What lessons should we draw from the Turnbull-Trump phone call?

What lessons should we draw from the Turnbull-Trump phone call?

Peering behind the alliance curtain

6 February 2017

More information


You might also like

The refugee deal which sparked a spiky conversation between the two leaders may still go ahead, but at what cost to Canberra? Iain Henry looks at what this could mean for the alliance relationship.

For cheerleaders of the ANZUS alliance, the statements released after ministerial meetings and leadership phone calls are manna from heaven. The soothing and predictable words are almost like religious recitations: the alliance continues to grow stronger, deeper, wider and more intimate, the interests of Australia and the United States will never diverge, and no problems will ever arise in our alliance.

Academics have long argued that trusting such statements is folly. Stephen Walt, a Professor at Harvard, wrote that the ‘litmus test’ of an alliance does not come at summit meetings, or phone call readouts, because these stage-managed events are ‘designed for the ritual incantation of unifying rhetoric’. Leaders use a façade of flowery language to conceal any issues that might, in reality, be slowly damaging the alliance.

President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull spoke on the phone just a few days ago. According to the White House’s readout of the conversation, “Both leaders emphasised the enduring strength and closeness of the US-Australia relationship that is critical for peace, stability, and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region and globally.” Although only two sentences long, the readout language was quite standard.

Rarely are analysts afforded an opportunity to peer behind this curtain of unifying language. But thanks to a jaw-dropping report from the Washington Post, we can see the yawning chasm between reality and rhetoric.

According to the Post, Trump told Turnbull that their conversation was “the worst call by far” for that day. This was no mean feat, given that Trump had spoken earlier with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Not only was this the worst call, but a pre-existing deal for the US to accept 1,250 asylum seekers (currently in Australian detention facilities) was the “worst deal ever,” despite Australia agreeing in 2016 to accept refugees from Central America.

It’s not clear if Trump was posturing for negotiation purposes, dismissive of a deal he did not personally negotiate, tired and weary, or just in a bad mood. But apparently, the scheduled one-hour phone call was abruptly ended—by Trump—after only 25 minutes.

Read the full article by Dr Iain Henry in APPS Policy Forum.

Updated:  23 March 2016/Responsible Officer:  Su-Ann Tan/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team