The leaked tapes of Donald Trump’s first presidential conversations with the leaders of Mexico and Australia show the sausage making of international politics in all its gory detail. It is unedifying but it is also not unusual and it is important to be be able to play your cards well in diplomatic negotiation. Many have said Donald Trump comes out badly in these tapes, but while he was typically boastful, I thought he handled both conversations astutely clearly showing he intended to live up to his electoral promises. But there were key differences in the way the two conversations were handled by the other side that show the deep hollowness in the core of Australian democracy.
Imagine for a moment you are a world leader and it is your first conversation with the newly elected president of the US, a president who came from left field and a president that has threatened to tear up the world order in his avowed aim to “Make America Great Again”. What would you want to discuss? Maybe you would want to discuss what MAGA means to world trade, what it means to the global climate accord or what it means to international security co-operation, or what it means to the large American military bases and forces on your soil.
Certainly that is how Mexican president Peña Nieto saw that first conversation. Tensions were high over arguments about who would pay for Trump’s proposed border wall and Nieto had cancelled a planned trip to Washington a day earlier. Yet the call was most calm and productive with both sides getting across their messages.
Nieto immediately acknowledged Trump’s mandate about the wall but said it was politically unacceptable and he wanted “to look for ways to save these differences”. In return Trump brought up the US’s $60 billion trade deficit with Mexico saying tariffs were necessary. This proposal “this won me the election, along with military and healthcare,” Trump said.
Nieto reminded Trump that changing economic conditions would affect migration between the two countries, to which Trump brought up the Mexican drug lords. “Maybe your military is afraid of them, but our military is not afraid of them,” he said. He Mexico was beating the US at trade, at the border, and in the drug war. He said Israeli PM Netenyahu told him a wall works and it would be cheaper than the estimated costs. In the meantime, he advised both sides to stop talking about it and say “We will work it out. It will work out in the formula somehow.” The two sides agreed to continue talking and the call ended amiably.
Contrast this with the Malcolm Turnbull call. Australia is not a direct neighbour of the US and unlike Mexico has a trade deficit with the US. But Australia is a major military partner of the US, part of the Five Eyes alliance, home to a large US military presence in Darwin and home to the secretive spy base at Pine Gap. It shares a lot of cultural commonality as an English speaking settler country and both countries are among the highest carbon emitters per capita in the world.
But none of those issues came out in the call. Instead Trump became increasingly exasperated as Turnbull pressed him on a matter of domestic politics. The Australian Twitterati have made endless fun of the call particularly around the references to Greg Norman and “local milk people” but Trump twice skewers Turnbull on the one matter he chose to bring up.
That issue was boat people, refugees stranded on Nauru and Manus Island which Australia refuses to house on the mainland. That is a serious issue, but not one Turnbull wanted to resolve. All he wanted was for Trump to honour a grubby deal Australia signed with Obama, and unsurprisingly Trump baulked. In November the outgoing US administration agreed to a refugee swap, taking over a 1000 refugees from Nauru and Manus in exchange for a similar number Central American refugees who had escaped violence in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras and were being held in US-funded facilities in Costa Rica. Turnbull wanted Trump to honour the deal. “This is a very big issue for us, particularly domestically,” he said.
Trump said this deal to take 2000 people would be a bad look for him given he was calling for a ban on immigration from the countries the Australian refugees came from. ” It sends such a bad signal,” he said. Turnbull said the US had the right of veto through vetting and none were from the conflict zone. “They are basically economic refugees from Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan…They have been under our supervision for over three years now and we know exactly everything about them,” he said.
So why hadn’t you left them free, asked Trump reasonably. Turnbull blamed the people smugglers “we had to deprive them of the product.” It didn’t matter if “you are the best person in the world” Australia would not let them in by boat. Later on Turnbull admitted the cruelty of the directive, “If they had arrived by airplane and with a tourist visa then they would be here”. A confused Trump said “Why do you discriminate against boats?” Turnbull said the problem with the boats was it outsourced the immigration program to people smugglers and thousands of people drowned at sea. Yet Trump had a sneaking admiration for Australia’s hard stance and Turnbull pressed on yes, suggest he (Trump) say “we can conform with that deal – we are not obliged to take anybody we do not want, we will go through extreme vetting.”
Trump got angry again saying he would refuse to say that as it made him look “so bad” in his first week in office. “We are not taking anybody in, those days are over,” he said. Turnbull desperately hung on to the deal in a telling exchange:
Trump: Suppose I vet them closely and I do not take any? Turnbull: That is the point I have been trying to make. Trump: How does that help you? Turnbull: we assume that we will act in good faith.
Again Trump reminded him this deal would make him look weak and ineffectual. Turnbull oozed on: “You can certainly say that it was not a deal that you would have done, but you are going to stick with it.” No wonder Trump was sick of him at this stage and said it was the most unpleasant call of the day. “Thank you for your commitment. It is very important to us,” concluded Turnbull sounding all the world like a call centre operator. Trump was having none of it. “It is important to you and it is embarrassing to me. It is an embarrassment to me, but at least I got you off the hook.”
Off the hook. Not only the did phone call end there but Turnbull thought he had wriggled out of a domestic crisis, only for details of the call to be leaked that very day. Turnbull had used precious capital in his few minutes with the president of the United States to press a very minor issue, simply to avoid bad headlines back home. Almost 400 people remain in detention in Nauru and another 900 on Manus. Maybe they will be settled in the US but it won’t fix the source of the problem, the wars in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq – that both the US and Australia are involved in. People smuggling is a reactive model. Unauthorised travel to Australia is driven by the desperate measures of people fleeing persecution.