Friday 14 May 2021 | 08:03 | SYDNEY
Friday 14 May 2021 | 08:03 | SYDNEY

The Howard Government foreign policy legacy


Sam Roggeveen


20 November 2007 15:54

The Interpreter recently surveyed 26 Australian experts in the media, academia, business and think tanks on the highlights and lowlights of the Howard Government's foreign policy (participants are listed below - each person nominated a top three, four or five issues/events). In this and a following post I will present the results of that survey and some great quotes from survey participants.

Let's start with the lowlights:

The domination of the Iraq War in this result is surprising. It is an obvious candidate for a survey of Bush Administration lowlights, but Australia? In strictly realist terms, you could argue the war has done Australia little harm. We got a lot of American gratitude out of it and some tangible intelligence, military and trade benefits. And at what cost? We sent a very small force and have suffered minimal casualties. Perhaps our experts took a moral stand rather than a realist one.

Also notable: only one person nominated the Australian Wheat Board scandal among the lowlights.

Here are some choice quotes from our survey participants:


The possibility of a concerted Howard-Blair effort to talk sense to Bush in the lead-up to the Iraq invasion will remain one of early 21st-century history's great counterfactuals.

Lowlight: the complete neglect of relations with the Pacific region, downplaying long-term development goals and assistance culminating in a series of expensive, misconceived interventions and the souring of relations with almost all countries in our immediate neighbourhood.

A notable contrast in perceptions of Australia: the Sydney Olympics showed us as confident, warm and open. Tampa (and perhaps the fence around Sydney APEC too) showed us as a callow country, fearful and ungenerous.

In making the argument to join the US-led coalition, Howard showed himself to be a captive of the Munich myth, the very myth which has dominated the West's thinking about international affairs since the 1950s. But he could not make the case that Saddam represented a clear and present danger. Thus Howard, instead of wanting to show that he understood a new era in international affairs post 9/11, simply relied on the old orthodoxies. There was no distinctively Australian touch to his arguments for going to war in Iraq, save for a highly dubious reading of the ANZUS alliance.


The sad fact is that many in Asia still believe that the legacy of White Australia influences our approach to the region. This is complete nonsense of course — and Hanson was not arguing for a return to a racially discriminatory immigration policy — but the perception that Hanson was, and that Howard lay doggo for so long about it, only reinforced enduring Asian suspicions of Australia.

The AWB scandal showed incompetent oversight by Ministers, DFAT and WEA, and was a betrayal of the ADF, which was enforcing UN sanctions.

Lowlight: Our leading role in precipitating East Timor's premature move to independence, starting with Howard's letter to Habibie in December 1998.

The Tampa response revived the spectre of a racist immigration policy in some quarters and overshadowed the government's underlying shift towards a more engaged approach in Asia after early uncertainty.

Survey participants: Alan Gyngell, Anthony Bubalo, Neil James, William Bowtell, William Tow, Daniel Flitton, David Bidmead, Gary Smith, Greg Earl, Hugh White, Hugh Funder, James Cotton, James Curran, Malcolm Cook, Mark O'Neill, Mark Thirlwell, Martine Letts, Michael Fullilove, Michael Wesley, Milton Osborne, Nick Bisley, Peter Abigail, Rory Medcalf, Trevor Rowe, Stuart Harris, Richard Woolcott.