COLUMN: Ugly presidential phone calls aren't changing the Australian-U.S. friendship

The United States has maintained a strong friendship with Australia for decades. It’s a friendship that has lasted through many conflicts, from World War II to Vietnam, Afghanistan and the Global War on Terrorism.

In fact, during World War II, members of the American military were given a book entitled “Instructions for American Servicemen in Australia,” which went out of its way to praise the Australian people whom the U.S. was coming to help.

“There is one thing to get straight, right off the bat," the instructions said. "You aren’t in Australia to save a helpless people. The Australians need our help in winning this war, of course, but we need theirs just as much.”

I’ve taken some time to think about that long relationship and to speak with a few Australian students here in Adelaide, Australia, about this long-standing alliance. 

It’s a relationship built on trade, military support, culture and shared values, said Australian Patrick Maloney, 19.

“Obviously, the American and Australian relationship is a fairly important one to us,” Maloney said. 

So, when polls and public opinion about the U.S. seem to be shifting, it seems important to me to look at why. 

In a 2017 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, only 29 percent of Australians had confidence in President Trump, as compared to 87 percent who felt confident in former President Barack Obama.

Another Australian I spoke with, Aidan Spilsbury, 18, talked a bit about that difference and chalked at least some of it up to a lack of stability. 

“And now, perhaps, a new thing that we had never really considered was the idea that America is not like this super stable thing that’s always going to be there,” Spilsbury said. “Now they’ve got a president who is maybe a little more unpredictable than ever considered.” 

And the release of Trump and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s January phone call transcript to the Washington Post didn’t help. 

During this phone call, Trump told Turnbull he was unwilling to allow approximately 2,000 refugees entry into the U.S., based on a deal from the Obama administration. 

But that’s not exactly what the deal said. 

The deal between Australia and the U.S. actually doesn’t require the U.S. to allow entry to even one refugee. What it does do is ensure that around 1,250 refugees go through the U.S. vetting process. That’s all. 

But the deal does contradict Trump’s campaign platform that emphasized his tough stance on refugees, so maybe Trump’s words in that phone call are understandable, if a bit coarse.  

“I have had it. I have been making these calls all day and this is the most unpleasant call all day,” Trump said to Turnbull in the leaked transcript. “Putin was a pleasant call. This is ridiculous."  

But I don’t think a bad phone call or a possibly bad refugee deal are going to impair the Australian-U.S. alliance that much, even if Australia was shocked to be dealing with Trump after our November election.

Maloney said Australia’s handling of the refugees is still divisive for the country and this deal looked like a way for the Australian government to say, “not our problem” and to shuffle at least some of the problem under the rug.

But, as I said earlier, the U.S. isn’t obligated to let anyone into the country; the U.S. just has to allow the vetting process to begin. So that’s not exactly the powder keg it’s been made out to be.

The second factor here is the history of support and friendship between these two countries. Australia has been a U.S. ally for decades. That’s not something easily forgotten.  

Also, in 2012, former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard reduced joint members of Congress to tears and received multiple standing ovations during a speech emphasizing American and Australian relations. 

“There is a reason the world always looks to America,” she said in 2012. “Your great dream – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – inspires us all.” 

So, I think it’s alarmist to believe that such an alliance could fracture so easily. 

Maloney and Spilsbury both assured me that for them, the Australian-U.S. alliance isn’t going anywhere because of a phone call or a few bad words.

“The bond between Australia and America – and like even New Zealand is in there, too – is very strong,” Maloney said. “It’ll take more than a couple bad years of presidency to tarnish that.”

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