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The Liberal tradition in Australian foreign policy

Opinion Piece

Date : 02 March 2014

Author: The Hon Josh Frydenberg MP

Publication: Australian Foreign Policy - Controversies and Debates Edited by Daniel Baldino, Andrew Carr, Anthony Langlois

The Liberal tradition in Australian foreign policy
The Hon Josh Frydenberg MP
There is a proud Liberal tradition in Australian foreign policy. It is replete with historic achievements. At its heart are three key themes.
First, there is a deep and abiding commitment to alliance partners. Based on shared values and in pursuit of common interests, Liberal leaders have been more than willing to take their country onto the battlefield alongside their allies to defend against mutual threats.
Second, there is an early, active, appreciation of the dynamism and opportunities in our own Asia–Pacific region. While the preference has been to build strong bilateral ties with individual nations in Asia, Liberal governments have also effectively promoted and embraced regional groupings when it has been opportune to do so.
Third, there is a pragmatic approach to multilateralism. For Liberal governments participation in multilateral institutions and processes is not viewed as an end in itself; rather it must first meet a strict national interest test.
Alliance partners
Without question, Australia’s single most important bilateral partnership is that with the United States. It stretches back to 1908 when the then Liberal Protectionist Prime Minister Alfred Deakin invited President Theodore Roosevelt to send America’s Great White Fleet out to Sydney.
Coming shortly after Russia’s surprise defeat at the hands of the Japanese navy in 1905 and opposed by Britain at the time, Deakin’s invitation to Roosevelt displayed an early understanding that it was to be with the United States, not the United Kingdom, that Australia’s security guarantee would eventually lie. Subsequently, Australia has been to war alongside the Americans in every major conflict in this century and the last: the First World War, the Second World War, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. No country other than Australia can make a similar claim. In each case, Liberal leaders understood that the enemy they faced posed a real threat to the security of Australia.
In 1939, when Menzies took Australia to war, he appreciated before Labor’s John Curtin the real nature of the fascist threat. Labor was isolationist while Menzies had been overseeing Australia’s rearmament, prudently preparing the nation for war.
Menzies too understood earlier than Curtin the vital role America would play. In January 1940, he sent one of his key lieutenants Richard Casey to be based in Washington, not just acting as Australia’s eyes and ears but to help ensure America knew exactly what was at stake. As Professor Carl Bridge (2001: 307) has written, ‘John Curtin the new Labor Prime Minister, may have famously “looked to America” on 27 December 1941, but Menzies and Casey had been doing the spade work there during the previous two years’.
It was also the Menzies Government that established the ANZUS Alliance, signed in San Francisco on 1 September 1951 that is of particular note. In his two volume memoirs, The Measure of the Years and Afternoon Light, Menzies (1970: 54) expounds at length on the importance of the ANZUS Alliance, describing it as one of his government’s ‘major achievements’. Indeed, it was. Menzies and his brilliant Minister for External Affairs, Percy Spender, had succeeded where Chifley and Evatt failed.
Menzies (1970: 52) notes that under Article IV of the ANZUS Treaty, ‘armed attack in the Pacific Area on any of the Parties would be dangerous to its own peace and safety’ and this would see each nation commit to ‘act to meet the common danger’.
With the Korean War still raging, this agreement provided Australia with a new level of confidence and protection at a time of rising Cold War tensions.
To this day, Menzies’ ANZUS Alliance remains the central pillar in our national security framework. In both the Korean (1950–53) and Vietnam (1962–75) wars, Menzies took Australia into conflict to meet the pernicious communist threat.
Australia was not slavishly following the United States. Both campaigns involved international coalitions. In the case of Korea, this was done under a UN mandate. In the case of the Vietnam campaign, other nations in Asia, including South Korea and Thailand, committed more troops than Australia. Indeed, Lee Kuan Yew, Prime Minister of Singapore from 1959 to 1990, has said that without American intervention, communist influence would have spread. In his memoirs From Third World To First: The Singapore Story: 1965–2000, he said (2000: 521), ‘Had there been no US intervention, the will of these [South-East Asian] countries to resist them would have melted and Southeast Asia would most likely have gone communist’.
The ‘antagonism towards China’ that Evans (1994) and other critics of the Menzies Government point to, ignores the reality of the time. Communism was on the rise throughout the region, challenging Australia and its Asian neighbours alike. As Menzies (1965) said to the House of Representatives in April 1965:
The takeover of South Vietnam would be a direct military threat to Australia and all the countries of South and South-East Asia. It must be seen as part of a thrust by Communist China between the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
Menzies’s absolute determination to see Australia fend off the communist threat would also see Australian soldiers sent to Malaya in 1950 to counter the insurgency and to Malaysia in 1964 as Sukarno’s troops engaged in Konfrontasi. In seeking to outlaw the Australian Communist Party, Menzies also put huge pressure on the Australian Labor Party, which split in 1954.
Wind the clock forward to Australia’s military campaigns, under John Howard’s prime ministership, in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. While the nature of the threat had changed, the common cause with the Americans had not. In the case of Iraq, every international leader at the time, except Saddam Hussein himself, believed Iraq was in possession of weapons of mass destruction. Iraq’s use of chemical weapons against its own people, namely the Kurds in the North, was a powerful reminder of the danger Saddam Hussein posed.
The Afghanistan campaign was a direct consequence of the events of 11 September 2001. That attack in America saw the ANZUS Alliance invoked for the first time.
John Howard was with President Bush in Washington on September 10 and rightly understood that the Islamic extremists who perpetrated that attack were as much a threat to Australian interests as they were to the United States. This was a tragic reality brought home by the Bali bombing on 12 October 2002.
Australia’s participation in these various military conflicts from the Second World War to Afghanistan must be seen not just from the perspective of the threat we faced, but also in the context of our ever strengthening relationship with the United States.
In The Measure of the Years, Menzies (1970: 44) said, ‘If, in spite of all effort to live at peace, a war comes, the business of foreign policy is to see that we enter it with great and powerful friends’. This point is critical to understanding the Liberal tradition in Australian foreign policy. From Menzies to Howard, Liberal leaders have avoided blind faith in the virtues of the multilateral system, preferring instead to entrust the security of the nation and its citizens in bilateral alliances. For Australia in the past, as well as today, there is no more powerful and important ally in the Liberal tradition than the United States.
Engagement with Asia
The second dominant theme in the Liberal tradition of foreign policy is the commitment by successive Liberal leaders and their ministers to developing closer ties with the Asian region.
One of the earliest and most significant proponents of this strategy was Sir John Latham. As the federal member for Kooyong, Latham rose to be the leader of the Opposition, of the then Nationalist Party, and later Minister for External Affairs. It was in this latter capacity that Prime Minister Joe Lyons sent him on a wide-ranging tour of Asia in 1934. Visiting China, Japan, South-East Asia and Indo-China, Latham was the first Australian external affairs minister to make such a trip. The impact on him was profound. He said at the time (Latham, 1934):
It is inevitable that the relations between Australia and the Near East will become closer and more intimate as the years pass. Therefore it is important that we should endeavour to develop and improve our relations with our neighbours whose fortunes are so important to us, not only in economic matters, but also in relation to vital issues
of peace and war.
Latham’s subsequent recommendations that Australia appoint trade commissioners to China, Japan and the Dutch East Indies were duly acted upon, providing Australia with its first real and independent representation in the region.
Menzies, who was to replace Latham as the federal member for Kooyong later that year, would also become a powerful advocate for building closer ties to the region.
In one of his famous pre-war addresses in 1939, Menzies (cited in Sydney Morning Herald 1939: 9) said:
In the Pacific we have primary responsibilities and primary tasks … what Great Britain calls the Far East is to us the Near North … I have become convinced that in the Pacific, Australia must regard herself as a principal providing herself with her own information and maintaining her own diplomatic contacts with foreign powers.
As with building the relationship with the United States, Menzies combined with his minister for external affairs, Percy Spender, to implement a series of initiatives that created opportunities for Australia in Asia. Of these, the Colombo Plan, which saw more than 40,000 students from Asia come to study in Australia, was the most important. Those students helped to change Australians’ attitudes to Asia and laid the basis for the abolition of the White Australia Policy under Prime Minister Harold Holt in 1966. Spender, who in the late 1920s and 1930s travelled extensively with his wife as a tourist to Asia, appreciated the importance of the region to Australia (Lowe 2005: 393). In January 1950, Spender (cited by Benvenuti and Jones 2011, 62) said, ‘Geographically, Australia is next door to Asia and our destiny as a nation is irrevocably conditioned by what takes place in Asia. It is therefore in Asia and the Pacific that Australia should make its primary effort in the field of foreign relations’.
That statement of intent was bolder than that of any Labor figure at the time and was to set the tone for the next sixty plus years of Australia foreign policy. Spender’s successor as external affairs minister, Richard Casey, was also successful in focusing on the region with one of his key roles being the negotiation of the South-East Asia Collective Defence Treaty (SEATO). Agreed on 8 September 1954 and involving New
Zealand, Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand, France, the United Kingdom and the United States, it became the principal means by which Australia involved the UK and the US in the strategic architecture of the region (Waters 2005: 387).
Another significant achievement of the Menzies period was the Trade and Commerce Agreement signed with Japan in 1957. With the horrific memories of the Second World War still fresh in people’s minds, the Agreement was not only a brave move by Menzies and his trade minister, John McEwen, but also one that showed great foresight. Japan would go on to become Australia’s largest export market for more than four decades as well as becoming a reliable friend with whom we worked to secure participation in various regional groupings.
These achievements make a mockery of the Labor Party’s claim to have first established Australia’s significant ties with Asia. Sample this assessment (Evans 1994) from then Labor foreign minister Gareth Evans about the period 1949–72:
Menzies’ supercilious Anglophilia … the stridency of our antagonism towards China; the comprehensiveness of our dependence upon the United States … 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 unconvinced of its ability to be a force for change in its own right, and wholly unclear about the kind of change it would want to pursue if it ever did have that ability.
The reality is that Whitlam, Hawke and Keating are all ‘Johnny-come-latelies’ to Asia, merely bathing in the after-glow of trailblazers Latham, Menzies and Spender.
Like Menzies’ term as prime minister, John Howard’s nearly twelve years in the Lodge were characterised by an active foreign policy that saw Australia simultaneously strengthen ties with the United States and key partners in Asia.
The best illustration of this was a memorable week in October 2003 when both US President George W Bush and Chinese President Hu Jintao separately addressed joint sittings of the Federal Parliament. The symbolism was significant. Under Howard, Australia would not be forced to choose between its friendship with the United States and that which it had successfully developed with China.
Remarkably, it was during the Howard years that Australia’s two-way trade with China increased nearly six fold. This seismic and exponential shift in Australia’s trade focus saw Australia sign in 2002 its largest ever export contract, a $25 billion gas deal to transport LNG from the North West Shelf to Guangdong Province.Soon after, in 2005, Australia commenced negotiations with China on a Free Trade Agreement.
During the Howard years, political and strategic ties between the two countries also strengthened with Australian Foreign Minister Downer and Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi agreeing in 2007 ‘to establish a new annual Australia–China strategic dialogue’. This agreement was a significant step forward and now forms an essential part of the framework upon which the Australia–China relationship now rests.
It was during the Howard years that Australia’s bilateral relationship with Indonesia also really developed. Overlapping with the terms of five different Indonesian Presidents, Suharto, B J Habibie, Abdurrahman Wahid, Megawati Sukarnoputri and Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Howard was adept at navigating his way through a number of challenging issues. The Asian Financial Crisis, East Timor’s independence, the Bali bombing and the tsunami in 2004 were all major events that required close cooperation between our two countries and significant Australian initiative. The result was that Indonesia soon came to realise that in Australia it had a generous friend and partner. Australia contributed to all three regional IMF bailout packages (for Indonesia, Thailand and Korea), made a $1 billion contribution to Indonesia’s tsunami relief effort, significantly strengthened Indonesia’s law enforcement capacity to counter domestic threats, particularly from Jemaah Islamiyah, and opened a new level of engagement with an interfaith dialogue.
This extensive cooperation during the Howard years saw the prime minister visit Indonesia twelve times, while President Wahid became the first Indonesian president to visit Australia in over twenty years in 2001. The 2006 signing between the two countries of the Lombok Treaty on security cooperation was another example of ever strengthening ties.
But Howard’s management of the East Timor issue is really the standout. More than 100,000 people had lost their lives in the East Timor conflict and political sensitivities over the issue in Indonesia and Australia were extremely acute. Against this background, the Howard Government’s success in securing a UN mandate for the INTERFET force, and then providing the vast majority of the 5500 sets of boots on the ground, was a significant logistical and political success.
The Howard Government also had an excellent record with other key regional partners like Singapore and Thailand, with whom free trade agreements were signed, India, where John Howard made a ground-breaking visit in 2006 lifting the ban on the sale of uranium to Delhi, and Japan, where the two countries signed a Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation in 2007 as well as initiating a trilateral security dialogue with the United States in 2006. So much for Paul Keating’s desperate and unedifying pre-election prediction in 1996 that Asian leaders would not deal with John Howard. In fact, Asian leaders, like Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Chinese President Jiang Zemin did more than deal with John Howard—they became his friends and, by extension, Australia’s too.
The third theme in the Liberal tradition of Australian foreign policy is a considered approach to multilateralism. Successive Liberal governments have taken a pragmatic rather than a dewey-eyed view of the benefits to flow from signing up to multilateral agreements and institutions. The best example is the United Nations. Liberal governments have strongly supported the work of key UN bodies like the World Food Program and the Development Program, using Australia’s aid program to support their endeavours around the world. So too new organisations like the International Criminal Court, which came into force in 2002 and to which Australia was one of the first countries to sign on.
But where Liberal leaders feel Australia is being singled out by UN bodies for unfair treatment or Australia’s sovereignty is being challenged, the government will forcefully respond. In 2000 Foreign Minister Alexander Downer called for a major overhaul of the UN Human Rights Committee system with a greater emphasis on the role of democratically elected governments (ABC 2000). Following criticism from a range of human rights committees including the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, Downer said he was ‘appalled at the blatantly political and partisan approach’ and that findings were ‘based on an uncritical acceptance of the claims of domestic political lobbies and take little account of the considered reports submitted by government’ (Barker 2000).
Downer was right. The system was totally out of kilter. Western democracies like Australia were being put on public trial by these various UN committees as a means of influencing what were essentially domestic political debates. When it comes to the use of force in international conflict, Liberal governments have always preferred the safe haven of being under a specific Chapter VII UN mandate—the INTERFET East Timor example was a case-in-point. However, in other instances where the partisan politics of the UN Security Council made certain resolution not possible, as in the case of the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) or in the lead up to the war in Iraq, Australia’s participation nevertheless went ahead.
In the case of the Solomons, an endorsement from the Pacific Islands Forum was in the end received and in the case of Iraq, the Howard Government judged that existing UN Security Council resolutions were sufficient under international law (Howard 2013). It is also worth mentioning that Australia under the leadership of John Howard and Alexander Downer played a lead role marshalling resources in the region to bring peace to Bougainville. Australia led the Peace Monitoring Group (PMG), committing over 3000 Australian Defence personnel and civilians to the cause while working closely with the UN Observer Mission that was deployed to Bougainville in 1998.
The Commonwealth has been another important multilateral forum that Liberal leaders have used effectively to promote democracy and reform. Malcolm Fraser played an important role in the Commonwealth campaign against South Africa’s apartheid regime and Alexander Downer, Australia’s longest serving foreign minister, was an outspoken critic of the military sanctioned regimes in Zimbabwe and Fiji.
In terms of multilateralism in Asia, Malcolm Fraser played a key role in laying the foundations for the formation of APEC, working with Prime Minister Ohira of Japan to set the process in train. APEC was not merely a Labor initiative as is often claimed; the architecture for it was actually defined under Fraser. John Howard is a good example of a leader who got the balance right in Asia. During the term of his government, Australia became a foundation member of the eighteen-nation East Asia Summit in 2005, and signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in the same year. While Howard subscribed to the view that ‘friends are more enduring than forums’, he also knew full well that having a seat at the EAS table (alongside Australia’s membership of APEC and the ASEAN Regional Forum) presented an important opportunity for Australia to advance its national interest (Howard 2009).
When it comes to the multilateral trade agenda, the Liberal approach has viewed a comprehensive multilateral agreement as the ‘Holy Grail’. However, in recent years the Doha round has stalled providing little comfort and hope for free trading nations like Australia. As a result, the Howard Government was extremely active in its pursuit of bilateral agreements, effectively taking out insurance against a lack of movement at the multilateral level. Deals with the United States, Thailand and Singapore were all concluded under Howard while negotiations with China and Japan also began.
Australia’s new Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, has made it very clear one of his government’s main priorities is to conclude more bilateral deals, emptying Labor’s intray and carrying on where John Howard left off.
The Liberal foreign policy tradition is best explained by an opening statement in the Howard Government’s foreign policy White Paper In the National Interest released in 1997 (DFAT 1997: iii):
Preparing for the future is not a matter of grand constructs. It is about the hard-headed pursuit of the interests which lie at the core of foreign and trade policy: the security of the Australian nation and the jobs and standard of living of the Australian people. In all that it does in the field of foreign and trade policy, the Government will apply this basic test of national interest.
This common sense approach has been the hallmark of successive Liberal governments from Menzies to Howard. The outlook of Prime Minister Tony Abbott, and his Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop, will be no different. A commitment to alliance partners, in particular the United States, an active and comprehensive policy of deep engagement with Asia, and a willingness to embrace multilateral outcomes when it is effective to do so are the three key themes characterising the Liberal tradition in Australian foreign policy. The product is a proud record of achievement which has served Australia well in the past and which lays a strong foundation for the future. No amount of partisan polemics from the likes of those in the Labor Party will change that fact.

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