Tony Abbott


Trump, the View from the Outside: Address to the Heritage Foundation

January 21, 2020    

Back in November of 2014, when Australia hosted the annual meeting of the G20, it was by far the most important gathering of leaders ever held in my country; and it should have been a diplomatic triumph – but for President Barack Obama choosing to give a speech at the University of Queensland that was seen as an attack on my government’s climate policy.

At the time, there was pressure to rebuke him for discourtesy, but I chose not to; because it was the duty, I thought, of the Australian prime minister, not to be critical of the leader of the free world.

Now, I have to say, that on this trip to Washington, I’ve noticed that respect for the office of the president is not so common, even here in the United States itself.

That’s a pity, if I may say so, because he’s not just your president. As the leader of the free world – which the president inevitably is, by virtue of America’s singular strength and goodwill – in a sense he’s everyone’s president, and the world needs him to succeed, almost as much as America does.

If the president is strong, America is strong. And if America is strong, Australia is stronger, Britain is stronger, Canada is stronger and all the countries of the free world are stronger.

That’s why so many people outside of the United States follow each president’s triumphs and travails almost as closely as if we were ourselves citizens of this great republic.

And much to the surprise of many, given the dismay that greeted President Donald Trump’s election; indeed, somewhat to my own surprise, given my view then that Mr Trump was almost uniquely under-qualified for such an office, I think he’s been quite a success: his style sometimes grates, but he’s been a very good president.

Maybe it’s just been overtaken by Trump-derangement-syndrome, but for the first time in years the main narrative is not one of American decline.

For Obama, America “couldn’t be the world’s policeman on its own” and “couldn’t be the world’s economic locomotive on its own”. It’s refreshing, actually, that Trump doesn’t talk about what American can’t do but what it can do.

Thanks to tax cuts and less red tape, American economic growth has surged. Employment has soared, especially for minorities. The stock market is hitting all-time highs and wages are finally increasing fast after decades of stagnation.

Sure, Trump has shown more interest in boosting growth than in restraining spending, to the dismay of fiscal conservatives; but as Ronald Reagan might have said, for the moment at least, the deficit seems to be big enough and ugly enough to take care of itself!

For years now, it’s been assumed that America’s destiny was to be overtaken by China as the world’s largest economy. That may still happen. But actually it’s China’s economy that now seems under pressure in the face of robust American efforts to stop China taking advantage of the free trade that it never practices itself.

The people who know China best: the rich Chinese who can’t wait to get their money, out and their kids educated in the West; and the people of Hong Kong who are risking bloody repression in support of their British heritage, don’t trust the goodwill or the longevity of the communist regime.

For years, it’s been assumed that globalisation underpinned by freer trade was both unstoppable and unambiguously good, even though it was much more obviously good for the rich people of poor countries than for the poor people of rich ones.

Yet Trump’s tariff hikes against China seem to be bringing more investment dollars home, boosting American manufacturing jobs, and cutting the trade deficit; while shrinking China’s role in American supply chains should cut the technology theft.

For years, it had been assumed that the price of American global leadership was putting up with unreasonable critics and free-riding friends; it was joining global agreements that were against America’s best interests and it was turning the other cheek every time an enemy took advantage of American decency.

That’s how it was; but that’s not how it is under Trump. 

Storming out of meetings is a rough way to make a point, but in refusing to be polite and to play by the old rules, Trump has actually improved America’s position.

He’s called China a trade thief, that was destroying American jobs; Mexico the open back door, that would have to pay for a wall; NATO allies freeloaders, who needed to get serious about their own defence; and the Paris climate change agreement a con, shackling America in ways that didn’t bind other countries.

It’s been crude but effective.

Whatever you think of Trump’s personal integrity, he’s turned out to have had remarkable political integrity. He’s done everything that he promised to do, including things that other presidents promised but never delivered, like moving the US embassy to Jerusalem.

He promised to cut taxes and he has. He’s promised to boost the armed forces and he has. He promised to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and he has. He promised to pull out of Paris and he has. He promised to appoint conservatives to the courts and he has. He promised to build a wall and he has, at least to the extent that congress would let him. He promised to bring China to book on trade – and has made a very strong start. He promised to pull America out of the endless wars of the Middle East; and with far fewer US soldiers killed on his watch, America is liked-no-less but feared-much-more.

Above all else, he promised to make America great again and I think he’s largely succeeding, fundamentally because his main instincts are sound; and supreme self-confidence means he’s never afraid of acting upon them.

First and foremost, Trump is an American patriot. America made him, so he loves his country as he loves himself. 

Now, inevitably, there have been some questionable calls. 

Pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership was one, if only because, for-once, it enabled China – with its rival free trade deal, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership – to look more like a credible global leader than America.

Pulling out of Syria could have been an abandonment of the Kurds, who had been America’s most reliable Muslim allies in the Middle East. But he more-or-less reversed the decision 36 hours later, and one lot of American forces streamed in just as another was streaming out.

Then…there was the drone-killing of Iran’s top general.

In my view, it was an error not to respond more vigorously to Iran’s downing of an American drone, seizure of Western oil tankers, and attack on Saudi oil refineries. But then, it might have been hard to respond proportionately to strikes that had made America look weak, but had no actual casualties.

But once Iran and its proxies had directly attacked Americans, Trump did what no one expected – he killed the very spearhead of Iran’s attempts to export its Islamic revolution. This could still have dire ramifications, yet unmistakeably it shows that you don’t mess with America.

That might not be a recipe for success on Main Street Middle America; but in the Middle East, gentle people are taken advantage of; while fierce ones are left alone.

And there’s a world of difference between a fight with Iran, that Trump is obviously ready to pick; and a war in Iran, that Trump shows not the slightest inclination to wage; between attacking Iranian facilities and preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, that America could well be up for; and a ground invasion trying to bring about regime change, that should really be the business of the Iranian people.

Unarticulated perhaps, but real enough, there is emerging a Trump doctrine: to use American economic strength against obnoxious regimes, and to use military force to avenge any attack.

To the Trump haters, the Soleimani killing was more evidence of wild oscillation between isolationism and interventionism; but more likely it just shows Trump’s determination to hurt America’s enemies but not to add to America’s responsibilities.

From afar, it does seem “un-presidential” to threaten other countries with hellfire; and “personal” to mock political foes as “Pocahontas” and “sleepy Joe”, but maybe this political-rally-name-calling is just a modern American version of the verbal battles that are routine in other countries’ parliaments. 

Sure, it’s unprecedented for the leader of the free world, in a situation where words can be weapons, to compulsively tweet against anything he doesn’t like. On the other hand, given officialdom’s tendency to fudge, maybe an unfiltered president is exactly what the world needs right now.

With a new tsar in Russia and a new sultan in Istanbul, as well as a new emperor in Beijing, and more great power jockeying than for many years, perhaps it’s just as well that there’s another “rough rider” in the White House.

Even though Russian and Turkish meddling in Syria and Libya won’t turn out any better for them than it has for Western powers; and China won’t be strengthened by accumulating client states in the third world, any more than other countries have. 

And why shouldn’t America use first its economic strength, with military muscle in reserve, in order to bring about its geo-political objectives?

What matters is that America and other Western countries should renovate their economies, rally their people, believe more in themselves; and act where they need to – always weighing what will do more good than harm – in order to protect their citizens, to defend their interests, and to advance their values.

In America, in Britain, and in Australia too, this is happening.

As prime minister, my view was that it was presumptuous of a Western country like Australia to demand that other countries be like us. In the Middle East, for instance, the most we could expect – and demand – was governments that didn’t practice genocide against their own people nor permit terrorism against ours.

In other words: punish bad behaviour; reward good behaviour; and work with anyone where it’s in our interests to do so.

In my time, Australia flew military jets through China’s self-proclaimed air defence identification zone, yet worked with China as we led the search for the missing aircraft MH370.

We did deals with our three largest trading partners to give us more like the same access to their markets as they had to ours.

We were determined to bring back our dead from the MH17 atrocity, peacefully if possible but forcefully if necessary.

We joined the fight against the death cult caliphate but on the understanding that we couldn’t do more for the Iraqis than they were ready to do for themselves.

And while we worked with the Indonesian government to stop people smuggling, when they failed to prevent illegal would-be migrant boats from leaving their country for ours – well – we turned them round and we sent them back.

And while I never thought that the prospect of a slightly warmer climate in some decades’ time was the world’s biggest threat, I was prepared to sign up to emissions-reductions targets in Paris – provided other countries did likewise, and on the advice that cuts could be achieved without loss of jobs and without new taxes.   

And I tried to make it easier for President Obama by ensuing that Australia was always there to help.

I’m not sure whether these policies were liberal interventionist, neo-conservative triumphalist, or pragmatic realist, and never really cared for tags anyway; provided the result was a stronger Australia and a better world.

With Trump, It’s been said that you should take him seriously but not literally. Actually, there’s a pattern to it: he talks loudly to make a point, but talks softly when he’s carrying a big stick (taken out a general, for instance, or forced a trade concession).

And sometimes he makes speeches that stand comparison even with Reagan’s. His recent speech to the United Nations, for instance, was a paean to patriotism over globalism and to decent values over ideology. He was highly critical of some governments but respectful of countries and generous to peoples and to cultures.

If you want freedom, he said, “take pride in your country”; and if you want democracy, he said, “hold onto your sovereignty”.

Trump is the first major Western leader to have worked out that poorer people have become more conservative just as richer people have become more progressive; and to have recast centre-right politics around a country-we-can-take-pride-in and a community-we-have-a place-in as well as an economy-we-can-make-the-most-of.

At least in the English-speaking countries, centre-right politics has never been very ideological or even especially philosophical. It’s been about coming-to-grips with the troubles of the time in ways that corresponded with people’s best instinctive values.

In the Eisenhower-MacMillan era, it was spreading prosperity through home ownership and higher wages; in the Reagan-Thatcher era, it was more economic dynamism through lower taxes and less regulation; in the Trump-Johnson era it’s still that but with an added stress on pride-in-country, at a time when so many of our citizens feel that everyone’s interests come first but their own.

At the heart of the centre-right project has been care for those who are working hard but not getting ahead: “the forgotten people”, my party’s founder called them. They’re the people of the “flyover states” for Trump and the Brexiteers for Boris Johnson; just as they were once the Reagan Democrats or the blue collar Tories.

A lifetime of pitching to the public seems to have given Trump an instinctive feel for what I’d call “social fabric conservatism”.

Unlike the left, where what matters is subscribing to politically correct beliefs, for the centre-right what matters is attending to people’s real concerns. Trump’s people cheered “draining the swamp” because the Washington class (like the Canberra bubble and the Westminster clique), the establishment on both sides, had become more concerned with who-was-in-power than with what-was-being- done-with-it.

Politics had become an insiders’ game detached from the voters and their concerns. But Trump is their man running the government, not Washington’s man running them.

Who would have thought, four years ago, that the reality TV capitalist addicted to tweeting would turn out to be a more effective president than the political insider who’d preceded him, blessed with soaring rhetoric and symbolising the county’s ability to heal – that’s what the impeachment-obsessed sore losers who dominate the Democrat Party still don’t get.

So yes, everywhere, our politics is becoming more fragmented and more polarised. The right is more right and the left is more left, and there’s a tendency to retreat into echo-chambers.

But all of us are still citizens of particular countries, and we still need the governments of our countries to succeed, so rather than demonise everyone we disagree with, isn’t it better to give our leaders for-the-time-being at least some grudging respect?

Four years back, had I been an American, I’d have been a reluctant Trump voter; but not now. He might sometimes seem crass or intemperate but that doesn’t mean that he’s not the best possible president for America at this time.

After all, when it comes to electing the president, people aren’t choosing a saint or even a role model; they’re seeking a leader; and the one thing you can’t say of Trump is that he’s been shy to lead.

In my country, if you “have a go”, you deserve to “get a go”. That’s how I feel about the presidency right now, which I guess makes me a supporter of “keeping America great”. 

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