Scott Morrison has declared sovereign nations need to eschew an “unaccountable internationalist bureaucracy” and the world needs to avoid “negative globalism” in a major foreign policy lecture at the Lowy Institute.
A week after Donald Trump used a speech to the United Nations to declare the future belonged to patriots, not globalists, Morrison echoed the American president’s nationalist tone, telling the foreign policy thinktank “only a national government, especially one accountable through the ballot box and the rule of law, can define its national interests”.
“We can never answer to a higher authority than the people of Australia,” the prime minister said.
Morrison’s line to the Lowy Institute on Thursday night was not as strident as Trump’s. The American president, facing a growing clamour for his impeachment, used his address to the United Nations General Assembly as a partisan stump speech to rally his base ahead of his 2020 re-election bid. Trump railed against globalism, which he claimed had “exerted a religious pall over past leaders causing them to ignore their own national interests”.
The Australian prime minister’s arguments were more nuanced.
He said isolationism and protectionism were not in the national interest. Australia must always seek to have a responsible and participative international agency in addressing global issues, engaging in what he called “positive and practical globalism”, he said.
But Morrison said it did not serve the national interest “when international institutions demand conformity rather than independent cooperation on global issues”.
“The world works best when the character and distinctiveness of independent nations is preserved within a framework of mutual respect,” Morrison said. “This includes respecting electoral mandates of their constituencies.
“Globalism must facilitate, align and engage, rather than direct and centralise, as such an approach can corrode support for joint international action.”
Morrison on Thursday night paraphrased the 2001 sovereignty credo of the former Liberal prime minister John Howard – we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come – declaring that under his prime ministership, in foreign policy terms, “we will decide our interests and the circumstances in which we seek to pursue them”.
He said Australia would take a more proactive role in setting global standards underpinning commerce, investment and exchange. “We cannot afford to leave it to others to set the standards that will shape our global economy.”
Morrison said he had asked the department of foreign affairs to undertake a comprehensive audit of global institutions and rule-making processes where Australia had the greatest stake.
He said the world had entered a new era of strategic competition and there were “continuing security threats from terrorism, extremist Islam, antisemitism, white supremacism, and evil on a local and global level”.
He contended pragmatic international engagement, based on the cooperation of sovereign nation states, was “being challenged by a new variant of globalism that seeks to elevate global institutions above the authority of nation states to direct national policies” – although he didn’t give concrete examples.
Morrison said complexities on the world stage coexisted with polarisation within and between societies, and an “era in which elite opinion and attitudes have often become disconnected from the mainstream of their societies, and a sense of resentment and disappointment has emerged”.
The prime minister said we lived in an era of “insiders and outsiders, threatening social cohesion, provoking discontent and distrust”.
But he counselled in favour of optimism. He said we were not the only generation to face complexity and adversity. Morrison said he grew up under the threat of nuclear Armageddon, his parents endured the second world war, and his grandparents the first world war.
Morrison said at every stage of our history, Australia had played its part as a force for good, in partnership with those who shared our outlook and our values.
He said the key to prospering through the transitions “was individual, like-minded sovereign nations acting together with enlightened self-interest”. The US had played a critical role “binding together the liberal democracies of the western world”.
“To preserve this legacy in the face of the uncertainties of our modern world, we must approach the future with the same optimism, confidence and resolve, of previous generations, and through our commitment to the values and beliefs that have always guided our way,” the prime minister said.
Morrison also dug in behind the rationale he floated in last week’s address to the Chicago Institute for Global Affairs that China was now a newly developed economy, not a developing one. He said China’s rise had changed the world “so we would expect the terms of its engagement to change too”.
“That’s why when we look at negotiating rules of the future of the global economy, for example, we would expect China’s obligations to reflect its greater power status,” he said.
“This is a compliment, not a criticism. And that is what I mean when describing China as a newly developed economy.
“The rules and institutions that support global cooperation must reflect the modern world. It can’t be set and forget.”
In conversation with Lowy Institute director Michael Fullilove, Morrison said Australia’s currently fractious relationship with China would be managed “in the national interest”.
“And by being incredibly consistent: we know where our lines are, we know where our benefits are, we know what we share, we know where we disagree … we are careful in the way we engage, in what we say and what we do. We don’t concede, we don’t step back.”
He said he would be happy to accept an invitation to visit Beijing, an honour not afforded an Australian prime minister for more than three years “but I’m not waiting by the phone, and nor should an Australian prime minister be”.
“If they would like to invite us to come to China, we’d be happy to go … we should be careful about over-interpreting some of those events ... it’s not troubling me.”
Morrison said while the Chinese government’s overt demonstrations of force this week – the massive military parade marking the 70th anniversary of the PRC and the forcible crackdown on Hong Kong demonstrators – were “hard to miss”, he said was “constantly surprised by the surprise” that has greeted China’s rise to economic and military eminence.
“This is the inevitable result of the path that we deliberately got on [engaging China in the broader global economy a generation ago], so I think it is important in responding, not to get too emotional or outraged that this has occurred, but simply to practically understand that this is where the world’s economy has got to.”