Grand foreign policy speeches are not usually the specialty of Australian Prime Ministers. Little insight can be gleaned from them. A more profitable exercise would be consulting the US State Department’s briefings, which give more accurate barometric readings of policy in Canberra. The same goes for the selected adversary of the day. Washington’s adversaries must be those of Canberra’s. To challenge such assumptions would be heretical. To act upon them would be apostasy.
The speech by Prime Minister Scott Morrison on March 7 to the Lowy Institute lived down to expectations. Where it did serve some value was to highlight a mirror portrait of the man himself, describing an amoral world of power he inhabits. “We face,” he solemnly stated, “the spectre of a transactional world, devoid of principle, accountability and transparency, where state sovereignty, territorial integrity and liberty are surrendered for respite from coercion and intimidation, or economic entrapment dressed up as economic reward.”
In other respects, this speech was derivative of previous efforts to simplify the world into camps of wearying darkness and sublime light. In his 2002 State of the Union Address, US President George W. Bush did precisely that. Before losing our intellectual integrity in examining Morrison’s efforts of profound shallowness, let us go back to that original, dunce-crafted address, amply aided by David Frum, the Iraq War’s polished and persistent apologist.
When Bush delivered his address, the moment was certainly strained. The September 11, 2001 attacks still searingly fresh; the administration trying to come up with a doctrine to cope with the scourge of international Islamist terrorism. In such instances, a subtle analysis of the global scene, a mapping of sensible policy, might have been too much to ask.
What the world got was an adolescent morality sketch based on angry pre-emption in a rotten world. The US, Bush promised, would pursue “two great objectives.” The first involved shutting down terrorist camps, disrupting the plans of terrorists, and bringing “terrorists to justice.” The second: “to prevent the terrorists and regimes who seek chemical, biological or nuclear weapons from threatening the United States and the world.”
With the objectives stated, the heavy padding was introduced into the speech. North Korea, Iran and Iraq were singled out for special mention. “States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger.” The sequence of catastrophic, and bloody blunders that would culminate in the destruction of the ancient lands of Mesopotamia, was being floated. Evidence would be secondary to assumption and ideology.
Morrison’s own assessment is not much better. “A new arc of autocracy is instinctively aligning itself to challenge and reset the world order in their own image.” At best, this silly formulation is dated, one straight out of musty history books depicting Beijing and Moscow as joined at the hip, keen on world revolution.
Russia’s assault on Ukraine is taken to be an attack on the “rules-based international order, built upon the principles and values that guide our own nation.” This order “supported peace and stability, and allowed sovereign nations to pursue their interests free from coercion.”
This same order was grossly, and willingly violated by the US-led coalition that marched into a sovereign state in 2003, unleashing tides of sectarianism that continue in their fury. The grounds for attacking Iraq were specious, and there was no interest in allowing it to pursue its “interests free from coercion.” Instead, a sanguinary, ramshackle protectorate was created, crudely supervised by international forces that aided in driving jihadi tourism.
The same order Morrison blithely describes was violated by NATO in its bombing of vital civilian infrastructure in Serbia in 1999, ostensibly to halt a genocide of Kosovars. In 2011, the same rules-based-order became something of a joke with the aerial intervention by French, UK and US forces in backing a revolt against Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. Unceremoniously butchered by an ecstatic mob, Gaddafi did not live to see his country virtually partitioned by rival militias.
The adversaries of the US are on very solid ground to point these misdeeds out, and Russian President Vladimir Putin does not shy away from reminding the West of this fact in his February 24 speech. Western colleagues, Putin remarked, “do not like to remember those events, and when we talk about it, they prefer to point not to the norms of international law, but to the circumstances that they interpret as they see fit.” This hardly adds weight to his own self-interpreted claims, but they serve to draw a thick line under hypocrisy masquerading as virtue.
Morrison hits a sinister register in describing the effects of the principle-free, transactional world. “The well-motivated altruistic ambition of our international institutions has opened the door to this threat. Just as our open markets and liberal democracies have enabled hostile influence and interference to penetrate not our own societies and economies.” What is he suggesting? A violent retaliation, a forced reversal?
Much impatience was expressed with how these naughty regimes of the autocratic arc have managed to get away with it. It might be “right to aspire” to “inclusion and accommodation,” but Australia and its allies had been left “disappointed.” But not his government – not the Liberal-Nationals, who had been “clear eyed,” having “taken strong, brave and world-leading action in response.”
To show how clear of eye Morrison has been, he has successfully made Australia the subservient partner in the AUKUS security pact with the United States and the UK. What was left of Australian sovereignty has been brazenly outsourced. The prime minister barely acknowledges the rationale of the agreement in the Lowy address, which has little to do with Australia eventually having its own questionable submarines with nuclear propulsion. The central point is granting greater access to US armed forces for easier deployment in the Indo-Pacific, a logistical benefit that is bound to make any war more, rather than less likely. Some freedom; some sovereignty.
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