ALLAN PATIENCE and GARRY WOODARD. Morrison as a middle power statesman?


In attempting to predict how Scott Morrison will develop as a foreign policy Prime Minister, the obstacles in his way should first be noted. While his potential authority within the party room is considerable, he lacks the foreign policy experience of previous Prime Ministers such as Menzies, Whitlam, Hawke and Rudd.

This weakness is compounded by ministers around him who are less knowledgeable about foreign affairs than any of his predecessors. His bureaucratic support to adapt to change appears equally uncertain, and the divisions within the bureaucracy are unprecedented.

Nevertheless, Morrison presented well at the Osaka G20 summit, particularly in advancing the view that no country benefits from the trade war initiated by Trump against China and which has predictably provoked a tit-for-tat response from Xi Jinping. His advocacy for Asian regional and wider solidarity in support of open trade, against Trump, is also a notable step forward.

Intriguingly, in a foreign policy speech in Australia just prior to the G20, Morrison claimed for Australia the status of “middle power,” promising further steps to consolidate this regional and global positioning. It is a fact that Australia had acquired a commendable reputation for middle power activism on international trade in the past. If it can assemble the human resources to provide intellectual leadership for reshaping the rules-based order, it may be able to firmly establish once and for all its standing as an adroit middle power.

However, we must not forget that attempting to play a middle power role to influence the two contending big powers carries all the risks of being trampled underfoot. Rudd tried it and failed spectacularly. Neither of the big powers’ leaders today offers scope for the kind of independent Australian action that Rudd deployed to try to trap big power dinosaurs blindly lurching towards potentially disastrous confrontations. Such a strategy requires a great deal more intimacy with leaders of both the big powers than Australia presently enjoys.

Nevertheless, Morrison has spoken of common interests and values between China and Australia. This requires bilateral definitions and clarification of these interests and values. And at the end of the day it will require joint acknowledgement of the differences that have emerged acutely over the last eighteen months. Some sensitive diplomacy along these lines could have a salutary effect in thawing the current frosty relations between Beijing and Canberra. Mechanisms for national policy-making and subsequent consultations with China will have to be new, imaginative and daring. The recently published China Matters “Narrative” offers a good starting point.

Pursuing “middle power” foreign policies is demanding. It is not incompatible with being a good ally, building up a reputation for reliability and predictability. But there is nothing good about rushing to war, seemingly to curry favour with our “great and powerful friend” while acting without regard for global opinion and especially the opinions of Australia’s Asia Pacific neighbours. Acting as a middle power requires objectivity, which is the prerequisite to efficiency. It is labour-intensive and so requires selectivity. It demands consistency. It is no good acting as a middle power in one area and as an unimaginatively reflexive stooge in another. It’s an unfortunate fact that the latter is the image Australia now has in Beijing.

Australia would not have a hope in the world of re-establishing objective assessment and status in Beijing if it were to join a war in Iran. Such a catastrophic commitment would have nothing to do with the ANZUS alliance obligations and would require the most sceptical examination if Australia were to claim it was acting in its national interest.

Indeed, Australia has on-going interests and assets in Iran which traditionally could provide a basis for middle power initiatives. Or in this case, an astute Australian Prime Minister could associate Australia with the Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, in his efforts as mediator. Australia has demonstrated its neutrality by keeping open its embassy in Tehran. It has maintained an uninterrupted trading relationship with Iran, and its objective first-hand assessments have had a wide audience and utility. These are the qualities Australia brought to a successful diplomatic role during Indonesia’s confrontation of Malaysia and to its maintenance and promotion of a working relationship between Cambodia and the US during the Vietnam war, laying a foundation for its later international initiative to bring peace to Cambodia.

It’s time for Australia to develop a genuine middle power foreign policy strategy in order to go forward into the twenty-first century. This means relinquishing its current dependent relationship with the United States by rethinking the ANZUS treaty and demonstrating that this country can provide diplomatic interventions of benefit, not only to the USA and China, but also to other problematic regional and global conflict zones. It’s time for Australia to become a real middle power.

Allan Patience is a Melbourne-based political scientist. Garry Woodard is a former diplomat and academic.


Dr Allan Patience is a Principal Fellow in Political Science in the University of Melbourne where he lectures on Australian foreign policy.

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5 Responses to ALLAN PATIENCE and GARRY WOODARD. Morrison as a middle power statesman?

  1. Marty Morrison says:

    Not only does Scott Morrison lack foreign policy experience he lacks “human experience”. Fancy that he thinks that Indigenous people should wait around for another three years before being experienced enough to be equal citizens. For 60,000 years or more the Indigenous people have nurtured our land. What have most of the Coalition been doing except nurturing themselves.

  2. I misread the heading as Morrison as a middle manager. I suspect that being a middle power player in foreign policy requires a wider and deeper range of talents than Morrison possesses.

  3. Unfortunately there is insufficient evidence to show that Scott Morrison’s government will indeed act as a creative middle power and live up to its commitments to universal values.

    The Australian Macedonian community is deeply concerned about the lack of coherence and democratisation of Australian foreign policy and ethical diplomacy. This can best be seen in Australia’s policy of institutional discrimination and delegitimisation of the Republic of Macedonia since 1994. There was never any national, parliamentary or foreign policy debate on this flawed and unjust policy. There was also no public understanding or support for the policy. In June 2018, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop issued an impromptu and poorly analysed media release titled ‘Republic of North Macedonia’ to welcome the illegal Prespa Agreement. It paved the way for the illegal, unprecedented and unsustainable renaming of the Republic of Macedonia into Republic of North Macedonia.

    Australia prides itself on promoting democracy, human rights and the rule of law on the international stage but fails to live up to these standards in reality in its policies and practices towards the Republic of Macedonia and towards the large Macedonian diaspora in Australia.

    In February 2019 DFAT changed its reference of the Republic of Macedonia to the Republic of North Macedonia. In the DFAT Diplomatic List, Macedonia is now incorrectly listed under N whereas before it was deliberately listed under F. All other countries on the official Diplomatic List start with the name of the country like Croatia, Bosnia, Fiji, Korea etc. We do not understand what is the logic for listing Macedonia under N and who is responsible for this? We call on Foreign Minister Marise Payne to use her power, authority and decency to bring to an end this shameful practice immediately and commit to democratisation of foreign policy and ethical diplomacy from now on.

  4. Andrew Farran says:

    Excellent advice for an inexperienced government in foreign policy. Mind you, getting from where we are to where we might (should) be will encounter a minefield. An anticipated problem will be that our spooks will be laying the mines, not disposing of them.

  5. James O'Neill says:

    The authors need some serious exposure to reality. There is no mention of Russia for example, yet the de facto alliance between Russia and China is one of the most important developments of the present century. Both countries are committed to the preservation of Iran’s independence, and not only because of the latter’s place in the BRI.
    Morrison was the second Australian PM in a row to be snubbed by the Chinese president at the recent G20 meeting. A message is being sent here that Australia is either blind to or is so wrapped up by the US alliance that it wilfully ignores the signals.
    To risk fracturing the trade dominance of China on the Australian economy is beyond bizarre; it is insanity.
    The world is changing rapidly, yet Australians seem locked in a 20th century mind set that poses great potential risks. Relying on the two major parties (let alone the current foreign policy amateur occupying the PM title) to successfully manoeuvre through the fundamental world changes currently underway is not only misguided, it is suicidal.

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