Some 1,250 asylum seekers — largely males from Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan — had sought residency in Australia.
In the weeks and months to come, it is going to be extremely important to distinguish President Donald Trump’s personal angularities from the popularity or appeal of his policies within the United States. This is crucial because it will offer an insight into the political and social mood in America, as different from admittedly unprepossessing aspects of Mr Trump’s personality.
Take the temporary ban on immigration and even tourist or business visits from seven largely Muslim countries — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. At the simplest level, such categorisation may appear unfair and a throwback to America’s isolationist, anti-outsider past, specially in the second half of the 19th century and early 20th century. Yet, the fact is Mr Trump’s executive order only built on directives and laws that have been around since 9/11 — under the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations. The new President has been brash and loud enough — perhaps crude enough — to tom-tom it for the benefit of his electoral base. Fundamentally, though, he has not invented this mood or regime.
Some numbers would be educative here. Mr Trump won 46.1 per cent of the popular vote in the presidential election, two percentage points behind his rival, Hillary Clinton. A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll, conducted in all 50 American states, found 49 per cent of citizens agreed with Mr Trump’s anti-immigration executive order and only 41 per cent opposed it. No doubt this was just one opinion poll and there will be more, and more authoritative, such surveys. Nevertheless it does tell us there is an anxiety in America that Mr Trump has touched, exploited and exaggerated for effect. He has not, however, created it.
This would suggest that unless economic conditions and political concerns change dramatically, the world is in for a surly American mood for the near future. Those dreaming of a Trump resignation or impeachment — both unlikely eventualities — or holding hope for a new thinking in four years, following the next election, cannot alter that reality.
Intelligent interlocutors will come to live with this framework and work within the limits it allows. Mr Trump’s phone call with Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is worth a comment here. There is little doubt that the leaks about the turbulent conversation didn’t do Mr Trump’s public relations any good. They only gave the impression of a man bent on wrecking relations between the US and one of its closest allies. Even so, what was the problem about?
Some 1,250 asylum seekers — largely males from Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan — had sought residency in Australia. Canberra denied them asylum and detained them instead in controversial offshore centres in Nauru and Papua New Guinea. In November 2016, after the presidential election had been won by Mr Trump and while Mr Obama was a lame-duck President, the Obama administration and the Australian government finalised a deal whereby the US would take in those asylum seekers from Australian detention camps, even though Australia itself had refused them permanent homes.
Mr Trump’s imminent presidency and views on refugees and visa restrictions were no secret at the time. For better or worse, he had campaigned on that theme and for better or worse he had won a majority in the Electoral College. Obviously his predecessor was laying a landmine for him. As representatives of a partner country, Australian diplomats should have been alive to the fact that the agreement would not find support from a Trump government. At the very least, some informal consultations would have been recommended. This is regular diplomatic practice in times of a domestic political transition.
For whatever reason, this was not done. The Australians presumed Mr Trump would honour his predecessor’s agreement and he has chosen not to. What was surprising, however, was for the Australian PM to have brought up such a combustible issue in his very first conversation with his new American counterpart. Such summit-level references are usually only made after sufficient groundwork has been done by sherpas and officials below and there is adequate assurance of success.
To have sought to surprise or ambush Mr Trump in this manner, specially in the week of his anti-immigration executive order, showed extraordinary naiveté or risk-taking by the Australian PM. Of course, this is not to in any manner condone the American President’s over-the-top response. Mr Trump may be a porcupine, but did Mr Turnbull have to provoke him?
In the process what the two men have achieved is a disturbing of the delicate balance between pro-American and pro-Chinese constituencies in Australia. It has given a handle to people like Bob Carr, former Australian foreign minister, to tell the Sydney Morning Herald: “It forces us to drop romantic notions of the alliance and now be more realistic… It liberates (Australian) leaders to say no to Washington if it seeks to recruit us for any reckless adventure. America has taken a nationalist direction and won’t be returning to global leadership as we’ve understood it.”
Those words would have carried greater credibility if Mr Carr had not been director of a Beijing-supported think tank in Sydney. He is one of a series of senior Australian political figures and former public officials, including former PMs, who have been co-opted by Chinese donors and commercial interests and by use of advisory positions that come with generous perquisites. The Trump-Turnbull fracas has only given such voices that much more room.
It is entirely probable the Australia episode will be replicated in other countries, specially in Asia and parts of Europe, where Chinese investments in business and academia have created a sizeable influence group that could easily intersect or even hijack anti-Trump sentiment. This is a risk America runs, but Mr Trump, at least in the near term, doesn’t seem to care about.
Having said that many of the countries and societies concerned need America and the American partnership in a longer frame, even if it means adjusting to America’s domestic imperatives and contraction of interest in globalisation and multilateralism — and even if it means suffering Mr Trump’s bullheadedness. For such countries, negotiating these multiple imperatives will be the key diplomatic challenge of 2017.