He is vainglorious, inconsistent and dishonest. He has sided with the primary adversary of the liberal political order. He has undermined decades of international cooperation on trade. He may be a menace to world peace, human rights and social progress.

But the foreign policy establishment has some advice for Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull: don’t mess with Trump.

The US President has created a remarkable and unanticipated challenge for Australian foreign policy. For the past decade experts have debated how Australia should respond to the economic and military rise of China.

Now, they are seriously considering a question once only posed for academic purposes: can we trust our closest ally?

Julie Bishop and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Turnbull and Bishop's play-nice strategy may be tested in November, ...
Julie Bishop and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Turnbull and Bishop’s play-nice strategy may be tested in November, when there are plans for Trump to to visit.

David Paul Morris

“There is a real concern that if push comes to shove, we wouldn’t know what we could rely on,” says Damien Kingsbury, a professor of international politics at Deakin University in Victoria.

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Rocking the world order

The same question is being asked around the world. Europe is terrified the US President is more interested in placating Russian President Vladimir Putin that anchoring NATO. China, the world’s factory, is aghast that Trump has begun a trade war. The Arab Middle East sees the US disengaging. Canada has a semi-hostile leader on its only land border.

Within the US, the debate is even more fraught. Credible commentators accuse their President of treachery. Trump’s reluctance to call out Russia for trying to influence the 2016 presidential election, against the strong advice of his intelligence agencies, has exacerbated the confidence crisis around his presidency.

This is not the first time Americans have seriously questioned if their president is fit to rule. Think President Richard Nixon during the Watergate crisis, which he didn’t survive, politically, and Bill Clinton after he lied in a court deposition about his relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky.

"It is China ... which is the real threat with a growing military power combined with assertive economic policies," ...
“It is China … which is the real threat with a growing military power combined with assertive economic policies,” former US deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage says.

Peter Morris

But they were questions of integrity. In this case, Trump’s national loyalty is at question. Last week the Senate passed a 98 to zero non-binding resolution condemning a suggestion by the White House that it was considering allowing the Russian government to interrogate Michael McFaul, the US ambassador to Russia under President Barack Obama.

The Facebook and Twitter war

The foundations of the liberal world order are under attack. Putin has turned America’s technology leaders against it. Facebook and Twitter are being used to assault Western democracy.

At the very least, the US President isn’t mounting a rigorous defence. What should Australia do? So far, Turnbull and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop have been extremely careful not to say anything publicly that might upset the easily offended Trump.

Trump  and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland.
Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland.

AP

“I find the evidence that’s been produced by the American intelligence community to be very compelling,” Turnbull said last week about Russian election interference. “But, obviously there is a difference of opinion inside America.”

Labor’s foreign affairs spokeswoman, Penny Wong, has offered the tiniest of hints that some kind of reassessment of the alliance may be warranted. Trump’s decisions are “generating something of a global rethink about how best to work with the US,” she said last week.

The establishment backs Turnbull

As unsatisfying as this anodyne stance may be for those who fear Trump is undermining the global world order, Turnbull has the backing of the foreign policy establishment.

Michael Fullilove, executive director of the Lowy Institute for International Policy, praises Malcolm Turnbull's ...
Michael Fullilove, executive director of the Lowy Institute for International Policy, praises Malcolm Turnbull’s handling of Trump.

Alex Ellinghausen

“So far the Prime Minister has handled President Trump adroitly,” says Michael Fullilove, the executive director of the Lowy Institute, a foreign affairs think tank in Sydney. “It is not easy to deal with an individual who is erratic and unpleasant but who is also the most powerful person on Earth.”

“It requires an extremely flexible and creative response to keep the positive trajectory of the American-Australian relationship moving forward,” says John Berry, the last US ambassador to Canberra, a job that Trump hasn’t filled. “I believe that Australia has managed to do this better than any other nation in the world.”

So far, so good. But Turnbull and Bishop’s play-nice strategy may be tested in November, when there are plans for Trump to visit, at least one Australian journalist has been told by US officials. (Bishop is meeting her US counterpart, Michael Pompeo, this week in California for annual defence-foreign affairs talks.)

High-risk travel

The last US Ambassador to Australia, John Berry.  "I believe that Australia has managed to do this better than any other ...
The last US Ambassador to Australia, John Berry. “I believe that Australia has managed to do this better than any other nation in the world.”

Andrew Meares

With an Australian public aghast at Trump’s boorish style, and a political elite stunned at the damage he is doing to old alliances, a presidential visit may not be the pre-election photo opportunity Turnbull needs. Throw in the not inconsiderable risk of Trump saying or doing something offensive, this would be high-risk travel.

Ask British Prime Minister Theresa May. When Trump went to London two weeks ago he criticised her position on Brexit and suggested rival Boris Johnston might make a better leader.

In keeping with the chaotic nature of the Trump presidency, US diplomats in Australia say they don’t know anything about a visit, four months before he is meant to arrive.

“We are not aware of any plans for the President to visit Australia,” a US embassy spokesperson says.

Fullilove, who wrote a book on US wartime President Franklin Roosevelt, says eventually Australia will have to stand up to Trump. That time hasn’t come yet. “We need to advocate for the order against its challengers, whether they reside in Washington or Beijing,” he says. “Sooner or later there will be a reckoning for us.”

Global push back

Others want action now. They would like to see Australia join a global push back by American allies to Trump. A kind of alliance of the Western world, congressional Democrats, some Republicans and large parts of the US government to crimp Trump’s freedom-of-policy movement.

“I don’t think Trump is something you can effectively ride out,” says Matthew Sussex, the academic director of the National Security College at the Australian National University in Canberra. “Whoever succeeds Trump will have an enormous job rebuilding trust in alliances and rules-based trade. It will take at least three presidential terms to do all that.”

One former senior US diplomat advises Australia to keep focused on its own region, and by implication let the Americans and Europeans worry about Russia.

“It is China … which is the real threat with a growing military power combined with assertive economic policies,” former US deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage tells this newspaper. “I believe Australia can serve the alliance and herself well by concentrating on China.

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