Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (Image: EPA/Rungroj Yongrit)

One of Scott Morrison’s first acts as prime minister was to announce an as yet unfulfilled plan to move Australia’s embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. 

It was terrible geopolitics. The embassy move is a huge flashpoint in Muslim-majority countries, and had the potential to poison relations with neighbours like Indonesia and Malaysia. But, just months before, the Trump administration had moved its embassy, a long-term goal of both powerful pro-Israel lobby groups and Evangelical Christians, triggering mass protests across the Middle East. And right after Morrison’s announcement there was a byelection in Wentworth, a seat with a high Jewish population. 

Whether the decision was a thought bubble, an opportunistic bit of domestic politicking, or an attempt to curry favour with the Trump administration, looking back, it still bears many of the hallmarks of what “the ScoMo doctrine” has been about. 

As prime minister, Morrison remained loyal to Trump right till the bitter end. He’s demonstrated a sometimes fawning allegiance to reactionary populist strongmen the world over. And, especially in his handling of the China relationship, there’s been a streak of impulsiveness that’s at times outweighed any consideration of the delicate balancing act that is international diplomacy. 

As the guard changes in Washington, and America begins to undergo something of a liberal correction, Morrison’s political opponents smell a hint of blood. This week, Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese hit out at the prime minister’s close affinity with Trump, in one of the first signs of meaningful difference between Labor and this government on foreign policy, traditionally a unity ticket.

There’s a tendency when assessing a government’s approach to the world to look for a distinct, overarching narrative. The Coalition’s handling of Trump, China and an increasingly unstable world could tell us a lot about how Morrison sees Australia’s role on the global stage.

Following Trump on China

There’s been plenty written in the last two weeks about Morrison’s relationship with Trump. In December, the prime minister received the Legion of Merit from Trump, a prestigious military honour (along with Japan’s Shinzo Abe and India’s Narendra Modi). He was just the second world leader to get a White House state dinner. He praised Trump as a “strong leader.” And, as the world condemned the former president for inciting his supporters to storm the US Capitol, Morrison appeared to take great pains not to criticise his friend.

But perhaps Morrison’s most overtly Trumpian turn came in 2019, during a speech where he lashed out at “negative globalists” and “unaccountable international bureaucracy”. Just days before the speech, Trump had told the United Nations the world belonged to “patriots, not globalists”. Later, Morrison revealed he meant the United Nations, language that seemed close in tenor to Trump’s anti-multilateral view of the world.

The negative globalism speech demonstrated another trait of Morrison’s foreign policy that’s been there from the embassy plan in 2018 — impulsiveness, and a sidelining of diplomats. Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) secretary Frances Adamson told the Senate she wasn’t consulted about the speech. Diplomats weren’t told about Morrison’s Israel embassy announcement.

Morrison’s at times impulsive willingness to toe the Trump line has had a big impact on Australia’s icy relationship with China. Things had been deteriorating between Beijing and Canberra since Malcolm Turnbull’s time — in part because of Xi Jinping’s assertiveness on the international scale, and to some extent because of Australia’s willingness to respond firmly to such behaviour.

But under Morrison, things have taken a dive. What kicked off the diplomatic death spiral was the Morrison government’s unilateral call for an investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. The prime minister wanted the World Health Organization to enter China and comb through Wuhan like weapons inspectors.

Unsurprisingly, China responded with fury, and here we are now stuck in a trade war with our biggest trading partner, who now refuses to buy our coal.

Of course, a probe into how we got into this pandemic mess makes sense. But diplomacy is about sometimes knowing when to be quiet. Allies in Europe reportedly wondered why Australia didn’t consult them before demanding a probe. By going it alone, Morrison made Australia an easy target for China’s wrath.

The incident also furnished the narrative of Canberra in the pocket of the Trump administration — at the time, the president and secretary of state Mike Pompeo were desperately trying to pin the blame for their unfolding domestic pandemic disaster on China.

While the trade sanctions are yet another sign of Beijing’s incredible thin skin, there’s also a sense Morrison fumbled a critical relationship. According to former prime minister Kevin Rudd, Morrison’s keenness to be a “public relations egg-beater” has led to avoidable difficulties. Stephen Fitzgerald, Australia’s first ambassador to China, wondered why Morrison didn’t just quietly get on the phone with Beijing over the origins of the pandemic, instead of recklessly seeking a “gotcha” moment.

There’s also a feeling in Canberra that moderates in the DFAT have been sidelined on China, in favour of more national security-focused types, while the Liberal party’s most hawkish backbenchers, like Andrew Hastie, have been allowed to be very vocal.

But while the attack on Beijing might have soured our standing with China, it certainly showed that Australia remained willing to side with the United States — no matter how unhinged the occupant of the White House might be.

A love of reactionaries

Morrison’s allegiance to Trump makes sense in the context of our alliance with the United States. What’s more novel is his closeness with other blustery far-right populists. Over the last few years, Morrison has developed an extremely online bromance with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

He regularly tags Modi in tweets, shows off his “scomosas”, and even addresses him in poorly-accented Hindi (a language not native to Modi or most Indians for that matter).

Of course, the Modi government is busy implementing its ideological goal of a Hindu India, making the country more dangerous and unpleasant for minority groups and trampling over press freedom and democratic institutions. Not a peep from Morrison, who’s long claimed to be a champion of religious freedom.

What’s behind the chumminess? Adelaide University’s Priya Chacko tells Crikey Modi likes leader-to-leader diplomacy, and the tweets serve a purpose of shoring up a good relationship. Clinton Fernandes, a professor of international political studies at the University of New South Wales, says it’s cynical economic ploy.

“The high commission tells him these snippets improve Australia’s image on Indian television, and that helps because India’s a very big market for universities.”

About a decade ago, that market was rocked by attacks on Indian students. The government’s strategy is about trying to improve our image.

“So the samosas, all those things are an attempt to create a welcome atmosphere for our university students,” Fernandes says.

Then again, Modi’s isn’t the only reactionary government Australia has gotten closer to under Morrison. Last year, Australia was one of just five states to intervene and attempt to block an International Criminal Court war crimes investigation into Israel. At the time, pro-Palestinian groups said Morrison’s was our most anti-Palestine government.

In 2018, Morrison gave a speech pointing to the six “anti-Israel” UN resolutions Australia had blocked. Past governments had simply abstained.

“Not on my watch,” Morrison said.

It’s incidents like this, along with the embassy call, that indicate a support for Israel under Benjamin Netanyahu that goes well beyond Australia’s traditionally friendly relationship.

Is there a ScoMo doctrine?

What does all this tell us about Morrison’s foreign policy? Perhaps he simply enjoys the closeness of people like Trump and Modi. Perhaps his foreign policy is an extension of his approach to domestic governance — rewarding mates and punishing enemies.

Fernandes’ theory, however, is that Morrison doesn’t represent a dramatic departure for Australia. Since the 1870s, he says, Australia has been what he calls a “sub-imperial power”, maintaining dominance over our own little corner of the Pacific, while acting as a deferential junior power to the imperial hegemon. First, that was Britain, now it’s the United States.

“There’s no real doctrine as such. It’s always been the same since the 1870s — how do we fit into the grand strategy of the greater power?”

By pandering to Trump, and going hard on China, Morrison is simply continuing that role. What’s changed slightly is Trump’s approach to the world. Writing in Foreign Policy, Michael Anton, one of the many former Trumpworld insiders turned conspiracy theorists, explained the president’s worldview as seeing the turn toward nationalism in Europe and the United States, and encouraging it to continue.

Fernandes sees Trump’s worldview as consistent with that of a “reactionary international” — a loose grouping of like-minded leaders like Netanyahu, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, and to an extent, Modi, who want to encourage the tide of right-wing populist nationalism.

Morrison’s fealty to Trump isn’t necessarily out of an ideological commitment to the reactionary international, but a desire to maintain the position of sub-imperial power. Given both Labor and the Coalition have put the US alliance on a pedestal, it’s hard to know whether a different prime minister would’ve been any more principled in their handling of Trump.

Albanese believes Morrison’s coziness with Trump was “poor alliance management”. But won’t know for a while whether it will really put a strain on our relations with the Biden administration. Given Morrison’s pragmatism, there’s every chance the new Scomo doctrine will paper over some his more Trumpian impulses, and fit neatly with what Biden wants.

Fernandes believes the transition from Trump to Biden will be seamless. Morrison will continue to comply with Washington, and Albanese’s dire warnings about alliance management won’t come to pass.

“Regular service will resume, Albo’s speech and the entire pussy-grabbing era and will be forgotten and dismissed as an aberration.”