Paul Kelly’s account of Scott Morrison’s foreign policy genius falls short
Morrison’s mission: how a rookie reshaped Australian foreign policyPaul Kelly (Lowy Institute/Penguin)
When you claim that Scott Morrison has a cohesive, long-term approach to foreign policy, you are setting yourself a high bar. Scomo rightly said that his instincts had “always been domestic”, and pretty much his first statement on world issues was that the Australian Embassy in Israel should be moved to Jerusalem (during Dave Sharma’s campaign to get back to Wentworth). This policy had been an all-American obsession, but ScoMo went there anyway, causing an uproar among our Arab friends. Not bad for a first outing.
Paul Kelly acknowledges that ScoMo has a knack for disaster, but that doesn’t stop him from pursuing Morrison’s mission – a project that leaves the feeling that it was written with a specific form and conclusion in mind, one that might then not be found in the hardware.
Things are getting hot.
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Ten years ago, Kelly wrote an article for the Lowy Institute titled Howard’s Agendaconcerning the foreign policy of a man who came of personal and political maturity as a staunch conservative during the Cold War and served as Prime Minister during the last period of unchallenged US dominance.
It was to be expected to find a coherent, thoughtful and thoughtful foreign policy. Morrisson’s mission is an attempt to do the same with a Gen-X, former child TV actor, cheerful tourism industry flak and inside party factionalist whom many Australians believe to be a fantasy or a pathological liar, at a a time when the United States, our oldest ally, teeters every four years between isolationism and renewed multilateralism, and our essential trading partner is also our civilizational enemy.
There is substantial evidence against. The whole middle of Kelly’s book on ScoMo’s supposedly deliberate foreign policy is about his evolution to a cautious but principled stance against China’s authoritarianism and regional domination, all in the Australian national interest – and in meanwhile, Morrison, at the despatch box, accuses the Leader of the Opposition of being a Chinese agent and his deputy a Manchurian candidate.
These events would matter less if Kelly were not so determined to construct some form of authorship of the past three years of Australian foreign policy and attribute it to the prime minister’s planet-sized mastermind.
“From the start of his tenure as Prime Minister, Scott Morrison has been driven by the dynamics of a changing world,” Kelly writes.
Does anyone without a book to put together believe that? From the moment he was installed by his party, Scott Morrison seems to have been motivated only by tactics on the home front, and even less in the field of international relations.
I suspect that even those who will vote for him without hesitation in the next election will not do so for his strategic vision.
Tale of two Chinas
Morrison came to power in 2018, at a time when the post-1991 global system was truly collapsing. China had moved from a form of domestic, authoritarian state capitalism to a nationalist neo-Stalinism projected on a global scale; the United States, under Donald Trump, oscillated between crude protectionism, rejection of NATO and strange attachments to the most cartoonish dictators on the planet. Trump had canceled the anti-China Trans-Pacific Partnership and Asia was in disarray.
For decades, our major trading partners had been our allies. There was now a major disjunction between trade and security.
It was a time when we needed a Prime Minister who could step back and speak after careful consideration. What we got was a government willing to moralize China without being able to support it, from unilaterally calling for a global investigation into China’s handling of the COVID-19 virus to “escalating” of the Pacific, in which we “warned” the nations of the Pacific that China’s investment in these countries was interested (if unlike Western investment!) in getting away from human rights, while we continued to ship iron-rich chunks from the mainland to them.
China has responded with selective and sudden tariffs on specific products such as barley, most likely chosen with reference to coalition fringe constituencies.
Kelly is more than willing to acknowledge that Morrison’s approach was a particular gaffe, but he argues there was a long-term intent:
“Morrison’s trip to China from 2018 to 2021 was a wild ride. Along the way, there were bumps in the road, improvisations and diplomatic mistakes, but long-term strategic intent,” Kelly writes.
You could have fooled us, many will say.
Kelly does not spare Morrison or his government for their blunders, but his claim to real leadership rests on his having interviewed those around him and a single lengthy interview with the Prime Minister himself. But this is where it gets murky. Throughout the book, Kelly claims thoughts on behalf of Morrison whose provenance is unclear: “The Quad offered some of the best insights into Morrison’s thought. He wanted more collaboration from regional nations…” But is that something Morrison said in his interview? A Kelly hypothesis? Nothing appears in the footnotes, so how does he know?
So it happens everywhere. Kelly’s basic rhetorical strategy is to cast Morrison as the thoughtful author of this drift in China’s approach. But he presents very little evidence for this. What his scrupulously attested record of the period indicates are initiatives by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, diplomats, senior officials, “Asian veterans” and so on, all pushing and pulling on the government as it sought to keep the channels open. with China.
It is much more of a picture of government acting in response to internal pressures and forces, something far more characteristic of Morrison than any overall picture.
Under which microscope?
Crucial to the notion of long-term strategy is what appears to be Kelly’s attribution of AUKUS, and perhaps all of Indo-Pacific strategy, to Morrison. Is there any real proof of this? Everything indicates that the Biden administration was moving towards such a strategy after Trump’s lack of direction, and the sudden departure from Afghanistan was obviously a clearing for the new strategy. It seemed clear that the United States was lining it all up, with Europe (i.e. France) as much of a target as China, and assigning a role to Australia, which we were happy to assume .
Kelly’s treatment of AUKUS is understated to the point of misrepresentation. Its focus on the submarine point of the deal misses the crucial dimension of cyber warfare, which would necessarily bind our forces into a single US-led command, the basis of Paul Keating’s critics of the deal. and ANU academic Hugh White – which Kelly then constructs as “emotional”.
Baffled by the time lag of the submarine deal, Kelly hasn’t read enough to get to the point made by UNSW academic Clinton Fernandes and others: that Australian ports prepared for nuclear power can then be used by US submarines, and that is the purpose of nuclear “sharing”. Australian submarines themselves are on the never-never.
To many who watch everyday politics, it will seem that the real Morrison is the man behind the cheap shots about the Manchurian candidates: the swaddled parochial Christian cultist in Sydney who spends much of his time waging war on the branch NSW of his own party. until the election, rather than on any fanciful mission that would be of any use in a world suddenly engulfed in war.
This is Kelly at his most forgiving and least self-aware level. For the past decade or more he has looked to Australian politics and politicians to find something more than there is. The process he mapped in The march of the patriots, at the end of 2007, delivered a country that did not live up to such epic hopes: a deeply atomized society, in which public passions – whether left-wing cultural nationalism or right-wing patriotism – turned into privatized lives and a few sporting motifs, Woolies Anzac Day advertisements and bullshit like One Nation. Such a culture gets politicians who reflect it, through cracked glass.
A telling moment in this book is Kelly’s attempt to link Morrison’s present to his Australian ancestral past and his admiration for Captain Cook. But as anyone who’s heard ScoMo will attest, it’s not Cook he really admires, but Starship Enterprise’s James T Kirk (who star trek designer Gene Roddenberry inspired by Cook).
Why? Good, star trek was compelling to most Gen X kids — but especially one raised in a suburban cult church by his mayor/cop dad. ScoMo’s reverence for Cook was added later, I have little doubt.
Kelly’s selection of it shows that he yearns for a division of the trivial and the serious, the tactical and the considered, which has now largely dissolved.
The weirdness of it all is that the book is a useful enough account of our foreign policy shifts in recent years, once Kelly’s blind spots are taken into account. “For Biden, climate change is a leap of faith,” Kelly writes. Come on, Paul, you’re better than that. Denial is an act of faith.
Kelly, like many mainstream commentators, has little latitude to assess the actions of our leaders in terms of their lack of reason. Considering the selection we’ve had recently, it seems like a lack of imagination. Maybe that part of the embassy in Jerusalem was a crude election campaign. And maybe it was because it’s in the Book of Revelation.