GEOPOLITICAL ANX­I­ETY

The era of Australia’s ‘am­bigu­ous’ ap­proach to for­eign pol­icy is fast draw­ing to a close, writes James Cur­ran

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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