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Celebrating Hugh White

Remarks at dinner to celebrate Emeritus Professor Hugh White, Canberra, 15 November 2018

The notion of Hugh White retiring seems to me a category mistake. The concepts just don’t go together. He’s just not that type, either in the shy-and-blushing sense, or the stop-and-smell-the-roses sense.

Any more, I have to acknowledge, than I am. I’ve tried rose-smelling myself now a couple of times already, when I left politics and when I left the International Crisis Group, and it was a dead loss. I’ll be trying harder in a year’s time when I wind up as Chancellor, and I have to say with a much greater chance of success given the rate of personal infrastructure decay I am now experiencing.

But I don’t give Hugh any chance of success at rose-smelling at all, given the evident state of both his physique and his marbles, and I expect that this retirement dinner will simply be the first in a series that would make even Nellie Melba blush.

And that of course is a consummation devoutly to be wished. Because Hugh has been a great scholar and a great public policy intellectual in this country for as long as most of us can remember, and I think the last thing any of us want us to see is him laying down that very distinctive pen or quieting that very distinctive voice.

Hugh really has had an extraordinarily rich, varied, distinguished and influential career, starting with his honours degree in Philosophy from Melbourne University and his Oxford BPhil where in 1978 he won the John Locke Prize for Mental Philosophy (as if there were any other kind: although I guess if there had been a prize for physical philosophy he might have been up for that too…). In the 1980s and early 90s he was, successively, a Fairfax journalist, ONA intelligence analyst, and – where I first got to know and work with him – senior adviser to Kim Beazley as Defence Minister and Bob Hawke as Prime Minister.

From 1995 to 2000, he was Deputy Secretary for Strategy and Intelligence in Defence, where he was lead author of the 2000 Defence White Paper, and from 2001-04 the inaugural Director of ASPI (Australian Strategic Policy Institute).

And since 2005, until pretending now to hang up his boots, he has of course been here at ANU as Professor for Strategic Studies. Where he has been a formidably prolific author, mainly of essays and op eds, but with a couple of influential books – famously The China Choice in 2012 – and apparently a big new one to come next year.

What is there for us – his friends and colleagues of long-standing – to admire and celebrate about Hugh’s career to date (and I emphasise that qualification…)? Let me count the ways.

First, his lovely clarity as a communicator. Whether one disagrees with him or not, and I have certainly had occasion to, one can never be in any doubt about what he is saying, the message he is communicating. He observes all of George Orwell’s classic prescriptions for good writing (which for the last few decades I have sought, with mixed success, to ram down the throats of everyone who has ever worked for me). His speaking and teaching voice is equally relentlessly translucent.

Moreover, while being in fact a pretty recognisable mainstream realist, which is a fairly serious character defect, he doesn’t burden his analysis with clouds of obfuscatory theory-talk. No doubt this is at least partly due to his good sense in, like me, never formally studying international relations. But I suspect it is also a matter of blessed and merciful relief in this respect that he came to land at ANU at CAP rather than CASS, where IR-theory contamination seems to be an occupational requirement.

Second, there is Hugh’s willingness to wrestle with the really big geostrategic issues of our day, and to make judgement calls that are often well ahead of the curve in terms of mainstream thinking. Most famously again, of course, with his analysis of the US-China contest and its implications for Australia: China on the way up; the US in denial about the seriousness of the challenge to its primacy; and Australia in denial about the need to make a choice – and needing to engage in much more active and effective diplomacy (of the kind we have shown ourselves capable in the past) to build a new, more sustainably balanced regional order, and at the same time to dramatically increase our defence self-reliance capability.

With just about all of that I find it difficult to disagree, and a lot of my own take echoes those themes: as I have spelt it out in different forums – ‘Less United States. More Asia. More Self-Reliance. More Multilateral Engagement’. But Hugh being Hugh, and being the liberal idealism-free realist that he instinctively is, I think he does periodically push the analysis two, or three bridges too far.

Nowhere more so in his enthusiasm for a new more militarily-evenly balanced concert of powers, which has led him to be quite insouciant about the prospect of Japan going nuclear-armed. And taking his enthusiasm for more Australian defence capability to the point where he is prepared to contemplate the possible desirability of we ourselves acquiring nuclear weapons. I have picked this bone with him many times, and can’t resist the temptation to smite him again!

But to the extent that I and some others here do have significant disagreements with Hugh about these issues I think at heart they are much less intellectual than psychological. It’s a question of whether you approach the world with a basically pessimistic or optimistic mindset. And here Hugh, perhaps showing to some extent the relentlessly lugubrious influence of his master Kim Beazley – not to mention the even more comprehensively pessimistic Paul Dibb – really is a quintessential Eeyore; whereas I, by comparison, tend to be very much a Tigger.

For those of you who like to be precise about these literary metaphors, I acknowledge that Winnie-the-Pooh himself was an optimist, but of the rather limp and wet variety – ‘It never hurts to keep looking for sunshine’, you might remember him saying, or ‘Weeds are flowers too, once you get to know them’. Tigger appeals to me more as having a bit more outgoing vitality about him: ‘Bouncing’, he says, is what tiggers do best’…

What Hugh does have in common with Tigger more than Eeyore, and this brings me to the remaining ground I want to offer for admiring and celebrating Hugh’s career, is that for all his ingrained pessimism he is a remarkably cheerful and outgoing soul, relentlessly pleasant and accommodating even when fighting with him over some substantive policy issue, and impossibly difficult to irritate or enrage. For someone whose own temperament, as I acknowledge in my memoir, is ‘not of the cloth from which zen masters are cut’ this is all more than a little disconcerting.

But it does mean, as I know we would all here acknowledge, that Hugh has not only been a magnificently effective thinker and communicator about issues of the most fundamental importance for Australia, the region and indeed the wider world, but that he has been an absolutely wonderful friend and colleague. We’re not going to miss him, because we know he’s not really going away.

But we are absolutely right to celebrate him – not only for what he has done over all these years, but for being the person, and good mate to us all, that he is.