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How not to conduct Australian Foreign Policy: Suez 1956

Launch of Robert Bowker, Australia, Menzies and Suez: Australian policy-making on the Middle East Before, During and After the Suez Crisis (Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2019), Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies, ANU, Canberra, 14 November 2019

I stand in awe of Bob Bowker’s stamina and capacity to absorb punishment. He has spent, as he tells us, over eight years immersed in the archives – working through some 20,000 documents around the general theme of Australia’s response to the 1956 Suez Crisis – in order to prepare the big volume on the period in the DFAT select-documents series to be published next year, and writing this monograph which is, in effect, an extended introduction to the documents volume.

I doubt that anyone else could have done all that without becoming along the way totally incapacitated by rage and frustration at the scale of the folly involved. Just about everything that could have gone wrong in the conduct of our foreign policy did go wrong. This is a textbook case of how not to do it – eminently worth writing, because if we don’t learn from the mistakes of the past we will be condemned to repeat them, but not calculated to do much good for the blood pressure of either writer or reader.

Dr Bowker’s book meticulously and lucidly picks apart the sequence of events following Nasser’s nationalization of the Canal – the failure to persuade him to accept its internationalisation; the Anglo-French-Israeli military action taken against him; the international outrage that generated, not least from the United States; and the ignominious withdrawal by the belligerents, with nothing to show for their efforts except in the case of Britain a dramatic loss of international credibility and influence.

And he systematically describes the reactions of all the key Australian players to these events – of Menzies as Prime Minister, Casey as External Affairs Minister, their other Cabinet colleagues, and their key advisers including the heads of External Affairs, Defence and the Prime Minister’s Department, and the diplomats on the ground and within the Department.

The litany of folly which emerges from all this, in Bob’s excellent account, has at least four dimensions.

First, and crucially, there was the absolutely dominant role played by Prime Minister Robert Menzies who, despite his many evident domestic leadership attributes, had a number of less attractive qualities when it came to international affairs, which here were on full display and given free rein. There was his excruciating Anglophilia, which blinded him to the possibility that Anthony Eden and his colleagues could have comprehensively misread the situation; his patronising approach to the Americans, who read and played it much more sensibly throughout; his barely concealed contempt for the third world in general and Egyptians in particular, which didn’t do much to help him either read correctly the new forces of nationalism at work or to advance personally with Nasser the cause of international control; and his manifest distaste for the United Nations and all its works. Prejudices of this nature and on this scale don’t usually make for intelligent foreign policymaking, and didn’t here.

Second, there was the lacklustre role played by External Affairs Minister Richard Casey. His instincts that the whole affair would end in tears for Britain were very sound, but he conspicuously failed throughout its course to exercise any kind of restraining influence over the Prime Minister. Good foreign policy making has to be based on mutual respect between head of government and foreign minister, and a willingness on issues of critical importance to work closely together to reach consensus on how to handle them.

While it is well understood in the foreign ministers club that our titular leaders have to be given their heads from time to time to pursue particular enthusiasms that wouldn’t be ours as the price of letting us get on with our job, limp acquiescence is not an option when the leader’s enthusiasm is for a cause which is manifestly at odds with the national interest. A foreign minister who doesn’t fight relentlessly hard for his corner on issues as grave as Suez is not normally the kind of foreign minister who can expect to have buildings named after him.

Third, and this of course helps explain Casey’s impotence, the Cabinet of the day was overwhelmingly imbued with Menzies’s wholly Anglophile view of the world, had little inherent sympathy with Casey’s more realistic risk assessments, and failed to act as any kind of collective counterweight to the Prime Minister’s wrongheadedness. Ministers like McEwen, Hasluck, Beale and Paltridge all enthusiastically went along with Menzies’s ride. Intriguingly, one of the very few who did push back a little was then Primary Industries Minister Billy McMahon, who is recorded is saying ‘we must moderate the British attitude…the UK can huff and puff but world opinion is against her’: his judgment on this occasion remains the only piece of evidence I’ve ever seen that he might actually have had some prime ministerial qualities.

The multiple Cabinet meetings between July and December 1956 – Bob’s account of the proceedings of which is one of the highlights of the book – showed overall a pusillanimity in the face of prime ministerial captain’s calls putting even Tony Abbott’s Cabinet in the shade. Cabinets full of sheep are not those of which strong and effective governments are made.

The remaining factor contributing to the follies of 1956 was the failure of senior public servants across all the key departments to give accurate, consistent and forceful advice to ministers of a kind which might have dented their confidence in their reflexively pro-British prejudices. To so persuade ministers would always have been a tall order given the intellectual, emotional and ideological temper of the times, but one has the sense that the advisers were just not up to the task, either in their assessment of the realities of the situation, or their willingness to confront their political masters – and above all the Prime Minister – with them.

Those at the External Affairs coalface like future Departmental Secretary Alan Renouf gave advice which, to put it gently, wandered all over the place, and none of the senior mandarins emerge with any more glory. For the most part, as Bob’s meticulous examination of the written record makes clear, they simply failed to recognise the way the geopolitical dynamics were shifting, with Arab nationalism just one dimension of an emerging new international order of independent post-imperial states organised around the poles of the competing Cold War superpowers, with all the implications of this for British Empire nostalgia; they overstated the risks to trade through the Canal involved in Nasser’s takeover; they failed to identify with sufficient force or clarity the risks involved in substituting military action for diplomacy; and, above all, failed to call out the risks for Australia in associating itself with the last twitches of the British Imperial dinosaur.

All this was over sixty years ago, but there are plenty of lessons for us still to contemplate. Among them, the need for a strong and independent public service, with the ability and resources to accurately analyse situations and the courage to confront ministers with conclusions and recommendations they don’t want to hear. The need for an intelligent and strong-minded Cabinet, willing to challenge a very strong-minded leader with arguments he or she might not want to hear. The need to be alert to changing global and regional geopolitical dynamics, and not stuck in conceptual time-warps. And in that context, the need not to be over-awed by a great and powerful friend, and to recognise the reality of an empire in decline when we see one.

Bob Bowker has done us all a great service in reopening the file on what went wrong over Suez in the way that this book has done – and no doubt its companion book of documents will do when published next year. The expertise and professionalism evident in his research and writing reflects his outstanding career as a diplomat, focusing on Middle Eastern affairs – with 37 years in the Department of Foreign Affairs, including as Ambassador to Egypt and Jordan, other service in our missions in Saudi Arabia and Syria, and a stint working for the UN in Israel and Gaza. Bob was a tower of strength in Australian policymaking and implementation in all those roles, and I certainly greatly valued his advice during the nearly eight years I was Foreign Minister from 1988-96.

The quality of this book also owes something, as Bob has gracefully acknowledged, to his time with us at ANU, as a PhD student, and since his retirement from government service as Adjunct Professor and now Honorary Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies. CAIS has become one of the real jewels in our academic crown under the leadership over the last 25 years of its founding and now retiring Director, Professor Amin Saikal, to whom I take this opportunity of paying tribute.

This monograph is an extremely worthy addition to DFAT’s Australia in the World Series, nicely written and very attractively packaged, not least with the scores of very informative and evocative photographs and illustrations that run through it. Australia, Menzies and Suez is a credit to Dr Bob Bowker and everyone who supported and assisted him along the way, and I have great pleasure in declaring it duly launched.