Dishonor and distraction. That is what Donald Trump brought the United States Wednesday when news broke that he inexplicably lashed out at the prime minister of Australia in a phone call, tried to renege on an agreement between the two nations, and bragged as ever about himself. To add insult to insolence, he then took to Twitter to complain.
The Washington Post first reported on the self-indulgent outburst:
President Trump blasted Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull over a refugee agreement and boasted about the magnitude of his electoral college win, according to senior U.S. officials briefed on the Saturday exchange. Then, 25 minutes into what was expected to be an hour-long call, Trump abruptly ended it. At one point, Trump informed Turnbull that he had spoken with four other world leaders that day — including Russian President Vladimir Putin — and that “this was the worst call by far.”
Trump’s behavior suggests that he is capable of subjecting world leaders, including close allies, to a version of the vitriol he frequently employs against political adversaries and news organizations in speeches and on Twitter.
Australian media sources soon confirmed parts of the story.
By Thursday, a columnist at the Sydney Morning Herald had coined a new name for the president of the United States: “Donald Trump is the Mad King: volatile, vainglorious, and untrustworthy,” Mark Kenny wrote. “Trump is now gainsaying his own private commitments, via Twitter. This is an extraordinary situation and one that is almost impossible to manage. American prestige is on the line.” In fact, it took a hit.
President Obama’s critics argued that the United States was no longer respected under his tenure. Trump assured his voters that he alone would make America respected again. After barely a week his undisciplined antics have damaged America’s standing with multiple allies. “World leaders be warned,” the Australian newspaper declared. “Trump's conversations are not private and his word, unreliable.”
Who can now deny that?
Other allies were watching. Trump’s behavior made all the British papers. The story in the conservative Telegraph at one point characterized Trump as having a “tantrum.”
And the image Trump has projected to the world is bullying disloyalty.
After all, there is no country that has stood by the U.S. like Australia. The two nations’ soldiers fought alongside each other in World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, and Iraq. They’ve helped America battle al-Qaeda and ISIS. They are a member of the Five Eyes, an intelligence alliance of English-speaking countries that shares mutually beneficial information. That all counts for something. Our shared language and similar cultures do, too. But the alliance is not to be taken for granted.
The prosperity of Australians is no longer mainly a function of their relationship with the United States. “The rise of China has created the unprecedented situation in which Australia's major trading partner sits outside the U.S. alliance framework, and in fact constitutes the greatest threat to U.S. strategic predominance in the Asia-Pacific,” Stephan Fruehling, a scholar of defense studies and international relations at Australian National University, explained in the 2016 book Australia's American Alliance. “Australia's split imperatives between its Sinocentric prosperity interests and US-focused security interests have begun to generate significant turbulence.”
Two years ago, Malcolm Fraser, Australia’s former prime minister, wrote in National Affairs that “it is time for Australia to end its strategic dependence on the United States,” arguing that the relationship “has now become dangerous to Australia’s future,” because “if America goes to war in the Pacific, it will take us to war as well—without an independent decision by Australia.” What’s more, “in any major contest in the Pacific, our relationship with America would make us a strategic target for America’s enemies. It is not in Australia’s interest to be in that position.”
Just as Trump was throwing his tantrum, the press was reporting on his top adviser, Stephen Bannon, bloviating a few months back about how “we’re going to war in the South China Sea.”
All that is the context of Trump’s shortsighted impulse to renegotiate or renege on a deal that Obama struck to take 1,250 refugees off Australia’s hands. They’re presently living in an island camp that their government is under pressure to close. To succeed in reneging on the refugee deal would exact the most predictable of costs: It would alienate an ally and prove to the world that America won’t keep its agreements (the same message sent by its shabby treatment of Green Card holders). And given that the Trump administration intends to cap the number of refugees that the U.S. takes at 50,000 per year, it seems likely that the total number of refugees in America will be unchanged either way. There is little if any benefit to be had even if one's aim is keeping to the cap that Trump himself has set forth as policy (unless his only purpose is to demonize them, as he did on Twitter this morning, where he labeled refugees fleeing violence in their homes “illegal immigrants”).
The mix of Trump’s incompetence and Bannon’s casual bellicosity endangers America. It strains its alliances. It squanders goodwill, making allies like Australia marginally less inclined to help the United States. It causes the citizens of allied nations to regard America as a laughingstock.
The leader of every allied nation on earth is now wondering whether they can trust Trump to have candid conversations, keep sensitive secrets, follow through on American commitments, or simply control himself for longer than a day. And so am I.
This man has proved repeatedly that he cannot master himself.
As a safeguard against a break in judgment or sanity more severe than any we’ve yet seen, Republicans should plan for what exactly happens if Trump loses the faculty to govern. We’re only a week in and he is failing the easiest of tests. Who among us couldn’t have handled a call with Australia better than the man sitting in the Oval Office?