Last October, Scott Morrison continued a proud Australian political tradition and admitted that – despite being prime minister – he has only a passing interest in international affairs.
Days after returning from a lengthy visit to Washington, Morrison explained, almost apologetically, that his various foreign travels had been forced upon him by the unfortunate intrusion of global events. “My instincts and passions have always been domestic,” he said in a speech to the Lowy Institute. “I am not one who naturally seeks out summits and international platforms.”
But Morrison went further. He presented his disdain for summitry not only as a personal foible but also as a reflection of his worldview – his belief that international bodies and gatherings should be mistrusted and that they threaten to undercut the nation’s independence and interests. Morrison rejected what he labelled “negative globalism” and warned that Australia must tread warily to avoid being dictated to by an “unaccountable internationalist bureaucracy”.
But this was before the Covid-19 pandemic.
Now, the government has reversed its approach as it faces a chaotic world order that Trump encourages and that Xi Jinping is trying to exploit. The Morrison government has finally realised that strengthening international institutions and embracing multilateralism is preferable to the alternative – which would involve relying on either Trump or Xi to steer the world out of the current economic and health crisis.
This turnaround was exhibited by a recent address in Canberra by Australia’s foreign minister, Marise Payne, which attempted to articulate the nation’s evolving outlook.
“Covid-19 has shown that our international order is as important as ever,” she said. “There is need for reform in several areas, but the pandemic has brought into stark relief the major role of international institutions in addressing and coordinating a global response to a global problem.”
Australia’s government, it seems, has quickly overcome its fears of what Morrison described as an “ill-defined borderless global community”.
For Morrison, the pillar on which his pre-pandemic view rested – a world in which the US’s leadership in the world was the “key to progress” – has collapsed. In his speech in October, Morrison said that stability and prosperity since the second world war has rested on “the principled actions of nation states, most often led by the United States, binding together the liberal democracies of the western world”. But this vision ended with the election of Trump, and has been further eroded by China’s growing clout.
Trump, unlike most of his modern predecessors, wants to use US power to bend other states to its will, rather than to strengthen global bodies through which it can then exercise influence. He has weakened and defunded international organisations and abandoned global agreements, often allowing China, the world’s second-most powerful country, to take America’s place. This has been happening for years, but Covid-19 – and the apparent influence that China has gained in bodies such as the World Health Organization – has demonstrated the consequences.
Meanwhile, China’s recent conduct – its potential cover-up of the coronavirus outbreak, its aggressive diplomacy, its repression at home and in Hong Kong, and its use of economic coercion – has worsened its relations with countries around the world. Morrison’s strange press conference earlier this month, in which he announced that Australia was facing a cyberattack but refused to name the “state actor”, highlighted the difficulty that he faces in confronting China, which was widely presumed to be the culprit. In 2017, Malcom Turnbull named North Korea as the suspected perpetrator of the “WannaCry” ransomware attack – but publicly naming China would further escalate tensions with Australia’s largest trade partner.
Confronting Beijing is risky, especially when alone.
Australia and others have urgently started looking to form new groups and partnerships that can ensure the global leadership void is not replaced by either chaos or by a new, Chinese-led order. Boris Johnson has proposed creating a “D10” group of leading democracies, including the G7 members and Australia, South Korea and India. Australia wants to expand the role of the Five Eyes intelligence partnership – which also includes the US, Britain, Canada and New Zealand – to focus on economic ties as well as security. Emmanuel Macron wants to reshape the European Union to become more independent and less reliant on the US or China.
Morrison’s pre-pandemic instinct was to view the faults with international bodies such as the United Nations and its agencies – they can be bloated, or lack transparency, or subject to undue influence – as evidence that Australia should be ready to abandon them. This was never a good option, but it seemed viable when the alternative to consensus-based decision-making was to firmly back US leadership.
Instead, Payne proposed in her speech at the Australian National University, that Australia will try to fix and strengthen bodies and play a more active role within them.
“Covid-19 is a shared crisis – a reminder that many problems are best solved or, indeed, can only be solved through cooperation,” she said. “Australia’s interests are not served by stepping away and leaving others to shape global order for us.”
This marked a welcome corrective to Morrison’s flirtation with an “Australia first”-style approach to world affairs. The pandemic, it seems, is finally removing the illusion that Australia or its leaders would ever stand to gain from elective self-isolation.
• Jonathan Pearlman is editor of Australian Foreign Affairs and world editor of The Saturday Paper