Donald Trump has been president for less than two weeks, but his bizarre, meandering, angry phone calls with foreign leaders have spawned a frighteningly concise description: “a normal Trump tantrum.”
Those are the words of Graham Richardson, a senior cabinet minister in one of Australia’s most recent Labor governments. He was giving Sky News his analysis of Trump’s heated phone call Wednesday with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, where the US president said a refugee agreement the Obama administration had negotiated with Australia was “the worst deal ever,” told Turnbull “this was the worst call by far” that he’d had with a foreign leader, and then abruptly cut the call short.
Here’s the full quote, in context, per the Washington Post:
Even figures in the opposition Labor Party conceded that Turnbull was in a difficult position trying to convince the new president to uphold a promise made by the Obama administration. “I don’t believe Turnbull did the wrong thing,” Graham Richardson, a senior cabinet minister in a previous Labor government, told Sky News. “I think we are just facing a normal Trump tantrum.”
Set aside the fact that Trump was raging while talking to a friendly government, not a hostile one. As my colleague Zack Beauchamp notes, Australia has fought alongside the US in nearly every major war in the past 100 years, including ones like Iraq and Vietnam that many other US allies were hesitant to support. It’s also a hugely important partner in the current coalition fight against ISIS — with several hundred on the ground in the Middle East contributing to the counter-ISIS campaign.
What’s striking about Richardson’s words is that an experienced foreign politician is basically comparing Trump to an angry toddler. (As the parent of a toddler, I can tell you that’s not a compliment.)
Even more striking, Richardson is explicitly saying what many foreign leaders are beginning to grasp about Trump: that his unpredictable tirades at close allies (on Wednesday, Trump also kinda sorta maybe threatened to invade Mexico) are the rule, not the exception.
It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: That’s not a good thing.
Trump loves chaos. The rest of the world fears it.
Trump seems to believe that chaos and unpredictability are good in and of themselves because they can keep US adversaries trying to guess what Washington will do next. That’s a remarkably simplistic view of foreign policy, which is predicated on consistency. As Beauchamp notes:
Broadly speaking, US foreign policy for the past 70 years has depended on consistency. America has made formal alliances, most notably NATO, that work because US allies have faith that the United States will come to their aid if attacked. The dollar is the world’s reserve currency, underwriting the global financial system, because nations the world over have faith in American stability. Dozens of countries count on America to keep the peace globally and keep trade routes open, so they mostly go about their own business.
It’s impossible to know whether Trump’s explosion at Turnbull was planned (unlikely) or another sign of his inability to control his own impulses (likely). But it’s very easy to know what the fallout will be: new tensions in a vital US strategic relationship and new doubts globally about the temperament of the man steering American foreign policy. That’s the new normal, and that’s a very scary thing.