Alliance management and the Trump administration

If the Trump–Turnbull call illustrated the operatic nature of the early Trump administration, then the Trump–Abe long weekend presented an alternative picture of US alliance management under the new President.

Both episodes demonstrate how leader-to-leader relations play a role in maintaining forward momentum of an alliance and shaping how it is viewed. Any leaders-level changing of goal posts—on not tweeting opinions about preexisting deals, say—undermines public, as well as official, trust and risks amplifying divergent interests. Conversely, a rapport based on extended interaction and a focus on the overall relationship can consolidate a relationship and help smooth over past problems and divergent interests.

Regarding the Trump–Turnbull call: disagreements are far from unheard of in the US–Australia relationship. But the leaking of the truncated call and President Trump’s ‘dumb deal’ focus and tweet helped transform it into a metaphor for the broader dysfunction in the early days of this White House: the disruption and volatility, significant leaking and limited agency involvement.

It certainly blindsided both Canberra and Washington (beyond the Oval Office), because if any ally had been well positioned with the alliance-sceptical President Trump, it was Australia. Australia pulls its weight more than many other US allies: it’s helping to combat ISIS in the Middle East and increasing defence spending to 2% of GDP—in addition to Australia’s valuable intelligence partnership with the US, high-capability military and key role in US force dispersal strategy.

Prime Minister Abe’s visit built on his initial meeting with then President-elect Trump as the first foreign leader to visit after the election. President Trump emphasised the ‘very, very good bond’ between himself and Abe, and the opening hug, discussion and long handshake at the White House were followed by a Mar-a-Lago weekend of business, golf, and dinner. Both Trump and Abe appeared eager to build good will and make the visit a success. Abe announced Japan’s increased investment in the US, and Trump reaffirmed America’s security commitment to Japan—including the disputed islands—and thanked Japan for hosting American troops.

President Trump clearly values face-to-face meetings, and this visit focused more on the overall US–Japan relationship rather than a purely transactional, individual-deal-based approach. Both sides sought to subsume problems—not least Trump’s previous provocative comments about Japan’s value as an ally—within the broader context of a robust alliance.

But it’s still too early to view the Abe visit as the start of a new trajectory for Trump’s alliance management. Athough the Trump–Trudeau meeting seemed positive, Secretary of State Tillerson, Defence Secretary Mattis, and Vice President Pence’s European trips indicate how messages of reassurance to allies can be undercut by confusing signals from the President himself.

As with all things in the Trump administration, it’s unlikely alliance management will be linear, and there are some concerning open questions. Most pressing: is the chaos emanating from the White House the teething pains of a new administration—though unlike any we have seen—or is this an administration in crisis?  Will the new national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, manage to calm a National Security Council in disarray and institute an orderly policy process?  How will McMaster affect the competing centres of power within the White House and the access secretaries Tillerson and Mattis have to the President, and can key positions in the NSC, State and Defence be filled quickly?

As for Australia, these initial indications of the Trump administration’s alliance management have been instructive.  The fundamentals of ANZUS are robust enough to withstand the phone call—which is good, because ANZUS remains critically important to Australia’s defence, at a time of regional military modernisation and soaring defence technology costs.  The White House would also have seen the extraordinary groundswell of American popular and Congressional support for Australia and ANZUS after the call: a timely reminder not just of ANZUS’ history but its contemporary strategic importance.

Canberra is now adapting to the profoundly changed circumstances by working the multiple tracks of the bilateral relationship, including traditional channels with the State Department, the Department of Defense, Vice-President Pence’s office, and Congress.  Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s meetings with the Vice President and Secretary Tillerson were important opportunities to fortify the relationship, get more insight into US policy, and provide Australia’s views on critical issues.  These below-leaders’ level channels will likely continue to be a focus for Canberra; leaders’ level relations can be built when Prime Minister Turnbull visits the US.  It’s also a good time to utilise other channels of communication, including business, technology, and cultural/entertainment contacts.

The early, frenzied weeks of the Trump administration will surely give added impetus to Canberra’s push to shore up other security partnerships, including with Japan, Singapore, India and South Korea, as part of the broader regional web of bilateral, trilateral and multilateral security linkages in the face of questions about America’s ongoing regional role.

Adapting to the Trump administration and its alliance management will require adroit navigation and a strong sense of Australia’s national interests.

This article was originally published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) on February 23, 2017

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Feb 24, 2017
Elsina Wainwright
East Asia, United States