Firm grasp of for­eign af­fairs

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Pe­ter Ed­wards

The first gen­er­a­tion of Aus­tralian diplo­mats faced chal­lenges and op­por­tu­ni­ties de­nied to their suc­ces­sors. As Aus­tralia’s for­eign of­fice in Canberra and its mis­sions abroad grew rapidly af­ter 1945, many of the young men who joined the Depart­ment of Ex­ter­nal Af­fairs in the 1930s and 40s ad­vanced quickly to se­nior po­si­tions, where they re­mained for decades.

The three most prom­i­nent mem­bers of that gen­er­a­tion, Arthur Tange, James Plim­soll and Keith Waller, were suc­ces­sively heads of the depart­ment from 1954 to 1974, as well as hold­ing nu­mer­ous am­bas­sado­rial and se­nior of­fi­cial posts. Fol­low­ing this re­viewer’s bi­og­ra­phy of Tange (2006) and Jeremy Hearder’s of Plim­soll (2015), Alan Few­ster’s well-re­searched and en­gag­ingly writ­ten study of Waller means that we now have ac­counts of how all three en­gaged with prime ministers and ministers in a for­ma­tive pe­riod of Aus­tralian for­eign pol­icy.

Waller was the first ca­reer diplo­mat to be ap­pointed Aus­tralia’s am­bas­sador in Wash­ing­ton, but only be­cause, as prime min­is­ter Robert Men­zies told him, of the cur­rent ministers, ‘‘the ones I con­sider suitable I can’t spare, and the ones I can spare are not suitable’’.

Waller felt quite sick at the prospect, a sur­pris­ing loss of con­fi­dence, be­cause he had long ac­quired a rep­u­ta­tion for what Paul Hasluck called his ‘‘un­ruf­fled diplo­matic fi­nesse’’. Hasluck thought that if Waller ever dropped a piece of toast, ‘‘he could ar­range that it would not fall with the but­tered side down’’.

Waller dis­played his skills in deal­ing with his po­lit­i­cal mas­ters as much as with for­eign gov­ern­ments. As the 31-year-old sec­re­tary of the Aus­tralian del­e­ga­tion to the San Fran­cisco con­fer­ence that founded the UN, he skil­fully man­aged the del­e­ga­tion headed jointly by the bril­liant but ego­tis­ti­cal and ma­nip­u­la­tive HV Evatt and the con­ge­nial but in­ef­fec­tual Frank Forde, nei­ther of whom had been de­clared the sole leader. A few years ear­lier, in his first trip out­side Aus­tralia, Waller had helped open Aus­tralia’s first diplo­matic mis­sion to China — in Chi­ang Kai-shek’s wartime cap­i­tal, Chungk­ing (Chongqing).

Politi­cians and jour­nal­ists of­ten spec­u­late on whether a par­tic­u­lar of­fi­cial is more in­clined to one ma­jor party or another but, as Few­ster notes, diplo­mats are more likely to be in­spired, mo­ti­vated or frus­trated by the per­sonal qual­i­ties and po­lit­i­cal skills of their mas­ters.

Waller’s at­ti­tudes de­fied easy clas­si­fi­ca­tion. Car­i­ca­tured by Man­ning Clark as a nar­row­mind­edly con­ser­va­tive ‘‘ man in black’’, he was also a per­sis­tent ad­vo­cate for giv­ing Wil­fred Burchett a pass­port. He dressed con­ser­va­tively, earn­ing the nick­name Spats Waller, and Few­ster calls his views on women ‘‘an­te­dilu­vian’’. Fe­male diplo­mats, Waller thought, should be un­mar­ried, while young male diplo­mats were ad­vised to marry, as he had done, a woman of in­de­pen­dent means who would make an ex­cel­lent host­ess. But there was much more to him than that. He was a key mem­ber of the team that shaped a sub­tle and nu­anced pol­icy to­wards In­done­sian-Malaysian con­fronta­tion in the 1960s, of­ten seen as one of Aus­tralian diplomacy’s finest hours. Waller had doubts about the Viet­nam com­mit­ment as early as 1962, when Aus­tralia sent a small train­ing team of army ad­vis­ers. He fore­saw then, as few others did, that this might lead to a much larger com­mit­ment of com­bat troops.

It was his mis­for­tune to be am­bas­sador in Wash­ing­ton for most of the Viet­nam War. At the White House cer­e­mony where Harold Holt im­pul­sively de­clared that Aus­tralia was ‘‘all the way with LBJ’’, a hor­ri­fied Waller no­ticed that pres­i­dent Lyn­don John­son “shud­dered” at this enor­mous gaffe. Waller was sel­dom in­volved in sub­stan­tial dis­cus­sions on the war, but was an as­tute ob­server of US pol­i­cy­mak­ers.

Too much of his time, he lamented, was spent or­gan­is­ing vis­its by prime ministers and other se­nior politi­cians. The ac­count of John Gor­ton’s first visit to Wash­ing­ton is pain­ful to read, but con­tains salu­tary lessons.

Waller re­turned from Wash­ing­ton to be­come de­part­men­tal head. With his deputy Keith Shann, he did much to re­store the morale of a depart­ment that had lan­guished un­der Plim­soll, a bril­liant am­bas­sador but poor ad­min­is­tra­tor, and con­tin­ued to suf­fer as a con­se­quence of short-lived ministers.

On the Sun­day af­ter a La­bor gov­ern­ment was elected af­ter 23 years in op­po­si­tion, Gough Whit­lam sum­moned Waller to Par­lia­ment House. While dressed in a tweed suit, look­ing to Whit­lam ‘‘like an English duke’’, Waller demon­strated that the depart­ment was well pre­pared to serve the new gov­ern­ment with the un­ruf­fled diplo­matic fi­nesse of which Hasluck had writ­ten. He im­me­di­ately set in mo­tion the steps nec­es­sary to recog­nise Mao’s China, the sec­ond time he had played an im­por­tant role in es­tab­lish­ing diplo­matic re­la­tions with China.

Soon af­ter­wards, Waller drafted Whit­lam’s let­ter to US pres­i­dent Richard Nixon — quoted in full in this book — on the ‘‘Christ­mas bomb­ing’’ of North Viet­nam, which sparked the great­est cri­sis in the his­tory of Aus­tralianAmer­i­can re­la­tions.

Waller’s com­ments on Aus­tralia’s po­lit­i­cal lead­ers of the late 60s and early 70s are re­veal­ing and of­ten un­ex­pected. He thought so poorly of Gor­ton that he se­ri­ously con­tem­plated re­sign­ing as am­bas­sador in Wash­ing­ton. By con­trast, he found Wil­liam McMa­hon, so of­ten pre­sented as Aus­tralia’s worst prime min­is­ter, to be ‘‘85 to 90 per cent good’’.

Waller thought Don Wille­see, Whit­lam’s for­eign min­is­ter, lacked his leader’s vi­sion and breadth of knowl­edge but had a much bet­ter sense of what the La­bor cau­cus and the elec­torate would ac­cept. Heed­ing Wille­see’s advice, in Waller’s view, might have re­duced the po­lit­i­cal dam­age to the Whit­lam gov­ern­ment from con­tro­ver­sies over Viet­namese refugees, the Baltic states and East Timor.

Few­ster mixes in­sights such as ac­counts of bu­reau­cratic strug­gles in­ter­est fewer read­ers.

The ti­tle of this book is clumsy. The three du­ties refer to an un­ex­cep­tional def­i­ni­tion of an am­bas­sador’s task, while Tal­leyrand’s fa­mous in­struc­tion to diplo­mats — above all, not too much zeal — is more rel­e­vant to the ma­ture Waller than to the younger man, who was sur­pris­ingly tem­per­a­men­tal.

The sub­ti­tle is less evoca­tive but more ac­cu­rate. This is a valu­able por­trait of a work­ing diplo­mat that adds sig­nif­i­cantly to our un­der­stand­ing of Aus­tralian pol­i­tics, pol­icy and pol­i­cy­mak­ing. this with that will is the au­thor of Arthur Tange and sev­eral other books on Aus­tralian for­eign pol­icy.

Aus­tralia’s am­bas­sador to the US Keith Waller, cen­tre, in Wash­ing­ton in 1970

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