Scott Morrison’s Lowy Lecture, titled “ In Our Interest”, offers the country a curious piece of foreign policy logic. It goes like this.
First, he recognises that Australia has no alternative but to engage with the world in order to secure its national interests. Not exactly rocket science, but no problem so far.
Second, the best way to secure those interests is through combined action with our allies. Well, not entirely, Scott. What about our major strategic and economic interests in China (relationship currently a mess), India, Indonesia, not to mention the Pacific island states (another mess), none of which happen to be allies?
Frank Lowy flanked by Scott Morrison and John Howard at the Lowy Lecture in Sydney’s Town Hall on October 3. AAP
Third, he warns our interests must never be sacrificed to “a new variant of globalism that seeks to elevate global institutions above the authority of nation states to direct national policies” on behalf of an “unaccountable internationalist bureaucracy”. Now that one, Scotty, comes right out of the far-right conspiracy playbook. It’s the sort of crazy theory your QAnon mate, @BurnedSpy, and his mad American buddies trade in every day on their Twitter pages.
So, who is Morrison talking about here? The United Nations? The International Monetary Fund? The World Bank? The World Trade Organisation? The G20? Having advanced the “evil globalist” argument, he doesn’t bother letting us in on which institution(s) is the problem. In other words, he offers no proof of the case he’s making. Instead, he tells us he’s ordered the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to “audit” the global institutions that set international rules, and promises Australia will now play a bigger role in “setting global standards”.
The logic of Morrison’s argument just doesn’t stack up. Middle powers such as Australia have a fundamental national interest in a functioning international rules-based order. Great powers think, mistakenly, that they can advance their security and economic interests unilaterally. But that’s not an option for the rest of us. Under successive governments, Australia has actively been in the business of helping set the rules of the international system. On security. On trade. On finance. On anything where we need the co-operation of others to solve problems we can’t solve ourselves. And if we don’t like the outcome, guess what? We don’t have to sign or ratify.
So much for the conspiracy. Australia for three quarters of a century has been active in international institutions because it’s been in our national interest to do so. What Morrison seeks to do in his speech is to erect a straw man argument about a threat to our national interests that simply doesn’t exist.
It’s throwing a big slab of red meat to the Duttonista far right, the Hansonites, and even certain Christian fundamentalists.
So what’s Morrison really up to? The inconvenient truth is that it’s not about foreign policy at all. It’s about crude domestic politics. It’s throwing a big slab of red meat to the Duttonista far right, the Hansonites, and even certain Christian fundamentalists who have long railed about the evils of “one world government”. And it’s about wedging Labor.
The telltale line in Morrison’s speech paraphrasing John Howard says it all: “We will decide our interests and the circumstances in which we seek to pursue them.” Whatever that means. Is he saying there are circumstances in which we won’t pursue our national interests?
But Howard offers us a textbook example of what happens when you ignore international law and international institutions. Remember Iraq – the single greatest foreign and security policy disaster for Australia since Vietnam. We went to war in defiance of the UN Security Council, which just wanted UN weapons inspectors to finish examining whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. But Howard knew best. The result: full-scale invasion but no WMD found; 200,000 to 600,000 innocent civilians killed; Iraq moves into Iran’s sphere of influence; Iraq, where there were no terrorists before, becoming the breeding ground for a new terrorist movement, Islamic State; Baghdad almost falling to IS; a civil war in Syria where IS became a central combatant; millions of Syrian refugees fleeing to neighbouring countries and then to Europe, upending normal democratic politics, giving rise to the far right across the continent; and IS cells now across south-east Asia waiting to strike against soft Western targets.
Well done, John Winston! That’s what happens when you exhibit cavalier disregard for the international norms, rules and laws that Australia helped create in the first place. Something which Morrison should bear in mind in sending Australian forces off to the Gulf without any idea what the Trump administration may do next with Iran.
Of course, Morrison’s main domestic political agenda in his “evils of globalism” speech was climate. Morrison has been stung at home and abroad by the attacks on his government’s record. He’s smarting because the UN Secretary-General would not allow government leaders to address the UN climate summit unless they had added to their carbon reduction commitments. So ScoMo thought: why not attack the nasty globalists instead?
Morrison is struggling to meet his own modest carbon commitments under the Paris Agreement without resorting to dodgy accounting tricks. These were made as “independent national commitments”, not mandated by international treaty. And they were commitments made by his government, not mine. No one forced them to do it. But now they are being held to account.
Given the massive impact of climate change on our economy and environment, it is fundamentally in Australia’s national interest for a robust, measurable global agreement to reduce carbon. That’s why Australia must play its part, rather than free-riding on the efforts of others. We must use our national credibility on climate to lead the international effort to keep temperature increases below 2 degrees. Otherwise we will bear the brunt of its full impact first. Indeed, in contrast to Morrison’s anti-globalist thesis, active climate internationalism is directly in Australia’s national interest.
Finally, there’s the rank hypocrisy of the Liberals now railing against “globalism”. After they had campaigned against our government’s successful candidature for the UN Security Council, once in office you couldn’t keep the Liberals away from New York. Tony Abbott included. Then there’s the G20, which we helped create, with Australia for the first time having a seat at the top global table. But beyond the picfacs, where have the Liberals taken a substantive lead on the G20’s global economic management and financial regulatory agenda? Remember Abbott at the Brisbane G20 summit? Our position has been squandered. So much for a greater role in “global standard setting”. The cry around the world today is: “What’s happened to Australia?” We’ve become a little Australia.
Morrison’s speech follows the Liberals’ long tradition of using foreign policy as the continuation of domestic politics by other means. We’ve become a complacent country instead of confronting the major regional and global challenges that threaten our fundamental national interests. Australia deserves better.
Kevin Rudd is a former Labor prime minister and foreign minister of Australia.