Tuesday 24 May 2022 | 01:01 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 24 May 2022 | 01:01 | SYDNEY

1942 was simple compared to this


Michael Wesley


9 August 2011 13:36

Of all the reasons I had for writing There Goes the Neighbourhood, giving offense to Australia's former and serving diplomats was not one of them. Yet something about the book has caused Geoff Miller to take such personal and collective umbrage as to drag him into a reading of its arguments that seems tendentious at best.

Prime Minister John Curtin with General Douglas MacArthur, Parliament House, Canberra, 26 March 1942. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Geoff accuses me of dismissing the advice of Australia's diplomats on our foreign policy. At no point in the book do I do that. When I wrote (on p.173) that our foreign policy challenges can't be 'left to the diplomats' I was responding to the quotation on p.138 from Hugh McKay, who argued that, in their comfortable complacency, 'Australians are ready to leave...international relations to the diplomats.'

I go on to suggest that 'diplomats may make the wrong choices' — not that they will make them. My argument is that Australia's international relations now extend far beyond the narrow foreign policy agenda managed by our Foreign Affairs department, and that their management therefore must draw in the interests and input of other parts of government and the Australian community.

I quite deliberately use the term 'policy makers' when I level the charge of a lack of ambition at Australian's foreign policy — precisely in order to include both appointed and elected officials. I'm therefore a bit mystified why Geoff would read my book as an attack on diplomats, or see the need to remind me that foreign policy issues are the subject of Cabinet deliberations and decisions.

I'm also dubious about the list of Australian foreign policy highlights in Asia that Geoff marshals to question my accusation of a lack of ambition in Asia. I grant that policy on Japan was an exception, but Barwick's diplomacy with Indonesia on West Irian? Whitlam on East Timor? The perception that Howard had been dragged kicking and screaming into signing the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation? It would be hard to think of a more evocative list of own goals in the broader context of Australia's relations with Asia.

But beyond this, even with the other cases Geoff lists — policy on Japan, the Cambodia initiative, the Colombo Plan — is he really suggesting that any of these initiatives ranked close to the US alliance or Australia's multilateral initiatives in the list of Australian foreign policy priorities at the time? My deeper argument about Australia's management of its relations with Asian countries is that one can see very little evidence of a clear strategic vision of Australia's preferences for order in the region that animate and unite our Asian diplomacy.

Geoff joins other critics in taking aim at my argument that the coming Asian power dynamic will bring us closer than ever before to the designs of competing great powers by raising the spectre of 1942. I'm afraid I stand by my call on this. Japan in 1942 was the third largest economy in Asia and the seventh largest in the world. Its thrust through Southeast Asia had over-extended its armed forces and it was widely admitted within the Japanese military leadership that it could not long hold what it had taken, let alone advance much further.

This can hardly rate with the future challenges I sketch out in There Goes the Neighbourhood, when four of the great powers in direct competition in the Indo-Pacific will be the four largest economies in the world; two of them with billion plus populations; all with a deep and abiding interest in energy flows and the strategic balance. This is a challenge that will last decades, not months, and be so much more fraught and complex than that we faced in 1942.