heads of more seasoned and potentially appropriate choices with defence backgrounds.
It is important to remember that Bannon thinks – as does Trade Secretary Peter Navarro – that war with China is inevitable.
Given their respective positions and the influence they appear to exert over a president who appears to have little understanding of, or interest in, the complexities of global politics or even economics – his supposedly strong suit, let’s not forget – they have the capacity to make some of their fantasies reality.
Neither is Trump going to lose any sleep about possible conflicts of interest when his own family is the living embodiment of all that is wrong with his administration and his complete contempt for the idea of good, never mind principled government. His wife and daughter clearly see occupying the White House primarily as an opportunity to leverage their respective brands and earning potential.
His refusal to answer questions from the “lying media” about his business interests or release his tax returns as he promised is another telling illustration of his unaccountability and hostility to one of the few institutions that seems potentially able to hold his administration to account.
Although, when the Wall Street Journal’s own staff are collectively uneasy about the lack of scrutiny the paper is applying to a regime that is seen as close to Rupert Murdoch, even this is no certainty anymore.
Speaking of the Murdoch press, The Australian’s Greg Sheridan can be relied upon to take a Panglossian view of Australia’s alliance with the US under any circumstances. This week he didn’t disappoint his admirers. In customary form, Sheridan suggested:
The substantial signs on policy from Trump over the past week or more have been generally very reassuring and showed a fairly rapid move back to the centre of the centre-right continuum on foreign policy.
No doubt this was due to the efforts of the “Trumble government” and its enormous influence in the US.
Yes, that’s a cheap shot at Trump’s beleaguered press secretary, Sean Spicer, but not being able to remember the names of supposedly key allies in not a good look. At least it was an inadvertent slip of the tongue, rather than a deliberate attempt to muddy the waters and the collective public consciousness with “alternative facts”, which is another trait of team Trump.
The key question to ask about Trump is whether he knows he’s lying when he dismisses well-documented facts about domestic politics, foreign relations and his own extensive business interests, or whether he actually believes the patent nonsense and untruth he spouts.
It really is hard to know which is the more worrying: that he is a congenital liar with an absolute contempt for the truth, or that he is so removed from the reality the rest of us inhabit that he actually doesn’t recognise it or feel the need to engage with it. This is not just a world of alternative facts; it is an alternative world.
The key question to ask Australia’s policymakers and strategic elites is: do we really want to be associated with, never mind potentially hostage to, a regime that is immoral, dishonest and more dangerous by the day?
We’re only four weeks into a rapidly unfolding nightmare. We must hope those who believe Trump will be socialised by America’s political institutions are right. There is little indication of it so far to judge from his rapidly deteriorating relationship with the fourth estate.
127, mostly tech, companies have signed a brief of support opposing US President Trump’s “Muslim travel ban”. The companies, that include Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Tesla have filed an “amicus brief” with the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals in support of US District Judge James L. Robart who ordered a stay on Trump’s executive order to ban anyone from 7 countries from entering the US for between 90 and 120 days.
The tech companies have argued that immigration is a central factor in the history and makeup of the US and has helped fuel American innovation and economic growth. Immigrants, or their children, founded more than 200 companies that are amongst the top 500 companies in the US. Between 2006 and 2010, immigrants were responsible for opening 28% of call new businesses in the US. Thirty percent of US Nobel laureates in Chemistry, Medicine and Physics have been immigrants.
Mostly however, the brief focuses on the harm that its chaotic implementation will have on US companies. They allege:
“The Order makes it more difficult and expensive for U.S. companies to recruit, hire, and retain some of the world’s best employees. It disrupts ongoing business operations. And it threatens companies’ ability to attract talent, business, and investment to the United States.
The consequences of this action will be that US companies will lose business and ultimately
“Multinational companies will have strong incentives, including from their own employees, to base operations outside the United States or to move or hire employees and make investments abroad.”
This last is no idle threat. In 2015, it was estimated that US companies have US $2.1 trillion overseas that haven’t been repatriated because of the tax implications. Apple alone has over US $230 billion held outside the US.
The idea of using this money to set up development and further manufacturing capabilities outside the US makes a great deal of sense, even without the imperative of Trump’s actions. However, there is another move that Trump is threatening that may make the decision to move operations outside the US more attractive still.
Trump’s administration is planning to target the high-skilled worker’s H-1B visa. This offers mostly tech companies the ability to recruit up to 85,000 skill developers and other staff from around the world. According to the Republicans and Trump however, tech companies should be recruiting locally.
Companies like Microsoft, where I have first hand experience of recruitment experience, did actively try and recruit within the US. Recruiting from outside is generally more expensive and time consuming and so there is no real reason why tech companies would actively ignore domestic applicants or favour foreign ones. Tech companies seek to employ the best people for the job and if the pool is global, that is how they achieve that goal.
Having offices remotely distributed can be made to work although it makes communications across teams and different product areas more challenging than if they are all in a single location. However, it already happens in most tech companies with Google and Microsoft already having research and product development occurring out of countries like Australia, India and China.
As outlined in the amicus brief, Trump is sowing uncertainty and chaos with his desire to treat policy like tweets on Twitter. That is going to provide enough incentive for companies to brave the potential disapproval from Trump and use the significant investments held outside the US to expand their capabilities.
Trump may succeed, contrary to his intentions, in catalysing a new phase in globalisation in which companies shift their centres from the US to a more distributed model. Of course, companies may still run into problems if Trump’s brand of nationalism succeeds in taking hold in other countries like Australia or Europe.
The other side-effect of the US uncertainty is the fact that increasingly businesses based outside the US will have a competitive advantage and customers may decide that it is easier to avoid doing business with the US for at least the next four years. China is rapidly becoming the technological equal of the US in many ways and so its ascendancy may also benefit.
The amicus curiae brief is the start of a long legal campaign which will aim to keep the worst of Trump’s plans in check. Depending on the outcomes, the world outside the US may actually benefit from Trump if companies are forced to look outside the walls, real and virtual, he is seeking to create.
Just weeks after his inauguration as US president, it is clear that Donald Trump is making a further bold claim on power, one that goes beyond the executive orders that are rightly drawing so much attention. He is reinventing the royal fiat by novel means: the rule-by-tweet, or “twiat”. This move is not an extension of popular democracy, but its enemy, and it needs to be resisted.
We are becoming used to Trump’s new way not just of sustaining a political campaign, but of making policy. We wake up to news of another state, corporation, institution or individual caught in the crossfire of his tweets. Corporations and investors are setting up “Twitter Response Units” and “Trump Triggers” in case the next tweet is aimed at them.
The process is so alien to the ways of making policy that have evolved over decades in complex democracies that it is tempting to dismiss it as just funny or naive. But that would be a huge mistake.
A tweet of Trump’s opinion at any moment on a particular issue is just that: an expression of the temporary opinion of one person, albeit one with his hands on more power-levers than almost any other person in the world.
Such expressions matter, for sure, to Trump’s Twitter followers. But, although one might be forgiven for thinking otherwise, they do not (at 23 million) constitute a significant proportion of the world’s population, or even a large proportion of the US population.
The king holds court
A Trump tweet only becomes news if it is reported as news. And it only starts to become policy if those who interpret policy, including the media, start to treat this news as policy. Until then, the Trump tweet remains at most a claim on power.
But once key institutions treat it as if were already an enactment of power, it quickly becomes one. Worse, it inaugurates a whole new way of doing power whose compatibility with democracy and global peace is questionable.
Imagine you are a diplomat, trying to schedule a meeting for yourself, or your political master, with Trump in a few weeks’ time. Is it sensible for you to rely on the confidentiality of the meeting? Could a poorly chosen phrase or look – or indeed your most carefully argued reasoning – provoke a tweet that publicly mocks your whole strategy?
How do you deal with a figure who claims the power to broadcast on his own terms his gut reactions to whatever you say or propose? Yes, you can tweet back, but that is already to give up on the quiet space of discussion that was once diplomacy’s refuge.
The impact of rule-by-tweet is potentially profound: above all, on policy, whether global or domestic, legal or commercial. A new type of power is being claimed and, it seems, recognised: the power, by an individual’s say-so, to make things happen, the twiat. Just the sort of power that revolutions were fought to abolish.
If Trump is the putative Tweet King, who are his courtiers? Surely they’re the mainstream media institutions that regularly report Trump’s tweets as if they were policy.
If a medieval king’s courtiers refused to pass on his word to the wider world, its impact changed. While courtiers could be replaced overnight, contemporary media corporations cannot (for now at least). So why should the media act as if they were Trump’s courtiers?
We must not underestimate the short-term pressure on media corporations to conform to Trump’s claim on power. For sure, there will be an audience if they report Trump’s tweets, and their financial need to grab audiences wherever they can has never been greater.
But, if news values still mean something, they refer not only to financial imperatives, but to what should count as news. And norms about news must have some relation to what passes for acceptable in a democracy rather than an autocracy.
Why is the ‘twiat’ anti-democratic?
Some might say: Trump’s tweets are just the new way of doing democracy, “get with the program” (in the words of Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer). But, as the grim history of mid-20th-century Europe shows, authoritarian grabs on power only ever worked because their anti-democratic means were accepted by those around them as a novel way of “doing democracy”.
The “twiat” is anti-democratic for two reasons. First, it claims a power (to name individuals, pronounce policy, and condemn actions) against which there is no redress. Its work is done once uttered from the mouth of the “king”.
Second, and more subtly, allowing such power back into political decision-making undermines the slower, more inclusive forms of discussion and reflection that gives modern political democratic institutions their purpose and purchase in the first place.
Trump’s claim to a new form of charismatic power through Twitter is, in part, the flip-side of the damaged legitimacy of today’s democratic process. But, instead of curing that problem, it closes the door on it. The presidential tweeting ushers us into a new space that is no longer recognisable as democratic: a space where complex policy becomes not just too difficult but unnecessary, although its substitutes can still be tweeted.
Can anything be done to stop this? A good start would be to stop reporting the tweets of our would-be Twitter king as if they were news, let alone policy.
Let Trump’s tweets have no more claim on democracy’s attention than the changing opinions of any other powerful figure. Refuse the additional claim to power that Trump’s Twitter stream represents.
Fail to refuse that claim, and all of us risk accepting by default a new form of rule that undermines the restraints on power on which both democracy and media freedoms, in the long term, depend.
When former prime minister Paul Keating said last year it was time to “cut the tag” and loosen the bonds of the Australia’s alliance with the US, who would have thought the man wielding the knife would be Donald Trump?
The public disagreement between the Trump White House and the Turnbull government over the deal to send asylum seekers languishing on Manus Island and Nauru to the US is unprecedented. At no previous time in the history of the Australia-US alliance have things seemed so dire – and got there so quickly.
Past tensions kept quiet
Australian and American leaders over the years have, from time to time, disagreed or said things to cause embarrassment. But for the most part, such disagreements have been kept out of the limelight.
John Howard and Bill Clinton did not like one another. Their discomfort did not, however, seriously affect the alliance. But sometimes discomfort breaks into something stronger.
Blanche D’Alpuget, Bob Hawke’s then-biographer (and later his wife), recounts that Australia’s former foreign minister, Bill Hayden, and US Secretary of State George Shultz loathed one another. Hayden referred to Shultz as “the German pork butcher”, while Shultz called Hayden “stupid” to his face.
But, unlike the current saga, the Hayden-Shultz spat did not become public until after D’Alpuget published her Hawke biography.
In 2008, the content of another phone conversation between Australian and US leaders became pubic. A brief row broke out when reports emerged of a leaked conversation between Kevin Rudd and George Bush.
As the 2008 financial crisis erupted, Rudd had suggested using the G20 as a way of handling things to Bush in a phone conversation. Bush allegedly replied:
What’s the G20?
The White House angrily rejected the public version of events.
Time to think differently
Members of the US Congress have made a rare intervention in the latest spat in an attempt to counter Trump’s amateurish handling of the issue. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said:
Australia is a very important and central ally and it’s going to continue to be.
Republican senator Lindsey Graham admonished Trump, suggesting the president “sleep more and tweet less”. Representative Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee said:
Before the president shows such disrespect again, he should consider this: there is only one nation that has stood with us in every war of the last century, from the fields of France and Belgium to the mountains of Afghanistan – Australia.
Trump has handled this situation very badly. In a very short space of time he has undone decades of work in building trans-Pacific security ties between Australia and the US. Other American allies – Japan and South Korea in particular – must look on, aghast at what has transpired.
But the Australia-US alliance was already under pressure before the phone call between Trump and Malcolm Turnbull went awry. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a vital element in the Obama pivot to Asia, was headed for the dustbin even before the US election. Within hours of being sworn in, Trump cancelled US involvement in the trade deal.
More ominously, other US security partnerships in the region exhibit severe strain. In an eerie and intemperate foreshadowing of Trump’s outburst, Philippine President Duterte in 2016 called Barack Obama a “son of a whore” and then denounced his country’s security alliance with the US and embraced the Chinese.
While many aspects of the US-Philippine relationship are still in place, it is nonetheless showing signs of strain.
The Australia-US relationship has suffered numerous knocks over the past year. The greatest threat to it has not come from China, the Philippines or Australia, but from the US. Trump’s misguided handling of the refugee issue and his withdrawal from the TPP has combined with external events to place real pressure on the alliance.
Trump has cut the tag. Now Australia must think differently about its relationship with the US.
It’s the last thing Malcolm Turnbull would want to do, or will do. But what he should do is walk away from the deal he struck with the Obama administration for the US to take refugees from Nauru and Manus Island.
He should then persuade his cabinet to grant a one-off amnesty, and let these people settle in Australia.
It would be a drastic and, for many in the government, a deeply unpalatable course. But the road Turnbull now has Australia travelling – that of the supplicant – is against our national interest. It’s one that sees the unpredictable Donald Trump treating the US’s close ally with near contempt, one that makes the Australian prime minister hostage to the US president’s capricious behaviour.
At the weekend, in their now much-canvassed telephone conversation, Trump told Turnbull it was his “intention” to honour the refugee agreement while, as revealed by the Washington Post’s detailed report, describing it to Turnbull as the “worst deal ever”.
According to the Post, Trump said Australia was seeking to export the “next Boston bombers”; he also told Turnbull “this was the worst call by far” in his round of five phone calls to world leaders that day, which included one with Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
Trump terminated the conversation after 25 minutes – it was expected to run for longer – although Turnbull insists Trump did not hang up on him, but rather “the call ended courteously”.
By Thursday (Australian time), after days of mixed messages from the US administration, Trump was publicly dissing the deal in the strongest terms, tweeting:
No-one can predict where this imbroglio will now go. As one senior Australian source put it: “We are like a cork bobbing on the sea”.
Logic would suggest that Trump would want to ditch “this dumb deal”, which sits at odds with his suspension of the US refugee intake and must look inconsistent to his rusted-on supporters. But equally, he could go the other way and decide there were pluses – in terms of sway over Australia – in keeping it.
If he does proceed with it, the deal could be scuttled in practice by the US “extreme vetting” process excluding most of the refugees. That would leave Australia, after having endured the diplomatic agony, still with responsibility for the people.
What is clear is that the deal has become a big and damaging issue in the Australian-American partnership.
Turnbull has already come under attack for refusing to criticise Trump’s provocative temporary bans on refugees (indefinite for those from Syria) and entrants from seven majority-Muslim countries, which have been widely condemned internationally. Even if he had other motives, his desire to preserve the refugee agreement was obviously one in Turnbull’s approach.
There could be serious longer-term implications if Trump did go ahead with the deal.
Trump is the ultimate transactional politician. If he does something for Australia, reciprocity will likely be demanded at a later stage – with Trump, whose approach is to bully, having no compunction in putting his foot on Australia’s neck. It could be over anything – such as a further commitment to the Middle East or an involvement if the US escalates pressure on China in the South China Sea.
If Turnbull had received a favour, it would be harder for Australia to resist US pressure to do what it might not want to do. Even if the government were comfortable on policy grounds to go along with some US request there would be the suspicion in the public’s mind that this was a quid pro quo.
Apart from those concerns, it is extremely unfortunate to have this issue, with the fractiousness surrounding it, dominate the start of the Turnbull government’s relationship with the new administration. Trump is known for his vindictiveness. If he keeps the deal but angrily and resentfully, that won’t stand Australia in good stead.
Early sourness could limit the extent to which Australia will be in a position to exert any influence on other matters that are of importance to it, such as trade policy – where there are substantial differences between the two countries – and, in particular, America’s future role in the Asia-Pacific region.
Regional countries will be watching closely how the Australian-US relationship unfolds; much of our clout with them derives from the perceived closeness we have with the Americans.
Critics will claim that if Australia cut its losses, dumped the deal and took in the refugees, all manner of disaster would follow.
In particular, they would say, the people-smugglers would start their trade again.
Turnbull on Thursday reiterated that “the only option that isn’t available” to the refugees “is bringing them to Australia for the obvious reasons that that would provide a signal to the people-smugglers to get back into business”.
Yet they didn’t restart their business when the US agreement was first announced, despite suggestions that this could send them an encouraging message.
The government fortified the border further, and the so-called ring of steel around our north would surely be enough to keep boats at bay if it had to take another step. If not, there is something very wrong with our military and coastguard forces.
Politically, there is no question the amnesty course would be extremely difficult for Turnbull, after all the government has said and done.
How difficult? Well, Labor could hardly score real hits against it.
Turnbull would have much more to fear from the conservative ranks in his own party and the right-wing commentariat – and he doesn’t have a lot of gumption when it comes to standing up to these people.
But it would be better to do so, even with the undoubted political risks that it would involve for him, than allow himself and Australia to be subject to the current and future whims of a US president who is raising a great deal of alarm in many places.