Diplomacy among Trump’s many shortcomings
US president’s attitude in conversation with Australian leader and his threat to invade Mexico do little to inspire confidence in American leadership
The United States enjoys the advantage of a network of alliances with scores of countries. This should be an asset in the fight against terrorism. But President Donald Trump risks devaluing it with rhetoric that has spread uncertainty about his commitment to allies and to democratic values. His actions in office have done little to dispel it – quite the contrary.
An example is a phone call that was heard around the world. Until now, national leaders have keenly anticipated the introductory conversation with a new American president that signals the importance Washington attaches to relationships. After the experience of Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull that may not be so certain. Trump abruptly ended their conversation, which tended to evoke his sentiment that “we’re taken advantage of by every nation in the world” rather than cement a long-standing defence alliance.
Turnbull had struck a deal with Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, for the US to accept about 1,250 asylum seekers from two offshore refugee camps. US officials say Trump tried to repudiate it as a deal struck between two men rather than two countries that was “the worst ever”, and an attempt to “export the next Boston bombers”. A resolute Turnbull’s view that it was between two countries prevailed, with Trump finally agreeing to honour it, but the damage to America’s reputation for keeping its word on a humanitarian issue was done. Leaks of the conversation saw to that, not to mention Trump’s subsequent tweet that “I will study this dumb deal”. The agreement was exempt from his executive order banning travel from a number of majority-Muslim countries – the origins of many of the refugees.
This followed his row with neighbouring Mexico last month in which he said he might order an invasion. The Trump doctrine may be to put America first. But at times the way he has gone about it projects ambivalence between right and wrong and allies and enemies. Domestically, he has demonstrated contempt for values such as freedom of speech and judicial independence. The controversial and legally disputed travel ban has prompted the speaker of Britain’s House of Commons, John Bercow, to come out, many months ahead of a state visit by Trump, in opposition to him being invited to address parliament, citing racism, sexism and judicial independence among other issues. That should be a reminder to Trump as he introduces himself to world leaders that regardless of doctrine the decisions of the world’s most powerful nation can have far-reaching consequences.