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Malcolm Fraser: A man of foreign policy principle

Malcolm Fraser: A man of foreign policy principle
Published 23 Mar 2015   Follow @j_b_curran

Much of the commentary surrounding the sad and unexpected passing of Malcolm Fraser has rightly focused on his record in opposing continued white majority rule in the former Rhodesia and his implacable opposition to apartheid in South Africa.

Fraser's record on these issues, as Bob Hawke commented in recent days, was 'absolutely impeccable'. And his decision to welcome thousands of Indo-Chinese refugees in the wake of the fall of Saigon can be fairly judged as the moment when 'White Australia' was buried once and for all.

But few have stopped to consider the underlying patterns which gave shape to Fraser's global outlook and his ideas about Australia's place in the world.

It is too often forgotten that Fraser was one of the first on his side of politics to welcome the advent of a new, multi-racial Commonwealth in the 1950s and 60s. Not for him the morbid recital of Kiplingesque odes as the sun set on the British Empire. In 1961 he supported the expulsion of South Africa in order to make the Commonwealth a 'stronger moral force'. That put him directly at odds with Menzies' position, which was to refuse comment on the internal affairs of another Commonwealth country.

Even Britain's first application to join the EEC from 1961-63, which provoked widespread panic among his parliamentary colleagues, was greeted by Fraser as an event that would give a new impetus to the inevitable weakening of Australia's traditional ties with Britain.

The other dimension to the Fraser worldview, of course, was his hard-headed realism. Throughout his formal political career he consistently warned of the 'lessons of Munich'. If necessary, military force was required to prevent a repetition of the aggressive nationalism of the 1930s which had catapulted the world into war.

These ideas had not been plucked out of the air for political expediency. They defined him. And they had emerged from his sustained effort to try and make sense of the post-war world. [fold]

As a student at Oxford in the late 1940s Fraser had read and been seized by Arnold Toynbee's Study of History. In his 12-volume work, Toynbee had developed the theme of 'challenge and response', which held that challenges presented to communities by various external forces demanded a particular response. That response dictated the success or failure of a society, a thesis many quickly applied to the threat posed by Soviet communism to the West's way of life.

Fraser applied this Toynbean view of history to many of his speeches on foreign affairs at the height of the Cold War. Like Menzies, he demanded that in an increasingly unstable Southeast Asian environment, Australia needed 'great and powerful' friends to shield itself from the 'downwards thrust' of Asian communism. 'Our survival', he said in 1964, 'depends on the United States'. Fraser was one of the more articulate defenders of Australia's role in Vietnam. Aggressors, he said, understood only force or the threat of force. There was always a sense of 'clear and present danger' in Fraser's foreign policy rhetoric.

But as prime minister, Fraser was distinctly more anti-Soviet than anti-communist. Indeed in his first major foreign policy statement he proposed a new realism for dealing with threats to the regional balance of power. 'In our relations with other countries', he said, 'the ideology of regimes is not irrelevant but it cannot be the guiding principle of our policy'. It was a significant shift in Fraser's worldview.

That shift was seen most clearly during his visit to China in 1976. That his first overseas trip as PM was to Beijing and Tokyo showed his awareness that the departure of Australia's 'great and powerful friends' from the region imposed a new urgency on the need to learn to live with its Asian neighbours. When Fraser was asked by journalists to explain why he had chosen to visit these capitals first, instead of the customary pilgrimage to London and Washington, his response was simple, yet striking: 'The world changes'. The idea, he added, of 'taking you back to simplistic pasts, a relationship with Britain or a relationship with America that was almost the end result in foreign policy', was no longer possible. Things were now 'much more complex, more difficult'.

Nevertheless it is true that Fraser, who had denounced Whitlam's ground-breaking visit to Beijing in 1971 as a 'disgrace', saw the new relationship with China in terms of classic realpolitik. China was a potential ally to keep Soviet ambitions in the Indian and Pacific Oceans at bay.

To this end Fraser proposed the formation of a quadrilateral alliance between China, Australia, the US and Japan to contain Soviet ambitions. Fraser's idea bore no fruit, but it was the mark of a new era. What had happened to the Australian perception of China as the source of all insurgencies and disturbance in the region? Moreover, The proposal was made without first consulting Washington. Before 1972, no Australian government would have ventured on such a course without first clearing it with the British or the Americans.

Fraser, much like Whitlam before him, maintained a policy of greater self-reliance within the American alliance. He stressed that the 'interests of the United States and the interests of Australia are not necessarily identical'. To the National Press Club in Washington in 1976 he dismissed the idea of uncritical obeisance, denying that 'concurrence and common action means subordination to the larger nation'. As Fraser put it during a speech in 1982, the alliance was a 'full blooded relationship...between equals'.

A strident critic of détente, Fraser cast it as a policy of weakness, a throwback to the Munich policy of appeasement. It was clear he had little time for Jimmy Carter. Only with the inauguration of Reagan in 1981 did Fraser believe that the free world had a leader who embodied the 'remobilisation of will in the United States'. The two leaders developed a relationship of mutual respect.

It was perhaps not surprising, then, that in one of their final telephone conversations before Fraser's loss to Bob Hawke in March 1983, Reagan told the Australian leader that he would 'say a prayer' for him. Fraser had cancelled a proposed visit to Washington on account of the campaign, but Reagan had broken with protocol by telling Fraser that that he looked forward to seeing him after an election victory. Of course, it was not to be, and even Reagan's advisers realised that their boss had gone beyond the usual caution in speaking to a foreign leader facing re-election. Nevertheless, one of them added, 'if Prime Minister Fraser wins, we are way ahead because he will realise the President took the risk based upon his personal regard for the man. If Hawke wins, the chances of the conversation becoming public are not high, thus we could still deal with the new prime minister'.

Fraser's views on the Third World were also linked to his concern about the spread of Soviet strategic influence. He accepted the substance of Owen Harries' landmark report into Australia's relations with the Third World: policy was to rest upon a combination of Western sensitivity to 'any significant gains made by the Soviet Union in the Third World', a consideration of 'direct political and economic self-interest and the more 'altruistic, humanitarian dimensions'.

Fraser's fear of Soviet infiltration climaxed with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. There was a sense of personal vindication when he pointed out that his long-held view of Soviet expansionism, 'often stated when it was an unpopular view' and 'expressed many times over many years', had been 'proved tragically right'. However, given the extent to which he had committed himself emotionally and intellectually to the fight, being 'proved right' gave him little comfort. In fact, as he solemnly added, 'that gives me no great pleasure at all'. He advocated a boycott of the Moscow Olympics, even telling those athletes who decided to go that their medals would be 'devalued medals', much like those that had been won at the Berlin games in 1936.

Later in life Fraser did come to change his views on some of these questions, most notably the US alliance. Those shifts are well documented. But Paul Hasluck's appraisal of Fraser might remain a fitting epitaph for the former prime minister: 'He at least is a man who believes in something and who works at his beliefs'.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

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