MEANJIN QUARTERLY June 1973
A NEW FOREIGN POLICY FOR AUSTRALIA?
BERNARD FALL, the Indochina specialist, was once asked what he thought about Australia's
intervention in Vietnam. He replied sharply that he had about as much interest in
it as he had in studying why Bulgaria approved Soviet intervention in East Europe.
It was an apt parallel. But not for the reasons that Fall had in mind. Like many
others, he assumed that Canberra had intervened because a great and powerful friend
had told it to intervene. In fact, Australia at the time was behaving very independently.
So, too, was Bulgaria. Precisely because they were smaller and even more conservatively
governed than their powerful friends they were even more fearful of any change in
the political status quo among their neighbours. If anything, they had taken the
lead in urging intervention to prevent the change.
The full story of Bulgaria's Me in encouraging, if not provoking, Soviet intervent-
ion in Czechoslovakia has been described in a recent book, Insight into Communism,
by Gomulka's former German interpreter, Erwin Weit. Weit, who now lives in the United
Kingdom, confirms what others have in the past suggested-that the Soviet leaders
were divided on the pros and cons of intervention. It was the insistence of Bulgaria
and East Germany, both alarmed over the 'domino' effect of a liberal régime
in a near neighbour, which finally swung the balance, he says. Their promise of a
token troop contribution to the intervention was the final push the Soviets needed.
Canberra played a very similar rôle over Indochina. It was as concerned over
the corrosive effects of a communist victory there as the Bulgarians were over Dubcheck's
rise to power. It sought to exert all the influence it had to persuade its U.S. ally
to guarantee an anti-communist victory. Its promise to send troops was part of that
process. Far from acting out of blind subservience or loyalty to the Americans, Canberra
has long had its own highly independent view of the world. (Admittedly this was influenced
by reliance on the U.S. for information). After 1960, the main element in this view
was an alarmist interpretation of China and Chinese communism, more alarmist even
than that of the United States. Canberra saw a communist victory in Indochina as
a major setback for Australia's security interest. The only way to pro-tect that
interest was to bring about a large, and more important, a continuing U.S.military
presence in Indochina. The sending of Australian troops was seen as the vital catalyst
ensuring such a presence.
Louis Kahan = The Crisis I Loyalty A Study of Australian Foreign Policy. By Bruce
Grant (Sydney, 1972); pp. xv + 107; $3.25
Far from Australia being forced into Vietnam by a toughminded United States, the
situation was if anything the reverse. Canberra was highly sceptical about U.S. staying-power
in Indochina: Eisenhower's famous warning against committing U.S. landforces to the
Asian mainland had long been anxiously noted in Canberra. There is evidence that
Canberra made it clear to Washington at the time that it had doubts about U.S. resolution.
There is also evidence that it sought, and got, guarantees from the Americans that
they 'would see the thing through to the end'.*
True, unlike Moscow with its hesitation over Czechoslovakia, Washington had al-ready
decided on intervention and was very keen to recruit Australia as a partner.But that
does not invalidate my comparison. Canberra realized the U.S. keenness, andskilfully
exploited it to make sure it was translated into something closer to Australianinterests.
Canberra was also glad to create the impression that troops had been sentin response
to the dictates of the U.S. alliance-an image highly popular, with theAustralian
electorate at the time. But the actual decision to intervene, like so manybeing made
in Canberra at that time, was based on a cold, hard and independentcalculation of
what was conceived as the Australian national interest.
Most critics of Canberra's previous foreign policy have tended to confuse subservience
with a sense of security dependence. Canberra has long felt the latter, first to-wards
the United Kingdom and now towards the United States. But far from en-couraging subservience,
this has made Canberra even more sensitive in its, relationswith Washington than
it would otherwise be. (It is possible the same sense of touchydependency has provoked
Canberra into its new tough-line economic attitude toJapan). We now know that Canberra
had little hesitation telling the Americans theycould not send nuclear submarines
to Australian ports. Canberra politely and firmlyrejected U.S. requests in the 'sixties
to restrict or stop trade with China. None of thisties in with the image of a loyal
or subservient Canberra. If it gladly accepted U.S.bases or investment this was for
the very practical, reason that, it tied the U.S. to Australia's security. Canberra
was not ignoring Australia's independent interests, asmany claim. On the contrary,
it was engaged in a subtle and skiIful diplomacy de-signed to protect what it saw
these interests to be. Its assumptions about thethreats to those interests may have
been wrong, horribly wrong. But the execution ofthe policy based on those assumptions
The failure to realize the tough anti-communism and independence of Australia'spre-December
'1972 foreign policy has badly undermined attempts by the critics to rewrite that
policy. Believing that the key to our policies has been slavish obedience to the
U.S., they have concentrated on endless analysis of such trimmings as ANZUSand SEATO
to prove we do not have to be so obedient. They have urged regionalalliances in Asia
as an alternative prop. Leadership in the U.N., or in aid-giving, isput forward as
something positive-a 'rôle'-which we can perform to free us fromour believed
subservience to Washington.
*See Hanno Weisbrod, 'Australia's Near Involvement in Laos: 1959-62', Australian
vol. 43, no. 4, December 1971. Weisbrod has also shown convincingly that Australia
was pre-pared to go into Laos during the 1959-62 crisis for reasons very similar
to those I have justmentioned for Vietnam. Right through the 'sixties Australia was
actively cooperating with-theU.S. in military activities throughout the Thailand-Indochina
area on a scale still undisclosedand to an extent far beyond what the U.S. could
hope or expect from a subservient ally.
For the tough-minded men in Canberra this was just so much hot air. So far asthey
were concerned, they were already independent. Asian regional alliances were never
going to stop the China menace. If they kept the Asians happy that was fine,but that
was all. Concern over our racist image, our aid policies, or our U.N. showingall
faded into insignificance in comparison with what they saw as the urgent and all-important
task of finding allies to keep China and the Asian communist menace atbay. The defeat
of the communist enemy was a more than adequate justification forAustralian policies.
This misunderstanding of previous Australian foreign policy has had a remarkableby-product.
Australia, to all intents and purposes, has been to war with a nationcalled Vietnam.
The fact that we had some anti-communist Vietnamese on our sideis no more relevant
than the fact that Japan had the Wang Ching-wei government onits side during its
China war. Normally, if a nation goes to war it is a very seriousstep. If it loses
the war it is even more serious. Every statement, every policy decis-ion, leading
to the war decision is scrutinized, analysed and debated. If the claimedreasons for
the war are later judged to be invalid, the wrath of history, and often ofthe nation,
descends on the policymakers responsible. In the case of Australia, I amsure that
not one of the men involved with the 1964 intervention decision would dareto repeat
the two major reasons given at the time for our act of war-that Hanoi wasa puppet
of China and that the Vietnam war was part of China's southward thrust.Yet few Australians
today even appreciate there was a war, let alone remember thereason for it. They
prefer to dismiss it as something the Americans got us involved in,and then only
marginally. Far from being scrutinized, most of the 1964 policymakers are still happily
making policy under the new government.
JUST HOW DEEPLY this thinking is embedded is shown in Bruce Grant's book The Crisis
of Loyalty, on past and future Australian foreign policy. He has in the past taken
a progressive position on Vietnam and China. Yet in 104 pages of closely-packed analysis
he spends only one page on Vietnam. Laos is barely mentioned.China is important per
se, but he does little to probe or analyse the anti-China state-ments coming out
of Canberra in the mid-1960s. Like very many others, he seemsto assume that the anti-China
hysteria of the 'sixties was simply part of Canberra's
domestic propaganda campaign to discredit the Labor Party. His crisis of loyalty,
Ihad hoped, would be the realization of need for the individual in effect to rebelagainst
the state when it undertakes something as criminally wrong as the Vietnam intervention.
Instead, it is simply the post-Vietnam need to end our dependence on 'great and powerful
Any analysis of past mistakes and prescriptions for the future must begin with
the psychology that allowed this 'China threat' mentality to take root.
I can only speak from my experience as a junior diplomat at the time, but I am convinced
that the politicians-from Menzies through to Barwick, Hasluck, and Gorton-and the
senior bureaucrats, believed every anti-China word they were saying. More, they were
convinced that they were performing a great public service in awakening the world
to the Chinese menace. As they saw it, they would go down in history as latter-day
Churchills who had fought to counter the pro-China appeasers. I wonder what they
say to themselves today as Kissinger flits in and out of Peking.
A major reason for this complete misassessment of China and its role in Indochina
was, simply, the failure of people used to democracy to understand the nature of,
and sometimes the need for, revolution in non-democracies. If the Americans could
ignore their own revolutionary history to the point where words like revolution and
national liberation could become pejoratively evil, is it surprising that Australians
with nothing more violent than the Eureka stockade in their past should make the
same mistake? We are educated to identify the nation with the government. In the
minds of many intelligent Australians if the government of (say) Laos fell, then
An earlier generation of Americans saw the 1949 defeat of Chiang Kai-shek as the
'loss' of China. Conversely, the insurgents who had resorted to force to overthrow
the government were almost by definition evil, particularly if some of their arms
or moral support came from outside. It didn't matter if the people in power were
simply a corrupt, non-democratic clique of generals supported and sometimes installed
by the U.S. They were 'the government' and had to be respected as such. It did not
matter if the insurgents did in fact represent the national will more closely than
the men in power and had been forced to use arms simply to avoid physical liquidation.
They had committed the cardinal sin of using force against the 'legitimate government'.
It did not matter if the insurgents needed outside help simply to counter the U.S.supplied
overwhelming military superiority of the government. In our Anglo-Saxon parliamentary
tradition, only governments are entitled to have relations with and obtain arms from
outside powers. The conclusion was obvious-we were obliged to intervene to protect
the government from the guerillas and terrorists trying to over- i throw it by force.
Contributing to this gross collapse of intellect were several other factors. One,
of course, was the racism that Bruce Grant analyses so well as a component in the
Australian outlook. Oriental guerillas and terrorists are even more likely to arouse
dislike than the white-skinned variety. But racism is not the only factor. The racists,
or rather the thinking racists, could also be anti-interventionist. They did not
want to waste good Australian boys fighting on behalf of some wog Asian government.
Let the Asians kill each other, trey said, while Australia concentrated on building
up enough strength to keep the lot of them away from its shores-Fortress Australia.
No, in many ways a far more potent force for intervention were the anti-racist,
Casey 'Friends and Neighbours' liberals who, like their U.S. 'Kennedy liberal' equivalents,
were inspired by that blend of Anglo-Saxon paternalism and mistransposed postwar,
anti-Stalinist anti-communism which has done so much damage elsewhere in Asia. 'Internationalism'
was their catch-phrase in the U.S.: for the Australians it was 'regionalism'. As
they saw it, we had an international obligation to do the right and decent thing
by those nice friendly Asians to whom we had given so much aid and whom we worked
so hard to cultivate and who were now being threatened by Moscow's (later read Peking's)
agents. To oppose such altruism could only be dangerous 'isolationism'. There was
little recognition that Asia of the 1960s might differ from Europe of the 'thirties,
that many who opposed intervention had reached their view through much deeper study
and understanding of Asia than the 'internationalists'.
Underlying this paternalism was the all-crucial cultural and linguistic gap as white
Anglo-Saxons tried to understand the complexity of Asia. A man who does not speak
the language of the Asian countries he is supposed to be involved with is naturally
going to be influenced more by the English- (or French-) speaking sophisticated Asian
he meets in government offices, diplomatic cocktail parties, and Western universities
than he will by the jungle insurgent or dissident intellectual hiding to avoid imprisonment.
The concerned Anglo-Saxon who could understand the tragedy of the Spanish civil war
or the complexity of the Greek civil war, failed completely to understand the Vietnamese
civil war, or even that there was a civil war. Canberra's completely erroneous judgments
on Indochinese events were made without having a single diplomat who could speak
any Indochinese language.
Finally, and superimposed on all these biases, was the fashionable intellectual belief
that foreign policy nowadays has to do with the realities of power. Concern over
morality or feelings is regarded as woolly and soft-headed. We deal with governments
because they are governments. That is where the power lies, and it is not our concern
if they use this power immorally. Opposition movements, no matter what their motivations,
are irrelevant since they lack power.
This same spurious real-politik helped greatly to sustain the Vietnam adventure long
after it was clear that it involved the killing of millions.* I say spurious lecause
killing, like all immorality, is effective only if the man you harm has no friends
and you are able to keep the immorality secret-conditions not met in Vietnam. The
Russians may have thought it smart real-politik to kill 50,000 Polish officers in
the Katyn Forest. But it was this incident more than most others that sustained the
postwar Western anti-communism and the policies of the Cold War. That was hardly
a big plus for the Soviet national interest. Western brutality in Vietnam aroused
the forces that guaranteed an ignominious defeat. That, too, was hardly a big plus
for Western interests, as they were then seen. Indeed, it was such a large minus
that it has forced the complete rewriting of the previous Western confrontation strategy
'For an Australian example see Communism in Asia: A Threat to Australia?' (Sydney,
1967) in particular the contribution by Owen Harries.
GIVEN THAT THESE FACTORS he embedded in the Australian outlook, is there any real
possibility of creating a new and better foreign policy? Bruce Grant calls for new
nonCold War regional alliances to protect the Asian 'stability'. He also wants us
to consult, and perhaps cooperate with Indonesia on security and Southeast Asian
stability. He approves a limited military commitment to Singapore/Malaysia.
But what is 'stability' if it is not simply the freezing of the largely non-democratic
status quo in Asia from revolutionary change? Is this what he feels we should work
to support in Asia? The argument may not be entirely invalid, but it needs to be
spelt out in all its unlovely detail. And what is 'security' supposed to be? Grant
does not identify any external threat to Indonesia, or Singapore/ Malaysia. We must
assume he is using the word in the same sense as the governments of these countries
use itthat they want to be able to call on outside help if they cannot cope with
the effort of suppressing domestic insurgents. Is that really the sort of thing a
progressive Australia should be doing in Asia?
Bruce Grant also wants to see us take the lead in giving more and better aid to Asia
in 'adapting aid to the scientific resources of the recipient country, rather than
to the pattern of technology in the donor country'. But before we get too paternalistic,
let's remember that one of those backward Asian nations was able to mobilize the
technological skills to defeat the world's largest military power. They built a road
through some of the worst terrain in Asia and maintained it under constant U.S. bombardment.
Could the 'advanced' Australians have done the same?
The moral should be clear. If and when Asians want to develop economically they will
be able to do it quite effectively by themselves, thank you. The Japanese have done
if; the Singaporeans and Taiwanese are finally getting around to doing it today.
Outsiders can help with technical and financial assistance, but it is probably best
for all concerned if it is provided on commercial terms. Otherwise it tends to feed
the indolence of those still not motivated for development, the corruption of the
corrupt, and the paternalism of the Australians.
But Bruce Grant's main point is the hard real -politik that we should keep our alliance
with the United States, while moving to a more independent relationship. (What he
should be urging, in terms of what I said earlier, is a relationship to the left
to replace the previous relationship to the right of Washington.) But why do we have
to think in terms of 'alliance' at all? We can, and should, admire the Americans
as an energetic and vital nation. We should also recognize that if we are attacked
again by any large Asian power we may have to rely again on the Americans for defence
support. But why identify with the government that happens to be ruling them at any
particular moment? We will get defence support only if it is in the United States'
interest to give support. Formal alliance would influence their judgment only marginally.
If the existence of the alliance persuades anti-U.S. Asian powers to attack us, then
we end up with a clear loss.
If we really want to show our respect for the American people, then we should be
free to oppose strongly any action by any U.S. government which we believe is mis
taken. The noblest and wisest thing Sweden has ever done for Australia was the re-
fusal to sell arms to Canberra during the Vietnam War. Could that have been done
in the framework of a formal alliance? -
IF ALL THIS sounds like an appeal for a more moral approach to foreign policy then
that is probably what I intend. But it is not incompatible with dispassionate real
politik. Australian foreign policy should be based on the recognition that we have
to deal with a large number and variety of governments, many of which are corrupt
or incompetent or authoritarian to a greater or lesser extent. It should try to have
relations with all of them, even with racist governments like Rhodesia.* If they
control large and powerful nations we should be particularly courteous and attentive.
But we should not become committed to defending their 'security' from domestic opponents.
Similarly, we should not make any commitments or adopt positions which appear to
favour any government, communist, anti-communist or neutral, relative to its domestic
opposition. On the contrary, we should try to study, to show interest in and to talk
to the opposition, be it pro-communist or anti-communist.
This, after all, is the principle accepted in diplomatic relations between democracies.
Any government which ignored Mr Whitlam before he came to power deserves to pay a
heavy price today. The principle should apply with even more force to nondemocracies,
whether communist or anti-communist; if a government is non-democratic this is a
sign it may believe its opponents are more representative. We should never, repeat
never, confuse governments with nations. We may decide we like and admire certain
peoples, such as the Indonesians. But if the Indonesian government, whether communist
or anti-communist, holds power by killing or suppressing its opposition, it is not
one we should welcome to our bosom. Not while we call ourselves a democracy, anyway.
Or to translate it to specific real-politik, it is just possible the people they
suppress today in Indonesia will one day be running that country. If in the past
we have cooperated with their oppressors we can hardly expect them to go out of their
way to be nice to our interests.
Finally, we should avoid suggestions that we have a role to play in the world. Too
often this becomes the thin edge of the intervention wedge. Would we like it if the
Chinese and Indonesians felt they had to play a role in Australia?'
All this should not mean that in our effort to avoid enemies we also avoid friends.
But if we feel a need for friendly companionship we should look mainly to governments
which share the democratic and progressive values we should consider important. The
Scandinavians, and perhaps the Japanese and Indians, would be a good start.
*The argument against the former government's intervention in Vietnam was, or should
have been, that in a democracy no government has the right to force its citizens
to cooperate in a course of action undertaken for ideological, as distinct to national
security, reasons. It is recognized that governments should not force people to act
contrary to religious belief; if a man's reason rather than his religion tells him
it is wrong to kill Vietnamese then it should also be respected. By the same token,
a leftwing government should not mobilize the power of the state to pursue its progressive
ideological goals, no matter how convinced it is of their correctness.