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Trump: 100 days of theatre and surprising calm

Viewed from an Australian perspective, Donald Trump’s first 100 days has proved to be a lesson in the functioning of an American political system caught somewhere between reality TV and the hope things will settle down.

" An Australian political culture has scrambled to accommodate itself to an American presidency like no other."
-Tony Walker, Author & Editor

Unprepared for Trump, an Australian political culture has scrambled to accommodate itself to an American presidency like no other in its experience.

f there is a tendency emerging in the first three months of a new administration it is that Australian officials have resolved to try to ignore White House contortions and build relationships with Trump’s underlings - from Vice President Mike Pence down.

Pence’s visit to Australia last week on the eve of the 100-day anniversary provided an opportunity for the two countries to reaffirm the importance of a security partnership against the background of North Korean nuclear provocations.

But that aside, it would be naïve for an Australian government to imagine a Trump presidency - under the burdens of office - will revert to some sort of normalcy.

What we and the rest of the world have learned from the first 100 days is the Trump administration will define itself by its unpredictability, led by a man who does not feel constrained by pledges he has made.

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Field day

On the eve of the milestone, American fact-checking organisations have had a field day matching Trump’s undertakings on the campaign trail - and subsequently - with what has actually taken place.

Conclusions are Trump promised a lot and has delivered much less than he would have us believe when it comes to job creation, getting rid of Obamacare (the previous administration’s Affordable Health Care legislation) and replacing it with a workable plan, building a wall along the Mexican border, holding China to account as a “currency manipulator’’, and mobilising support for his tax reforms which would – by some estimates - add $US7 trillion dollars to American debt.

Americans have observed a blizzard of executive orders, some of which have been challenged – and rejected – in the courts such as his attempts to close down travel from six mainly Muslim countries.

His ‘achievements’ include filling a vacancy on the Supreme Court and ending America’s participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, if the latter could be regarded as an achievement.

He has dialed back on his pledge to upend the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), no longer regards NATO as “obsolete’’, and appears to be having second thoughts about pulling the US out of the Paris Agreement on climate change.

From an Australian perspective it could all have been worse.

Evidence is accumulating globalists and internationalists have asserted themselves in the White House allied with Trump’s daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner, marginalising – not eradicating – nationalist and xenophobic tendencies in the process.

We should hope so, although Trump’s mercurial nature will mean virtually nothing can be taken for granted.

Americans might look askance at the influence of Goldman Sachs alumni in Trump’s circle like Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and director of the National Economic Council Gary Cohn, but these individuals are providing some certainty, if not confidence, about a continuing commitment to free markets and open borders.

Australia has a particular interest in preserving the framework of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

If this agreement unravels in the absence of American participation and support it would prove disastrous for an international consensus – fragile at best - on what steps might be taken to constrain global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius on pre-industrial levels by the end of this century.

American fact checkers have focused less on Trump’s achievements in foreign policy, correctly assessing these to be works in progress, but from Canberra’s point of view there have been some encouraging signs.

China

No relationship is more important from an Australian perspective – and the world’s for that matter – than between a US president and his Chinese counterpart.

Trump appears to have engaged constructively with Chinese President Xi Jinping in hours of face-to-face meetings earlier this month at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida.

While these are early days and tensions are inevitable from time to time between the world’s sole superpower and a rising power, there is cause for reasonable optimism that common interest in a relatively stable international environment will help to even out the bumps.

China’s actions subsequent to the Trump-Xi meeting to exert pressure on Pyongyang, including turning back North Korean coal shipments have been encouraging.

Trump’s efforts to reach out to Japanese leader Shinzo Abe and Germany’s Angela Merkel are also desirable developments.

In a Pacific context, and given the bulk of Australian trade finds its way to North Asia, Japan’s strategic importance cannot be understated in an environment in which China’s ambitions need to be constrained.

Threats to peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula as a consequence of North Korea’s provocative behavior place an increased premium on security coordination between the US, Japan and its other allies in the region, including Australia.

This appears to be happening irrespective of the histrionics taking place on an almost daily basis in the Trump White House.

Trump himself has bridled at the focus on 100-days, telling the Associated Press in a protracted interview he believed it was an “artificial barrier’’ and “not very meaningful”.

He has a point but since the days of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his 100 days in combating the Great Depression American presidents – whether they like it or not – are subjected to such assessments.

No presidents these days can escape these preliminary historical judgements, but what is striking, as Robert Schlesinger points out in an opinion column in US News and World Report, is how events rather than some sort of menu of promises and achievements define a presidency.

Or, as the late British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan might have said – and did say in response to unpredictable developments – “Events, dear boy, events”.

Schlesinger points out in the 100-day assessments of the Obama administration healthcare - this became one of the defining issues of the years 2009-2017 - was mentioned in passing in a New York Times editorial. And not at all in a 4,000-word ‘deep dive’ by the Washington Post.

Not mentioned at all in the NYT editorial or the Post’s assessment were issues like Syria, Egypt, Libya, executive orders, the tea party movement, and Islamic State group. The latter did not exist at the time.

The point is the world inherited by Donald Trump is in extraordinary flux, and whatever judgements might be made now will be overtaken by events, dear boy!

Black Swan

The Trump election, a Black Swan event in itself in the sense it defied expectations, certainly caught an Australian government by surprise.

Not much illustrated better this unpreparedness than embarrassment surrounding its attempts to get its hands on a phone number so Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull could phone the newly-elected leader of the free world to offer his congratulations.

Eventually, the embassy turned to Trump’s golfing friend, the Australian Greg Norman to secure his personal phone number.

In its reporting of the American election, Australia’s media might reflect 100 days on about the poor job it did in preparing an Australian public for a Trump presidency.

Almost without exception Australian commentators, often fed by a Clinton-supporting Washington establishment, had anticipated a Democratic victory.

Canberra’s unsteady relationship with the new Trump administration continued into the New Year when Turnbull was upbraided by the president in a phone call over a deal in which the previous Obama administration had agreed to receive asylum seekers incarcerated on islands in the Pacific in exchange for refugees from Central America.

In Trump’s view this was a “terrible deal’’. Given his stance during the presidential campaign he had a point.

Some three months later Turnbull will go to New York this week for the 75th anniversary commemorations of the Battle of the Coral Sea in which Australian and American naval forces turned the tide of the Pacific war.

This will be an event from an Australian perspective redolent with history, and, for an Australian prime minister under pressure at home, pregnant with possibilities of forging a working relationship with a new president.

Whatever transpires Trump, in his salesman’s guise, will use superlatives readily at hand to hail the ‘greatness’ of the relationship. Australians should be wary.

Tony Walker is an author and former Washington correspondent, international editor, Middle East editor and senior political editor at The Australian Financial Review and The Financial Times.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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