ALISON BROINOWSKI. What Australian Foreign Policy?

Apr 26, 2017

Insider, analyst and adviser Allan Gyngell finds that Australian defence and foreign policy are more bipartisan than ever. But even as Australia’s national security agenda metastesizes, we have more to fear from an unreliable ally and an increasingly lawless world.  

Australians carry on about the courage of our armed forces and the bravery with which, time after time, they faced great danger in our allies’ wars. Indeed they did, but now we have professional armed forces continuously at war, and the issue of conscription doesn’t arise. So a century of rhetoric about the Diggers’ heroism, intended to encourage volunteers, has given way to almost total silence about ‘operational matters’ and we have no way of knowing one way or the other. Australia has turned into a ‘cowering country’ as a letter described it in the Sydney Morning Herald (26 June 2015). The recent proliferation of timorous book titles suggests that Australians are less brave than fearful: for instance The Frightened Country(1979), The White Peril (1995), Anxious Nation (1999), In Fear of Security (2000), National Insecurity (2007), and Fear of Abandonment (2017).

The last of these is a new account of how Australia’s dealings with the world have changed since 1942, and also how they have not. Allan Gyngell should know. His stellar career began as a diplomat in Southeast Asia, and he progressed to become Paul Keating’s senior advisor on foreign policy, particularly convincing him that President Suharto could promote Australia’s access to ASEAN. Gyngell set up the Lowy Institute for International Policy and ran it for six years before heading the Office of National Assessments. He co-wrote Making Australian Foreign Policy (2003) with Michael Wesley, his successor at Lowy. Adept at organising complex ideas into policy proposals, he was brought in to polish up Ken Henry’s White Paper, Australia in the Asian Century in 2012. He has since joined the burgeoning ranks of former public servants working on national security at ANU.

Gyngell’s argument is that foreign policy has contributed more to shape Australia’s world than wars have done, yet our military history is much better known than our statecraft and diplomacy. So he sets out to correct the record with Australia’s less heroic contributions, beginning with post-war decolonisation, then the Cold War, Australia’s turn to Asia in the 1970s, and the growth of engagement in the 1980s. A period of concern about national security follows, and in the decade to 2016 the world is ‘fragmenting.’ Linking these periods are thematic sections on multilateral institutions, aid, trade and security. Throughout, Gyngell diverts briefly to particular countries, issues, and individuals, presenting each with the unfailing even-handedness of long practice. The high points are Australian diplomacy in Cambodia and Timor-Leste, and the cameos particularly of Hasluck, Hawke, Hayden and Downer. But he finds Bishop’s initiatives more practical and operational than grand, and the policy trend is depressingly downward.

The broad story is familiar from previous accounts by Alan Watt, Gareth Evans and Bruce Grant, and from specialised approaches by others. But Gyngell adds some surprises about former Foreign Ministers. For example, as External Affairs Minister Evatt tried to keep the US engaged by offering the American military continued use of Manus Island. In the early 1950s, Casey three times recommended recognition of China. Casey and McBride (as Defence Minister) tried unsuccessfully to have Australia talk Britain out of going to war over the Suez Canal. Beale, as Australia’s Ambassador in Washington in 1962, proposed to the US that we should send military advisers to Vietnam – setting a precedent for similar offers in recent wars, all resulting in ‘mission creep’. Gyngell recalls that Menzies clung to the notion that Australia did not have to choose between Britain and the US, which governments now apply to the US and China. He reminds us that Fraser kept Australian forces out of American and British deployments in the Middle East during the Iran-Iraq war. He provides little-known detail about the role of Hawke and Fraser in ending apartheid. He corrects the record about Keating having little interest in Asia. And unlike many other writers on foreign policy, he goes into considerable detail about Antarctica and about climate change.

What Gyngell doesn’t know from wide reading and experience is not worth knowing, and not all of it, as he points out, can fit into his book. Nonetheless, and in spite of his scrupulous impartiality, some omissions are surprising. Whitlam’s overseas travel, he says, was ‘frequent and indulgent’, but he doesn’t mention the months Menzies spent abroad, or the times when Fraser went AWOL. He sheds no new light on Whitlam’s dismissal, merely observing a ‘flowering of conspiracy theories’. On who was responsible for Australia’s first ‘terrorist’ attack in February 1978, he says nothing. He leaves us unenlightened about why APEC still doesn’t include India. He records that when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990 he was ‘pursuing an old claim,’ but doesn’t mention widely-reported American enticement. He doesn’t show how Howard, like Blair, manipulated intelligence reports and legal advice to justify invading Iraq. He lets the US administration off lightly for its ‘mistreatment’ of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, and of Australians Hicks and Habib. He glosses over the Australian authorities’ complicity in the Oil for Food kickbacks. If Australia inserted reservations about its ANZUS commitments when it signed the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, he doesn’t say what they were. He doesn’t investigate Kim Beazley’s claim that Australia under Gillard offered basing in Darwin to US marines, rather than Obama requesting it first. He accepts without demur Australia’s unilateral application of ANZUS to the global ‘war on terror.’ On the statehood of Palestine, environmental problems, and current moves for elimination of nuclear weapons he doesn’t point to Australia’s increasing isolation from majority world opinion, insisting that Australia is ‘peaceful, prosperous, well-regarded’.

Australia’s fear of being abandoned began with European settlement. Gyngell proposes that successive governments responded by cultivating powerful allies, engagement with our region, and supporting a rules-based international order. But now we have China’s rise, America’s decline, and illegal, continuous war. Permitting himself a rare unequivocal assertion, Gyngell says the mantra that Australia doesn’t have to make a choice is ‘comforting but untrue’. Yet in his concluding section ‘What Australian Foreign Policy?’ he stops short of saying what our choice should be. He doesn’t endorse Fraser’s radical call for strategic independence and closing the bases. Instead he depends on Australian diplomacy to reject isolationism, ‘shore up the system and establish new rules’, and understand and ‘respond effectively’ to the outside world. Few could disagree with that, but it may still leave us fearful.

Allan Gyngell, Fear of Abandonment: Australia in the World since 1942, Melbourne: La Trobe University Press, 2017.

Dr Alison Broinowski FAIIA, a former diplomat, is author and editor of 14 books on Australia’s interface with the world. The latest, with David Stephens, is The Honest History Book (2017).


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