The Cable

Trump Brings His War of Words to Australia, of All Places

Diplomatic thunder heads down under.


U.S.-Australia relations have been “plunged into confusion,” according to the Sydney Morning Herald, after an unexpectedly hostile 25 minute phone call on Saturday between U.S. President Donald Trump and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

The White House readout of the call, also released Saturday, said, “Both leaders emphasized the enduring strength and closeness of the U.S.-Australia relationship that is critical for peace, stability, and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region and globally.”

But according to the Washington Post, Trump spent the call bragging about his electoral victory and complaining about a deal under which the United States is to take refugees from an Australian detention center before he informed the prime minister that “this was the worst call by far” of his day.

The call turned south over an agreement former President Barack Obama struck to take 1,250 refugees from Australia. Many of the refugees are from the Middle Eastern countries affected by Trump’s temporary travel ban.

After news of the call’s content came out, Trump did his version of damage control by turning to Twitter.

One might imagine that Trump and Turnbull would see eye to eye on immigration policy. Turnbull has pushed a strict immigration policy for years. In October 2016, he was looking to propose a law that would permanently ban boat asylum seekers from Australia from later trying to re-enter as tourists or businesspeople. But one would, evidently, be wrong.

The fallout from the call rattled Australia, a historically close U.S. ally. Australia’s former foreign minister Bob Carr said, “America has taken a nationalist direction and won’t be returning to global leadership as we’ve understood it.”

Other Australians were blunter. “I’m not sure the Trump administration gives a crap about the Australian alliance,” Sydney University’s alliance historian James Curran told the Sydney Morning Herald.

But there could be broader ramifications for the historically strong U.S.-Australia partnership. Australia has deployed its military to Afghanistan for 15 years to support U.S.-led operations. Both countries are also part of the “Five Eyes” intelligence allies. Before the U.S. presidential election, Australia was looking to strengthen its intelligence and defense ties to the Five Eyes group, a strategy that this call, and what it signifies, might change.

Photo credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Emily Tamkin is the U.S. editor of the New Statesman and the author of The Influence of Soros, published July 2020. Twitter: @emilyctamkin

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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