19 December 2018

Future Uncertain: Australia’s World in 2019

In a recent speech to the AIIA, Allan Gyngell argued “The post-war global order – the only one our foreign policy has known - has ended. It’s not being challenged. It’s not changing. It’s over.”

Here is the full text of Allan Gyngell’s Speech to West Australian Branch of the Australian Institute of International Affairs, 11 December 2018.

“What times these are and what a year it’s been.

Some years impose themselves on our historic memory and in my view 2018 will be one of them.

I’ll come back to why that is later on.

By Canberra standards, I’ve had an eccentric career: including periods as a diplomat, an intelligence analyst, a policy officer, a political staffer, a business consultant, a think tanker and a sort of quasi-academic.

But it was for me all part of a single effort to understand and, where I could, shape, the way my country, Australia, interacted with the outside world.

My interest in this question dates back at least to my teenage years and my introduction to the AIIA.

My High School history teacher was a member of the Victorian branch of the Institute, and, recognising my interest in foreign affairs, would sometimes send me off to meetings with a note to the Secretary asking if I could sit in on talks by visitors.

This institute was my first exposure to serious discussions about international relations.

It was probably not surprising that when I retired from the public service I wanted to stand back and reflect on how my own experience fitted into a much longer tale.

I believed that the story of Australian foreign policy was not sufficiently known or appreciated.

It had been about 40 years since anyone had written a single narrative history and that seemed far too long a gap.

My book – Fear of Abandonment: Australia in the World Since 1942 - is a pitch for two unfashionable ideas – history and foreign policy.

Both of them have both been marginalised in recent years.

History has been squeezed as a discipline in the education system, while foreign policy has been overshadowed since the beginning of the century by the dominance of national security policy, which has received most political attention and national investment.

I can still remember the look of despair on my publisher’s face when I pitched him the title ‘A short history of Australian foreign policy’.

Australians tend to see our past heroically, through a military prism. If you were to go out into the streets of any Australian city and ask passers-by what Australia has done in the world, you would be answered, I suspect, with a litany of battles

Gallipoli, Western Front, Western Desert, Kokoda, Korea, Vietnam, various bits of the Middle East.

The shelves of our bookshops are full of military histories, and those are certainly stories worth telling.

Foreign policy, on the other hand, sits uncomfortably with our national image.

Its accounts of lengthy negotiations and backroom deals in distant conference rooms, whatever the value of the product, are hardly the stuff to get the pulse racing or to assist national mythmaking.

But the world Australians inhabit – where we have a close alliance with the United States, where Japan is no longer an enemy but a trusted partner, and our trade takes place in a global framework of rules and regulations – is one that has been shaped by a different set of dynamics, those of foreign policy.

I wanted to tell that story in a way that was accessible to any interested reader, but to be careful and accurate in the telling, and to paint each of the key figures, from Doc Evatt to Malcolm Turnbull, briefly but truthfully.

The title of the book, Fear of Abandonment, reflects the difference I’ve always felt between the way the American founding fathers, such as George Washington, spoke of their fear of foreign entanglements, and Australia’s anxiety that we would be forgotten about.

Ever since the first British colonists experienced that long and anxious wait for the arrival of the second fleet in Port Jackson, we seem to have been standing here on this remote continent waving our hands in the air, crying out to the rest of the world ‘Don’t forget about us!’.

No-one in the new national parliament 117 years ago imagined that the Commonwealth of Australia would have its own foreign policy

Our identity was being part of the British Empire, unified under the Crown. The King could hardly have different policies in different parts of the Empire.

Australia would exercise its influence through imperial councils in London.

That was why we had a minister responsible for ‘external affairs’ not foreign affairs – which basically meant control of immigration and relations with the South Pacific

Australia did things in the world of course

Prime Minister Billy Hughes pushed Australian interests – mostly unhelpfully – in the Paris Peace Conference after the First World War, demanding concessions to Australia on its right to preserve a racially discriminatory immigration policy and on New Guinea.

Slowly in the 20s and 30s we had greater involvement in, e.g. membership of the League of Nations – to which dominions of the Crown like us could belong

But at a time when Canada and South Africa were trying to carve out a larger international place for themselves, Australia was reluctant to do anything that might disturb the established order.

When Britain passed legislation called the Statute of Westminster in 1931, giving the overseas dominions of the Crown such as Australia, full sovereign identity in the world, including the right to sign treaties and establish diplomatic networks, Australian politicians were nervous.

They declared that the legislation would only come into effect when specifically ratified by Australia.

In announcing Australia’s commitment to the Second World War Robert Menzies would still use the formulation that it was his melancholy duty to inform Australians that Great Britain had declared war on Germany, “and that, as a result, Australia is also at war”.

But that time was ending. By 1942, as the Japanese military forces pushed down towards our northern approaches, it was impossible to pretend any longer that Australian interests in the world were synonymous with Britain’s or that we didn’t need our own way of learning about, and dealing with, the international system.

That was the point at which the Australian parliament ratified the Statute of Westminster and it is when Australian foreign policy unarguably begins.

A professional Department of External Affairs was established under the Labor Party Minister HV (Doc) Evatt, and our first overseas Embassies were established.

We signed the first treaty in our own right – the ANZAC treaty – with New Zealand in 1942.

What did we want our new foreign policy to achieve? My argument is pretty simple.

Australia’s strategic dilemma was this: How do you protect a small population occupying a large continent far from the markets for your products and the places from which all except indigenous Australians, who have been here for 60,000 years, originally come?

From the end of the Second World War onwards, every Australian government for the next sixty years – Labor and Coalition alike – saw the same three ways of addressing that dilemma.

First, by establishing a close alliance with a more powerful external partner, first Britain then the United States. The countries Menzies famously called our ‘great and powerful friends’

Secondly, by working to shape the region of the world closest to us in Asia and the Southwest Pacific in ways that made it more conducive to our interests.

And finally by recognising that, as a country big enough to have global interests but too small to be able to advance them by throwing our weight around, Australia is best served by a world in which the rules, whether of trade, maritime law or arms control, are clear and which we have played a part in setting.

The book’s theme is the interweaving of those three objectives through Australian policy over the past 75 years.

Despite the mistakes we made and the occasional clumsiness of our execution, I think the story reflects well on us.

The evidence is all around. Australia is prosperous and secure. We have good relationships with the countries that matter most to us.

We have helped to construct the global order from the United Nations Charter to the formation of the G20, and to develop some of its most important collective rules.

We have successfully managed a mighty transition from seeing ourselves as a monocultural branch office of the British Empire to a successful multicultural society with a global outlook and an economy overwhelmingly focussed on Asia.

to the point – and how astonishing this would have sounded to the policy makers of the late 1940s – Tony Abbott could describe Japan as Australia’s closest friend in Asia and in the latest Australian census, a million Australians claim Asian descent.

Fear of abandonment has been the driver of our activist engagement with the world; the cause of our unceasing efforts to secure a seat for ourselves at the international table at which decisions are being made, even when we have had to play a part in the furniture making.

It’s the reason isolationism has not, since the 1930s at least, been a significant strand in Australian foreign policy.

It’s hard to think of a country that was better served by the post-1945 open liberal international order, based on multilateral institutions with universal membership and underpinned by US economic and military power exercised through a system of alliances.

We had a close alliance with the most powerful state in the system, the US.

Our most important trading partner, Japan for most of the period, was also a US ally, and US power underpinned the Asian economic miracle, which delivered such benefits to us as well.

And the rules-based international order, which served us so well was essentially set by us and our mates.

But my view, that post-war global order – the only one our foreign policy has known - has ended. It’s not being challenged. It’s not changing. It’s over.

As I began by saying, I think we’ll see the 2018 as the pivotal year marking the clear end of one order and the beginning of the contest to establish a new one. Essentially, that’s because, over the course of the past twelve months, it has become clear that the two countries of most importance to Australia – the United States and China – have changed.

For 75 years in America’s case, and 40 in China’s, both have been heavily invested in the status quo. But each of them has now decided that the system no longer suits it.

That reflects a changing power balance in the world. At the end of the second world war, the US controlled around half of the global economy. Now it is around one quarter, with China at 14 per cent

The US no longer feels it is getting an adequate return for the investment it makes.

The Trump Administration is the most obvious manifestation of this sentiment, but you could see the transition beginning under the Obama Administration, despite the profound differences in style and content. Both were an effort to adjust to a relative decline in American power.

I’m sure we’ll get something more normal and familiar to us in Washington after Trump, but the depth of national divisions and political dysfunction means that ‘America First’ in some form is likely to drive future Administrations as well. Allies will be expected to do more for themselves.

China’s economy was less than half that of the United States in 2004. By purchasing power measurements, it’s now the largest in the world. It will probably be the largest by any measure by the end of next decade. And it has the capability increasingly to contest the US military primacy that has shaped East Asia since 1945.

Under Xi Jinping, China is seeking a place in the global system commensurate with its economic power and sense of its own civilizational importance. Its objective is clear, though I think it is still working on its strategy. It has moved decisively away from Deng Xiaoping’s famous instructions that China should hide its capability and bide its time.

This was inevitable – it’s hard to hide when you’re China’s size.

Xi has restored the centrality of the party over the state and increased its role in business, both State-Owned Enterprises and the private sector. He’s creating what’s probably best described as a techno-authoritarian state.

Like any country, China will experience cycles and downturns. There is no certainty that the Chinese economy will continue to grow smoothly. But in my view China is highly unlikely to collapse either economically or politically.

In any case, the consequences for Australia of a collapsing China would be orders of magnitude more difficult than dealing with a rising state.

So this is a very different environment for Australia.

Each of the three broad themes of Australian foreign policy – the alliance, the region, the rules based order – is changing in ways that will make it more difficult for us.

We are dealing with a United States whose Administration is pursuing interests and values which in a number of areas differ more clearly from Australia’s than we’ve seen before.

We face an Asian region very different from the one with which we sought to engage in the 1980s and 90s. China’s rise is central to this. We need to ensure that the region into which China emerges is one in which all voices can be heard. But in Southeast Asia, in particular, we are seeing more fragile polities than we have been used to for several decades.

And the rules and norms for new and emerging issues like climate change, cyber and genetic engineering can only be determined by a wider coalition, including developing states. Australia will have a lot more work to do ourselves in international forums to preserve our interests.

Australian policy responses to this new environment are still emerging. In recent weeks, Scott Morrison, Bill Shorten, Marise Payne and Penny Wong have all made thoughtful broad statements about Australia and the world. And we had the major Foreign Policy White Paper just a year ago.

Despite clear differences over issues like climate change, there continues to be a great deal of bipartisanship between the main parties.

Both Labor and the Coalition agree that these are unprecedented times for Australia.

Both remain committed to the United States relationship and our treaty alliance

Both are committed to a rules-based international order and to a free and open international trading system, centred around the World Trade Organisation

Both agree that Australia needs to think about its region in a new frame as the Indo Pacific. This broadens out our 20th century idea of the Asia-Pacific to include India and to place China in a larger context

Both sides say that we will need to do more ourselves. What that is, is not always clear.

But it certainly involves Australia engaging with a wider range of regional powers, including Japan, India, Indonesia, Singapore and Vietnam, not to contain China but to ensure that we have a robust counterweight to it.

And both are committed to greater Australian engagement in the South Pacific

Both underline the importance of the relationship with China. Both will commence economic rise. Neither of them has described it in the adversarial terms used by US Vice President Pence.

But although our policymakers continue to hope – as the Prime Minister said again the other day – that we will not have to choose between China and the United States, we are having to make choices every day

China will remain central to Australia’s future. We can’t wish it away.

The complementarity of our economies in energy, resources, services and investment will remain critical for us.

Our bilateral trade with China is now greater than the sum of our trade with our next two partners, Japan and the US, combined. Our services exports alone are worth more than our iron ore exports to Japan and South Korea together.

There is simply no easy alternative.

And there’s no issue of international importance to Australia from climate change and Antarctica to the control of lethal autonomous weapons that won’t involve China.

The speed with which China and the US have moved into something that looks like a direct contest has been surprising to me. It’s not just a Trump phenomenon either. There’s a growing bipartisan apprehension about China in the US. It’s not quite a new Cold War but it’s certainly a new bipolarism.

But in contrast to the competition with the Soviet Union, which was heavily focused on nuclear and missile technology, and had no broader economic dimension, contemporary US-China competition will be a whole-of-technology contest, in which all the emerging areas of cyber, artificial intelligence, materials technology and biotechnology will have dual use capabilities.

This is shaping up as a real challenge for Australia.

In his recent book AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley and the New World Order, the Taiwanese-American AI expert Kai-fu Lee, who formerly worked for Microsoft and as head of Google China and is now a venture capitalist investing in China, argues that the next round of competition in AI will be won by the side that has the most data to facilitate machine learning and that that will be China. ‘The Saudi Arabia of data’ is how he describes it.

The Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harare puts it in a darker way in an article in the current edition of the Atlantic magazine. ‘The main handicap of authoritarian regimes in the 20th century – the desire to concentrate all information and power in one place – may become their decisive advantage in the 21st century’.

We’ve heard a lot recently about China’s interference in Australia’s domestic politics. Some of that has been overblown in my view.

But it is certainly true that China’s approach to intellectual property has been lax and worse, and that the protection of the institutions of our democracy is one of the critical functions of all Australian governments.

The point I want to make here is that the answer lies in our own hands. It lies in the legislation and regulations we have in place, in the capacity of our intelligence and police services to monitor the outcomes, and in the way our companies and universities understand the broader dimensions of their work.

It doesn’t lie in my view in the erection of new walls against cooperation. You can scarcely think of a more damaging potential strategy for Australia than to cut ourselves off from one of the two most important centres of global trade, research and investment. But equally we can’t engage blindly or without understanding the consequences.

Perhaps the most important underlying reality for Australia is that, like the United States, we have to get used to a relative decline in our regional and international standing.

Our economy will continue to slip down the international lists; our relative military strength is shrinking, our relative advantages in education, research and science will decrease as developing countries, beginning with China, do more.

That doesn’t mean decline in absolute terms, of course, but it does mean that in order to retain our national influence we are going to have to get better at marshalling all our national strengths across government, the private sector and the community,.

Those strengths will be magnified if the community is engaged and informed. They will be weakened if that informed engagement is absent, as we have seen with the UK and Brexit.

That brings me back to this Institute.

Australia has some very impressive international research capabilities in universities and think tanks. We have effective government agencies.

The AIIA itself makes important contributions to scholarship and research through our publications like the Australian Journal of International Affairs and our conferences.

All these things matter. But what sets us apart from all those other bodies is our public mission. The AIIA is the only Australian institution whose objective is to draw the public into this discussion about Australia and its place in the world. Across the continent, in all state capitals, we help people from all parts of the community, ranging in age from students to retired people – and I’ve been both – to participate in the debate.

The reason we do this lies in our origins in the Paris Peace Conference, one hundred years ago.

The Great War had caused untold human catastrophe. From Australia’s population of just five million people, 350,000 served overseas and 60,000 died. The consequences of injury and trauma lived on with many of those who returned and their families.

From this carnage, a group of the allied delegates and observers at the Peace Conference, among them three Australians, drew the lesson that foreign policy in the new era needed to be based on a deeper public understanding of international affairs and broader participation in it. For this purpose, they subsequently established the Council on Foreign Relations in New York and the British, later the Royal, Institute of International Affairs – Chatham House - and its Australian branches. These branches eventually joined together in 1933 to form this national Institute.

The AIIA has no institutional views of our own. What matters to us is that every one of our members has the opportunity to develop and shape their own views by listening to informed speakers and participating in the discussions that follow, reading the debates on our Australian Outlook blog or listening to our podcasts.

In the uncertain period ahead, unprecedented in Australia’s history, good policy making will be tested by populist sentiment, fake news and an endless cycle of social media memes.

But everything that Australia wants to do as a country – and I mean that literally – will depend to some degree on our capacity to understand the world outside our borders, to respond effectively to it and to shape it in ways that advance our interests and support our values.

Our role – the Institute’s, mine and yours – has never been more important.


Allan Gyngell AO FAIIA is National President of the Australian Institute of International Affairs and an Honorary Professor at the Australian National University.

“Fear of Abandonment: Australia in the World Since 1942” is published by La Trobe University Press.
Tags: asia, allan gyngell, australia, aiia, australian institute of international affairs

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