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Fear of abandonment: A dialogue on Australian foreign policy, past and future

The overall story of Australian foreign policy is pretty positive. But there's no doubt we dragged our feet at various stages.

Fear of abandonment: A dialogue on Australian foreign policy, past and future

This is a lightly edited transcript of an email exchange between Allan Gyngell, former Executive Director of the Lowy Institute and author of 'Fear of Abandonment: Australia in the World Since 1942', and Lowy Institute Senior Fellow Sam Roggeveen.

Sam Roggeveen: Allan, to promote the launch of your book, you have recently done two conversation-style events with former Prime Minister Paul Keating (one at the Lowy Institute, the other at La Trobe University), in which Keating spoke passionately about the changes taking place in Asia, and Australia’s response. When I watch Keating at these events, I see a man who is impatient for Australia to embrace its Asian future free of certain encumbrances of the past (the monarchy; the Union Jack), and loosened if not released from our ties with the US. I also sense frustration that the nation, or at least its leaders, are a little too meek to grasp the future in this way.

Your book is a history of Australian foreign policy since 1942. Do you see evidence in that history to back up Keating’s frustration? Or do you see grounds to believe that Australia has developed the habits of a more independent foreign-policy player?

Allan Gyngell: It's been a mixed bag, Sam. But, as I say in the book, the overall story of Australian foreign policy is pretty positive. We have solid relations with our neighbours, an effective alliance with the most powerful state on earth and we have made important contributions to the international system, from the structure of the UN to the establishment of the G20. But there's no doubt we dragged our feet at various stages. In the 1950s and '60s our governments were too reluctant to accept that Britain could no longer sustain its prewar place in the world and in our economy; we were shamefully late in abandoning a race-based immigration policy; and in our wars of American engagement (Vietnam, Iraq) we undertook overseas military engagements for the primary purpose of paying the premium on an insurance policy with the US rather than because of  our own national interests in the conflicts. But we weren't forced by others into making these decisions. Rightly or wrongly, we threw ourselves into the task.

I think Paul Keating is right, however, to point out that questions of national identity matter. You can see that in the history. When I first joined the public service in 1969, relations with London were still handled by the Prime Minister's Department rather than External Affairs, because Britain was not considered foreign. Both sides of politics have shifted from thinking of Australia as an organic part of the British empire to seeing ourselves as a pluralistic, multicultural society, deeply engaged with Asia. These are now familiar tropes in the speeches of all Australian foreign ministers. I'm a republican, but that's not because I think it will make any substantial difference to the way others deal with us, but because of the difference it would make to the way we think about ourselves.

SR: On the evidence you present, it’s hard to argue with your conclusion that ‘the overall story of Australian foreign policy is pretty positive’. But if I can channel Keating for a moment, nothing has quite prepared us for the once-in-a-century shift of wealth and power from the Atlantic to the Pacific that we are now living through.

It has become almost a cliché at the Lowy Institute to point out that Australia has always been lucky to have a major strategic partner which was also its major economic partner (first the UK, then the US). Now China is our major trading partner, and although the investment picture still favours the US appreciably, that balance is bound to change over time too. So along with several other countries in the region, we face a future in which our major economic partner has strategic interests that are directly at odds with those of our major ally.

So far, so familiar. Australian foreign policy wonks have been debating that issue for a generation. I don’t mean to downplay it, because it is momentous stuff and Keating does a great job communicating the gravity of it. But the newer part of this equation is the turmoil in Western politics today. On the very last page of your book you hint at this, saying that ‘Australian foreign policy has been the preserve…of a small elite… That seems unlikely to last’.

I’m not sure that’s entirely right – politics will always be dominated by elites of one kind or another. But as in many other Western democracies, Australia’s major political parties are in long-term decline. And much of the intellectual ballast for the elite consensus on Australian foreign policy rests in those two parties (for instance, I would argue that the US alliance is in the Liberal Party’s DNA). What happens to the shibboleths of Australian foreign policy when the major parties have to share power with independents and minor parties?

So it’s one thing for Australia’s foreign policy elites to tackle the once-in-a-century challenge represented by China’s rise. But to do it while the domestic political ground shakes beneath them (and, I might add, while our major ally is in political decline)? You will pardon me if I am not optimistic. Am I wrong?

AG: You're not wrong at all. I do think that we are at a turning point. One reason relates to the world outside, and the other to domestic developments in Australia.

It’s not just a question of the rise of China and the broader shift in economic and strategic weight from the Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific. It’s also the fact that Australian foreign policy, from the ratification of the Statute of Westminster in 1942, was born into a globalising world. But practically and normatively the globalisation engine is now spluttering. Trump is just a manifestation of a broader nationalist, sometimes nativist, trend. Can you remember a time when we have had such a coalescence of nationalist leaders in the US, Russia, China, Japan and India?

The US National Security Adviser, HR McMaster, described his boss as having a 'disruptive' approach with no time to 'debate over doctrine'. That's strange when you think about it. Disruptive strategies work best for weak states like North Korea. Great powers seek to lead broad coalitions of allies and friends to certain goals and in order to do that, they need to be quite clear about where they are heading. None of us at present can be quite sure where this US Administration will go. Deal making with China? America First protectionism? Abandoning human rights as a goal of US foreign policy? The only certainty, I believe, is that in George W Bush and Hillary Clinton we have seen, for the time being at least, the high watermark of American liberal interventionism.

So this is a very different world and we're stumbling around a bit blindly at the moment.

Internally, what I was trying to convey in the final chapter of the book was my sense that new generations of Australians – both migrants and the millennials – understand the past, and therefore see the future, rather differently from the conventional, bipartisan foreign policy view. You can see the evidence in some of the recent Lowy Institute and US Studies Centre polling.

Perhaps elites always dominate politics, but it’s not always the same elite. No part of the policy world in London or Washington was more battered by the triumphs of Brexit and Trump than the foreign policy establishment. I think their Australian counterparts will be challenged too, especially, as you say, as the dominance of the major parties slowly erodes.

SR: I played the pessimist in my last email, so let me now put a more optimistic view in response to yours.

First, you say ‘practically and normatively the globalisation engine is now spluttering’. So what did you make of Keating’s distinction between globalisation and ‘globalism’? He seemed to define the former as being largely economic and technocratic – the knitting together of local production chains through treaties and domestic reforms into something like a global whole – while the latter he described as being analogous to the Washington Consensus, which collapsed along with Lehman Brothers. But not only has the Washington Consensus been undermined by America’s recession, Asia’s developing economies seem to show that economic development does not have to go hand in hand with deregulation, privatisation, competitive exchange rates, liberalisation of FDI and the rest of the Washington Consensus package. You can globalise without doing all these things, and overall it seems to me that while globalisation is not exactly advancing, it may not be in retreat and in fact it will be hard to unwind.

Second, I’m not convinced that levels of nationalism/nativism are higher at present. Now, you make a slightly different point, which is that we have an extraordinary coalescence of nationalist leaders in powerful states just now. It’s hard to argue with that. But here’s the optimistic bit: I’m not sure these leaders represent any kind of major shift in public sentiment, particularly in Western democracies. Rather, to return to the point I made earlier, I think what we are seeing is the failure of major political parties around the Western world to contain or co-opt nationalist sentiment. Look at the meltdown of traditional parties in European politics, the precipitous decline of UK Labour, and the fact that the GOP was hijacked by a presidential candidate of almost comical weakness. In fact there’s evidence from Europe that populist and anti-democratic sentiment is actually static, but just better organised and thus making a bigger political impact.

So it’s by no means inevitable that the tide of history now favours the nationalists and nativists. But nor do I take much comfort from election results in France and the Netherlands. Yes, both rejected the far-right, but the bigger story is the collapse of the old parties.

What replaces them is very much up for grabs, but as you say, it means we will see the rise of new elites to replace the old. In Australia’s case, I think we will start to see more minority governments, with small parties and independents perhaps getting cabinet posts – maybe even foreign affairs (why not? It happened under Gerhard Schroeder in Germany). It might also mean that, when it comes to foreign affairs and defence, we see a retreat of the executive and greater role for parliament. Nick Xenophon may have given us a taste of the future in his recent remarks at ASPI.

AG: To my mind there’s a clear distinction between globalisation – the economic processes made possible by the technologies of the digital and information revolutions – and the normative aspirations of globalism -  the sort of cosmopolitan ambitions set out in the Atlantic Charter that shaped the post-war multilateral order. The technologies that made possible globalisation, with its huge capital flows and supply chains, will not disappear (although new technologies such as 3-D printing might have a reversing influence), but the political and social dreams of globalism are certainly fading.  Despite the profound differences between East and West during the Cold War, both sides spoke to, and about, ‘citizens of the world’, in the words of President Kennedy’s famous inaugural address. That’s not the sort of language you will hear from Donald Trump or even Emmanuel Macron.

You ascribe the growth of nativist sentiment to a failure of mainstream political parties. I agree that we are looking at a failure of politics. It’s an important reminder that we malign the craft of politics at our peril: it represents the way we successfully manage change. I don’t know whether the nationalist trend has peaked as you hope, but I doubt it. Even in the relatively mild-mannered politics of our own country, politicians on all sides see clear traction to be gained from an ‘Australia first’ rhetoric.

It’s possible that multi-party coalitions will become more common in Australia (though our system makes it hard). If so, foreign policy will certainly be affected. But the views encompassed by the Greens on the left or the various conservative groups on the right are by now a pretty familiar part of our political debate. More frequent and thoughtful parliamentary debates would be welcome but there are limits in a Westminster system - and in the nature of foreign policy - on Parliament's role.

Far more interesting and important, I think, is the point I was making earlier: the impact new generations of Australians from India and China and the Middle East will have on the understanding we have of our past and the assumptions we make about the future. I can’t pretend to know how this will play out, but I am convinced it will challenge and change us just as deeply as did the slow drift from the sense Australians had of ourselves as part of a broader British family in the 1960s.

SR: There are some compelling parallels between Australia’s situation today and that in the 1960s (and I would add the early 70s). In fact, I believe you made this point to Tom Switzer on ABC Radio National recently: in that era, Australia lived through the Vietnam quagmire, the Guam Doctrine (1969), Nixon’s rapprochement with China (1972), and Britain entering the Common Market (1973). At the same time, the nation was dealing with a substantial shift in social mores and political culture symbolised by the election of the Whitlam Government in 1972.

So what lessons do you draw from that period which could be applied today? Did Australia’s ‘fear of abandonment’ produce a timid or defensive response to these changes, or did we take the initiative?

AG: I agree that we have to go back to that period of uncertainty in the '60s and '70s, as Britain withdrew strategically from Asia and directed its economy to Europe, and America reassessed its alliance responsibilities after Vietnam, to find a period as challenging to Australia’s foreign policy assumptions.

The reactions of the governments of the period from Menzies to Fraser varied widely, of course. In Australia’s response to Britain’s withdrawal east of Suez and its decision to join the Common Market, you can chart almost precisely the five stages of grief - denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

The response of Gorton, Whitlam and Fraser, in particular, was to place much greater rhetorical and policy focus on Australia’s own national interests. The policy weight necessarily shifted from the alliance to the other two responses to Australia’s perennial fear of abandonment – regional engagement (recognition of China; support for ASEAN and Asian regionalism) and greater involvement in global rule-setting (law of the sea; arms control). A more independent Australian identity was asserted internationally on issues ranging from decolonisation in Southern Africa to the international economic order.

It’s important to note the differences between that period and this one, however. Australia’s transition in the 1960s and ‘70s was made easier by the emergence of new markets in Japan and South Korea to take up the economic slack, and by an Asian strategic environment that looked less threatening with Suharto’s New Order government in Indonesia and ASEAN’s creation. But now, any effort to diversify our economy away from China, if we thought that necessary, would be much more difficult. And far from looking more benign, the strategic environment is increasingly complex, with uncertainty about the form of American engagement, a possible nuclear arms outbreak in North Asia, and China as the potential strategic void-filler. So the options and alternatives are much less obvious than they were 45 years ago.

One useful consequence of the strangeness of the Trump Administration, it seems to me, is that it is forcing Australian policy practitioners to reflect deeply on the structure of the international system, and to think about where Australia’s interests lie and how they can be pursued most effectively, just as that earlier generation was forced to do.

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