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Five ideas from Allan Gyngell for a better foreign policy

The RG Casey Building in Canberra, home to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (Nathan Fulton/DFAT)
The RG Casey Building in Canberra, home to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (Nathan Fulton/DFAT)
Published 8 Jan 2024 03:00    0 Comments

During a summer break, The Interpreter will feature selected articles each day from throughout the past year. Normal publishing will resume 15 January, 2024. This article first appeared on 5 May, 2023.

Like many others, I benefited from the generous advice and kindness of Allan Gyngell, the superlative chronicler and conceptualiser of Australian foreign policy – but also always keen to foster a next generation of Australians thinking about the world. I first met Gyngell while an intern at the Lowy Institute during the time he led the organisation as its founding executive director, and we kept in touch intermittently in subsequent years.  

Gyngell had a capacious and dynamic view of Australia’s “national interest”, and was wary of attempts to definitively pin down what it entailed or the range of concerns it should encompass. For Gyngell, the national interest was itself a matter for democratic discussion.  

Gyngell frequently turned to the matter of Australia’s agency in the world. “Australians need to see themselves as the actor, not the audience, in the drama of the changing world,” he insisted. Can Australia constructively shape global life – its order, values, and relational dynamics – rather than merely respond to it? Can Australia become an innovator in international affairs, rather than satisfied as the beneficiary of good luck and powerful friends? These were animating questions.

Others have written eloquent and fitting tributes to Gyngell in recent days, with Foreign Minister Penny Wong’s statement foremost among these. I want to honour him in a different way, by recalling five of his ideas for a better Australian foreign policy.

Use foreign policy speeches on hard challenges. A speech could set out the parameters and depth of Australia’s interests and objectives – and help overcome misreading.

First, incorporate an Indigenous element in the ceremonial welcome of foreign heads of state and government to Australia. Gyngell made the case for this back in 2008, demonstrating a focus that was ahead of his time: Wong has now set about elevating First Nations perspectives in Australia’s foreign policy, including through the appointment of an Ambassador for First Nations People. For Gyngell, the specific act he proposed would “remind Australians as much as visitors of the nature of the place they have come to and in which we live.”

Second, craft problem-solving coalitions in response to emerging global challenges. Gyngell had a profound sense of the shifting global order. He wrote in 2017 that “Australia now needs to marshal its national resources in order to help construct the new order and protect what is important in the current one”. He underlined the need for Australia to be more ambitious multilaterally and to rally others around effective global rules. He made the case for Australia to “identify areas where opportunities exist to build coalitions of interest on new subjects” such as on lethal autonomous weapons or the governance of genetic engineering. With the risks of generative artificial intelligence to add to Gyngell’s examples, this call for cooperative Australian leadership remains entirely apt. Gyngell recognised that doing this work effectively in a world where power was becoming more diffuse meant Canberra would need new partners across different regions of the world.

Allan Gyngell (Lowy Institute)

Third, resource the foreign service properly. “Nuclear submarines and Joint Strike Fighters can deter aggression and respond when deterrence fails,” Gyngell wrote in 2021 with John McCarthy, “but they don’t do much to address trade coercion, respond to climate change or set global rules for emerging issues such as cyber.” Gyngell clearly and consistently warned of the dangers of marginalising the civilian elements of Australian statecraft, including through the budgetary decline of DFAT. In addition to his extensive commentary on this, he chaired a Blue Ribbon Panel in 2009 that produced a key report, Australia’s Diplomatic Deficit, that opened up a vital line of work by the Lowy Institute over several years on Australia’s diplomatic capabilities. Gyngell’s call to “invest in the institutions and instruments of Australian foreign policy – our overseas posts, our trained diplomats, our soft power potential to influence and encourage – with the same calculation that we invest in our defence capabilities” is as relevant as ever.  

Fourth, use foreign policy speeches on hard challenges. A feature of Gyngell’s sophisticated views on Australia’s relationship with China was his insistence on the value of Australian political leaders speaking more clearly and openly about the relationship. In 2022, he argued on the Australia in the World podcast that it would be valuable for the Australian government “to make a formal statement about its relationship with China”, noting that “it’s as important for our own policy processes as it is for the message it sends to Beijing.” He later elaborated that while ambiguity can be appropriate in international affairs, and foreign policy must of course adapt to a changing international environment, “in a case like the Australia-China relationship where there are so many strategic, economic, societal issues at play, and where China is so central to so much of what Australia wants to accomplish in the world … there is a strong case for clarity, at least on the main structural issues.” A speech could set out the parameters and depth of Australia’s interests and objectives – and help overcome misreading – for the benefit of Beijing, other states, Australian policymakers and the public at large.

Fifth, don’t securitise everything. Given the spectre of multiple threats, from terrorism to natural disasters, there is a temptation for policymakers to see multifaceted problems through a narrow security lens – and thus to respond with ill-suited tools. Gyngell avoided this trap. “The effective use of the ADF is always going to be properly very limited and governments should be very careful about the ways in which they try to use the military,” he cautioned in 2020. Gyngell worried about the militarisation of American society due to gun culture, and encouraged Australian governments to work hard to “prevent that happening here”.

What I love about these ideas is the way they reflect the mind of someone thinking deeply on many levels: syncretic but rooted in a robust and fresh worldview. Gyngell saw things with his own eyes, rather than slavishly following others, and was thus able to combine and recombine nuanced solutions pertaining to identity, relationships, values, and power – the things that characterise global affairs and Australia’s role in influencing the direction of history.

In his magisterial history of Australian foreign policy, Fear of Abandonment, Gyngell asked whether Australian political leaders can “bridge the perpetual and necessary tension between a tragic imagination that contemplates catastrophe and an inspired imagination that envisions a better world”. Today, Australia’s contribution to global progress must be reimagined to meet the moment we’re in. It will be considerably harder without Gyngell illuminating the possibilities.

Curiosity and openness: Allan Gyngell’s light touch in the early days at the Lowy Institute

Early days at 31 Bligh St, Sydney (Lowy Institute)
Early days at 31 Bligh St, Sydney (Lowy Institute)
Published 8 May 2023 17:00    0 Comments

There is a nice little scene near the start of David Lean’s cinematic masterpiece, Lawrence of Arabia. General Allenby, the former commander of British forces in the Middle East during the First World War, is descending the stairs of St Paul’s Cathedral at the conclusion of T.E. Lawrence’s memorial service. He is fronted by a journalist looking for a comment on his former charge. Allenby looks at him wearily and says, “What, more words…?”

Faced with the numerous obituaries and observations that have been written about him since his passing, I could imagine Allan Gyngell saying the same thing, reflecting both his humility and his concision. But if any person that I have known deserved all these words and more, it is Allan.

In listing his achievements many have mentioned his role here at the Lowy Institute, as its founding Executive Director. But I don’t think anyone has really captured the scale of his achievement here, and more importantly, the nature of it.

Because it’s easy to look at the Lowy Institute today, its successes and its place in the foreign policy landscape in Australia and around the world and assume it was always thus. Some might argue that the generosity with which Frank Lowy established the Institute made success inevitable.

Allan had the money to hire the biggest names in the field. Instead, he took a punt on younger, hungrier, largely unknown stock.

But few of us who were there at the beginning with Allan thought so. None of us had worked in a think tank before. There was a feasibility study prepared for the Institute by the current Executive Director Michael Fullilove as a guide. The much larger American prototypes were an example to follow. But beyond that we were on our own, which, remarkably, did not faze Allan one bit.

His approach was to grow organically: to try stuff, to experiment and to evolve. It was an approach which placed a premium on creativity and ideas, which he gave us ample space and strong encouragement to develop. Allan sowed a thousand seeds, not all of which bloomed of course. But it was an invigorating place to work.

Even more remarkable was the way Allan went about staffing the research side of the Institute. He had the money to hire the biggest names in the field. Instead, he took a punt on younger, hungrier, largely unknown stock, with a bit of experience thrown in.

In writing this reflection I spoke to some of my former research colleagues from the Institute’s first year: Malcolm Cook, Mark Thirlwell, Michael Fullilove and Alan Dupont. We shared a similar recollection of that time and the way Allan presided over it.

I remember that on my first day pretty much the only thing Allan said to me was, “there is no in-tray”. For someone who had just left the public service this was both liberating and terrifying. It was a measure of the enormous trust he placed in us, of his deft management of people, and of his curiosity and openness to all ideas and good argument.

Allan believed there was a kernel of wisdom in most positions or perspectives. There was no Lowy Institute line or view. As Mark Thirlwell noted to me, Allan “valued nuance, complexity and debate and distrusted simple answers”. Allan encouraged us to challenge conventional wisdom, or as he put it, “to fart in church”. He was always keen to lift others and encourage new voices.

A lot of people have contributed to the success of the Lowy Institute over the years. But it was Allan who gave the Institute – and gave many of us – a great beginning. Advising young officers of the Arab Bureau T.E. Lawrence once wrote “that a bad start is hard to atone for”. Allan Gyngell taught us the value of a really good one.

Remembering Allan Gyngell, “the finest mind in Australian foreign policy”

Allan Gyngell brought deep wisdom about Australian diplomacy (Peter Morris/Sydney Heads for Lowy Institute)
Allan Gyngell brought deep wisdom about Australian diplomacy (Peter Morris/Sydney Heads for Lowy Institute)
Published 3 May 2023 12:00    0 Comments

Allan Gyngell had a knack for plain speaking ­– cutting through the honeyed tones that so often stick to debates about foreign policy and Australia’s place in the world.

“History is by no means a perfect guide to what is likely to happen,” Gyngell once remarked, “but it is one of the best we’ve got.”

A man of deep wisdom on Australian diplomacy, Gyngell passed away overnight, a few weeks after being diagnosed with cancer. “My life has been very fulfilling,” he told me last month, typically reflective, always one for the long view. “Luckier than most.”

And his was an extraordinary career. Australia’s chief intelligence analyst, head of what was then known as the Office of National Assessments. International adviser to a prime minister. Diplomat. Author.

Gyngell was also the first executive director of the Lowy Institute, with a legacy that has shaped its 20 years as Australia’s most prominent international affairs think tank.

Foreign Minister Penny Wong praised Gyngell last month at the National Press Club in Canberra as “frankly, the finest mind in Australian foreign policy”.

“An official and unofficial adviser to governments for decades, always in singular service of Australia’s national interest. He is the definitive historian of Australian foreign policy. He is the finest writer about Australian foreign policy … And possibly also the smallest ego in Australian foreign policy.”

Small ego, true. But Gyngell’s gentle manner belied a savage wit and droll humour. He relished debate and embraced criticism. Gyngell saw in what he once described as the “parallel worlds” between  diplomats, military professionals, business leaders and the media the chance to strengthen Australia’s position. Established wisdom was always open to challenge, focusing on facts. He was equally happy to argue about contemporary policies – questions about China or the United States alliance – and past controversies, including Australia’s stance on the Indonesian invasion of East Timor or dealing with the Suharto regime, issues he had a hand in as a public servant. He was not rigid. But he always demanded to be persuaded.

Fitting that for “contributions to the development of public and governmental debate on foreign and security policy” he was awarded an Order of Australia. (Although, quietly a republican and with an abiding disdain for the Commonwealth as a hangover of empire, he would surely have spurned a knighthood.)

“Allan’s greatest quality is his ability to look across a large landscape, absorbed in nuances, and come to judgements which are invariably right.” Paul Keating

Gyngell was a member of the storied “Class of 1969”, a graduate intake of 22 to the then External Affairs department which would go on to spawn Australia’s most influential grouping of ambassadors and high commissioners, departmental secretaries, and intelligence bosses. He benefited from this close network, friends spread in postings across the globe or dotting the various bureaucratic fiefdoms in Canberra. “I didn’t want yes-men,” the late former prime minister Bob Hawke said of the group. “If they had a view that was at some variance with what I was saying, I wanted them to let me know … and they were good in that respect.” Indeed, Gyngell’s willingness to speak his mind almost brought his career to an abrupt end before it’d really began, when, as a junior diplomat in 1972, he saw his name splashed over the Sydney Morning Herald front page after he and three friends penned a letter to the editor criticising Labor’s Arthur Calwell, who had claimed Asians “live on the smell of an oily rag and breed like flies”.

Gyngell’s time in the Prime Minister’s Office came during the Paul Keating years. The two shared a belief that Australia’s future lay with Asia and made “engagement” a theme. Gyngell led secret negotiations for a security treaty with Jakarta, revealed just before the change of government to John Howard. The ensuing political storm likely cost him the chance to be Australia’s ambassador to Indonesia. But that opened other opportunities in the private sector and eventually back in public service. “Allan’s greatest quality is his ability to look across a large landscape, absorbed in nuances, and come to judgements which are invariably right,” Keating reflected in 2009, at the time Gyngell was tapped by then prime minister Kevin Rudd to take charge of ONA – the intelligence agency he’d previously worked for twice, as an analyst and head of the “United States and rest of the world” branch.

After retiring, Gyngell took over as president of the Australian Institute for International Affairs. He was genuinely surprised at the popularity of a podcast he’d agreed to host alongside academic Darren Lim, which ran for more than 100 episodes. He was working on another book, more of a personal memoir to follow from his 2017 Fear of Abandonment, a comprehensive history of Australia’s foreign policy stretching back to the Second World War. And he was a generous contributor to The Interpreter.

More tributes will be offered in the coming days. And debate, too, about Gyngell’s influence and views spanning 50 years. Just the way he would have wanted.