Enlargers, Straiteners and the Making of Australian Foreign Policy
12th Annual Manning Clark Lecture, by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AO QC, Chancellor, Australian National University, National Library, Canberra, 3 March 2011
All of us remember Manning Clark for the grand, sweeping rhetorical contrasts he loved to draw, in often slightly archaic but wonderfully intense language, between the “life affirmers” and the “life deniers”, between the “mourners” and the “mockers”, between Henry Lawson’s “old dead tree” and “young green tree”, and to me most memorable of all, between the “enlargers” and the “straiteners”.
Given life’s complexity and variability, any classification of human instincts or behaviour in starkly bipolar terms does run the risk of sliding into parody. I can’t help remembering in this respect the solemn declaration by an Oxford philosophy tutor of mine long ago, absolutely incontestable as a matter of fact, that “there are two kinds of people in the world: those who wear nightcaps to bed, and those who don’t.”
But I also can’t help thinking, as I look out at the world around us, and certainly at the way in which policymakers and decision-makers address most of the public policy issues with which I have been concerned over my own professional life, including foreign policy, that Manning was on to something. There does seem to a mindset which is basically open, embracing inquisitive, adventurous and positive, and another which is narrow, confined, cautious, and negative. Most people do seem to line up, instinctively or intuitively, on one side of this line or the other. And when they are influential in policymaking, it really does matter which way they do line up (not least for their own careers: enlargers do tend to get into much more trouble than straiteners!).
If there is such a line, there’s not much doubt about on which side of it Manning came down – not as a policymaker (for avoiding which career I suspect we should praise merciful providence), but as a thinker, writer, teacher and citizen activist. It certainly characterized his approach to foreign affairs, not that, apart from opposing the Vietnam War, he ever had a great deal to say publicly on this subject: what he did say tended to be “opaque and oracular”, as Stuart Macintyre has characterized his pronouncements on political matters generally, and indeed was not enough to command any attention at all from Brian Mathews in his excellent recent life of the great man. But in another new biography, forthcoming later this year, Mark McKenna finds quite a lot to admire in Manning the international enlarger, tracing the most important origins of his thinking and feeling here to a long, eye-opening, visit he and Dymphna made in the mid-1950s to Singapore, Malacca, Jakarta, Rangoon, and across a swathe of India from Delhi to Bombay.
He describes the core elements of that thinking and feeling as being a keen sense of modern Australia’s need to wholeheartedly embrace Asia; to abandon absolutely once and for all the White Australia Policy; to see Australia as a site in which the best of three civilizations – European, Asian and Indigenous – could merge; and to recognize frankly that Britain’s day had come and gone, and to respond to that reality by forging a genuinely independent foreign policy rather than throwing ourselves into the arms of another great and powerful friend.
You perhaps won’t be surprised to hear that I have in all of this, more than a sneaking sympathy for Manning’s view of the world and Australia’s place in it, and more than a slight disposition to identify – at least after taking out the more religious bits – with his own rather fiercely moral approach to addressing current discontents. In honouring his memory tonight I thought it might be interesting to talk about the extent to which his straiteners versus enlargers dichotomy, or something like it, has played a role over the years in the theory and practice of Australian foreign policymaking.
I guess it’s obvious at the outset that ‘straiteners’ and ‘enlargers’ are not exactly terms of art in the profession, and we are not going to get very far by looking them up in the history books or international relations textbooks. As someone whose life hitherto has been spent as a practitioner, there is a slight temptation to say one doesn’t get very far by looking up anything in international relations textbooks. But that would be a little vulgar now that I am cast as a part-time academic political scientist myself, and besides which, it’s not quite true.
That said, I do still have to confess that I struggle a bit to relate to contemporary IR theory, which on the face of it ought to have something useful to say about the underlying mindsets that policymakers bring to the conduct of foreign affairs, and how that affects real world outcomes, but somehow never quite seems to get around to doing so.
I think I have a little bit of a handle on the oldest and most familiar distinction in IR theory, that between Idealists and Realists. It’s rather similar, after all, to the distinction I’ve always made between the two basic motivations that tug for attention in every politician I’ve ever known, idealism and megalomania: everybody in the business believes in at least something they want to achieve while they are there, and has some kind of tolerance for the sordid business of acquiring and wielding the power needed to do so, but in terms of what really gives pollies their jollies, the proportions vary wildly – and you don’t need me to give you examples at either end of the spectrum.
But in international relations theory, I have to tell you, Idealism v. Realism is regarded these days as much too simple, kindergarten stuff. You can forget about tenure track unless you can confidently draw out the distinctions between classical, post-classical, neo-, defensive and offensive realists; and on the other side between idealists and liberals, and then between a miscellany of neo-, institutional and other-hyphened sub-species of the latter. It’s no surprise to me that among those who seem to be most at home in this discipline are my fissiparous colleagues on the far Left, who (as well explained in that excellent documentary film, The Life of Brian) have long absorbed themselves with evidently minute but apparently cosmically significant ideological differences.
Cutting across the Idealist-Realist axis is another one, which might look to those outside the academy rather indistinguishable but which I am told by my colleagues, with as much patience as they can muster, is really quite different because it’s methodological more than ideological. This is the division between Constructivists at one end of the scale – who are primarily moved by the notion that norms and ideas really matter – and Rationalists, who are not so persuaded. And then of course, out in a space of their own, are a miscellany of Post-Modernist and related worldviews of varying degrees of impenetrability, which my late and dear friend Tony Judt has sweepingly, but I suspect not entirely unfairly, described as “narcissistic obscurantism”.
All these, you will appreciate, are just the mainstream labels: you wouldn’t want to know how many other eddies and pools, and whole inland seas, there are in IR theory. When I asked a colleague the other day, in a genuine spirit of enquiry, which one of them he thought fitted me best, I was consoled to be told, that whatever other surface manifestations there may have been over the years of everything from institutional liberalism (in my idiosyncratic passion, for example, for trying to make the UN and regional architecture work better) to very hard-nosed realism (for example in my negotiation of Timor Sea boundaries or peace deals with the Khmer Rouge), that did not in fact make me, as I thought I might be, a candidate for “Analytical Eclecticism” – that new theoretical school recently identified as a home for the intellectually sluggish and disreputable who are too ill-disciplined and ignorant to fit in anywhere else.
On the contrary, I was informed, given my other idiosyncratic passion for spending vast amounts of time over the years participating in commissions and panels trying to change international behaviour by starting with the way in which policymakers think about tough issues – e.g how to react to genocide and mass atrocity crimes: all that ‘responsibility to protect’ stuff that everybody is at last now talking about in the context of Libya – I was clearly, deep down inside, a Constructivist. I was rather chuffed by this, feeling rather like Moliere’s bourgeois gentleman on whom, you will recall, when he woke up one morning the thrilling revelation was bestowed that for the last 40 years of his life he had been speaking ‘prose’.
The trouble is that none of these labels, in my experience, seems to get close to describing the way in which those of us in this business actually behave, year in and year out, in all those situations where some kind of policy choices are open to us. Even the most adventurous of us, and most passionately committed to human rights and universal values and norms, know that in the real world that crowds in upon us, good ideas and values sometimes carry the day but often they don’t; realities constantly intrude, and compromises constantly have to be made. It is certainly discomfiting in the extreme to sit across the table from genocidaires, as I did in the Cambodian negotiations, generating howls of indignation from the Pilgers of this world as a result. But engaging with those for some or all of whose behaviour you feel the utmost distaste is not the same as endorsing that behaviour, and without being able to draw that distinction diplomacy, and with it any kind of capacity to maintain stability in international relations, and find solutions to problems and conflicts, would grind to a halt.
But the fact that compromises of this kind have to be made does not mean that there are no choices to be made. On the contrary, there are choices everywhere, both in reacting to events and opportunities, and in proactively trying to set new agendas: the US didn’t have to go to war in Iraq, and Australia didn’t have to join it; we don’t have to give aid to Africa, or run for the Security Council, or participate in any peacekeeping operations; we didn’t have to try to change the architecture of economic and security policymaking in the Asia Pacific; we didn’t have to try to lead the way in making peace in Cambodia; we don’t have to accept any particular number of refugees; we don’t have to try to influence the global debate on climate change or nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament.
I’ve never heard anyone put more starkly, and indeed wisely one of the really fundamental choices now facing US decision-makers, than Bill Clinton, at a private function about a decade ago, after he had left the Presidency and acquired all the wisdom that comes with hindsight and removal from the action. In lines I have often quoted:
We have two choices about how we use the great and overwhelming military and economic power we now possess. We can try to use it to stay top dog on the global block in perpetuity. Or we can use it to try to create a world in which we will be comfortable living when we are no longer top dog on the global block.
One of the most interesting treatments I’ve seen of the way theory relates to practice in the real world of international policymaking was an article in International Security a few years ago entitled ‘The Future of US-China Relations: Is Conflict Inevitable’ by the Princeton Academic Aaron Friedberg who did a stint in Vice-President Cheney’s planning office during the Bush administration. Taking as his starting point the three main camps in contemporary international relations theorizing – Realism, Liberalism, and Constructivism – he argues that what really matters most in determining their adherents’ attitudes and prescriptions on the China-US issue is a more fundamental, cross-cutting, division between Optimists and Pessimists.
So optimistic Liberals believe in the utility, and possibilities, created by interdependence, institutions, and pressure for democratization; optimistic Realists believe that China’s power will remain relatively limited and its aims constrained, and play down the security dilemma its actions create for other players; and optimistic Constructivists believe that China’s engagement in international institutions of various kinds will lead to shifts in its strategic culture and in the norms of international behaviour accepted by its leaders.
On the other hand pessimistic Liberals see the Chinese leadership as struggling with political change, and prone to hyper-nationalist assertiveness, and too much internally-driven US democratization and human rights pressure as potentially counter-productive; pessimistic Realists see China’s power as growing, its aims expanding, the security dilemma this poses as intense, and the need as a result for maintaining a strong competitive posture very strong; and pessimistic Constructivists worry that an excessively competitive approach by the US will result in a hardening of Chinese leadership mindsets.
For optimists of all other theoretical stripes and colours what matters, above all else, is believing in and nurturing the instinct of cooperation in the hope and expectation that decent human values will ultimately prevail; pessimists on the other hand, see conflict of one kind or another as more or less inevitable, and either embrace enthusiastically or accept with resignation a highly wary and competitive approach to the conduct of international relations. And that is probably as about as close as you’ll get, in the literature, to Manning Clark’s enlargers and straiteners.
In translating all that into an Australian foreign policymaking context, it would not be a stretch – and should not be taken as crude partisanship – to describe over the broad course of history, at least since we have had something resembling an independent foreign policy, the approach taken by ALP governments as essentially optimistic, and that of the Coalition essentially pessimistic. But not all Labor governments – or Labor governments in waiting – can be described as enlargers, and by no means all Tories have been straiteners.
Australian foreign policy – if we think of this as a desire to pursue our external interests accompanied by some independent capacity to do so – dates only from the Second World War. It was not until 1940 that our first diplomatic posts – beyond the High Commission in Britain – were established. From 1901 until then Australian leaders, Labor and non-Labor alike, from time to time did show that they were interested in the world outside Australia, especially on issues such as race and immigration, regional security, and relations with the US and Japan. But apart from Billy Hughes’s table-thumping at Versailles on German New Guinea (at the same time as he was fiercely resisting Japan’s proposal to have a racial equality clause in the new League of Nations Covenant), it was not until late 1941, when Curtin made his celebrated appeal to the US, that Australia showed itself capable of addressing a fundamental issue about its place in the world other than reflexively, instinctively and dependently as a member of the British Empire.(1)
The creation of an Australian foreign policy really came only with Evatt, whose most striking contribution was his internationalism – his very real commitment to the building of cooperative multilateral institutions and processes to address both security and development objectives. His contribution to the founding of the United Nations is the stuff of which legends are made, and rightly so – especially in his fight for the rights of the smaller powers against the great powers in the respective roles of the General Assembly and the Security Council, and in his faith in the UN as an agent for social and economic reform and as a protector of human rights. No previous Australian leader had anything like Evatt’s passion for cooperative internationalism, nor anything like his success in creating practical foundations for it.
But there were of course aspects of Evatt’s worldview, very much shared by the Labor Party of the time, which were not remotely enlarging. Right up until the Whitlam era, White Australia and the prejudices which nourished it, and the perception of the world (and particularly our own region) as a dangerous place from which Australia needed to be protected, were very strong strands in the party’s thinking. The early support from Evatt and Chifley for Indonesia’s independence struggle against the Dutch was perhaps the closest we came to understanding the new forces at work in our region, and our need to reposition ourselves accordingly. This never became, however, a sustaining or dominant theme in our foreign policy at the time, and it certainly did not become one in the conservative era that followed, from 1949 to 1972.
There wasn’t much left of Evatt’s cooperative internationalism by the end of Menzies’s and his succesors’ long reign. If is true that with the Cold War rendering the UN more and more impotent, and multilateral processes generally more and more sterile, there wasn’t much to pursue – other than as a regional extension of alliance relationships. And true it is that we developed, particularly under Casey, cordial diplomatic relations with the emerging new nations of the region; that Spender’s Colombo Plan made a very useful contribution to our long-term relations with Asia; that McEwen deserves credit for the 1957 treaty with Japan and the optimism and foresight that went with it; and that men like Hasluck, and particularly Gorton and Holt, had a quite open-minded international outook.
But against all this there has to be weighed Menzies’s excrutiating Anglophilia; the maintenance until the late 60s of the full vigour of the White Australia policy; the stridency of our support for Vervwoerd’s South Africa; the intensity of our antagonism toward China; the totality of our dependence upon the US; and the ultimate comprehensive misjudgement of our intervention in Vietnam. All this combined to reinforce the image, and the reality, of an Australia largely isolated and irrelevant in its own region, deeply unsure of its identity, utterly pessimistic about its ability to be a force for change in its own right, and in any event wholly unclear about what kind of change it would want to pursue if it could.
The Whitlam Government well and truly broke this mould, undaunted by Cold War constraints and showing a great capacity, as Evatt had done, to match Australian foreign policy to the mood and needs of the time. Recognising China; bringing home our last troops from Vietnam; finally burying the White Australia policy; taking France to the World Court for its nuclear tests in the Pacific; and accelerating Papua New Guinea’s independence were just some of the decisions in that tumultuously active 1972-75 period which set Australia on a new path. There was a confidently optimistic internationalism about it all, combining a strong commitment to process (especially international treaties and international law, Gough’s obsession with which is the stuff of legend) with a particular sensibility to the then relatively new agenda of decolonization and North-South dialogue.
The brief tenure of the Whitlam government meant that it did more initiating than consolidating (although I suspect that somewhat Rudd-like disposition might have continued even had it stayed in office ten years…). While the Fraser Government which followed from 1975-83 was more than happy to re-embrace Cold War verities, and all the East-West division of friends and enemies that went with it, it is to the considerable credit of Malcolm Fraser that on the issues which mattered most for Australia’s long-term capacity to advance its interests, especially in the region, Whitlam’s policies were not only continued, but reinforced. In particular Fraser and his Foreign Minister, Andrew Peacock, both understood as many in the Coalition for a long did not – and perhaps in some cases still do not – the critical importance of abandoning government-legitimised racism in any form whatsoever, at home and abroad, not least in his embrace of Vietnamese refugees, in fact less reluctantly than Whitlam. This undoubtedly helped foster closer links in our region and saved Australia from becoming the international pariah it would have been had opposition to apartheid and manifest discomfort with decolonization persisted.
The Hawke and Keating Governments that took us through the next thirteen years renewed that spirit of activist, optimistic adventure, which had so characterized the Whitlam period, but – at least as I remember it! – in a rather more focused and systematic fashion. I was fortunate enough, as Foreign Minister for more than half that period, to have been left some major legacies by my predecessor Bill Hayden: in particular his success in redefining our relationship with the US (albeit in what might be described sometimes as creative tension with the PM); developing a real role for Australia in the international peace and disarmament movement; and having us accepted as a responsible and knowledgeable voice on Indochina, which helped me enormously when I took on the Cambodia challenge early in my own tenure.
Within the niche role that is inevitably assigned to middle and lesser powers, we were able to achieve a great deal during those Labor years, including helping create APEC and other new, cooperative, regional economic and security architecture, all within a frame of reference, which Kevin Rudd later made his own, of an ‘Asia Pacific community’ (in the Chinese literal-translation sense of ‘big family’ rather than the capital ‘C’ European sense of economic integration) ; securing the conclusion of the Chemical Weapons Convention and advancing some major nuclear weapons objectives; playing a central role throughout during the Uruguay Round trade negotiations; building, with France, a strong coalition to save the Antarctic environment from mining and oil drilling; and in being a key player in crafting the financial sanctions strategy which finally brought down apartheid in South Africa. We also played a very visible role in reshaping ideas, although not with anything like the success in implementing them I would have liked, about how the UN should be reformed to more effectively carry out its role in the post Cold War environment.
Throughout our term we embraced wholeheartedly the optimism and new cooperative spirit that was abroad with the end of the Cold War. And we had a sustaining model of what kind of country we wanted to be, and be seen to be: essentially an enlarger on the international scene, a middle power with a strong Asia Pacific orientation, pursuing confidently and actively – at global, regional and bilateral levels as appropriate – clearly defined geopolitical interests, economic interests, and what can and should be described as good international citizenship interests.
In many ways one of the innovations of which I was most proud as Foreign Minister was just this concept of good international citizenship, which I spelt out in a speech in December 1988, just a few months after I was appointed, and which remained for me very much a sustaining motif. The basic idea is very simple. Instead of thinking of national interests in just the two traditional bundles of geopolitical and strategic interests, and economic and trade interests, think of the commitment that the country can make to the achievement of other goods and values as amounting to a relevant and vibrant third category, viz. a counry’s national interest in being, and being seen to be, a good international citizen.
At the heart of the concept is the notion that every country has a major interest in seeing the achievement of global public goods, or – putting it less technically – the resolution of what Kofi Annan used to describe as transnational ‘problems without passports’, which are by their nature beyond the capacity of any one of them, however great and powerful, to deliver or resolve. They include a clean and safe global environment; a world free of health pandemics, out of control cross-border population flows, international trafficking of drugs and people, and extreme poverty; a world without cross border terrorism; and a world on its way to abolishing all weapons of mass destruction.
In a sense these various goods are what Hedley Bull – that great Australian international relations theorist at ANU and Oxford (who did write penetrably and interestingly about the nature international order, but you’re in for a long and less-penetrable talking-to if you ask any of his latter day colleagues whether, or in what proportions, he was a Realist or a Liberal or a Constructivist) – used to call “purposes beyond ourselves”. But there’s more to all this than disinterested altruism. It’s the harnessing of values and principles to very practical, and indeed self-interested ends, bringing together – if you want to put it that way – dreamy idealism and hard-nosed realism, or the perspectives of both enlargers and straiteners.
The argument is that, by being seriously committed to these objectives, national self interest is advanced two ways. First, through reciprocity: my help for you today in solving your drugs and terrorism problem might reasonably lead you to be willing to help solve my environmental problem tomorrow. And secondly, through reputational benefit: the perception of being a country willing to take principled stands for other than immediately self-interested reasons does no harm at all to one’s own commercial and wider political agendas – as the Scandinavians in particular seem to have long well understood.
When the Howard Government came to office, one of its first products, in 1997, was – disapppointingly but perhaps not surprisingly – a foreign policy white paper, In the National Interest, which reverted to the traditional duo of security and economic interests, completely abandoned the concept of good international citizenship as a third category of national interest, and by way of compensation restored to centre stage, as a third guiding light, ‘national values’. Not universal values, but national ones, explicitly described as reflecting our ‘predominantly European intellectual and cultural heritage’ – although, to be fair, when listed they did go a little beyond the rule of law and ‘commitment to a “fair go”’ to include racial equality and building support for human rights institutions.
Foreign policy was dominated throughout Howard’s long term, to 2007, by the Prime Minister himself – not my extremely long-serving successor, Alexander Downer, who I always suspected was instinctively an enlarger rather than straitener: someone who, given his head, would have been just as comfortable in maintaining basic continuity with the Hawke/Keating agenda, particularly in the Asia-Pacific and the UN, as Fraser was in continuing Whitlam’s, but soon had that squashed out of him. Howard was and remains the quintessential pessimistic Realist: over-focused on hard rather than soft power, deeply comfortable in following the US alliance lead wherever it took us, unadventurous in seeking global or regional policy change, profoundly uninterested in the UN and the whole idea of transnational problem-solving by creative multilateral cooperation, generally inward-looking and, until the wheel turned back a little in the last part of his term, manifestly uncomfortable with the whole idea of our primary relationships having to be in our own region, with geography well and truly trumping history.
Since the Labor Government was returned in 2007 the wheel has turned again. Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister, though he knew everything about everything, was manifestly most comfortable, and successful, with foreign policy, and did unquestionably – with such help from his colleagues as they were allowed to muster – achieve the return of confident optimism back to centre stage in the conduct of our international relations. That was most evident in his work on climate change (for all the domestic horror that issue generated for him); in building the role of the G20 in global economic management and potentially on a wider front; in creating (albeit after a few diplomatic slips along the way) important new regional architecture in the expanded East Asian Summit; in trying to claw back a seat at the table for Australia in the UN Security Council; and in trying to give serious content and energy to a new global debate on nuclear disarmament. Julia Gillard has, understandably enough after a professional lifetime absorbed in domestic issues, taken a little time to find her feet internationally – and perhaps to discover her inner enlarger. But there still seems enough of that spirit to go round with the role that Kevin Rudd is still so actively playing as Foreign Minister.
If Labor has reverted to traditional type, so too has the Opposition, which has not shown any sign under Tony Abbott of anything other than being very straitened indeed, with dog-whistling about race, religion and refugees not totally absent from its collective repertoire. But there are clearly now, as there always have been, senior Coalition figures with a much more open and genuinely internationalist cast of mind; just as there are, as there always have been, those on the Labor side who, no doubt for the best electoral reasons, are rather less ready than most of their colleagues to optimistically embrace the region and the world, and more ready to pander to populist sentiment.
But at this point I will resist any temptation to plunge any further into the reeds and weeds of current policy debates. You may find this disappointingly and uncharacteristically timid, but it is because I do have a view, albeit one clearly not shared as strongly by all my former colleagues on both sides, that – however afflicted by Relevance Deprivation Syndrome – those long departed from the partisan fray should not try to restore their youth by rejoining it.
There is just one plea that I would conclude by making to my Labor colleagues, and indeed to my colleagues on the other side of the House. Please think hard about restoring, as a central guiding theme in the conduct of our international relations, the concept of good international citizenship, not just as an optional add-on for the soft-headed and charitably inclined, but as the third key pillar of our national interests. It is not a matter of left or right ideology, but simply recognizing that, in this interdependent world of ours, with all the multiple stresses that confront it, if civilization as we know it is going to survive and thrive, then we have to recognize that we are all in this together.
Manning Clark, as he did in so many other ways, instinctively got this right. Asked to comment in 1971 on the impact on Australia of Britain joining the Common Market, he said on the ABC, in a talk quoted by Mark McKenna, “We have a chance to grow up, and stop being boastful about things Australian with a snarl on our lips for the rest of the world. We have a chance to become citizens of the world.” He recognized very clearly, as we should now, that the future not only of this country, but this planet, lies at the end of the day not with the pessimists but the optimists, not with the life deniers but the life affirmers, and not with the straiteners but the enlargers.
1. This and subsequent paragraphs have been largely drawn from Gareth Evans, ‘The Labor Tradition: A View from the 1990s’ in in Evatt to Evans: The Labor Tradition in Australian Foreign Policy, David Lee and Christopher Waters (eds), Sydney, Allen and Unwin, 1997.