The return of values: Morrison’s strategic policy agenda

Scott Morrison is now generating a clear foreign and defence policy direction for his time as prime minister and working closely with key cabinet ministers to achieve it. The emerging agenda seems to be as much Morrison’s personal creation as it is a product of cabinet government policymaking.

And at the heart of this policy agenda is something that has been mostly absent in Australian strategic thinking and international relationship management for some years—values.

As the prime minister put it earlier this month when standing on the flight deck of the American aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan:

Australia believes in what Ronald Reagan called the ‘truths and traditions’ that define the United States. We stand together in these self-evident truths. We stand together for personal liberty and freedom. For democracy and the ballot box. For the rule of law, and freedom of association. For free economies and free peoples.

Morrison then quoted from remarks Reagan made at a White House state dinner to honour Malcolm Fraser in 1981: ‘We both recognise the responsibility of freedom and are prepared to shoulder it squarely.’

At other times, Australian political leaders have come over misty-eyed talking about shared values with Americans, but they’ve done so when times were good and the recitation didn’t seem to matter all that much. And values have routinely got a guernsey in various government policy statements, like the 2017 foreign policy white paper, but haven’t seemed particularly operative in what our officials and diplomats then do.

The context has changed and with it the pointedness and power of the words. Because now these words read as a statement of intent in the face of other powers that do not believe in these ‘truths’, and act accordingly—the two most notable of which are the Chinese state and the Russian state under presidents Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin.

The words jar with the reality of Chinese authorities’ exercise of power domestically against their own citizens—in Xinjiang, in Wuhan and in Hong Kong—and with the Chinese military’s annexation of disputed territory in the South China Sea in the face of claims by states like the Philippines and Vietnam. The rule-of-law emphasis contrasts bluntly with the Chinese party-state’s use of law as a weapon against foreigners from states that have made it unhappy and against its own citizens to protect party rule.

While it may jar with Chinese state actions, the statement of what Australia stands for aligns very well with the Morrison agenda in the Pacific and with the steps taken at home by both the Turnbull and Morrison governments. This makes for consistency in international and domestic policy because of parallels between deepening international partnerships with ‘like-mindeds’ and moves to enhance national cohesion.

Domestically, the laws put in place to prevent ‘foreign influence activities that are in any way covert, coercive or corrupt’ from undermining Australian institutions, policymaking and democracy are all about ensuring Australia continues to protect and reinforce these values at home. Similarly, calling out cyber intrusions into the heart of Australian democracy and theft of intellectual property by the Chinese Ministry of State Security is about resisting efforts to subvert our politics and undercut our economy.

And Morrison’s Pacific step-up has a theme of helping our Pacific partners do the same, to enable their own sovereign decision-making. The prime minister’s three big elements of Australia’s renewed engagement with our Pacific family—‘to work with our Pacific Islands partners to build a Pacific region that is secure strategically, stable economically and sovereign politically’—echo the ideas of rule of law, free economies and free peoples.

Lowy Institute polling shows that many Australians no longer trust ‘China’ (more accurately, Xi’s government) to act responsibly in the world, no doubt because of growing knowledge in our community of Chinese interference in political parties, cyber intrusions, punitive trade measures and growing presence in our near region. The very different values that the authoritarian Chinese Communist Party uses to guide its policies and actions are the root cause here.

This view from the Australian community is good news because it tells our leaders that we support—and want—a defence of basic values and freedoms. As John Fitzgerald has noted in a forthcoming publication, it provides a timely reminder to a democratic government that values are anchored not in foreign policy documents, but in civic life. Morrison seems to understand this implicitly and to realise that acting on this impulse is a source of political power.

This contradicts a heavy stream of strategic and international policy and commentary that has bled into the public debate, which seeks to portray nation-states as interchangeable ‘powers’ and the acme of excellence in statecraft and political leadership as the ability to solve the algorithms of changing power balances and adjust the state’s policies and actions accordingly.

That approach seems well represented in Hugh White’s latest book, How to defend Australia, and is probably most familiar to historians of European balance-of-power politics at the time of Bismarck. In this world, the nature of states seems to not matter much. It’s all about the power equation.

This idea leads to the equivalence of living under US or Chinese power and is also quite popular for uncritical advocates of deeper engagement with China despite the realities of authoritarian power.

Maybe it’s odd to a dry strategic mind contemplating 1800s Europe, but values matter because they can increase or detract from a nation-state’s national power. The values a state practices domestically and internationally matter in quite practical ways—because they affect the extent to which that state is trusted, supported, partnered with and even allied with.

Peter Varghese put this clearly recently when speaking about the nature of the Chinese state: ‘For Australia, a democratic China becoming the predominant power in the Indo-Pacific is a very different proposition to an authoritarian China occupying this position.’ It’s a very different proposition because the values of authoritarian China are in stark contrast with Australian values.

Even the Cold War was as much a competition about values as it was about naked national power. And the values of personal liberty and freedom, democracy, the rule of law, freedom of association, free economies and free peoples won.

Maybe the values concept comes easily to Morrison because he’s centred in his own personal (including religious) values. It does seem that this is one of his easy connections with Pacific leaders and audiences.

Beyond Morrison, at least one senior cabinet minister is also signalling a return of values to the core of Australian foreign and defence policy. Linda Reynolds has been using her early speeches, like her July address in the UK, to connect Australia’s defence partnerships to the Morrison agenda. It’s also the way the minister is taking up the theme of ‘political warfare’ sketched out by Australian Defence Force chief Angus Campbell.

Reynolds speaks of the importance of ‘sovereign rights, and the concept that nations of all sizes in every corner of the globe have the right to conduct their affairs free from coercion’. These rights and freedoms are being undermined ‘in very direct ways, contesting our values’ with brazen challenges, ‘whether in the Gulf or the South China Sea, in eastern Ukraine or Salisbury’.

Even more pointedly, some states are using grey-zone tactics, operating ‘just below the threshold of traditional armed conflict’. They are ‘prepared to flout the rules-based order in resorting to these options’.

‘The longer we leave it unchecked, the bolder they become. Australia has been prepared to call out violations of international law and international security and hold those responsible to account. More voices need to join this chorus’, Reynolds says.

The most intriguing thing in all of this is what policy directions and decisions will be most driven by this renewed focus on values.

National security policy is my big pick here, because it’s where the contest of values with authoritarian powers is most intense and where Australia and our allies and partners have a strong competitive advantage, although it’s one that until recently we seem to have discounted.

And it’s where the opportunities from closer partnerships—security and economic—with like-minded states are real. As we are likely to see when Morrison goes to Washington.