Morrison’s ‘arc of autocracy’ or arch hypocrisy?

March 11, 2022
Joint US-Australia military exercise Talisman Sabre in 2021. Photo: Paul Robbins / Wikimedia Commons

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, in a speech to the Lowy Institute, described an “arc of autocracy” that challenges our freedoms and which we as liberal democracies must be ready to fight.

The PM’s speech formalises a strategy for Australian militarism and a blanket defence of United States power in the region. While it was designed to appear “statesmanlike”, even “Churchillian”, it was simply another expression of Australia’s obsequious approach to its US master.

His address was almost immediately followed by an announcement that the Australian military is set to grow by 20,000 troops. This is a figure not matched since the end of the Vietnam War.

While millions of Australians struggle with poverty and insecurity, while the obvious effects of climate change shatters lives and communities, a further $38 billion is to be spent on militarising the country and the region.

While that figure is bad enough, it is just part of the spiralling cost of the military. The nuclear submarines will cost between $70–170 billion. The fighter aircraft program adds another $16 billion. There is an endless stream of cash for the military and yet workers’ wages stagnate, First Nations health and housing is shameful and pensions and dole payments are pitiful.

Australians are being called upon to crowdfund for flood relief. The people are and remain neglected while our political leaders parade as defenders of liberty and freedom against tyranny and autocracy.

To justify the unjustifiable, the PM is seeking to portray events in Ukraine as having a direct link to Australia’s peace and security. China has long been regarded as an enemy and this has been further entrenched in the thinking of government.

Those occupying the “arc of autocracy” are, according to his Lowy Institute speech, “seeking to challenge the status quo through threats and violence ... We need to understand that autocrats don’t play by the same rules as the rest of us. Their mindset is very different".

The world view that is being presented by our political leaders is one where there are forces of good and of evil. The forces of “good” have, in Morrison’s estimation, a “rules-based international order, built upon the principles and values that guide our own nation, [and which] has for decades supported peace and stability, and allowed sovereign nations to pursue their interests free from coercion".

'Rules-based' order

The rules-based order so admired by the West and our federal government, regardless of which party is in power, may have a certain confected aura about it, but it simply means that the US sets the rules and the world, if it knows what is good for it, abides by them.

The first of these rules is that the US rules.

The Australian government recognises this and so does the alternative government. Labor leader Anthony Albanese also gave an address to the Lowy Institute. It might have been seen as a right of reply, had the opposition leader actually been replying to anything, rather than adding his weight to the anti-China rhetoric that fills the air.

While his speech was critical of government mishandling of policy and spending, it was designed to ensure his listeners, both here, but importantly in Washington, that they have nothing to fear from a Labor government. The domestic audience was repeatedly reminded that Australia’s national interests remained at the heart of Labor’s policy, and that maintaining sovereignty was at the core of foreign policy and defence strategy.

His American listeners were reminded that a Labor government was a firm supporter of AUKUS, of nuclear submarines and of a continued lift in military spending.

He was especially critical of China’s militarisation of the region and of its “taking over Hong Kong” which, given that the British lease simply expired in 1997, was a curious inclusion in his address.

What the listener did not get, was the remotest idea that the opposition was in opposition to anything. The US alliance is in safe hands. After all, Labor like the Coalition, stands for "freedom" and "against bullying".

The US as a bastion of freedom and enemy of coercive autocracy has, in every decade since the turn of the 20th Century, been engaged in wars with varying degrees of devastation.

A truncated list of the involvement of the US military includes: the Philippine-American war; the Boxer rebellion; the occupations of Nicaragua; Veracruz, Haiti and the Dominican Republic; the Russian Civil War; Korea; Lebanon; the Bay of Pigs; Vietnam; Bolivia; Cambodia; South Zaire; Grenada; Panama; the Gulf War; the Somali Civil War; Bosnia; Afghanistan; Iraq; Libya; Syria; and Yemen. The list is not complete, but it shows the determination of US imperialism to ensure that the world runs according to a “rules-based order”.

Australia, for its part, has followed its American master into far too many conflicts. Government after government have repeated the claim that this is to secure Australia’s “national interests”. Despite there not being one shred of credible evidence to suggest that there is any threat to Australia, Morrison’s speech boldly asserted that “the challenges we face continue to mount. They require us to increase our resilience, expand our capabilities and harden our defences”. All of this is done to “ensure a peaceful, stable and prosperous region".

Peace, stability and prosperity are to be ensured by increasing military spending by billions of dollars. It has been going on since the end of World War II and the formation of the Australia-US alliance. No threats have ever been found, and yet the drive to war continues.

Perverse industry policy

The struggle against an “arc of autocracy” becomes a struggle for continued US power and prosperity and, by implication for Australian “prosperity”. The PM has made it abundantly clear that the militarisation of the region is part of a perverse version of an industry policy. It is in this context that his speech becomes especially relevant.

Australia has already pledged itself to become a major arms dealer to the world and rise to a “coveted” position of being in the top 10 global arms dealers. The Lowy Institute speech brings economic matters back to the domestic level. When speaking of the decision to spend $10 billion on a submarine base, the PM warmed to the “significant benefits for local and national industry in supporting the new base and the more complex and larger nuclear-powered submarine fleet”.

Some Australian capitalist interests might well applaud the opportunities that a burgeoning military industrial complex might afford them, but these remain sectional interests. This policy is being implemented at the expense of alienating, to the point of destruction, a trade relationship with China that secures Australian capitalism and the Australian capitalist state. It would appear to defy logic — economic, capitalist, or simply the logic of self-preservation — to risk economic destruction in this way and yet that is exactly what is happening. The government, with barely a murmur from Labor, is endangering us all.


According to Morrison the policy is “about safeguarding our way of life, our access to the amenities, liberties and essentials Australians rely on and enjoy. It is about seeking to shape the changing world we live in to promote peace, provide stability for people to live their lives and favour freedom".

US imperialism has crushed the aspirations of millions of people across the world for the past 70 years. It has toppled governments and killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people. It has bullied and coerced nations and has been aided and abetted by loyal lieutenants like Australia. But even so, Australia, too, is coerced by the US. With nearly a quarter of all investment coming from the US, and with often not-too-subtle reminders about this, we know our place.

Today, the government speaks of an “arc of autocracy”. What we have are rivals to economic hegemony.

Attempts to present what is happening in our region in some quasi-ideological clothing are absurd. China represents a threat to US capitalist dominance. It is not an ideological threat, but the Australian people are being force-fed a diet of propaganda that leads more and more to the false conclusion that Chinese capitalist domination would somehow endanger us.

Morrison, seemingly intoxicated with his own oratory, claims that an aggressive militarisation of the region ensures that “each country’s sovereignty is respected. Where might does not make right, and where the same rules apply to all countries … that’s how you keep Australia safe".

Many might disagree.

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