Interview with Terence Szuplat

Terence Szuplat was a Special Assistant to the President and served as a foreign policy speechwriter for President Barack Obama from 2009-2017 and deputy director of White House speechwriting from 2013-2017. During his years in the West Wing, Terry helped conceive and draft hundreds of speeches for President Obama during visits to more than 40 nations, including President Obama’s address to the Australian Parliament in November 2011.

Chifley Executive Director Michael Cooney interviewed Terence Szuplat in an email conversation on 13 February.

Terry g’day and it’s good to speak to you for the first time since the Inauguration. Given your expertise in foreign policy, I wonder what are your impressions of the first weeks of the new administration overall.  Is it as bad as you’d feared?

Hello, Michael. It’s great to talk with you again, although I truly wish it was under different circumstances. My impressions of the first weeks of the new administration are similar to those of many foreign policy professionals here, Democrats and Republicans alike. It’s not as bad as we feared—it’s worse. I wrote about this in an essay for The New Yorker — never before has a U.S. President triggered so much animosity among so many nations in so short a time as Trump has in his first weeks in office.

Barreling ahead with a wall on our southern border, he’s plunged U.S.-Mexico relations to their lowest point in memory. His executive order halting refugee admissions and banning all immigration and visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries (currently on hold while it’s challenged in the courts) has sent a horrible message to the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims. Protests and petitions have sprung up across the U.K. in opposition to a visit by Trump this year. According to numerous reports, decision-making at the White House is concentrated among Trump and a few key advisors—including his political strategist Steve Bannon, who Trump will now include in National Security Council meetings—while apolitical career professionals at the NSC are reportedly being marginalized.

Here in Australia we’re particularly conscious of the new President’s approach because of the quite sensational affair of his telephone call with Prime Minister Turnbull, in which he was critical of the arrangements for refugee processing made with the former administration, and cut short the call. Is this really the worst foreign leader call the President has had?

Only a few people know exactly what was said on that call—the President, the Prime Minister and staff members who were with them at the time. That said, the fallout has certainly been the worst from any call with a foreign leader so far. Across the board, observers here were aghast. A former colleague on the National Security Council staff who, like me, has left the White House, asked, disbelievingly, “Australia? One of our closest allies? How do you screw up our relationship with Australia?”

And the American people took notice. (Trump’s call to the prime minister was even mocked on Saturday Night Live.) Trump took to Twitter to blame “fake news” for misreporting the story. However, to many Americans, myself included, it was another unsettling reminder that Trump and his no-holds-barred “America first” approach to the world risks undermining our closest alliances and tarnishing America’s standing on the world stage—all of which will make it harder to advance our interests in the world. If there was any silver lining in this episode at all – and that’s a big if—it was that as a result of the media coverage, many Americans were reminded that our Australian allies have stood with us in good times and bad, including in every major conflict since World War I.

Quite apart from their political views, many Australians wonder whether an “America first” presidency means that Russia and China will be stronger in the world. Do you think it does? And what does that mean for the strategic outlook in our part of the world, the Indo-Pacific?

That’s precisely the concern among so many foreign policy professionals here in Washington. In his Inaugural Address, Trump declared that “Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families.” And while he said that “We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world,” he issued a striking caveat at odds with seven decades of U.S. foreign policy—“but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first.”

He’s already begun to put those words in action. By withdrawing the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, he’s strengthened China’s hand by giving Beijing new space and leverage to pursue trade pacts in the region with weaker protections for workers, consumers, intellectual property and the environment. He’s said he wants a “fantastic relationship” with Vladimir Putin and raised the possibility of lifting sanctions on Russia for its invasion and occupation of Crimea and its continuing aggression against Ukraine. All of this is creating new strategic uncertainties, from Europe to Asia.

In both cases, however, there’s strong bipartisan support in Washington for a more stabilizing approach—continued broad-based U.S. political, economic and security engagement in the Asia Pacific and opposing Russia’s attempts to violate international law and norms. Secretary of Defense Mattis, in his first visit to Asia as head of the Pentagon, assured our allies that the United States will continued to meet our treaty obligations. As these debates unfold, our allies, including our Australian friends, can help make the case for robust U.S. engagement in the Asia Pacific and around the world.

Final thought for our readers, who follow the Centre as a Labor think tank with a progressive outlook on policy questions. When President Obama was in Australia in 2011, he spoke about the alliance between our countries in unmistakably progressive terms, as a force for good on matters like human rights and climate change. Can you give Australians on the progressive side of politics some hope that the future of our relationship can have that same character? Can progressive Australians still ‘look to America’?

I had the honor of being there in the chamber when President Obama addressed Parliament. He said that the U.S.-Australian alliance is “rooted in our values,” which must be “renewed by every generation.” Those values, he pointed out, included “the fundamental rights of every human being” such as “freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, and the freedom of citizens to choose their own leaders.” And he declared that the United States and Australia have a “special responsibility to lead” in the fight against climate change.

Based on both his words and deeds—as a candidate and so far as President—I think it’s obvious that Trump will not prioritize human rights and climate change as pillars of his foreign policy the way Obama did. Neither Australians nor people around the world will be able to look to the U.S. President as a vocal champion of these issues. That said, any alliance between nations is larger than any one person, and the U.S.—Australia alliance is rooted, above all, in our enduring common interests and the friendship between our peoples. And that’s not going to change.

As difficult as the current moment is, and as hard as the road ahead will be, I think progressive Australians can take hope in the incredible mobilization of millions of Americans who oppose Trump’s policies. We’ve never seen anything like it. Massive protests the day after his inauguration. More protests at airports and cities in opposition to his refugee and immigration bans. A surge in donations to legal organizations that are fighting his policies in the courts. We’re not under any illusions that we can stop everything Trump is planning. But we’re seeing an unprecedented explosion of progressive activism and it will only get stronger. So, even if you can’t look to the current U.S. President to lead on many of these issues, you’ll always be able to look to the American people.

About Michael Cooney

Michael Cooney

Michael is a former Executive Director of the Chifley Research Centre. He was previously Speechwriter to Prime Minister the Hon Julia Gillard MP, Senior Adviser at the HR Coombs Policy Forum, Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University, and was Principal Policy Advisor to Federal Labor Leaders Kim Beazley and Mark Latham.

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