The thunder of cheering and applause struck Donald Trump and Scott Morrison as soon as the crowd caught sight of them at the cardboard factory in Wapakoneta, Ohio, where they had come to talk about jobs.
The two men walked on stage to a wall of noise from 1500 supporters who greeted them like conquering heroes rather than visiting politicians who had flown in to declare the new facility open.
A stray visitor might have asked who the President’s new running mate was. This looked like a political rally, timed to win a swing state at the next presidential election. It looked like Trump Morrison 2020.
The Australian Prime Minister had signed up for a journey into American domestic politics that he could not control. The owner of the factory, Australian billionaire Anthony Pratt, a generous and loyal ally of the US President, had made the space available. Trump’s team had done the rest.
The intensity was rare in an Australian leader’s visit to the United States. It was not just the roaring crowd and the thumping music. It was the sense of closeness between the two leaders.
But how close is too close? This bond between Trump and Morrison had tightened within days. Trump had lauded Morrison during a state visit to the White House, then honoured him with a state dinner, and now delivered the wonder of Wapakoneta. What would he want in return?
The question hangs over Morrison’s plunge into the US this week, when he bonded with a president on a scale not seen since John Howard befriended George W. Bush almost two decades ago. That last friendship helped drag Australia into an unwinnable war in the Middle East. What might the next one do?
This is an unlikely alliance. Morrison is the evangelical family man. Trump is the rich kid who pushed his way into the presidency after a trail of bankruptcies, ex-wives, harassment claims, foreign interference claims and a porn star. Now he faces an impeachment investigation as well.
So did Morrison get too close for comfort?
“No,” says Simon Jackman, the chief executive of the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and an observer in Washington during some of the events of the past week.
Jackman says the importance of the US relationship for Australia means every prime minister should have a good working relationship with the president.
“Trump is unpredictable in unscripted moments, and I’m sure those were the moments of greatest angst for Morrison’s staff and Australian diplomats, but Morrison handled that well,” he says.
“Stylistically, Trump is jarring, and he is extremely unpopular in Australia. But style aside, we are in broad agreement with the Americans on the need to respond to Chinese assertiveness.
“And while no Australian prime minister or diplomat would say it, Canberra would accept that we – the West – are in an era of strategic competition with China.”
There were four peaks in Morrison’s relationship with Trump this week.
First came the ceremonial welcome on the south lawn of the White House, with the four forces of the American military assembled with marching bands and cheering crowds to see Trump and first lady Melania greet Morrison and his wife Jenny at the south portico. “Thanks, mate,” said Morrison to Trump at the end of the President’s welcoming speech. The Americans loved it.
Next came a leader-to-leader talk in the Oval Office that turned into a half-hour question-and-answer session with Trump improvising at the political piano and seemingly ready to go on forever. It was masterly to some, frightening to others. At one moment Trump talked of letting Islamic State fighters flood across the borders of Europe; at another he spoke of how easily he could bomb Iran.
While the agenda moved to a press conference and a state dinner, the next high was the rally at Wapakoneta last Sunday.
The fourth peak was a speech on global affairs to an earnest audience on a Monday morning in Chicago, an unlikely setting for a jolt in Australia’s relations with China. Morrison’s speech will be remembered for its attempt to recast China as a major economy burdened with obligations rather than a developing country blessed with concessions. This was another step in a direction he had set out in speeches last June and November, with a more direct message that China was now a “newly-developed” economy.
But the context was everything. Morrison was being especially forthright about China one day after getting especially close to Trump in Ohio. Within another day, the Australian arguments about China were aired again, only this time by Trump himself at the United Nations General Assembly. “The second-largest economy in the world should not be permitted to declare itself a ‘developing country’ in order to game the system at others’ expense,” said Trump on Tuesday.
But there was one vast trough in the week. Morrison went missing from the United Nations summit on climate change on Monday in order to meet business people in Chicago and deliver a speech he could have done in New York.
There was only limited progress at the climate summit, with some goals set for 2050 and promises from a handful of major economies, but it was an attempt to gain momentum for a deal at the end of this year.
Morrison, again, was lining up with Trump. Just as the President avoided the summit, so did the Prime Minister. He did not want to discuss, let alone commit to, any targets for emissions after 2030. “I’m committed to what I took to the Australian people, and that was 26 per cent for 2030 and that’s what I promised we’d do, that’s what I told the Australian people we’d do,” Morrison said in Chicago.
And after 2030?
“Well, we’re making our commitments to 2030, that’s what we’re doing.”
Did Morrison feel he should say anything about targets for the longer term?
“Not at this point.”
The horrors of the National Energy Guarantee still haunt this government. Morrison ended his American visit with a speech to the United Nations that defended his government’s existing climate policy, even though he had backed the NEG last year. The wounds from the Coalition’s internal strife of August 2018 make it dangerous for Morrison to negotiate with other world leaders to set new targets. The Coalition would split again. Morrison is safe when speaking before the green marble backdrop of the UN General Assembly. He is exposed as soon as he walks to a nearby conference room to talk about 2050.
And Morrison has made his choice to stand with Trump on this issue and others. When leaders turned up to an “Ocean Wave” event about preventing ocean waste, actor Alec Baldwin, who was there to speak for a moment, put on his famous Trump impersonation. There was no laughter from Morrison.
So what does Trump want from this relationship?
First of all, a friend who will stick. As the target of so much mockery, Trump emphasised his closeness with Morrison. “I want to thank Prime Minister Morrison for being my friend,” he said at Wapakoneta.
The state dinner, overseen by Melania Trump, was a rare event because Trump has been burned before. Trump’s frosty relationship with Emmanuel Macron dates to the last state dinner, when Trump invited the French President to the White House and felt betrayed within days. Macron had barely left the country when he was sniping at Trump, tossing their working relationship into a spiral.
Perhaps Trump counted on Morrison to show loyalty. Morrison honoured the implicit agreement by refraining from any difference of opinion with the President, even when that meant sitting in the Oval Office with eyes steady and lips sealed while the leader of the free world talked of nuclear strikes against Iran.
Next, Trump wants allies who pay their way. Morrison makes sure to do so. The Prime Minister reminded Trump that Australia plans to increase defence spending to 2 per cent of economic output, a target set by Tony Abbott.
The usual Trumpian exaggeration applies, as well. Freewheeling in a press conference in the East Room of the White House, the President told everyone that Australia spent 100 per cent of its defence budget in the US. This would have been news to the French company running the $50 billion submarine project. Morrison stayed mum. It was not the moment for a fact check.
What makes this President especially difficult is the constant prospect of a new demand on the horizon.
Iran is the immediate risk. While Morrison has agreed to despatch a frigate and a surveillance aircraft to the Strait of Hormuz to protect oil tankers from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Trump spoke as if Australia was committed to a military venture against Iran itself.
Morrison clarified under questioning. He said he had no intention of expanding the Australian commitment beyond patrols to protect shipping. Australian voters gained a commitment, of sorts, against mission creep. Nobody can be sure what will happen if the Iranians escalate a confrontation.
What Trump wants from Australia on China he seems to have already. This has been the most important outcome of the week: Trump and Morrison on song on the need for China to be treated as a developed country. Morrison believes Australia would be better off if Trump avoids caving in to China on an inadequate deal on trade.
China has a simple response to Morrison’s view. Its embassy in Canberra says it is “one-sided and unfair” to call China a newly-developed economy.
There won’t be a final moment where Australia may choose America over China and settle the matter for good. The rivalry between the two superpowers will last so long that Australia is sure to face new tests of alliance with one or partnership with the other. For instance, would Australia join the US in the South China Sea for a freedom of navigation exercise?
Lowy Institute senior fellow Richard McGregor regards Morrison’s remarks about China and its “newly-developed” status as a position in keeping with other developed economies, although he sees another of Morrison’s comments as unhelpful. “Morrison’s view that world trading rules are no longer fit to handle an economy of China’s dimensions and contradictions is mainstream in Europe and Japan, as well as Washington,” says McGregor.
“But I can’t understand why he would highlight climate change. The issue is Australia’s soft underbelly in the Pacific and it’s also a problem which Beijing has always taken seriously – and their energy policy has reflected that for years.
“China rightly points out that it’s not just about current emissions but cumulative emissions and it is fair that global agreements have taken that into account.”
Morrison did not mention climate change in the Chicago speech on Monday, although he mentioned briefly that China enjoys special treatment on environmental issues. He only engaged on this question in detail when asked by journalists afterwards.
“If the goal is to reduce emissions then you’ve obviously got to focus on the places which have the largest emissions – that just seems like commonsense to me,” Morrison said after the speech.
The message is simple enough – China should do more to cut emissions – even if the substance to the argument is a mystery. Morrison did not flesh this out in his speech.
Morrison returned to Australia on Friday morning with a successful state visit behind him – the substance of the White House meetings, the glamour of the state dinner, the wild political energy of the Ohio factory. Everything worked to tighten the bond with Trump.
The friction with China was a warning sign, however, that a stronger relationship with Trump carries risk. If there is a cost of getting too close, the bill may take years to arrive.
David Crowe is chief political correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.