The Development of Australian Foreign Policy

It only been these past few decades that Australia has begun to pursue a relatively independent foreign policy, from under the shadows Britain and the US.  Australia's unique historical circumstances have led to the development of a certain set of attitudes and characteristics that underlie its foreign relation's behaviour.  Among other characteristics there has been a dependency syndrome, first with Britain, and then with the US, an acute sense of geographic isolation from the European cultural hearthlands and a corresponding sense of threat from Asia, and an attempt to identify and project an Australian identity to the outside world.

Australia's early history was dominated by British outlooks and interests, reflecting the immigrant population that was overwhelmingly of British stock.  Australia was a mere home away from home, a far-flung outpost of the Empire.  The hearts and minds of most Australians were rooted in the pastoral English countryside, even for those who had never set foot in Europe.  In virtually every realm of life - social, political, cultural - Australians looked to London for guidance and support.

Underlying the cocksuredness and feigned rugged independence was a deep insecurity arising mainly from Australia's geographical isolation from the hearthland.  Australia's earliest settlers felt this isolation most profoundly, as communications with the Mother Country were extremely slow; a letter from 'home' would take many months to arrive.

Australia in relation to Britain was not only antipodean in the geographical sense.  From nearly every perspective there existed enormous contrast with the home country.  Environmentally much of Australia appeared hostile and unforgiving; dry, strangely scented Eucalypts, exotic fauna, and the searing light of the Australian sun.  Culturally, in terms of the general region, Australia confronted the orient, and in fact was part - geographically at least - of the oriental 'other' world.  Australia's population was sparse by comparison to the rest of the world, and especially with those densely populated and potentially hostile territories of the 'Near North'.  Within Australia itself, there is a sense of wide-open space that further adds to the feelings of isolation and aloneness.

With the exception of New Zealand, Australia clung more tightly to Mother England than any other part of the empire.  So it should be no real surprise that Australia's relations with the outside world were for a very long period of its history mediated in a very direct sense through London.  It was only in the very early 1970's that Australian cinemas stopped playing 'God Save the Queen' before the movie began, when all the audience would obediently stand and sing along, save for those very few ratbag proto-republicans who remained seated.[1] Loyalty to England permeated Australian society, and whilst from the outside such loyalty may have been viewed as bizarre, from within it seemed completely normal and everyday.

Whilst the other British colonial dominions shed their foreign policy dependence on Britain many decades ago,[2] Australia (and New Zealand) lingered, reluctant to let go of Mother England's increasingly tattered apron strings, seemingly terrified of being left alone or abandoned.  The British parliament conceded full foreign policy independence to the dominions in the 1931 Statute of Westminster, however complementary legislation to bring the Statute into force was not enacted in Australia until 1942, and even then Australian governments continued to stress the ties of dependence rather than independence.[3] The efforts to engage and maintain the attention of Britain in the region go back to the earliest times in Australian history.  As early as the late 1800's New South Wales provided support to British forces in the Sudan (1885), and later Australian colonies joined in supporting the British in South Africa (Boer War) in 1899-1902, and in China (Boxer Rebellion) in 1899-1900.

Later, in 1914, hundreds of thousands of Australians would patriotically and enthusiastically volunteer to defend the British Empire[4] fighting for King and Country under the Union Jack.  Such seeming puerile and unquestioning support for the Empire had a practical underlying rationale: it constituted down-payment on the 'insurance policy' which, it was thought, would keep Britain engaged in the Australian region should Australia require assistance in the event of conflict in the future.  Unfortunately, the only time in history that Australia needed to call on this insurance policy was in 1942, and with Britain pre-occupied with her own fight for survival Australia was, for most practical purposes, abandoned.  A near half-century of foreign policy subordination to Britain had apparently not paid off, despite considerable sacrifice by Australia in terms of both money and men in aid of the Empire, in particular during the First World War.  Australia's worst nightmare seemed about to be realised; that of the oriental hordes descending from the north to overrun the nation.

In fact, the first tentative steps towards some form of foreign policy independence began in 1937 with the re-establishment of the Office of External Affairs, after a break of some decades.  The process was continued with the establishment of foreign missions in Tokyo, Washington and Ottawa in 1940.  However, as an indication of how Australia viewed itself in the world, the High Commission in London was not considered a mission to a foreign country.[5] This attitude was emphatically underlined by the presence of the then Australian Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, in London in 1941 for an extraordinary period of four months, whilst Australia confronted the most dangerous threat in its history.  Feted by the British press, and adored by sections of British society, there even emerged the bizarre proposition that Menzies would transfer his career to Westminster, and even more bizarrely, become the Prime Minister of Britain.[6] The humiliating fall of Singapore to the Japanese in 1942 marked the beginning of a slow awakening in Australian society.  Britain had blinked, and Australia was now isolated and needing a new great and powerful friend.  In December 1941 the new Labor Prime Minister, John Curtin appealed to the USA for military assistance, marking a turning point in which Australia's foreign policy shifted from its reliance on Britain as its protector, to dependence on the US.[7] The US was the only power with the resources to turn back the Japanese in the Pacific, and a coincidence of overlapping interests in the Pacific after the bombing of Pearl Harbour ensured US involvement and protection for Australia.[8] The US had literally 'saved' Australia, and Australia now had to show gratitude.

Australia now had to steer a course between its old traditional British Imperial linkages, and its new and seemingly more promising alliance with the US.  For many years before the Second World War, Britain had in fact been in economic decline having barely recovered from the disaster of the First World War.  Since the beginning of the 20th century the USA, Germany and Japan had developed significant industrial capacities and competed with Britain for world market share.  For a long time the Imperial system protected Britain from this competition through a system of trade preferences amongst the colonies and dominions of the Empire.  The gradual decline of Britain as a world power, and the emergence of the USA, and later Japan, as major world economic and/or military powers, forced Australia to re-orientate its foreign policy thinking.

The period just after the war was a time of intense foreign relations activity for Australia, due mainly to the efforts of the then Foreign Minister Dr HV Evatt.  Whilst simultaneously pledging his loyalty to Britain, the Empire and to the Western Alliance, Evatt was frequently abrasive in his criticism of the UK and the US on many important issues.  For the probably the first time Australia was seen to project itself as a sovereign power, and Evatt was responsible for lifting the profile of Australia onto the world stage, in particular through the United Nations.  The principal tenant of Evatt's foreign policy was that 'Australia's voice must be heard.'[9]

By the end of the 1940's the conservatives led by Menzies returned to office, and the deepening Cold War pulled Australia even closer into the US-led Western Alliance.  The familiar pattern of unquestioning Australian foreign policy support to its protector continued, but now the protector had changed.  Australia was now paying most of its premiums to the US.  Adventures in Korea and Vietnam in particular were undertaken as payments in gratitude for the US saving Australia during the Pacific War, and also as down-payments on possible future calls on US military protection.  By the mid-60's Prime Minister Holt was 'all the way with LBJ',[10] replacing the saccharine sycophancy of his anglophile predecessor.

Australia attempted to attract and maintain UK interest in the region, but the Second World War had seriously weakened British power in the world, a fact not openly acknowledged in Australia at the time.  By the end of the 1960's Britain had relinquished nearly all its colonies in Asia, and, more devastating in terms of its clear impact on Australia and Australians, had joined the European Common Market.  Australians were now considered 'foreigners' in Britain, and Australian commodity exports to Britain were seriously affected.  Australia was being forcibly cut loose by Mother England, and in the main Australians were probably psychologically unprepared for this.

The end of the conservative era in Australia in 1972 signalled the beginning of a transition to a more questioning Australian foreign policy approach.  The incoming Whitlam government moved quickly to shake some of the cobwebs out of the foreign policy establishment.  Remaining Australian troops were immediately pulled out of Vietnam and 'Red China' was recognised diplomatically.  Despite a more 'radical' leftist rhetoric, the Whitlam government remained completely committed to the American alliance, and differences in foreign policy with their conservative opponents were ultimately more of style than of substance.[11] The Whitlam government merely accelerated the pace of change within Australia's foreign policy, change that the moribund conservative governments of the late 60's and early 70's were politically unable to make.  The conservative government that followed after Whitlam continued on with this more independent foreign policy style, 'adopting many which conservatives had criticised when they had been advocated by the Whitlam government.'[12]

The Hawke-Keating period of government (1983-1996) saw the further development of a multilateralist approach in Australia's foreign policy, and an activist role for Australian foreign ministers, firstly under Bill Hayden, and then under Gareth Evans.[13] Great political and economic changes occurred in the international system during this period, in particular, the rise of Japan as a rival to the US in the economic realm, the emergence of East Asia as a world economic powerhouse, and the demise of the Soviet Union and subsequent ending of the Cold War.  The bipolar paradigm of the Cold War had collapsed, and the US emerged as the world's sole superpower.

Although the Australia-US alliance remained important to Australia, a new foreign policy approach was needed.  Before Evans, the interpretation of Australian foreign policy was through the lens of dependency upon the US, mainly through the central institution of the ANZUS alliance.[14]

From the mid-80's Australian foreign policy emphasis increasingly shifted to multilateralism and coalition-building within international relations, and collective security within a regionalist setting.[15] Australia identified itself as a 'middle power' capable of acting as an honest broker on the international stage.  Australia began to more view itself as one of a group of states with liberal-democratic traditions which could act in concert to influence the larger powers, recognising the limits of a 'middle-power' state acting unilaterally.[16]

Nevertheless, the familiar pattern of reliance upon a great protector remains.  For all the rhetoric of 'closer engagement with Asia',[17] the US remains the central factor in the actual execution of Australian foreign policy.  For all the treaties with the countries of Southeast Asia, most Australians would know that should Australia call for assistance in time of need, such assistance will not come from within the region, at least certainly not in any active form.  Australia's 'Near North' will remain an area of instability for some decades to come, and the source of most security threats to Australia.  Despite Australia's high profile in the UN, this organisation is slow to react and politically unreliable.  Thus, despite seemingly radical changes in policy stances Australia will probably continue paying its political dues to the US in order to secure US military backing in times of threat.


[1] Like me, for instance.
[2] John Fitzpatrick (1997) 'European settler colonialism and national security ideologies in Australian history' in R Leaver and D Cox (eds), Middling, Meddling, Muddling: Issues in Australian foreign policy, Allen and Unwin, St Leonards: pp 100
[3] Fitzpatrick (1997) pp 100
[4] Notwithstanding later signs of equivocation in some parts of the Australian community, and forced conscription that caused bitter splits in society and within the ALP in particular.
[5] Peter Edwards (1997) 'History and foreign policy' in FA Mediansky (ed), Australian Foreign Policy: The New Millenium, McMillan, South Melbourne: pp 5
[6] Fitzpatrick (1997): pp101
[7] Gary Smith el al (1996), Australia in the World: An introduction to Australian Foreign Policy, Oxford University Press, Melbourne: pp 101
[8] Smith (1996): pp 101
[9] Edwards, PG (1981) 'Historical Reconsiderations II: on assessing HV Evatt', Historical Studies, vol 21:83, October 1981: pp 45
[10] Richard Leaver (1997) 'Patterns of dependence in post-war Australian foreign policy' in R Leaver and D Cox (eds), Middling, Meddling, Muddling: Issues in Australian foreign policy, Allen and Unwin, St Leonards: pp 72
[11] Edwards (1997): pp 10
[12] Edwards (1997): pp 10
[13] Smith (1996): pp 108
[14] Leaver (1997): pp 72
[15] Leaver (1997): pp 89
[16] Smith (1996): pp 111-113
[17] Dept of Foreign Affairs and Trade (1997) In the National Interest: Australia's Foreign and Trade Policy White Paper, Parliamentary and Media Branch, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Barton: paragraph #8