Inside Story

The fearfully pragmatic heart of Australian diplomacy

Books | Australia’s diplomatic capabilities are about to be tested again

Graeme Dobell 20 June 2017 2117 words

Courtier and monarch? Allan Gyngell and prime minister Julia Gillard arrive for the opening of the new Office of National Assessments offices in Canberra on 5 December 2011. Alan Porritt/AAP Image

Fear of Abandonment: Australia in the World Since 1942
By Allan Gyngell | La Trobe University Press | $34.99

In running its foreign policy, Australia does baling-wire diplomacy – practical, pragmatic and usually makeshift. Rural tradition decrees a bloke with baling wire can fix the gate or fence or shed, and so our baling-wire foreign policy is adequate to the moment rather than ambitious. Any flair is imparted by those doing the job, rather than inherent in the model.

The philosophy of the baling-wire way is that of an affluent status-quo power. We like things as they are and want ’em to continue. That practical doing-things orientation drives Australia to be an international joiner. We always want to be in the club, to have a seat at the table, to be part of the game. Membership matters.

Our approach to Asia demonstrates the joiner instinct. Australia aims to be Asia’s odd-man-in. When your only natural regional partner is New Zealand, the constant diplomatic need is to foster the habit of belonging. To be in the club is to have a voice and some chance of influencing the discussion. Being handy with the baling wire, Australia can keep the show on the road.

Great powers do the architecture and the grand strategy. Australia pitches in with the practical stuff. This is both a limitation and a strength of doing it the way we do.

Part of being a pragmatic operator is knowing when the tractor is finally cactus or the ute is rissoled. Sometimes the old model of doing things delivers no more. So the pragmatist goes looking for new things that work. Australia’s history shows we might not be too good at foreseeing the big shifts, but we have a capacity to jump when it hits.

If lots of stuff needs to be changed or made anew, a pragmatic response is to ditch the baling wire, to reach high and go big. That was what Australia did in a period of golden diplomacy at the end of the cold war, launching APEC and being there when Asia was attempting to lash together new security architecture.

Australia’s national character makes it natural for the polity to focus on the practical, day-to-day doings of foreign policy. Yet in contrast to our military tradition, Australia has little appetite for heroic or ambitious international action. As Allan Gyngell observes in a masterful history of our diplomacy, Australia is “surprisingly young” at foreign policy:

There is something about foreign policy that has always made Australians a little uncomfortable. That’s not to say Australia hasn’t developed effective, in some ways distinctive, traditions of diplomacy. It has had creative foreign ministers and made its mark on the world. But the ceaselessly interactive processes of foreign policy, the adjustments and compromises it requires, the close attention it demands, its backroom dimensions, its unheroic nature; these don’t sit easily with Australians. In part, that is why defence and security policy has been much more central to their sense of themselves in the world.

Australia’s habit of mind about international affairs is so practical – or unambitious – we didn’t bother with an independent foreign policy until we were well into the second world war, forty years after the birth of the nation. This was not absent-mindedness. It was loyalty to Britain, as the nation that did our foreign policy for us, plus a hard-headed decision not to do anything that hinted at lack of faith in the strength of the British military guarantee.

Gyngell’s account of how Australia makes its way in the world begins at that point, in 1942, when Australian and British security were no longer inseparable. It was then that Australia ratified the Statute of Westminster, a law enacted by the British parliament back in 1931 to establish beyond doubt the international standing of its overseas dominions. At that moment in 1942, a reluctant, realistic and fearful Australia assumed full sovereignty over its international affairs.

The core emotion that drives Australia’s view of the world is offered in Gyngell’s title: fear of abandonment. Here is a country that has always scanned the horizon for sails. At first, the convicts of the British settlement prayed for the ships that brought food and supplies. Later, Australians feared unfriendly sails, arriving to challenge what Gyngell calls “an audacious claim to a vast continent.”

Gyngell believes that some will see fear of abandonment as too timid a motivation for a great country’s foreign policy:

But it has also been the driver of one of the most consistent and commendable aspects of Australia’s worldview – its rejection of isolationism; its conviction that Australia needs to be active in the world in order to shape it, and that gathering combinations of allies, friends and ad hoc partners is the best way of doing this. That will be a tradition worth defending in the years ahead.

In using this fear as his theme, Gyngell follows in the tradition – and the book titles – of other Australian diplomats: Gregory Clark (1968) In Fear of China; Malcolm Booker (1976) The Last Domino; Alan Renouf (1979) The Frightened Country; Rawdon Dalrymple (2003) Continental Drift: Australia’s Search for a Regional Identity; Richard Woolcott (2003) The Hot Seat; and Philip Flood (2011) Dancing with Warriors.

The place of this tradition was expressed in the 1986 review of Australian diplomacy by the secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs, Stuart Harris, which saw Australia as “geographically isolated” but living “increasingly closely with neighbours with cultures, traditions and languages which are largely alien to it.” As Harris reported, “Countries still achieve their international objectives by threat, bribe or persuasion. Australia has limited capacity to bribe and less to threaten.”

Instead, Australia deploys the tools of persuasion: diplomatic skills, logic, cultural affinities and contrasts, interests and ideology. Gyngell gives a detailed Canberra-coloured rendering, because this has been his life’s work.

Allan Gyngell joined the Department of External Affairs in 1969. (The department was renamed Foreign Affairs in 1971.) He served as a diplomat in Rangoon, Singapore and Washington and rose to become the senior foreign policy adviser to prime minister Paul Keating (1993–96). Keeping his home in Canberra, he became the founding executive director (2003–09) of the Sydney think tank the Lowy Institute for International Policy – doing the commute with the aid of audio books. He returned to the public service to become the head of Australia’s intelligence community as director-general of the Office of National Assessments (2009–13).

Gyngell delivers diplomatic history written with the understanding of an insider. He gives away no secrets but offers sharp judgements along with the facts. He describes his book as the work of a practitioner, not a scholar, shaped by a public service culture that values “accuracy, dispassion and balance.”

The bespectacled Canberra wise owl dissects the world in a quiet, even voice. He traces the big foreign-policy themes (and the key Australian politicians who made the policies): Asia and decolonisation; the need for great and powerful friends; the openings to Asia; the “post–” world after the end of the cold war; and the long national security decade that began as the twentieth century ended.

A mass of detail is compressed into 400 pages. If you aren’t interested in Antarctica or the Chemical Weapons Convention or the Uruguay Round, skip the page to the next exciting bit. The dogs bark, the caravan moves on, the mosaic keeps moving. What is left out is any consideration of the bureaucracy and the operating parts of the machine; that’s in the different but complementary book Gyngell wrote with Michael Wesley in two editions (2003 and 2007), Making Australian Foreign Policy, which deals with the “actual, erratic, contingent way in which foreign policy making takes place” in Canberra.

Gyngell identifies three broad foreign policy responses in Fear of Abandonment:

• Australia wants to embed itself with what Robert Menzies famously called “great and powerful friends.” Without such friends, Menzies said in 1949, Australia “would be blotted out of existence.”

• Australia seeks to shape the environment around it. Bob Hawke called for enmeshment with Asia. John Howard wanted Asian engagement. Paul Keating said Australia would seek security “in – not from – Asia.”

• As a country “with weight in the world but not enough of it to determine outcomes through its own power,” Australia seeks multinational organisations, rules and norms to create a rules-based international order.

Once the bureaucrats/policy practitioners have lined up the forces of power and policy, they turn to the crucial role of personality. Who is the leader and what do they want? Allan Gyngell once described Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall, which reimagines the rise of Thomas Cromwell in the court of Henry VIII, as one of the best books “about politics – not just the politics of the Tudor court, but politics full stop… Not so much an historical novel as an astonishingly contemporary novel set in the past.”

As a man who served leaders as different as Keating, Rudd and Gillard, Gyngell responded to the portrait of the Tudor courtier trying to balance the needs of state policy and the demands of his king. So, in charting Australian foreign policy, Gyngell inserts regular pen portraits of the political kings and princes who have presided.

The description of John Howard is a good example. Gyngell describes him as a traditionalist but also “an adroit opportunist.” Australia’s second-longest-serving prime minister could be seen as a public administration innovator, especially in the creation of the National Security Council that now sits at the peak of the policy process, delivering a higher degree of ministerial involvement.

Gyngell describes Howard as

a practical man and suspicious of conceptual analysis. Indeed, the words “practical” and “realistic” were favoured adjectives in his description of a good foreign policy. Howard’s way of thinking about the world always began from a domestic political core – a sense of what the Australian people wanted – and worked its way outwards to policy conclusions… He frequently framed policy around the avoidance of choice. Australia did not have to choose, he insisted, between its geography and its history, between “multilateral institutions and alternative strategies to pursue our national interests”; between its economic relationship with China and its alliance with the US.

Gyngell offers a sharp rebuttal of Howard’s line about Australia’s not having to choose between the United States and China:

This mantra, comforting but untrue, would be used in some variant by the Australian governments to follow. In fact, such choices would have to be made almost every day. This was the beginning of the delicate balancing act between Australia’s economic and strategic interests in which all future Australian policy-makers would have to engage.

As Gyngell notes, every Australian strategic planning document of the twenty-first century has come to the same conclusion: the roles of the US and China and the relationship between them are the most important factors shaping Australia’s future. In the final pages of this book, Donald Trump appears. Gyngell sees him as emblematic of the challenge to the globalising world that Australia has known and largely embraced throughout its modern history:

Now a push-back against globalisation is gathering strength across the world, from Indiana to Indonesia. Identities are becoming more atomised and the evidence of slowing globalisation is mounting in trade and investment data, migration trends and the rates of treaty-making. The counter-globalising mood fuels a new protectionism that could have calamitous economic consequences and a new nationalism that might spark fresh military conflict.

In these strange times, the pragmatic habits of baling-wire diplomacy won’t be enough. Gyngell says that Australian diplomacy too often lacks ambition, and that Canberra is reluctant to wield the power it has available. The preference is for diplomatic caution, hunkering down in the company of allies, content in the slipstream. More than this will be needed. “In a world whose largest components are propelling themselves erratically in uncertain directions, the slipstream will be a dangerous place for Australia to linger,” he concludes. “The country’s diplomatic capabilities are about to be tested again.”

If Australia’s international understanding of the previous century was based on fear of being abandoned, our approach to this century must reflect all the ways that we belong, and we must have the skills and ambition to help shape this journey. •