Tom Burton: mokita and the mad king

By Tom Burton

March 31, 2017

Mokita is the word the people of the tiny New Guinea island of Kiriwina use to describe the “truth we all know, but agree not to talk about.”

Mokita was on display big time this week when all of Australia’s ambassadors met in Canberra to consider the shape of the government’s foreign policy white paper.

“The key pillar of Australia’s geo-political strategy, a strong internationally engaged America, has crumbled before us.”

The meeting was addressed by Minister Bishop who in a long, wide ranging speech, referenced the new US President Donald Trump and the profound impact of his election, in but a single line: “The United States has a new President, driving an economic nationalist agenda.”

The reference was in the context of the international windback of the global economic liberalism which has served Australia well since the end of World War II. But while the otherwise eloquent speech traversed some of the obvious implications of this shift, there was no further public mention of the sheer madness that has characterised the Trump presidency to date and the fundamental effect this is having on world geopolitical order.

Tyro US Ambassador, Joe Hockey, was in similar Chamberlain appeasement mode as he later advised Australians to not join the chorus of constant criticism of Trump, describing an administration still finding its feet.

“The new Trump administration is very focused on practical policy outcomes. It is not beholden to ideology or tradition. It is not in the DNA of the administration to procrastinate or give undue deference to process,” Hockey said in a speech to the right-leaning Sydney Institute.

What neither Hockey nor Bishop did say was that the US, having been a bed rock of global strategic and economic stability, is now effectively an unguided missile led by a 70 year old business man, who on all the evidence to date, seems to have little understanding of what it takes to lead what happens to be the most powerful government in the world.

Hockey and Bishop know better than most that first term governments stutter in fits and starts as they learn the vagaries of executive power. But while one can only hope the 45th US Presidency moves from being a daily political sitcom, to something more adult, the reality is the key pillar of Australia’s geo-political strategy, a strong internationally engaged America, has crumbled before us.

Unguided deconstruction

No better sign of this utter collapse is the morgue that is now the once mighty State Department at its Foggy Bottom headquarters in Washington DC. The State Department is the number one target for what key Trump adviser, Stephen Bannon, openly calls the campaign for the “deconstruction of the administrative state.”

Slated for a 28% budget cut, the department that proudly developed and projected in detail America’s successful post-war global liberal strategic and economic framework, has effectively been closed down. Numerous reports detail staff whiling away time in staff cafeterias, arriving late and leaving early, and with little idea what their work program is now to be. The daily on camera briefings that were the window into the day to day application of US foreign policy have gone, replaced with intermittent briefings on specific topics.

State was the key channel through which Australia — and most other countries — built its Washington relationships, where the often detailed and nuanced responses needed for a complex world were developed and deployed. The sudden and rapid collapse of US foreign policy administrative infrastructure has left Australia particularly exposed, given our close economic and strategic alignment with the US.

Bold and brave in face of uncertainty

Bishop urged her ambassadors to take the open market fight to the world. But despite claims of our mid-power status, we now do that as a bit player remote from the world’s power centres. Without obvious US leadership, Australian diplomacy is destined to the treacle like world of multilateralism, a far cry from Bishop’s call for her ambassadors to prosecute “nimble and creative diplomacy.”

The arrival of what many on both sides of the aisle in Washington, now openly describe as the mad king, has left the foreign policy establishment struggling to even craft a considered response.

This is particularly so in Canberra, where none of this was predicted. There are now lots of observations about a world of flux and disruption and the end of the post-war US led policy hegemony. But there has been precious little emerge from government or the diaspora of mostly Canberra based strategic think tanks and commentators, that articulates how in detail we respond.

The wisdom might be that in times of the unknown, take small steps. But in a period of profound and rapid industrial and social change, a strategy of timidity leaves us as a mere cork in a sea of great uncertainty.

Grounded in pragmatism?

The white paper will presumably seek to paint out what this begins to look like. But meanwhile big global issues — large scale immigration, historic disparities between the haves and have nots, massive technology change led by ubiquitous networked platforms, not to mention climate change — are wreaking their consequences at warp speed. All while the US is consumed with its own political civil war, led by none other than the president himself.

Spending our foreign policy capital on nice-to-haves, like a position on the UN Human Rights Council, would appear to be a luxury at a time where Rome is burning.

The tilt to economic diplomacy as the bedrock to our international engagement makes obvious sense for a country still so dependent on primary resource exports. But the reality is Australia does not have the capital base to be a serious player in the shaping of whatever emerges in the vacuum created by the prospective return of the US to its insular past.

When it comes to global commerce Australia is a transactional trader, rather than an investor — and whatever capital we have remains amazingly localised – we have invested more in New Zealand than all of ASEAN over the last decade. Our large banks and superannuation funds remain largely fixed on their safe home mortgage and Australian equity plays.

Our role as the quarry and sheep run for the world give us say in the trade world, but not at the big table where the heavyweight private and public money plays.

Meanwhile on arguably the most significant of all the changes — the digital revolution — we are struggling to resolve policy around the most basic of domestic issues, such as digital identity, let alone shape a confident international position on the raft of policy questions large scale digital disruption is posing.

This disruption is rewarding the early adopters handsomely, but punishing the laggards and those not part of the new knowledge economy. This in turn is fuelling the massive discontent of the less educated, which has been so evident in the Brexit and Trump political wins.

Catch up on the speeches to the Heads of Mission

“Good morning Heads of Mission, welcome home.” Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop addresses an unprecedented meeting of senior diplomats in troubling times: “There is significant economic volatility, rising nationalism and protectionism driven by populist campaigns, terrorism, violent extremism and radicalisation.” (Full speech)

Foreign policy in a time of disruption. Senator Penny Wong addresses the same meeting: “Both the Minister and I operate in a democratic system where governments come and go. It is your role, and one on which we both depend, to provide continuity both in policy advice to government and the execution of government policy. That continuity is a function of your experience and your expertise – without which governments of any political hue cannot function.” (Full speech)

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