There is one thing above all else that makes the United States the most powerful nation on earth – and no, I am not talking about raw military might, nuclear weapons or economic muscle. It’s one word: alliances. And lots of them.
Take stock for a moment on the sheer number of nations Washington can call on for help in the event of a crisis. Nato, Japan, South Korea, Israel and others form the bedrock of American power, ensuring that Washington’s system of international order continues to hold solid no matter what nation – Russia, China, Iran, North Korea or others – attempts to chip away at it.
And across the Asia Pacific, it has been American alliance networks that have, by and large, kept the region free of destructive great-power wars, allowing Asia and now the larger Indo Pacific to prosper economically for decades.
This brings us to the latest self-inflicted crisis, engineered by America’s new president, Donald J. Trump. While reports on what actually went down vary, it seems Washington’s one and only reality TV star turned leader of the free world has set off a small diplomatic crisis with one of America’s most loyal and trusted allies in Asia in that of Australia.
In what should have been the easiest calls on Trump’s dial-a-world-leader day last Saturday, it seems all did not go well with America’s ally Down Under. While both Trump and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull have said otherwise, it seems the US leader complained about a refugee resettlement plan signed by then president Barack Obama and then unleashed his anger on Twitter when The Washington Post reported on the incident.
Such an unheard of incident in US-Australia ties – the rarest of rare of dust-ups between the most solid of alliances – called into question for many seasoned diplomats here in Washington the foreign policy instincts of Mr Trump, as well as what the future may hold for US allies in Asia, especially as China continues its historic rise, naturally challenging America’s position throughout the region.
How does one see through the fog of Trump?
The “Asia hand” community in Washington is a tight-knit group. Diplomats, experts, think tankers and government experts debate the issues of the day via social media, private email-based “invite only” groups as well as informal get-togethers around town all week and into the weekend.
There was only one topic of conversation this week – the “call” and what Trump’s intentions were for Asia going forward.
Don’t spit in our face or make a mockery of us – our business community makes a lot of money from Beijing, and would love to build up those ties
In speaking with several senior Asian diplomats based in Washington, the mood is turning from what was around the inauguration natural curiosity, to what a few days after was genuine concern – thanks to Trump’s executive order actions – to now, in some instances, growing panic.
“How do we as diplomats advise our government through what I have been calling in cables back to my bosses ‘the fog of Trump’?” explained a senior diplomat working for a major US ally in the East Asia region. “How do I tell them what to do or how to respond when your new president could simply tweet something tough that he does not like about my country and we have few paths to reply – besides being attacked again on social media? What do we do?”
He continued: “We knew Trump would be different, we expected that, but there is no continuity in his actions we can trace. America is a great ally for us in that we have a pattern of history with Washington. We can trust America – we take your word as your bond. But we can’t fear what America will do – your new President is unpredictable, and it scares me.”
Another ally, this time from the broader Indo-Pacific region, was a little less worried. “Yes, the details of the call with Australia worried my government for sure. However, Trump will settle down – the weight of the world’s problems will control his behavior. If not, Trump will pay a very heavy price. He can only get away with being Mr TV for so long.”
Another choice exists
While many share the viewpoint that Trump’s behavior will settle down in the days to come, several senior Australian officials and retired diplomats I was able to speak with put it in more stark terms: Canberra has a choice when it comes to who it will ally with and should not take such public shaming so lightly.
“Allies make trade-offs with one another,” explained a senior Australian official, who agreed to speak on condition of anonimity as he was not authorized to speak for his government, but in his own personal capacity.
Australia is one of several nations stuck in the middle of an ongoing geopolitical tug-of-war between Washington and Beijing
“Yes, you are taking in a small amount of our refugees, sure, and we very much appreciate that. At the same time, we have made major commitments to you in case China’s actions become kinetic – we allow the rotation of your forces into our country. Beijing hates it – but we do it, because our partnership is forged in blood and honor. But don’t spit in our face or make a mockery of us – our business community makes a lot of money from Beijing, and would love to build up those ties.”
Indeed, in many respects, Australia is one of several nations stuck in the middle of an ongoing geopolitical tug-of-war between Washington and Beijing. China is Australia’s largest trading partner, passing America years ago, and is dependent on Beijing for much of its economic growth – a nation that is referred to as “the lucky country,” for years of unbroken financial momentum even during the global economic crisis.
But such luck could run out if America and China were ever to come to blows, forcing Australia to come to America’s aid in a crisis – and with it, the end of Canberra’s economic fortunes.
“Australia has been debating for years now our place in the world – and what nations best fit our needs as allies,” explained a respected retired Australian diplomat. “While no one here is going to sign up to an alliance with Beijing anytime soon, you have to admit, Canberra is not going to like being treated with disrespect by your president, and then have your politicians call our diplomats to apologize [a reference to calls made by Senator John McCain and others to Australia’s ambassador to the United States].
“While this incident will pass, many are questioning the intentions of your president. And that worries me. We never, ever, thought we would ever be in such a position with your country.”
A lesson for Trump: Get the optics right
While it is tough to tell what lasting impact – if any – this scuffle with the most solid of allies will have on the administration, it certainly puts a fine cap on what has been a rough week and a half for the new administration.
While many in conservative circles are proud of his accomplishments and can-do attitude, energy and willingness to tackle the issues he considers important, his biggest challenge now is getting the optics – a word we love to use in Washington – finely calibrated.
Simply stated: Trump is sure to rattle some cages when he makes big policy decisions or has tough negotiations with world leaders, but it’s how he does it as opposed to what he is doing.
But, as the above senior Australian official made quite clear, “Trump seems to have this thing with getting the most value for his buck. He should know alliances pay for themselves. And treating allies with respect matters. Sure, allies have their spats, but we can work through them in a polite and thoughtful manner. We don’t need such theatrics – we have options, you know.”
Harry J. Kazianis (@grecianformula) is director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest, founded by former US President Richard M. Nixon, as well as executive editor of The National Interest. In the past, Kazianis has managed the foreign policy communications of The Heritage Foundation and served as editor of The Diplomat.