The Politics    Friday, October 11, 2019

Litmus test

By Russell Marks

Litmus test

Official White House Photo by Andrea Hanks

The US withdrawal from Syria is a turning point for Australian foreign policy

In 1990, Donald Trump famously told Playboy: “We Americans are laughed at around the world for losing $150 billion dollars year after year, for defending wealthy nations for nothing, nations that would be wiped off the face of the earth in about 15 minutes if it weren’t for us.” Trump has for a long time believed the United States is “overcommitted”, and has often expressed a desire to end the nation’s role as leader of the liberal internationalist order it pioneered after World War Two.

President Trump’s withdrawal of troops from north-east Syria this week is consistent with views he’s held for at least three decades. Despite that, the world did not expect it. The US had been supporting its Kurdish allies in the region against Daesh since at least 2014.

Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, typical of the kind of authoritarian strongman Trump most admires, has wanted to invade northern Syria for some time, ostensibly to protect Turkey against the Kurdistan Workers Party (or PKK), which Erdoğan sees as a terrorist organisation. That invasion was effectively green-lit by Trump’s withdrawal, and Erdoğan has already issued threats and warnings to other countries to refrain from condemning Turkey.

Among those nations is Australia, whose prime minister, Scott Morrison, is no doubt among the world leaders most discombobulated by Trump’s troop withdrawal. That’s not just because Australia has a general interest in the region’s security and in preventing the inevitable humanitarian catastrophe. It’s even less because there are more than 60 Australian women and children in the al-Hawl refugee camp in the region: Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton is notoriously unsympathetic to so-called former Daesh brides and has already cancelled at least one woman’s citizenship.

Morrison’s discombobulation is also due to what Trump’s troop withdrawal represents. Australia has relied on America’s de facto leadership of the international order for 70 years. During that time, no other independent nation has so blithely and consistently aligned its own interests to the US. As the US embassy in Australia proudly declares on its website, the Battle of Hamel in July 1918 marks “the beginning of the first 100 Years of Mateship”.

Morrison’s expression of concerns for the humanitarian consequences of the Turkish invasion – amid rising civilian deaths and refugee numbers – and his musings on whether Australia will participate in international sanctions against Turkey were met with a sharp rebuke by Turkey’s ambassador in Australia. Overnight, Morrison directed Australia’s ambassador in Turkey to urge Erdoğan to halt the invasion. These diplomatic interventions echo warnings by Trump himself who, despite knowing about Erdoğan’s plan to invade, and facilitating that plan, nevertheless wants the world to accept he doesn’t support it.

The Trump presidency was always going to a litmus test for Australia’s foreign policy. Trump’s provocation of a trade dispute with China leaves Australia awkwardly downplaying the potential for further escalation between its largest trading partner and its greatest military “partner” – a term that inadequately describes Australia’s relationship with the US.

During a speech in Sydney yesterday, the Netherlands’ centre-right prime minister, Mark Rutte, urged Australia not to follow Trump into retreating from the international order, as Morrison has hinted at since returning from the US last month. Instead, Rutte believes middle powers can have a major role in reforming and strengthening the institutions of that order – much like the role they played when those institutions were established following World War Two.

So, beyond the urgency and the pending catastrophe of the situation in northern Syria, the American troop withdrawal is the latest moment in time for Australian foreign policy – a moment that will see Australia either pivot towards greater independence and a renewed commitment to internationalism, or slide into even deeper sycophancy with its not-so-great, if powerful, friend. The early signs aren’t good.

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Russell Marks

Russell Marks is a lawyer and an adjunct research fellow at La Trobe University. He is the author of Crime and Punishment: Offenders and Victims in a Broken Justice System (Black Inc., 2015). 

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