For constrained democratic leaders, foreign policy is another country
Foreign policy is the last refuge of the strong leader. While those who differ too much or dream too big in the domestic sphere are quickly branded ‘out of touch’, the external affairs of a nation remain a welcoming hearth for ‘leaders’. The impact of leaders and public perceptions is at the heart of two recent books on Australian foreign policy: James Curran’s Unholy Fury and Ken Ward’s Condemned to Crisis. Their insights are here filtered through a recent work by British scholar Archie Brown, The Myth of the Strong Leader.
Together these books suggest a need to rein in foreign-policy leaders and subject their decisions to greater democratic scrutiny. It’s most vital this happens through cabinet and parliamentary processes, yet also with a greater sensitivity to domestic opinion and the significant influence it maintains on the way Australia engages with the world. Leadership still matters, but it matters most when it occurs through and with the democratic structures of our society, not as some act of lone genius pointing the way and dragging the nation on its back to get there.
Curran and Ward look at two of Australia’s most important relationships: with the United States and Indonesia. Curran is a star academic historian who seeks to shine a light on a nearly forgotten spat. In doing so he helps reveal the internal dynamics of the half-century-long affair between Canberra and Washington. By contrast, Ward, a retired analyst from the Office of National Assessments, has set out to temper enthusiasm for the prospects of the geographically arranged marriage between Australia and Indonesia.
Arguably no other diplomatic relationships are more important to Australia’s long-term security and economic needs, yet there is a strange dichotomy in how we talk about these two countries. Each state has its own lobby that seeks the closer ties they regard as both natural and inevitable. But at the same time, these groups assert leadership is absolutely vital to the relationship—whether to cement the bond, in the case of Indonesia, or to preserve it, in the case of the United states. Australia’s path is thus argued to be simultaneously unbreakable and inherently fragile.
Combine these attitudes with the general deference we have towards leaders in the foreign-policy sphere and the scope for influence is vast. If a prime minister is seeking to improve either of these relationships, we are told not to complain should they bend national principles to their breaking point. If strengthening these ties requires ignoring or subverting popular will, then so be it. This is just the price we must pay for a vital foreign tie.
Reading Curran and Ward, you realise just how absurd this notion of an unshackled, visionary leader really is. Prime ministers are just as subject to the waves and whimsy of public opinion in foreign affairs as they are in the domestic sphere. Those leaders who try alone to move their society this way or that often risk the whole endeavour. This is not to say leadership is not necessary, but rather we need to rethink just what leadership in the external domain really is.
The popular story of the ANZUS treaty is that Menzies, Holt, Gorton and McMahon defied national interest and public will to go ‘all the way’ with our ‘great and powerful friend’. But as Unholy Fury artfully demonstrates, this is both wrong and misses much of the richness of the tale. True, there were real friendships in place. Curran reveals that Robert Menzies and Richard Nixon got on extremely well, while Harold Holt was given the honour of sharing an ‘unceremonious sandwich’ in the Oval Office with Lyndon B. Johnston.1
But it was geopolitics, not personal ties or subservience, that drove these two nations to cooperate. Communism, rightly or wrongly, was seen as a storm that directly threatened Australia and so the public and its leaders looked for help. By the 1960s when this relationship really started to draw attention, it was also the only one of significance that Canberra had left. The British were packing up and leaving Asia, while institutions such as the United Nations and the South-East Asian Treaty Organisation were proving ineffective if not illusory.
Notions of dependency ignore the substantial historical evidence that shows how Australian interests and Australian concerns drove our leaders during this period. Vietnam’s fall to communism was far more significant for Canberra’s security than America’s, which led the former to be a strong champion of the war, not the reluctant participant of historical memory. In supporting this and other causes, Australia’s leaders operated largely in tune with the public.
It was to the misfortune of John Gorton and Billy McMahon that by the time they took office the ground of international geopolitics and domestic opinion had begun to shift. It would continue to do so for the next decade, during which Gough Whitlam would come and go. Personalities would matter during this period but only to the degree they shaped assessments of the United States’ changing position. Where those on the right were indulgent, those on the left were indignant.
Curran’s deep archival research clearly shows that Richard Nixon and Gough Whitlam were two of the most stubborn men ever to occupy their respective national leadership posts. Yet the differences between them as men were not as significant as those between their two countries. One was a tired nation, stretched thin thanks to a global defence of its ideology. The other was an increasingly proud nation keen to stretch its arms. What they had in common was a sense of paranoia. Washington’s fear was that Australia under Whitlam would go feral; that the joint installations would be raided or ripped up, the treaty trashed, and the Soviets emboldened. In Australia Whitlam, his cabinet and large sections of the Australian public feared they were witnessing the end of America’s moral authority; that the liberal vision of the founding fathers had been replaced by an authoritarian hegemon, willing to destroy Asia in order to save it.
The circumstances were ripe for misunderstanding and, wilfully, Nixon and Whitlam did just that. Neither was in a mood to accommodate the other, settling in a freeze on the relationship. This inevitably hurt the smaller partner most. Not because of any direct threat, but because the usual rituals of ‘strong leadership’, namely the stage-managed visit of the Australian prime minister to the president’s abode, could not occur. Whitlam was kept out of the Oval Office for many months, while Australian letters went unanswered.
In time the storm would pass, blown away partly because of fears the divide made both sides look like they were not being properly led. Nixon was drowning under his own mortal sin of Watergate and had to accept he could not continue to punish a once-close ally. Likewise, Whitlam had to swallow his pride and use back-door conduits to get his visit to the president and moment in the Oval Office. The exchange between the two men was neither warm nor productive but it did give the image of strong foreign policy leadership that tradition demanded.
The geopolitics that drove the United States and Australia together in the early 1950s would soon push the two nations back together in the late 1970s. They have been glued tight ever since. This was not a pre-destined path. As Curran shows, the alliance really could have broken in 1973—just as happened to New Zealand’s with the United States in 1985.2 But this moment of tension was not the fault of leadership—neither a lack of it, as ran the right’s charge against Whitlam, or as the first example of it in Australian foreign policy, as the left celebrated of Whitlam.
Archie Brown’s The Myth of the Strong Leader unfortunately doesn’t cover Australian politics. But Brown would be sure to doubt the view—held on the left and right—that Edward Gough Whitlam was a revolutionary leader. At most, Whitlam fits into Brown’s ‘redefining’ figure category. This places him alongside Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson in the United States and Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher in Britain.3 This judgement may seem a slight to Whitlam, but a by-product of Australia’s political and economic success is the lack of need for transformational leaders. Brown’s catalogue of the leaders who truly mattered, such as Mao Zedong, Mikhail Gorbachev and Nelson Mandela, all presided over societies in great turmoil. The public may wish for ‘strong leadership’, and leaders may often imagine themselves in such robes. But it is generally only found in situations of great harm and chaos for public and elites alike.
For the lucky country, such situations have not—yet—emerged and thus our leaders are judged on more prosaic grounds: competently managing the daily challenges while having a publicly acceptable sense of the things that need to be changed and those that must be preserved. Times of great flux put stress on both aspects, and diverging perspectives in societies can easily overwhelm leaders—as both McMahon and Whitlam found. These differences of attitude also matter across societies and it is this factor more than any other that explains why Australia and the United States clashed in the early 1970s. What had been tamped down during the last years of the Coalition government had to erupt at some point.
Today the notion of an eruption of popular concern seems as far as possible from occurring. The Australian people could not be happier with the relationship. ANZUS is far and away the most popular foreign policy of Liberal and Labor governments. Those who are seen to challenge ‘the alliance’ are deemed not fit for office. This, Curran warns, is not a healthy state of affairs. It can lead to absent-minded drift; a lover’s silence that fails to bring into the open potential disruptions. Gaps in perception—such as what Australia would be expected to do in the case of a US–China clash over the East or South China seas—are left unasked and unanswered.
Yet the ground is starting to shift and once more it will not be politicians who decide the future of our ties. Americans may decide they have had enough of Asia in the face of a rising China. Australians may decide they don’t want to choose and so seek the safety of isolation in the South Pacific. Leaders may champion or oppose either course, but the relationship’s path ultimately depends upon the popular will.
That the public may be in charge of foreign policy is the deepest fear of those pushing for closer ties with Indonesia. Not so for Ken Ward, who cautions that any leaders who get too far ahead of public sentiment and national identity in either country will meet with strife.
Ward’s Lowy Penguin paper is something of a strange text. Like others in this series, I suspect he didn’t quite have the space to develop his argument. Instead there are warnings about placing too much faith in the relationship with Indonesia and discussions of that country’s difficult relationships with Malaysia and Singapore. This concludes with rumination on Indonesia’s identity and why it required two Australian drug smugglers to die. Ward is at his best describing the historical grievances and expected future glories that shape the Indonesian world view. A nation—somewhat like China—that has suffered greatly but now presumes a return to greatness is pre-ordained. This can make it a difficult place for a present-oriented society like Australia to engage with.
What Ward’s analysis leaves out is how we might escape this pattern. The book jacket enticingly asks, ‘Will the relationship between Australia and Indonesia always be volatile?’ The text does not provide an answer. Yet no careful reader could come away from his essay and believe—as many on the left still do—that if only we had another leader like Paul Keating the relationship would be set right.
No Australian leader is more closely associated with the Indonesia relationship than Keating. Yet drawing on Archie Brown’s insights, a case can be made that we don’t correctly recognise the way this leadership occurred. Indeed, the man himself seems to contribute to this misunderstanding. While still treasurer, Keating famously declared that Australia had never had a truly great leader. This obviously snubbed then PM Bob Hawke, while also dismissing Labor’s obsession and celebration of its own history. During his time in the Lodge, Keating was determined to prove leadership mattered and Indonesia was a central test case.
This ambition would lead him to bring the two nations closer than they ever had been before, exemplified by the 1995 Australia–Indonesia Security Agreement signed with then president Suharto. Remarkable as this was, it was also a mirage. Keating had the vision, but the decision to go there was never his alone to make. Without acceptance and advocates in the Australian parliament and wider community to continue the effort, the new space for cooperation with Jakarta he had created went unfilled.
When the East Timor crisis in 1999 shook the core of the relationship—the very circumstances in which a security partnership was necessary—the agreement was cancelled. True, this was a moment of great change and strife with a new democratic Indonesia struggling to appear out of the ashes of its authoritarian past. An agreement with a southern neighbour that now appeared to be an invader was always going to struggle to survive. But more importantly it was an agreement of two men and not two nations. When they left the scene, the ties went with them.
While the dust has long since settled, the relationship has not moved back towards the vision that drove the 1995 agreement. Ward brings a deep and grounded expertise to stress the many ways these two societies divide and continue to divide. Like Whitlam and Nixon 40 years ago, stereotypes and paranoia determine much of the atmosphere of our day. Leaders can embody or defy this, but they cannot ignore it.
Ward is particularly pessimistic about whether the historical and cultural barriers can be overcome. Indeed the take-away message seems to be that it is not even worth bothering.4 That’s an uncomfortable, perhaps even unpalatable idea for those who want to bring an end to these cycles of crisis. And for those who foresee a restructuring of the Asian order over the next half-century, the implications are significant indeed. If the mass of economic and political reports are right that Jakarta is a rising giant while Canberra is an ageing middle power, then to do nothing is potentially to condemn us to a dangerous future.
That so many Australians are uncomfortable about such a poor relationship and have a deep wish to change it is in part evidence of the real leadership of Paul Keating. This leadership did not occur with a signature in a hot Jakarta palace 20 years ago. Instead it happened in office and out, every time Keating fronted a press microphone or an assembled audience and argued for the importance of better relations.
The leadership of Keating’s that truly mattered was his use of the democratic structures and democratic forums to persuade Australians to change their attitudes. No leader before or since has tried to force us to think as seriously about Indonesia and its importance as Keating did. And while we rushed to embrace a political opponent who offered us the chance to be ‘relaxed and comfortable’ instead, the conversation about Indonesia continues. This legacy can be felt across the country, perhaps most acutely in the words of a then opposition leader who declared in 2013 that we needed ‘more Jakarta, less Geneva’ as the centrepiece of Australian foreign policy.
Australia and Indonesia will no longer be ‘condemned to crisis’ when the people of both countries can talk openly and freely about each other. Some may fear what democratic debate about each other would bring but arguably the silence of recent decades has been worse. It has allowed populists a free hand and let rumours and anecdotes serve in place of understanding. Silence keeps businesses unaware of the opportunities today and students oblivious to those of tomorrow.
The best step towards changing Australia’s relationship with Indonesia would be for our politicians to debate it openly. What a ‘more Jakarta’ relationship might look like has never been stated. Likewise, Julia Gillard’s three big reports—the National Security Strategy, the 2013 Defence White Paper and the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper—were all full of praise for new forms of regional cooperation. But no real effort has been made by either side of Australian politics to say how these changes might operate, let alone persuade the public that this is the right way forward.
What is needed for the Australia–Indonesia relationship is not a ‘leader’ who forces the country down a new path, but an open debate that offers the potential for education and persuasion. According to Curran, for all the chaos of the early 1970s, the crisis between Australia and the United States helped usher in a much needed maturity that over time has greatly strengthened the relationship. A similar debate is needed over Indonesia. We need our political parties to be partisan. To declare they truly do want ‘more Jakarta’ and to mean it.
For the time being, Australia’s democratic forces keep any ‘leader’ from going too far towards Indonesia, just as they punish any who may stray from the United States. These ties make sense, with few obvious costs along our path thus far. Advocates of either relationship may wish for a strong leader to dispel doubt and catapult these relationships into a new era. However, such notions are a myth born of a misreading of history, and one that continues to mislead those with the responsibility for leadership.
This is not to presume the public has the right answer at any time. There is a wisdom of crowds effect, but it’s diluted when many aren’t paying enough attention.5 Arguably the public is a little too cosy with the United States, a little too cautious about Indonesia. But the public is also right to say it hasn’t been properly asked.6 Pollsters and politicians seek responses without asking for opinions. Too many scholars and policy-makers treat the public as an unfortunate necessity, an irritant to be overcome or ideally sidelined so that the right leader with the right advisers can implement change.
This logic is part of a problematic contradiction at the heart of our thinking about modern foreign-policy leadership, according to Archie Brown. The power and independence of presidents and prime ministers has continued to grow in the management of external affairs. Yet leaders have also looked increasingly helpless in the face of globalisation and an interconnected global community. Thus leaders tell us—some even believe it—that if we elect them they can hold the line at the borders, deciding who and what crosses and in what circumstances. And when they fail at this, and fail they will, we elect someone else who declares they can hold the line. Whether it is stopping immigrants from getting in or key industries from going out, this is the area where one person can do the least, yet the most is expected. And as the tide’s pull grows stronger, so does our demand for someone to yell ‘halt’—or at least ‘slow down’.
Leaders are thus increasingly judged on the one thing they do not control: the interaction of their nation with the world around it. This is not to excuse the failures of current and past leaders of Australian foreign policy. But it does put their actions into context. They have not truly failed nor fully succeeded because neither path was completely open to them. They are not captains of our ship of state but deckhands like the rest of us, with no one person plausibly strong enough to handle the wheel.
The only way to stop that wheel spinning is to stop the ship itself. To drop anchor as North Korea has since the 1950s, Iran since the 1970s, and as Russia seems to be doing in our own time. To halt the nation in one place, tossing the people and their standards of living into the depths. Many leaders have tried to halt the big forces of popular will or economic or geographic change, but only some anchors hold. Whatever enthusiasm parts of the West had for cutting those chains, as was tried by the right and left in places such as Iraq and Libya, has ebbed away. It will be for the people of those countries to embrace the tide of globalisation again. We may cheer their release, but no longer trust our capacity to help.
For those whose nations are happily committed to the rocking sea of a hyper-connected world, our desire for ‘strong’ leaders is both understandable and unhelpful. In rare moments of strife, we still need quick decisions—perhaps quicker than ever. But that is no way to manage our daily path or long-term journey. Instead, it is to our own spirit level of democracy we must turn. This floating bubble of debate may seem hopelessly susceptible to the merest wave or bump but it is also the only way to find true balance.
That balance in how the nation approaches the wider world begins fundamentally with the restoration of our democratic structures, parliament and cabinet to the decision-making process. If there is one central message in Brown’s fascinating tome, it is the importance of collective decision-making. In many cases he suggests, the cabinet or small groups of leaders are the ideal mix of efficiency and balance. Focusing on British and US experience, though also drawing on Germany, China and South Africa, he shows that leaders who disregard their colleagues soon falter. Dominating a cabinet room or spurning its role altogether may seem ‘strong’, but it is a way to invite poor decision-making and weak policy effect. True leaders, those who either redefined their societies by making the system work better or transformed it by moving it from one form to another, never achieve their success alone. Nor do they try to. The best—both in terms of the success but also the moral merit of their choices—did so in concert with their colleagues and the consent of their society.
To accept this, however, is implicitly to accept the role of politics, and partisan politics. Many would like to keep this idea as far away as possible from policymaking in foreign affairs. But quite why this is so is never made clear. Just like domestic challenges, foreign policy is not something that experts can ‘solve’. There are real values that need to be articulated and argued over. Take one of the most divisive recent issues, the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the Coalition of the Willing. On one side were those who wanted to remove a dictator and support an ally; who hoped it would bring democracy to a foreign region and reduce the threat of terrorism closer to home. On the other were those who worried about the lives that would be lost and the institutions and laws betrayed. They feared the task could not be done, that the leaders did not grasp what they were attempting and were not being honest about the reasons.
Neither Australia nor the United States was harmed by this debate becoming partisan. Indeed, there was a debate precisely because there was a partisan divide. Both sides had the courage to stand up and say what they believed and we are the better for it. While an anger still lingers beneath the surface on both sides, people felt their voice was heard and they had leaders who represented them.
On many issues facing us today, the need to move away from trusting a single leader and towards embracing debate and collective decision-making is absolutely necessary. No one person could or should provide answers to the myriad questions we face in our foreign and defence policy: What is the right way to think about China? What if it goes wrong? How many submarines should we get and where should we build them? What type of relationship should we have with the United States? Do we need to fight in the Middle East to keep the United States in Asia, or does our presence over there distract us and them from the vital issues here? These issues are crying out for genuine public argument.
No longer should a weak leader be able to escape into the foreign-policy sphere as a way to regain their credentials or prove their leadership matters. The stakes are too high to risk by allowing just one person to guess and gamble their way through. It’s time to tame that final frontier and return foreign policy and the management of key relationships to the democratic fold.