The Search for a Syria Strategy
What Biden Can Learn From Trump’s Successes and Failures
In late January, just days after taking office, U.S. President Donald Trump sat down in the Oval Office for his first official call with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Seated around the Resolute Desk with Trump were Michael Flynn, then Trump’s national security adviser; Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist; and Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary. It should not have been a difficult or fractious exchange: it was an introductory conversation with the leader of the United States’ most reliable ally, the only country to fight beside the United States in every major conflict of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
But instead of a friendly discussion, the exchange was “hostile and charged,” according to senior U.S. officials speaking to The Washington Post. Trump “boasted about the magnitude of his electoral college win” and “blasted” Turnbull over a refugee-transfer agreement that Australia had reached with the Obama administration. He told Turnbull, “This was the worst call by far,” and then abruptly ended it after just 25 minutes, less than halfway through the allotted hour. Trump later tweeted about the refugee agreement, promising to “study this dumb deal.”
Reports of the call struck like a lightning bolt on the Australian political scene. No one was surprised to learn that Trump had a poor telephone manner. But what were Australians to make of the fact that on the same day that Trump had a warm, hour-long call with Russian President Vladimir Putin—an opponent of the liberal order and an adversary of the United States—he treated their prime minister with disrespect? Some thought that Turnbull had been unwise to broach the refugee issue at all, given Trump’s statements on immigration. Nevertheless, Australians of all persuasions concluded that Trump’s behavior had been both appalling and revealing.
Australians are not delicate flowers. They have been known to use rough language. The problem was not the phone call itself but what it represented. It crystallized broader concerns about Trump’s worldview, which may have significant consequences for Australian interests and for Australian foreign policy in the coming years. It is conceivable that Trump’s presidency may push Australia away from the United States. But hopefully, the lasting result will instead be a more ambitious Australia that seeks to shape its external environment and contribute to a stable balance of power in Asia and the rest of the world. With Trump in the White House, it is time for Australians to think big.
Australians had made up their minds about Trump long before that call. Polling conducted in early 2016 by the Lowy Institute (which I direct) had found that they favored Hillary Clinton over Trump in the presidential race by a ratio of seven to one. Almost half of Australian adults polled agreed that Australia should distance itself from the United States if it elected a president like Trump. In the final year of the Obama administration, a Pew Research Center poll found, 84 percent of Australians were confident that the U.S. president would “do the right thing” in world affairs; under Trump, that figure has fallen to 29 percent.
There are three reasons for Trump’s Antipodean unpopularity. First, his personal style runs contrary to Australian sensibilities. Trump is high energy; Australians are low-key. Trump cannot stop talking, especially about himself; Australians are laconic and taciturn. They have no tolerance for bluster and prefer self-deprecation to self-aggrandizement. The greatest sin in Australia is to be “up yourself.”
Second, Australians have themselves been down a populist path and found that it leads nowhere. More than 20 years ago, they first elected to the Federal Parliament their own right-wing nativist with a famous hairstyle, Pauline Hanson. They soon realized that Hanson had questions to ask but no answers to give.
Hanson has now run for election at the state and federal levels 11 times, and succeeded only twice. She is almost as well known for starring on reality television shows—including Celebrity Apprentice Australia—as she is for serving in Parliament. Like Trump, Hanson feeds on the alienation of people who feel they have been left behind. But when she is elected to a position of responsibility, support drains away, as Australians recognize both her personal shortcomings and the limitations of the people around her.
Last year, Hanson was elected to Parliament for the second time. Later, she toasted Trump’s electoral victory with champagne outside Parliament House. She followed his lead in describing Putin as a strong leader, even though Putin’s proxies took the lives of 38 Australians when they shot down a civilian airliner over eastern Ukraine in 2014. She recently called for a Trump-style travel ban on Muslims. One year after her election, however, Hanson is in trouble again, with indifferent public support, party infighting, and investigations into her campaign finances.
The third, and most important, reason Australians do not like Trump is that his foreign policy instincts—expressed repeatedly over the past three decades—run directly counter to their own. Trump wants the United States to play a shrunken role in the world; Australia wants the United States to play a significant one. Trump is sympathetic to isolationism; Australians are inclined toward internationalism. Trump is an alliance skeptic; Australians are alliance believers. Trump is hostile to free trade; Australia is a trading nation. Trump swoons over autocrats and strongmen; Australia is an old democracy and a free society. Trump decries globalists; nearly four in five Australians polled by the Lowy Institute agreed that globalization is mostly good for Australia.
With Trump in the White House, it is time for Australians to think big.
Australia’s primary strategic instinct has long been to make common cause with a like-minded global ally. But Trump’s plan to “make America great again” renounces several of the pillars of American greatness—and compromises core Australian interests.
In the week after the phone call between Trump and Turnbull, Washington rallied around Australia. Canberra’s ambassador was invited to the White House to meet with Bannon and Reince Priebus, Trump’s chief of staff. A bipartisan group of senators sponsored a resolution expressing support for the alliance. Both governments worked to repair the relationship, culminating in a May dinner aboard the Intrepid in New York Harbor, where Trump made nice with Turnbull.
Turnbull also made nice with Trump, even agreeing when the president told reporters that their earlier phone call had been “a very, very good call” and that media accounts of it had been “fake news.” Just as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and British Prime Minister Theresa May had done, Turnbull had calculated that Australia’s interests required him to maintain something resembling a working relationship with the president of the United States.
Yet Australians remain troubled by Trump’s approach to foreign policy. On his first full day in office, Trump withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation trade agreement that also includes Australia, undercutting the United States’ position in Asia and putting the entire agreement at risk. In June, he announced his intention to withdraw from the Paris climate accord, leading Australians to conclude that Washington is not serious about a global challenge that concerns them greatly. He has been wholly unconvincing in demonstrating his commitment to the principle of collective defense codified in Article 5 of NATO’s founding treaty, which underpins all U.S. alliances. He has been careless in his handling of intelligence provided to Washington by allies. This kind of conduct undermines perceptions of U.S. reliability. Golf clubs are about membership dues; alliances are about solidarity.
When U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Sydney in June for the annual Australia–United States Ministerial Consultations, or AUSMIN, they said the right things. But the Australian participants could not help but look past the two secretaries to the man looming behind them. Will Mattis and Tillerson really get to shape U.S. policy? Will Trump allow the tension between his views and theirs to continue, or will he move to resolve it? History has shown that the long-held attitudes of U.S. presidents ultimately determine their administrations’ foreign policies. George W. Bush’s instinctive decision-making style and distaste for detail led to the invasion and chaotic occupation of Iraq. Barack Obama’s excessive caution and aversion to the use of force led to a more reserved global posture. To date, Trump has left most policymaking to his aides and senior administration officials, even delegating some strategic decisions to the Pentagon. He appears less interested in being the commander in chief than in looking like the commander in chief. But he has not yet encountered a single externally generated crisis. What will he do when chronic international problems become acute?
Despite their distrust of Trump, Australians do not want to walk away from the alliance. According to the latest Lowy Institute polling, 77 percent of Australians still consider the alliance either “very” or “fairly” important for Australia’s security. Only three out of ten now think that “Australia should distance itself from the United States under President Donald Trump.” These results reflect the basic pragmatism of Australians: they take the world as they find it, not as they would like it to be. Yet it is an open question how long the relationship can prosper under the weight of Trump’s behavior.
THE CHINA DEBATE
Even before Trump’s election, Australians were debating the future of the U.S. alliance—largely because of the rise of China. A number of prominent individuals, including former prime ministers and foreign ministers, as well as commentators, have argued for greater independence from the United States and a stronger relationship with China.
The foreign policy debate in Australia has become bipolar. The security establishment is uneasy about China’s new assertiveness and unsettled by evidence that elements close to the Chinese Communist Party are using their financial largess to try to drive Australian public debate, and policy, in a direction that would benefit Beijing. But parts of the business community, especially those with economic connections to the giant Chinese market, are frustrated at the pro-American cast of Australian foreign policy.
The China boosters argue that Australia should do more to accommodate China’s rise. Australians, the thinking goes, should keep their noses out of China’s business, both inside its borders and around its coastlines, and accept that the future Asian order will be centered on Beijing. Some even say that Australia should use its influence in Washington to encourage the United States to share power in Asia.
Will Mattis and Tillerson really get to shape U.S. policy?
That argument neglects the full benefits of the U.S. alliance for Australia. The alliance provides a security guarantee, intelligence that helps Canberra understand the world and counter threats to Australia, and military cooperation that keeps the Australian Defence Force sharp. Why should Australia turn away from an old ally, especially one that remains the most powerful country in the world and with whom it shares both a worldview and an interest in the status quo? Why should Australia tilt toward a power with an uncertain domestic future and an uneven foreign policy? Unsolicited gifts to rising powers are usually pocketed rather than reciprocated. And given the doubts about China’s future trajectory, there is little reason to move preemptively toward Beijing. Instead, Australia should hedge against the risk of future Chinese rashness by keeping the United States deeply engaged in the region.
For seven decades, a formidable U.S. forward presence—in the form of service members stationed in Japan and South Korea, along with the U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet—has underpinned regional stability. It has kept a lid on interstate friction and maintained an open regional order that has allowed the rise of successive Asian countries. Not surprisingly, few Asians relish the prospect of a region dominated by China. Instead, most want a balance of forces in Asia, with a general acceptance of international norms and the rule of law, along with the long-term presence of the United States.
ADRIFT IN ASIA
The Trump administration lacks an overarching approach to Asia, despite having sent a string of senior officials, including Mattis, Tillerson, and Vice President Mike Pence, to visit the region. It has rejected the Obama administration’s “pivot,” or “rebalance,” to Asia, while putting nothing new in its place.
In many ways, the administration seems to have shrunk “Asia” to the dimensions of North Korea. Yet for all the focus on how to counter Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and missile programs, there is almost as much confusion about Trump’s North Korea policy as there was a few months ago about the location of the USS Carl Vinson, the aircraft carrier said by the U.S. military and the White House to be heading toward North Korea when it was in fact going in the opposite direction. The administration has proclaimed that “the era of strategic patience is over,” in Pence’s formulation, but said much less about what new era has begun. Until recently, Trump appeared to believe that China would pressure Pyongyang to freeze its programs. Predictably, this has not happened: Beijing’s interests on the Korean Peninsula are far from identical to Washington’s.
This belief warped the administration’s broader posture toward the region. Far from confronting China, as he threatened to do during the campaign, Trump coddled it, acting overly deferential in an effort to obtain Chinese assistance. He initially created leverage with Chinese President Xi Jinping by questioning Washington’s “one China” policy, but then gave that leverage away in exchange for nothing more than an introductory phone call. Before long, Trump had declined to declare Beijing a currency manipulator, dropped his tough campaign-trail rhetoric, and hosted Xi at Mar-a-Lago, with his grandchildren greeting the visiting delegation with songs and poetry in Mandarin.
Few Asians relish the prospect of a region dominated by China.
Trump’s China policy is probably more transactional and ad hoc than deliberately acquiescent. In July, amid signs that the president was becoming disillusioned with Xi, the administration sanctioned Chinese businesses engaged in illicit dealings with the North Koreans, approved an arms deal with Taiwan, and moved forward with freedom-of-navigation operations by U.S. naval vessels near disputed territories in the South China Sea. In the long term, however, an accommodation between Trump and Xi seems as likely as an argument. It is hard to believe that Trump cares about a few half-submerged water features in the South China Sea. And it is possible to imagine Trump, an unbeliever in alliances, cutting some kind of grand bargain with China, perhaps trading away security interests in return for trade concessions.
Most Australians would prefer that Trump adopt a different approach—one that takes a firmer stance than the Obama administration did when it comes to deterring Chinese efforts to coerce other Asian countries, while still cooperating with Beijing when appropriate. Such a strategy, however, would involve a greater commitment of U.S. resources and an acceptance of greater risk. Few Australians think that the Trump administration, which includes no Asia hands of note, has the deftness to pull it off.
PRESENT AT THE DESTRUCTION
Australian expectations of Washington go beyond Asia. Canberra also looks to the United States to play the role of global leader. That’s because Australia has always seen itself as a country with global interests, if not global capabilities. The many distant theaters in which Australians have served are inscribed in the cloisters of the Australian War Memorial, in Canberra. They include the Sudan, South Africa during the Boer War, and China during the Boxer Rebellion; the Dardanelles, northern France, Flanders, Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Palestine in World War I; Greece, Crete, North Africa, Burma, Malaya, Papua, and New Guinea in World War II; and Korea, Vietnam, East Timor, the Solomon Islands, Afghanistan, and Iraq more recently. Australia also has a history of vigorous involvement in international institutions: Australians are joiners by instinct and practice. A country of Australia’s size benefits greatly from an international order in which the rules of the road are well established and widely observed. Australian governments have always been eager to join (and, if necessary, help erect) institutions of global governance. At the San Francisco conference in 1945, Australia fought for and won a greater role for smaller powers in the new United Nations. Ever since, it has been an active stakeholder in the liberal international order. Now, however, it faces a U.S. president who is not liberal in his outlook, nor international in his posture, nor orderly in his behavior.
The United States’ unique position in the world is based on more than its strategic clout. Washington remains the only capital capable of running a truly global foreign policy and projecting military power anywhere on earth, but it is not just the United States’ GDP or blue-water navy that secures its position. The idea of the United States continues to fascinate and attract: a superpower that is open, democratic, and meritocratic; a country of awesome power but also dignity and restraint. The United States is strongest when it works with others.
Franklin Roosevelt understood the power of his country’s appeal to the world. With his ready laugh and cigarette holder held at a jaunty angle, he was the quintessential American optimist. By signing on to the Atlantic Charter (with its provisions against territorial aggrandizement and for freedom of trade and the seas) and pressing his British ally on decolonization, Roosevelt signaled that other nations mattered in the American worldview. For the post–World War II settlement, he designed institutions of global order that gave others a voice even while ensuring American predominance.
Trump presents a different face to the international community. He is not persuaded that the United States does well when others do well: in fact, he seems to prefer that others do poorly. He is contemptuous of international institutions that, for the most part, serve a useful function for the United States. He is oblivious to the advantages of being at the center of the global order. He is dubious about the value of alliances, even though China or Russia would dearly love to have an alliance network as powerful and cost effective as that of the United States. Trump’s policies alienate other countries, and they also damage U.S. interests.
Seventy years ago, the administration led by Roosevelt’s successor, Harry Truman, helped create the postwar world in which Australia has prospered. Dean Acheson, Truman’s secretary of state, called his memoir Present at the Creation. Australians today worry that they are present at the destruction.
Australians have a choice, but it is not between sticking with the United States and shifting their loyalty to a rising China. Australia cannot merely cast off an old ally and throw in its lot with a new prospect; nor, given the new international circumstances, can it afford to fall back on familiar approaches.
The real question is whether Australians will choose to be spectators at the global game or participants in it. As the United States does less under Trump, Australia should do more. Australia needs to prosecute a larger foreign policy. It should work as closely as possible with its long-standing ally, mainly by working with other partners in Washington rather than relying on the president himself. But Canberra cannot look at the world solely through an alliance prism. It needs to bolster international institutions, many of which it helped establish, but toward which Trump is ill disposed. And it must strengthen its connections in Asia, a region in which Trump seems uninterested. That means working with China when their interests overlap but also thickening its ties with Asian democracies such as India, Indonesia, Japan, and South Korea. Greater cooperation with like-minded regional powers can be an important hedge against the dual hazards of a reckless China and a feckless United States.
Australia must try to shape its environment, and contribute to Asia’s security and prosperity, at a time when it is less able to rely on its great and powerful friend. Australia is a beneficiary of the international order. From time to time, therefore, the country must serve in its bodyguard. Earlier this year, Australia’s prime minister placed a call to the leader of the free world and all he got was static. The question is, What will the Australians do while difficulties on the line persist?