The era of Australia’s ‘ambiguous’ approach to foreign policy is fast drawing to a close, writes James Curran
It has been a long time since a former Australian diplomat has produced a work of this kind. Before the appearance of Allan Gyngell’s Fear of Abandonment, one would have to go back to Alan Watt’s The Evolution of Australian Foreign Policy (1967) to find a comparable treatment of Australia’s global engagement by one who has chiselled at the diplomatic coalface.
This is not to overlook important memoirs by Richard Woolcott or Philip Flood, or miss the significance of Gareth Evans and Bruce Grant’s Australia’s Foreign Relations in the World of the 1990s, a landmark work that attempted to divine the meaning of the post-Cold War world for Canberra.
But the point remains: unlike their British or American counterparts, Australia’s ex-diplomats have only occasionally taken up the challenge of writing history.
Gyngell brings a unique set of perspectives to this task. A historian by training, he was part of the now famous class of 1969, an intake into the then Department of External Affairs that included the cream of the future commonwealth public service: Dennis Richardson, John Dauth, Bill Farmer, Ric Smith and Sandy Hollway among them.
Gyngell served at Australian embassies in Washington and Southeast Asia, headed the international division of the Prime Minister’s Department and then became the senior foreign policy adviser to Paul Keating.
After six years as the founding executive director of the Lowy Institute for International Policy, he returned to government as directorgeneral of the Office of National Assessments, Australia’s peak intelligence agency. He has witnessed the making of Australian foreign policy from both the outside in and the inside out.
The result, Fear of Abandonment, is a compelling history of Australia’s place in the world from the fall of Singapore in 1942 to the present day. Gyngell’s work is a patient and methodical synthesis of how Australians have looked out on the world: their perspectives and problems; the policies they crafted; and pen portraits of the personalities — prime ministers and foreign ministers — whose job it was to prosecute the national interest.
Gyngell’s work could not be better timed. Words such as ‘‘anxiety’’, ‘‘uncertainty’’ or ‘‘volatility’’ seem to drip from the tongues of the Fear of Abandonment: Australia in the World Since 1942 By Allan Gyngell La Trobe University Press, 352pp, $34.99 country’s strategic analysts, not to mention its leaders. Exacerbated by the rise of Donald Trump and the populist surge across Europe, there is an alarming tendency to assume the present circumstances are the most demanding Australians have yet faced.
No one doubts the scale of the challenges roiling world politics, but that is no reason to be ignorant of how previous generations of policymakers have attempted to deal with seismic shifts in the international landscape. There is the tendency for the present debate to lurch from the pretentiousness of grand theorising to the witlessness of the ad hoc: judgments hostage to the moment alone. This book is therefore a welcome corrective to what Owen Harries once called the ‘‘parochialism of the present’’.
Gyngell has an important message for today’s policymakers: he has produced a work that is ‘‘prologue, not prediction’’. Its purpose is not to respond to the latest hypothesis about Australia’s foreign policy but to provide the tools to better understand the context from which the present has emerged.
At the outset he quotes the high priest of American realism, George Kennan: ‘‘our vision of contemporary events, unaided by history’’ is but a ‘‘feeble lantern’’. Gyngell’s sources are rich, his reading deep, the judgments finely bal- anced and the arguments robust. He sets Australian foreign policy against the backdrop of the great movements in 20th-century history — from decolonisation and the rise of Asian nationalism to the breakdown of the rigid bipolarity of the Cold War; from the euphoria that greeted the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe to the fears and phobias of the national security decade in the late 1990s. Finally, he faces up to the fragmentation of recent times.
But the central theme of the book is that the prospect of abandonment by one or both of its great and powerful friends, Britain and the US, while unsettling for Australia, has nevertheless prompted an activist foreign policy. Isolationism has never been an option for Canberra.
As Gyngell shows, Australia has sought the protection of its British and American allies and contributed substantially to the preservation of the liberal international order, but its relationship with the countries and cultures of Asia has always been the most urgent problem.
Geopolitical anxiety has been the mainstay of Australian foreign policy. Long before the fall of Singapore, politicians in the colonies and later the Commonwealth chafed against British indifference to their concerns about security in the Pacific. That outlook on the region brought both successes and failures, especially during the Cold War years. Thus for the most part Australia managed relations with Jakarta successfully, supporting its independence from the Dutch. And yet politicians and policymakers failed to understand the dynamics of Asian nationalism, a misreading that saw them actively press the US into the quagmire of Vietnam.
Australia’s Cold War policy, as Gyngell shows, was to keep the US and Britain engaged in Southeast Asia. Policymakers in this era certainly had their fair share of frustrations with the great powers, Canberra constantly fearing that its protectors would play fast and loose with Australia’s distinctive interests. And while Australia did not hesitate to express its disagreements with its great allies, at times — a sense of shock and betrayal attended the reaction to Britain’s ambitions to join the European Economic Community in the early 1960s — Canberra’s behaviour could be what Gyngell terms ‘‘graceless and self-absorbed’’.
There was a reluctance to face up to a world without Britain. When Richard Nixon announced his Guam doctrine in 1969, the col-
Commonwealth officers after the fall of Singapore in 1942, left; prime minister Gough Whitlam in Mexico in 1973, below left