Scott Morrison, by his own admission, has never been much of a foreign affairs buff.

As he reminded the high-powered guests at the annual Lowy lecture, which he delivered in Sydney on Thursday night, his instincts as a politician have been “domestic in nature… I am not one who naturally seeks out summits and international platforms”.

That changes when you become Prime Minister. Protecting and promoting Australia’s interests abroad is one of the most critical and challenging tasks you face  -  a task generally approached with great care and forethought.

So it was all the more surprising to hear Morrison so blithely demonising in his Lowy address what he dubbed “negative globalism” driven by “an unaccountable internationalist bureaucracy”.

Exactly which corner of the matrix of interlocking multinational arrangements we’ve long been part did he have in mind? Was he talking about the United Nations? Its subsidiary bodies? The World Trade Organisation? The International Monetary Fund? Was he talking about global pressures to accelerate action on climate change, a challenge that can only be addressed by countries acting in concert?

Nothing was made clear. Instead the rhetoric seemed designed to tap into the kind of inchoate frustrations that have driven Brexit in the United Kingdom, unleashed nationalism in Eastern Europe and fuelled Trump's patriots-first fixation in the US.

Morrison tied his willingness to battle a phalanx of shadowy international bureaucrats with the promise that he would be a leader “squarely driven by Australia’s national interests”.

This implies that others before him haven’t been similarly driven.

Yet for decades the country's leaders and foreign ministers - less so, perhaps, during the Howard era - have stressed the fundamental importance to a middle ranking-ranking country like Australia of the international institutions which have been set up post the Second World War to moderate and reconcile the often competing interests of nation states.

It’s instructive that Foreign Minister Marise Payne stuck to this more traditional approach when she addressed the Australian Institute of International Affairs late last year.

She acknowledged the international system needed reform. But “far from abandoning the international system, we are speaking loudly in its defence” she insisted.

“We will be safer and more prosperous in a world where global differences are managed, and global challenges met, by agreed rules rather than the exercise of power alone” the Foreign Affairs minister said.

All nations will conduct foreign policy putting their own interests first. But better results are obtained when you cast your motives not just in terms of your own national welfare, but that of others as well.

Adopting the rhetoric of naked national interest invites others to follow suit.  Russia can, no doubt,  argue that seizing the Crimea is in it's national interest. Ditto China’s muscling up to others in the South China Sea.

As John McCarthy, one of the country’s most seasoned former diplomats, cautions “the middle powers need rules. We need rules more than the Russians, or the Chinese or the Americans.”

McCarthy, who served as Australian ambassador to seven countries, including the US, Japan, Indonesia and India, gives Morrison some credit for wading into the foreign affairs space, and a tick for restraint on China, with Morrison rejecting the “binary narrative of strategic competition.”

Likewise the Prime Minister commendably highlighted the importance of energetic engagement with Pacific neighbours, and regional partners such as Japan, Indonesia, India and the ASEAN nations.

But in the wider global space, perhaps he should talk more softly, given that Australia can only ever wield a moderately-sized stick.

Previous Next