GARETH EVANS. How not to conduct Australian foreign Policy: Suez 1956

Dr Robert Bowker’s new monograph, Australia, Menzies and Suez: Australian Policy-making on the Middle East Before, During and After the Suez Crisis (Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade, 2019), leaves me in awe of his stamina and capacity to absorb punishment.

He has spent over eight years immersed in the archives working through some 20,000 documents around the general theme of Australia’s response to the 1956 Suez Crisis to prepare this, and an associated DFAT documents collection to be published next year.  I doubt that anyone else could have done all that without becoming along the way totally incapacitated by rage and frustration at the scale of the folly involved.

Just about everything that could have gone wrong in the conduct of our foreign policy did go wrong. This is a textbook case of how not to do it – eminently worth writing, because if we don’t learn  from the mistakes of the past we will be condemned to repeat them,  but not calculated to do much good for the blood pressure of either writer or reader.

Bowker’s book meticulously and lucidly picks apart the sequence of events following Nasser’s nationalization of the Canal – the failure to persuade him to accept its internationalisation; the  Anglo-French-Israeli military action taken against him; the international outrage that generated, not least from the United States; and the ignominious withdrawal by the belligerents, with nothing to show for their efforts except in the case of Britain a dramatic loss of international credibility and influence.

And he systematically describes the reactions of all the key Australian players to these events – of Menzies as Prime Minister, Casey as External Affairs Minister, their other Cabinet colleagues, and their key advisers including the heads of External Affairs, Defence and the Prime Minister’s Department, and the diplomats on the ground and within the Department. The litany of folly which emerges from all this has at least four dimensions.

First, and crucially, there was the absolutely dominant role played by Prime Minister Robert Menzies who, despite his many evident domestic leadership attributes, had a number of less attractive qualities when it came to international affairs, which here were on full display and given free rein. There was his excruciating Anglophilia, which blinded him to the possibility that Anthony Eden and his colleagues could have comprehensively misread the situation; his patronising approach to the Americans, who read and played it much more sensibly throughout; his barely concealed contempt for the third world in general and Egyptians in particular, which didn’t do much to help him either read correctly the new forces of nationalism at work or to advance personally with Nasser the cause of international control; and his manifest distaste for the United Nations and all its works. Prejudices of this nature and on this scale don’t usually make for intelligent foreign policymaking, and didn’t here.

Second, there was the lacklustre role played by External Affairs Minister Richard Casey. His instincts that the whole affair would end in tears for Britain were very sound, but he conspicuously failed throughout its course to exercise any kind of restraining influence over the Prime Minister. Good foreign policy making has to be based on mutual respect between head of government and foreign minister, and a willingness on issues of critical importance to work closely together to reach consensus on how to handle them.

While it is well understood in the foreign ministers club that our titular leaders have to be given their heads from time to time to pursue particular enthusiasms that wouldn’t be ours as the price of letting us get on with our job, limp acquiescence is not an option when the leader’s enthusiasm is for a cause which is manifestly at odds with the national interest.  A foreign minister who doesn’t fight relentlessly hard for his corner on issues as grave as Suez is not normally the kind of foreign minister who can expect to have buildings named after him.

Third, and this of course helps explain Casey’s impotence, the Cabinet of the day was overwhelmingly imbued with Menzies’s wholly Anglophile view of the world, had little inherent sympathy with Casey’s more realistic risk assessments, and failed to act as any kind of collective counterweight to the Prime Minister’s wrongheadedness. Ministers like McEwen, Hasluck, Beale and Paltridge all enthusiastically went along with Menzies’s ride.  Intriguingly, one of the very few who did push back a little was then Primary Industries Minister Billy McMahon, who is recorded is saying ‘we must moderate the British attitude…the UK can huff and puff but world opinion is against her’: his judgment on this occasion remains the only piece of evidence I’ve ever seen that he might actually have had some prime ministerial qualities.

The multiple Cabinet meetings between July and December 1956 – the account of the proceedings of which is one of the highlights of the book – showed overall a pusillanimity in the face of  prime ministerial captain’s calls putting even Tony Abbott’s Cabinet in the shade.  Cabinets full of sheep are not those of which strong and effective governments are made.

The remaining factor contributing to the follies of 1956 was the failure of senior public servants across all the key departments to give accurate, consistent and forceful advice to ministers of a kind which might have dented their confidence in their reflexively pro-British prejudices. To so persuade ministers would always have been a tall order given the intellectual, emotional and ideological temper of the times, but one has the sense that the advisers were just not up to the task, either in their assessment of the realities of the situation, or their willingness to confront their political masters – and above all the Prime Minister – with them.

Those at the External Affairs coalface like future Departmental Secretary Alan Renouf gave advice which, to put it gently, wandered all over the place, and none of the senior mandarins emerge with any more glory. For the most part, as Bowker’s meticulous examination of the written record makes clear,  they simply failed to recognise the way the geopolitical dynamics were shifting, with Arab nationalism just one dimension of an emerging new international order of independent post-imperial states organised around the poles of the competing Cold War superpowers, with all the implications of this for British Empire nostalgia; they overstated the risks to trade through the Canal involved in Nasser’s takeover; they failed to identify with sufficient force or clarity the risks involved in substituting military action for diplomacy; and, above all, failed to call out the risks for Australia in associating itself with the last twitches  of the British Imperial dinosaur.

All this was over sixty years ago, but there are plenty of lessons for us still to contemplate. Among them, the need for a strong and independent public service, with the ability and resources to accurately analyse situations and the courage to confront ministers with conclusions and recommendations they don’t want to hear. The need for an intelligent and strong-minded Cabinet, willing to challenge a very strong-minded leader with arguments he or she might not want to hear. The need to be alert to changing global and regional geopolitical dynamics, and not stuck in conceptual time-warps. And in that context, the need not to be over-awed by a great and powerful friend, and to recognise the reality of an empire in decline when we see one.

* Gareth Evans was Foreign Minister from 1988-96 and is Chancellor of The Australian National University. This is extracted from his address launching the book at the ANU Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies on 14 November.

 

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14 Responses to GARETH EVANS. How not to conduct Australian foreign Policy: Suez 1956

  1. Stephen Allen says:

    “lessons to be learnt” what lesson had Evans learnt when as FM he sold out Timor Leste to the Indonesians over gas and oil deals, utterly appalling behaviour. Evans still pedals outdated Anglo American thoughlessness which approaches ‘foreign policy’ deceptively as a supposed impartial nee objective exercise in theorising the relations between nations as a mere matter of strategic ‘geopolitical’ competition, each competitor equally to blame for the harm inflicted on the other. These assertions, first developed by US foreign policy ‘analysts’ of the early twentieth century and which pervades foreign policy institutions today, Evans own International Crises Group is a classic case in point, are a cunning strategy to disguise the deliberate policy of the Anglo-American plutocracy to contain and ultimately destroy the rise of socialist nations that sincerely seek peace with other nations irrespective of the agenda of their polity. Evans selling of the petroleum resources of the newly emerging socialist Timor to US lapdog Suharto’s Indonesia is a recent example of the tactics deployed by the Anglo-American plutarchs to crush socialism. Downer’s spying on Timor in later negotiations on behalf of his benefactor Woodside shows that the pernicious tentacles of this cunning strategy reaches across the full spectrum of the Australian polity.

  2. Peter Donnan says:

    Gareth’s comment about challenging strong minded leaders with arguments they may or may not want to hear has been traditionally accepted as best practice. Language directness & honesty always sound like a good idea at the time.

    In our contemporary, visceral, twitterised political environment there is a new dimension required: brutal honesty, yoked with simplicity. This is particularly relevant for a Sky-Hannity&Friends media strategy.

    So I read in ‘The NY Times’ today, don’t say, “President Trump used the power of his office to seek damaging information on his political rival.” For some political leaders, this language is too rarefied.

    In brutal-simplicity terms, it is better stated: “President Trump is a cheat. He has been a cheat all his life. He bribed Ukraine for dirt on Joe Biden so he could cheat and win the next election.”

    Integrity, being subtle, nuanced, strategic, impartial etc have been time-honoured values in foreign affairs advice but there is now an agenda, given the short-termism of modern political leaders, that brutal realism be added to the mix.

  3. Peter Donnan says:

    Gareth’s comment about challenging strong minded leaders with arguments they may or may not want to hear has been traditionally accepted as best practice. But language directness & honesty always sound like a good idea at the time.

    In our contemporary, visceral, twitterised political environment there is a new dimension required: brutal honesty, yoked with simplicity. This is particularly relevant for a Sky-Hannity&Friends media strategy.

    So I read in ‘The NY Times’ today, don’t say, “President Trump used the power of his office to seek damaging information on his political rival.” For some political leaders, this language is too rarefied.

    In brutal-simplicity terms, it is better stated: “President Trump is a cheat. He has been a cheat all his life. He bribed Ukraine for dirt on Joe Biden so he could cheat and win the next election.”

    Integrity, being subtle, nuanced, strategic, impartial etc have been time-honoured values in foreign affairs advice but there is now an agenda, given the short-termism of modern political leaders, that brutal realism be added to the mix.

  4. Malcolm Dan says:

    To bring Minister Casey into the discussion. Professor Peter Edwards wrote in his Arthur Tange biography that Tange and Casey consistently pointed to the dangers of Australian support for any British military action. Edwards reported that on 12 September 1956 the “Manchester Guardian” carried a prominent and well-informed story that External Affairs Minister R. G. Casey had made an ‘impassioned appeal’ to the Australian Cabinet to oppose the use of force. Menzies had been outraged by the leak. Tange later recommended that Australia make an immediate statement calling for Israel’s withdrawal from Egypt and for the referral of the issue to the United Nations. Nothing came of the proposals by either Casey or Tange because of the rigid stance of Menzies. Edwards also reported that in a face to face encounter PM Menzies said: “Tange, you have been no help to me at all on this.”

  5. Stephen Saunders says:

    It could never happen today, Australia blindly following Britain, against its own national interests. Except, it does happen today. If you thought Menzies was a touch Anglo, just watch this space, if Scott Morrison is still around for King Charles.

  6. Michael Rogers says:

    Menzies who had not realised his desire to be part of an ‘Imperial War Cabinet’ in London during WWII*, invited himself (as he was to do latter into the Vietnam War) as a negotiator in the ‘Suez Crisis’.

    The sum and substance of Menzies’ journey to Egypt was Nasser suggesting that he might like a tour of the Pyramids, after which he could then ‘f-off’.

    *Menzies had also asked the Parliament at Westminster in 1940 to amend the ‘Commonwealth of Australia Act 1900’ to remove the 3-year limit on the Federal Parliament. This was consented to with the provision that all parties in Federal Parliament agreed. The Country and Labor parties however did not agree.

  7. Malcolm Dan says:

    I refer to my earlier comment. In case there is any misunderstanding what position Arthur Tange took in his advice to Minister Casey, it is clear from
    the evidence uncovered by Professor Peter Edwards that Tange consistently argued against the use of force in the Suez crisis.

  8. Malcolm Dan says:

    I wrote a comment but alas it then disappeared before I could press submit. The review is not very complementary about senior public servants. This does not apply however to Arthur Tange, the External Affairs Head. Professor Peter Edwards in his biography of Arthur Tange on pages 116-123 provides evidence that Tange gave Minister Casey accurate, consistent and forceful advice during the Suez crisis. Edwards agrees with Bob Bowker that Australian policy on Suez was shaped by PM Menzies at every turn.

  9. R. N. England says:

    I am always uneasy when people start using language like “Australia’s foreign policy”, when it is the Australian government’s foreign policy, and the government always represents special interests (in foreign policy, mostly trading interests) inside and outside Australia. The prospect of Nasser as a toll-keeper skimming off profits of British/Australian trading interests is what drove the Menzies government’s violent policy towards Egypt.

    If we analyse today’s situation in the same way, we see a major clash within the West (the US-led successor of the British Empire) between the interests of the arms merchants and their propagandists on the one hand, and the merchants of the goods of peace on the other. This divide in “conservative interests” is more fundamental than the worker/owner divide, because the interest of workers (who are mainly specialists) in each of these industry groups is more-or-less aligned with that of the owners.

  10. Tony Kevin says:

    An excellent essay which I had the privilege of hearing Gareth deliver at Bob Bowker’s booklaunch on Thursday at ANU. This final paragraph is echoed in conclusions of Bob Bowker’s own excellent book :

    “All this was over sixty years ago, but there are plenty of lessons for us still to contemplate. Among them, the need for a strong and independent public service, with the ability and resources to accurately analyse situations and the courage to confront ministers with conclusions and recommendations they don’t want to hear. The need for an intelligent and strong-minded Cabinet, willing to challenge a very strong-minded leader with arguments he or she might not want to hear. The need to be alert to changing global and regional geopolitical dynamics, and not stuck in conceptual time-warps. And in that context, the need not to be over-awed by a great and powerful friend, and to recognise the reality of an empire in decline when we see one.”

    It is not hard to see which nations we are speaking about today. And the policy remedy for Australia is not to go down a crazy national military expansion road as Hugh White advocates, , but to begin to rebuild a sound multilateral diplomacy that respects all nations without exception, and respects the UN Security Council peacekeeping mechanisms and disciplines which Australia helped to create in the postwar years.

  11. John Boyd says:

    ‘…his barely concealed contempt for the third world in general and Egyptians in particular…’ . In my Antarctic period, I participated in an international marine research cruise with participants from several countries. among them was Professor Sayed El-Sayed, from Texas A&M. He told me he had been a personal adviser to Egyptian President Nasser at the time of the Suez crisis, and was present at the meetings with Menzies. Apart from general discussion of the incident, his opinion of Menzies was that he represented everything they had come to despise about the British and their colonial attitude. I could only cringe.

    Sayed Z. El-Sayed

  12. Rory McGuire says:

    I trust and hope Bowker has looked into the Egyptian end of this affair. I read somewhere (and have been unable to re-find) of Nasser’s perplexion at having a virtual unknown, Menzies, turning up in Cairo from the other end of the world and start telling him what to do.
    Much in the style of Lord Cromer, who spent several decades in Egypt, running the country on behalf of Britain and had such a high regard for the locals that he managed to pick up about a dozen words of Arabic.

  13. Bruce Elisha George says:

    Great aerticle by arguably Australia’a “greatest” Foreign Minister who did so much to build Australia’s standing with it’s neighbours in the region which most unfortunately has been largely undone by the subsequent blind allegiance to another fading Empire. It is looking rather like Australian leaders have not learnt these crucial lessons of the changing geo-political situation.
    Unless Australia breaks it’s blind allegiance to the bellicose USA that is likely to lead to WWIII with our greatest trading partner as the supposed enemy, we will end up in an economic hell hole as our foolish actions force our great trading partner to source it’s Iron Ore, Coal and other raw materials from more friendly nations that have already signed onto the BRI initiative. The USA will not save Australia, but simply use us and dump us when our usefulness has expiered.
    How is it that this cold hard analysis seems beyond the capacities of any of our politicisns , current labour included.

  14. Cameron Leckie says:

    Observing the Government’s current approach to foreign policy it appears that not much has changed.

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