At a time when Australia needs to work to rebuild past diplomatic friendships with the US and China, Canberra seems to be going out of its way to further irritate both countries. It is Australian state-level diplomacy at its most ham-fisted.
It was to be expected of Scott Morrison that he issue an early statement on behalf of the Australian Government welcoming Joe Biden’s historic declaration of victory in Wilmington, Delaware on Saturday 7 November (UTC-5).
Reading these four statements together – one by Biden, three by Morrison – leaves a strong sense that Morrison and his foreign policy advisers just did not get – and do not wish to get – what has just happened in the United States elections.
The universe Morrison lives in is the self–constructed and intellectually claustrophobic national security world of today’s official Canberra. Its pillars are: the imagined common threat posed by an aggressive expansionist China; the centrality of an unshakeable ANZUS alliance rooted in common British-origin blood and history, and cemented as military partners in past and recent wars; Australia’s destiny as America’s most loyal and reliable strategic ally (‘we have your back as you have ours’); the illusory comfort of an imagined new Indo-Pacific regional security architecture improbably built around ‘The Quad’ ( US, Japan, India, Australia); and that our two nations work closely together in facing common security challenges in the Southwest Pacific. Morrison’s statements referenced or alluded to all these things.
There was no reference whatsoever to any of Joe Biden’s or Kamala Harris’s inspirational national themes articulated a few hours earlier. Morrison made no attempt to engage with any of these issues, whose importance could readily have been foreseen from any reading over the past week of US election analysis and commentary, including from within the Democratic Party camp.
It is an odd omission considering we are such deep and intimate US allies as Morrison claims. He might have shown some empathy and understanding for the domestic nightmares America has experienced over the past four years of Trumpism – and the immense relief many Americans now feel. Morrison even clunkily thanked the discredited Mike Pompeo as ‘a great voice for peace around the world’.
In their respective speeches, Biden and Harris had pointedly said almost nothing about foreign policy. Their whole emphasis was on the need for all Americans to come together at this moment of national economic and public health crisis, to work together to begin to heal deep social divisions at home while defeating the pandemic and rebuilding the economy and environment.
On foreign policy Biden offered just two vague statements of what his administration will be about:
“To make America respected around the world again, and to unite us here at home”.
“It is time for our better angels to prevail. Tonight, the whole world is watching America. I believe at our best America is a beacon for the globe. And we lead not by the example of our power but by the power of our example.”
A pointed and refreshing statement of new United States priorities. This was not just rhetoric for a domestic audience.
But Morrison and his speech drafters had a tin ear for these, at times spiritually articulated, Biden and Harris themes: that it is time for Americans to hear one another again, to come together after years of increasing disharmony and anger. Their emphasis was overwhelmingly on Americans overcoming domestic challenges together. Foreign policy was very much sidelined.
Morrison’s two statements on 8 November and his third in Parliament on 9 November were tone-deaf, clunky, nationally self-centred to the point of selfishness, and essentially irrelevant to the current challenges facing Biden and his team. They could be summarily reported by Washington national security officials to Biden or his future Secretary of State designate as follows:
“As usual, the Australians are tiresomely emoting about ANZUS, trying to puff themselves up as our best and most loyal little ally in the world, and rudely demanding our priority patronage and attention. Nothing new here, this is how they always behave, and nothing requiring any particular policy attention by you.”
What a missed opportunity for Australia to actually say something truly empathetic, memorable, and useful to the United States at this turning point in its history. Instead, Morrison offered – in his usual aggrieved and truculent style, which must be seen and heard to be fully appreciated – the familiar Australian Government ambit claims of what his government expects from the Biden government – from any American government.
In Beijing, the Morrison statements will be interpreted as conveying an only slightly veiled continuing Australian hostility to China. The heavy emphasis on the statements on US – Australian military ties, as recalled by Biden while visiting the Australian naval flagship HMAS Adelaide which has frequently served overseas with the US Navy; the use of the descriptor “Indo-Pacific”, understood by China and others as linguistic code for strategic objectives of Western containment and diplomatic exclusion of China from the Asia-Pacific, as the region has always been and should properly still be named; the pointed reference to strategic cooperation (obviously aimed at China) in the South-West Pacific; the demand for an early presidential visit to Australia to cement the importance of ANZUS; and almost total silence on the need for the widest international cooperation in confronting the pandemic and climate change, on both of which issues Biden held out unmistakeable olive branches to China.
No support from Australia there, just stony silence. And no hint of any Australian message of reconciliation towards China: quite the contrary.
There was no diplomatic imagination, subtlety, or grace. The three Morrison statements will go mercifully unremembered.
Indeed, they are best forgotten as more examples of underwhelming Australian foreign policy conception and implementation. If Morrison thinks these were appropriate and productive diplomatic messages to President-elect Biden and his team, he is deluded.
Australia desperately needs to rediscover the good manners and protocols of traditional diplomacy, if we are to survive and prosper in the rapidly changing post-Trump world, in which Australia is increasingly vulnerable to irrelevance and declining living standards as our formerly secure China markets shrink.