The horror of dealing with Trump

| October 9, 2023

Former Australian defence minister Christoper Pyne has compared the experience of dealing with US President Donald Trump’s administration to watching the supernatural horror film The Conjuring.

In the frankest assessment yet by an Australian cabinet member of their experience of our closest ally under Trump, Pyne recalls ‘a bit of a roller-coaster ride’.

In a video interview as part of ASPI’s Lessons in leadership series, Pyne tells former ASPI executive director Peter Jennings that when Trump was elected, the government held its collective breath. But he felt prime ministers Malcolm Turnbull and then Scott Morrison handled the relationship very well.

‘I think the Trump administration got a little crazier as it went along. I read [John Bolton’s] The room where it happened: a White House memoir just before the American election. And I wish I hadn’t read it. It’s like seeing The Conjuring, you know, I wish I hadn’t seen The Conjuring. And I thought, “Goodness gracious, if only we’d known that was going on when we were making all these decisions.” It was a very unusual policy process in the White House. That’s to put it mildly. Unorthodox, I think is the way we’ve all ended up describing it, but I think everyone knows what we mean.’

Pyne says he was lucky that the then US defense secretary, Jim Mattis, was ‘fantastic’. ‘It was a terribly sad day when he decided he wasn’t going to be able to do it anymore. But I fully understand. He got to that point where he felt that President Trump didn’t value allies, which is terrifying for the US’s allies of which we are clearly one.

‘But I think the Pentagon and the Defence establishment in Washington, people like Jim Mattis, just thought, “Right, well our job is to keep doing exactly what I said before. Keep doing what we were doing before, which is securing the nation, protecting the people and implementing our policies around the world.”’

Pyne says that to be fair to Trump, he wasn’t as bad at foreign policy and defence as he was at handling the coronavirus, for example, or in his treatment of political opponents. ‘He only really, I think, dropped off the cliff when he treated the Kurds the way he did. And that was the moment that I thought, “No, really, that’s kind of the end.”  I think I had left by that stage. But I thought [for Trump] to say “What have the Kurds ever done for us?” was a terrifying moment for anybody who’s ever stood with the United States. So, I thought, “He doesn’t really get it”, and having read John Bolton’s book, I realised that he just regarded foreign defence policies like a real estate deal. He thought he was just dealing with a tricky customer in North Korea or Iran.’

Pyne was appointed minister for defence industry in July 2016 and became defence minister in August 2018. Jennings notes that he was in government when Australia began to see the risky side rather than just the opportunity side of engagement with China.

Pyne says China has every right to expect to be one of the two world powers and says the world needs to understand the impact on China of its 100 years of national humiliation.

But it is also important that Australia not ‘change its sails to suit the prevailing winds of the Chinese relationship’.

Pyne says Australia needs to keep making it clear to Beijing that it doesn’t own the South China Sea.

‘It’s very important that China knows that we will not simply agree that somehow we’ve been bad or that their list of grievances is genuine. They mustn’t continue to militarise the South China Sea and they don’t have international rights to do so. We’ve been very clear about that, and we have to continue to be clear about that.’

Australia doesn’t recognise China’s sovereignty over the South China Sea, Pyne says, and regards it as international waters. ‘But we have to keep proving that they are international waters and that’s going to keep creating tensions.’ He sees Taiwan as, potentially, a dangerous flashpoint.

In terms of managing the relationship, Pyne says understanding China’s history is the key to reading its current state of mind.

‘Adopting a kind of Western lens and saying, “Why is China stretching and flexing its muscles in the Asia–Pacific? Why can’t they just get along with everyone? And why can’t they just trade with us? And why do they want to have all this military capability?” is missing the point. China has been a world power for thousands of years, long before the United States was the world power. And there are only two real world powers and they’re China and the US.’

European nations and others treated China abysmally from the days of the Opium Wars through to the end of World War II, he says. That was more than 120 years of the Chinese being treated as barbarians when they, in fact, regarded the people treating them that way as the barbarians.

That period is completely misunderstood by many Westerners, says Pyne. ‘It’s kind of like “Why can’t they just get over it?” Well, they’re not going to just get over the hundred years of humiliation.

‘We have to get our mind in the right space first. Then we have to convince China that the international world order that we have now, since the Second World War, has been the driving force for their prosperity and will continue to be and that the alternative is not good for China.’

Seeing the world break up into cantons would be bad for China’s economy, for a trading nation and a mercantile people, says Pyne.

‘I think the current tensions with China will pass. They always do. It’s in our interest and China’s interest for them to pass.’

This article was published by The Strategist. ASPI’s ‘Lessons in leadership’ series is produced with the support of Lockheed Martin Australia.