25 September 2019
Donald Trump has not been as bad for Australia as for most other countries, but this doesn’t make his presidency less terrible. The US president has backed autocrats, damaged his country’s alliances, reverted to protectionism, abandoned the Paris climate-change deal, and taken aggressive steps on Iran and North Korea that failed because he had no plan beyond initial attention-seeking gestures. This is all in addition to the damage at home, which includes stoking racism, bolstering gun rights and allegedly interfering with elections.
Last Friday night, Trump welcomed Scott Morrison to a rare state dinner, the first for Australia since former president George W. Bush hosted John Howard in 2006. Watching this mix of sentimentalism and crassness unfold in the White House Rose Garden, it was hard not to recall Oscar Wilde’s response to the death of Little Nell in Charles Dickens: to witness the camaraderie between Trump and Morrison without recoiling, you must have a heart of stone.
Of course, Morrison was right to accept the honour. The problem is how he earned it and what he plans to do with it. Australia was being feted once again as the unquestioning ally, the country that backs the US in all its wars and doesn’t openly disagree with it. It helps that the US has a trade surplus with Australia, and that Trump, who doesn’t understand trade, thinks this is a sign of compliance.
The only other leader to have been honoured with a state dinner by Trump is French president Emmanuel Macron in 2018. But Macron has taken a different approach to Morrison’s. He hasn’t shied from criticising White House policies or from openly trying to persuade Trump to change course on issues such as trade and climate change. This has included inviting the Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, to the recent G7 summit in Biarritz to encourage dialogue between Washington and Tehran. Macron is not anti-American; he invited Zarif with Trump’s blessing. He has called for Trump to support rather than undermine a cooperative liberal international order, framing this as America’s presumptive role since World War II. “America, dear President Trump, is never as great as when it fights for the liberty of others,” he told Trump in June.
Australia, like France, has much to gain from a US that is strongly committed to preserving a stable, rules-based global order, particularly in Asia. Morrison should defend international bodies such as the World Trade Organization, rather than sympathising with Trump’s attacks on them, and he should staunchly oppose Trump’s tariffs, even if Australia has not been the direct target of them.
Morrison has at least succeeded in articulating Australia’s view of China during this trip. He managed to make it clear that Australia has its differences with China but, unlike the US, does not view it as a competitor. “We work well with China,” he said during a meeting with Trump at the Oval Office. “China’s growth has been great for Australia. But we need to make sure that we all compete on the same playing field.” On Monday, during an address to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Morrison stated this position more directly. “We have a trade surplus with China, you have a trade deficit, and quite a significant one and so that is I think going to affect the lens through which you see China and its economic success,” he said.
Australia’s location on the other side of the world to its main ally has often made it anxious. But Australia’s geography also gives it a distinct worldview, shaped by its history, its migrant and trade flows, and its regional interactions. Acting on these differences, even if they divert from White House policy, will not endanger the alliance. It will ensure that displays of solidarity are less dependent on pomp and instead reflect genuine accord between two nations that need not have agreed, but did anyway.