DeSantis: Maybe we should reconsider our alliance with Australia in light of their extreme lockdown policies

I’m trying not to take this too seriously, bearing in mind that he’s looking for ways to make amends to anti-vax, anti-restriction righty populists. He’s endorsed vaccination since the beginning, aligning himself with the scientific expert elite, and for that he must repent to the sort of voter whom he aims to woo in a 2024 Republican primary. He’s entitled to some low-calorie pandering, as all politicians are.

But he is in fact a potential future president. And his flourish here about going so far as to rethink the U.S.-Australian partnership (just two weeks after a milestone) because of their COVID policies is strange and surprisingly un-Trumpy. We should take it at least a little seriously.

Which is not to say that he’s wrong to criticize Australia’s tactics for being heavy-handed. I’ve done so myself twice in the past five days.

“‘Is Australia freer than China, communist China, right now?” he asks. Australia continues to hold democratic elections; Australia isn’t conducting mass internment of religious minorities; Australia doesn’t perform forced abortions as a matter of population control; for those and a hundred other reasons, I’m going to say … yes, our ally is freer than communist China despite its authoritarian approach to COVID.

And I’ll add that it’s not clear that most Australians disapprove of their government’s tactics. Majority support is no excuse for infringing on the rights of the minority in the name of public safety, but for what it’s worth, most Aussies seem satisfied with their “zero COVID” strategy and are chilly to a DeSantis-style relaxation of restrictions if it means more deaths.

Asked to nominate the number of Covid-related deaths that it would be acceptable for Australia to live with once restrictions are eased, 61% of respondents say fewer than 100 deaths per year, 25% say between 100 and 1,000 deaths per year, 10% say between 1,000 and 3,000 deaths per year, 2% say between 3,000 and 5,000 deaths per year, and 3% say more than 5,000 deaths per year…

Underscoring a mood of caution as infections continue to rise, and the national death toll from coronavirus passes 1,000, a majority (65%) also thinks public health measures, such as wearing masks in crowds and social distancing, should remain after the vaccination targets of 70-80% of the population aged over 16 are achieved.

This is a country of 25 million people. And they’re unwilling to put up with a COVID death toll of 100 people per year. If you’re wondering where the government’s “zero COVID” ambitions came from, there you go.

What’s interesting to me about DeSantis’s criticism of Australia is that it’s quintessentially MAGA in one sense but antithetical to MAGA in another. Opposing lockdowns is the MAGA part, of course. But letting moral qualms about how another country runs its shop influence our relations with them is practically the opposite of how Trump and other populist-nationalists approach foreign policy. Trump didn’t let anyone’s outrage about the murder of Jamal Khashoggi fracture the U.S.-Saudi alliance. He kept up relations with countries like Turkey and Brazil despite the illiberal autocratic ambitions of Erdogan and Bolsonaro. He held not one but two meetings with Kim Jong Un, who sits atop the most totalitarian regime on Earth. Asked in interviews about his interest in diplomacy with Vladimir Putin despite Putin’s habit of terrorizing Russian journalists, Trump repeatedly dismissed the concerns by reminding his audience that our country does terrible things too.

An “America First” foreign policy doesn’t concern itself with what other nations do to keep order internally. It simply asks, “Can cooperation with this partner advance America’s economic and security goals?” Biden’s recent deal with the Aussies and UK to provide nuclear sub technology to Australia satisfies that test since it’s aimed at containing China regionally, a goal MAGA supposedly shares. Yet here’s DeSantis, the MAGA heir apparent, wondering why relations with Australia remain normal simply because he objects to their COVID protocols.

Is he not an America-First-er on foreign policy? Or is he making a special exception to the “America First” approach in this case because opposing lockdowns — even in another country around the world — is a higher priority for him than advancing our economic and security aims? Anti-lockdown First, America Second?

He should tell us which other alliances he’s prepared to revisit on moral grounds. We’re all hypocrites to some degree on foreign policy, turning a blind eye to persecution abroad when it suits our bottom line to do so. But if DeSantis is prepared to alter or even end a longstanding partnership that’ll be increasingly important in years to come in checking China, I’d like to know which other partnerships he’s willing to rethink. Is it just Australia and just because of how they enforce their lockdown rules or would he pull our ambassador from Saudi Arabia for their full-spectrum totalitarianism? Either way, I’m sure plenty of Aussies would resent being lectured about their COVID policies by a country that’s approaching 700,000 dead. Especially if it were led by a guy whose opposition to vaccine passports is so recklessly extreme that he won’t let even cruise lines require them.