Symposium: Advancing the National Interest?

Looking for theory in Australian foreign policy

Rawdon Dalrymple, University of Sydney

Many have argued that, historically, Australia has had a bipartisan foreign policy. More often than not that was broadly true. There have been exceptions. Coalition prime minister Menzies fought with leader of the opposition Evatt over foreign policy in the late 1940s. Later during the long reign of Menzies and his successors from 1949–1972 there were further disagreements—leader of the opposition Arthur Calwell was very critical of government policy on Vietnam, for example. When Gough Whitlam won the election in 1972, foreign policy disagreements became sharper, and continued during Malcolm Fraser’s years in office. But from 1983 when Labor returned to power under Hawke, up to the time when Australia’s relationship with Indonesia collapsed in 1998–99, bipartisanship prevailed, based on a broad agreement on Australia’s external interests and how to pursue them.

The Great Debate

Differences between the conservative Coalition and Labor sides on foreign policy up to 1983 corresponded broadly to the differences in international relations (IR) theory between ‘realism’ and ‘idealism’. That argument in IR theory became known retrospectively as the Great Debate. Australian conservative politicians, especially under the influence of Menzies and close associates, understood international relations as a matter of interests and power. Australia had a small population and little direct power, so it needed to attach itself to ‘great and powerful friends’. This accords generally with ‘classical’ realism as enunciated by Morgenthau (1948), Carr (1939), and others. Australian conservatives distrusted—indeed privately rather scorned—the moralism and legalism of international idealism. Menzies, for example, had little time for the hopes attached to the United Nations as a guarantor of peace and prosperity. On the other hand Evatt and the intellectuals and socialists in the Labor Party thought that Australia should build its foreign policy around moral and legal idealism, the United Nations, and the aspirations of the ‘newly emerging’ nations. It is tempting to see those differences again between the present Australian government and the opposition—Labor, Green and Democrat.

Divergence between Whitlam’s and Fraser’s approaches to foreign policy further illustrates the difference between idealist and realist approaches to international relations. Gough Whitlam and the Labor party generally opposed the United States’ role in the conflict in Vietnam; indeed, some members of the Whitlam government were violently critical, especially when the United States bombed Hanoi. At the same time Whitlam stressed Australia’s independent role in the world under his government, his attachment to the United Nations and to the peaceful resolution of conflict, to détente, and so on. His own agenda was broadly idealist and multilateralist, while others in his government leant more to the Soviet Union than to the United States during the Cold War.

Australian conservatives distrusted the moralism and legalism of international idealism.

When Whitlam visited Washington in 1973, he went to great pains to explain that, in his view, asserting an independent and even-handed policy did not diminish Australia’s relations with the United States. In an important speech to the National Press Club and through his bilateral discussions (arranged only with difficulty and deliberate delay by the Nixon Administration), Whitlam took a good deal of the heat out of the situation. Able diplomacy on both sides helped. But even his advocacy skills could not remove the sense on the United States side that there had been a shift in Australian government policy towards a more critical attitude towards the United States. Whitlam had reoriented Australian policy towards the moral and legal principles that had such easy currency in the United Nations, and there was a body of opinion in the Labor Party that, from Washington’s perspective, was hostile to the United States and its view of its role in the world.

When Fraser displaced Whitlam in extraordinary circumstances there was a major shift in foreign policy. Fraser made his first major foreign policy speech as Prime Minister to the House of Representatives on 1 June 1976. It was an explicit call for and commitment to realism in foreign policy. He began by saying ‘We must be prepared to face the world as it is, and not as we would like it to be’ and went on to argue that:

A relationship founded in common interests is ultimately the only relationship that can be depended upon … In recent years, abroad as at home, lack of realism has inhibited Australia from the constructive role open to us. A government does a great disservice if it encourages acceptance by the people of an unrealistic view of the state of the world in which they live. At home, the costs of a lack of realism have become very apparent in the economic dislocation Australia has suffered. Abroad, unrealistic notions that an age of peace and stability had arrived encouraged a neglect of power realities—a neglect that did not serve our interests (Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates 1976, pp. 2735–43).

He spoke more about the need for realism, concluding with an announcement that the government had asked for ‘much more work’ to be done ‘so that defence planning can be based on the most realistic foundation’.

Here we have two contrasting views of how Australian foreign policy should be shaped derived from two contrasting accounts of how nation states do and should operate. On one hand is the theory that there are universal moral imperatives and laws of nations that all nations should follow to produce and maintain peace and progress. On the other there is the theory that interests will always compete in the international system and that strong states will always seek supremacy so that they can advance their interests. On this view, the only way to achieve stability is by maintaining a balance of power so that no one state or group of states is tempted to seek to advance its interests by imposing its will on others by force or the threat of force.

When Fraser displaced Whitlam, there was a major shift in foreign policy.

Kenneth Waltz (1979) refined and developed realism in the late 1970s, introducing ‘neo-realism’, a more powerful version that explained the interest and power dynamic in international relations in terms of the structure of the international realm. International relations was not just an aspect of the life of nations but a separate domain with its own features and modes of operation, an anarchic domain which forced states of different kinds to act in the realist mode. For a while neo-realism dominated IR theory. However, it came to be seen as too closely bound up with—too directly supportive of—the policies of the conservative governments of the United States and the United Kingdom in the latter stages of the Cold War.

The link critics perceived between realism/neo-realism and conservative politics set off new waves in IR theory during the 1980s and 90s. IR theory has increasingly been concerned with various manifestations or derivatives of postmodernism, which de-construct realist theories, especially conservative accounts of foreign policy and international relations.

Yet for practitioners of international relations, the Great Debate arguments seem never to die. Foreign ministers and their diplomats, media commentators, business advisers, and so on still argue about whether the balance of power is the only way to preserve order in the world and whether even a very powerful state or group of states has a right to impose its will by force on another state seen as an actual or potential threat. Practitioners are very much less concerned, for example, with postmodernist questions about the possibility of any independent or objective account of rights and duties in the international sphere.

Asian Engagement and the Clash of Civilisations

Matters other than IR theory influence Australian foreign policy. The most important of these is Australia’s relations with Asia. Australia began reaching out to East Asia soon after World War II. The most dramatic event was the then Labor government’s engagement in the diplomacy leading to Indonesian independence and its admission to the United Nations. Successive foreign ministers under Menzies—Spender, Casey, and Barwick—made further important contributions to the process. Gough Whitlam’s single-term government took major steps towards engagement with East Asia, but the Hawke government launched Australian policy in the direction of what Hawke himself called ‘enmeshment’ with Asia.

The ALP has always seen itself as more open to multilateral and 'idealistic' influences.

The ALP has always seen itself as more open to multilateral and ‘idealistic’ influences in foreign policy despite its long attachment to the White Australia Policy and the devotion of some its members to Leninism up to Khruschev’s denunciation of Stalin. Between 1983 and 1996 (when the Howard government won office), Australian policy increasingly focused on a wide agenda of closer relations with East Asia. The Garnaut Report (1989) commissioned by Hawke set out this agenda, seeking to institutionalise Australia’s integration into the North East Asian economic growth. Garnaut called for Australia to become more expert and experienced in living in and dealing with the region. Keating sought to put this into overdrive and, with Gareth Evans, brought Australia closer to securing acceptance as a member of what was developing into an East Asian solidarity movement. This can be seen as a turning away from the old dominance of the sense of Australia’s vulnerability and of reliance on distant but ‘great and powerful friends’. Change in defence policy was presented as a shift from defence against Australia’s region to defence with our neighbours. Enmeshment across the board was presented as an enhancement of, not a derogation from, Australian identity.

At the same time an important American scholar, Professor Samuel Huntington, advanced arguments for the view that the world was likely to divide along cultural or civilisational lines (Huntington 1996). He argued that Australia had been seeking to leave the West and join with neighbouring Asian states that were destined to fall into a grouping of Muslim and Chinese states. Consequently, Australia was what he called a ‘torn country’. Huntington’s thesis was much discussed during the drafting of the 1997 foreign policy White Paper, In the National Interest (Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade 1997). The thesis was seen as implausible in the detail, but disquieting in its broad implications. Many thought it decidedly unhelpful when the new Howard government had declared endorsement of its Labor predecessor’s policy of engagement with East Asia. This declaration of bipartisanship was carried through in the White Paper: Huntington’s analysis was rejected.

Subsequent developments have made this much more equivocal. The Prime Minister and others asserted that Australia need not choose between its history and its geography. Many developments contributed to or illustrated the erosion of the government’s commitment to East Asia: the assessment that Keating exceeded the Australian electorate’s tolerance of ‘enmeshment’ with Asia, the phenomenon of Hansonism, the ousting of Soeharto, the plebiscite in East Timor and resulting mayhem in which the Indonesian army was complicit, the East Asian financial crisis and the stalling of the region’s ‘economic miracle’, and the ‘deputy sheriff’ incident. Both the Australian and East Asian sides noticeably cooled off, while Australia made equally noticeable efforts to strengthen links with the United States and the United Kingdom. Indeed, the Prime Minister helped to procure a distorted result from a referendum on converting Australia to a republic, so that the country still has the Queen of England as its monarch. This result baffled the region and reinforced the belief there that Australia is somehow not fully independent.

Howard remains firmly in the realist mould, a Menzies conservative in foreign policy.

Prime Minister Howard probably never shared Hawke’s and Keating’s commitment to the East Asia connection. Howard remains firmly in the realist mould, a Menzies conservative in foreign policy. His current position on the essentials for Australia’s foreign policy is similar to that stated by Fraser in his speech of 1 June 1975 (quoted above). Moreover, for all that the government rejected the Huntington thesis as subversive of Australia’s relations with the region, the idea of a clash of civilisations is consistent with the Howard view of Australia’s place in the world.

IR Theory and Australian Foreign Policy in 2003

The new White Paper, Advancing the National Interest (Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade 2003), retains some of the language of engagement with East Asia. But it is pedestrian stuff compared with the far less equivocal tone and content of the 1997 White Paper. The Howard government has asserted that Australia’s interests are global rather than regional. Given the changes in the region, the rejection of Australian overtures by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir, and increasing reservations by others, it would have been impossible for any Australian government to maintain the Keating ardour. But the ardour of the Howard government, at least since Deputy Prime Minister Tim Fischer left it, seems entirely directed at the United States and the United Kingdom. In the medium term, this is likely to place Australia on one side of a fault line in the world’s geopolitics—a fault line that we may find it increasingly hard to bridge.

There is a sort of theory underpinning the present foreign policy. In the first place, there is a return to a Menzies/Fraser realism, a return to a view of the world of states as driven by national interests and power. Second, there is a reversion to solidarity with and loyalty to Britain, specifically England, to the monarchy and the enormous (and mostly enormously valuable) institutional and cultural heritage that Australia still carries from its British origins. Third, there is a view that the United States’ status as the world’s only ‘hyperpower’ is going to last for a long time, so Australia should link itself to this great and powerful friend as a loyal ally and through closer economic ties (the Free Trade Agreement). Fourth, there is an assessment that the 50-year effort to win acceptance as a friend and ally of Indonesia was bound to fail and that Indonesia’s importance has been much exaggerated.

Realist IR theory sat well with the ‘balance of terror’ of the Cold War, as the two superpowers and their satellite states ranged against each other and in competition for influence in the ‘Third World’. It needs adjustment to fit the world of a sole superpower following a virtually unilateralist agenda. In that context Australia’s present position and policy are interesting. The Australian government has clearly seen developments in United States foreign policy since 11 September 2001 as an opportunity to reinforce strategic and economic ties between Australia and its hyperpower ally.

The government has made some attempts to show regard for the feelings of Australia's neighbours.

The government has made some attempts to show regard for the feelings of Australia’s neighbours, particularly Indonesia. The Prime Minister, for example, recently visited Jakarta to consult the President of Indonesia after his talks with President Bush and Prime Minister Blair. But the government has also taken a very strong line on the War on Terrorism. It has invoked the ANZUS Treaty, and strongly supported the United States through the long process at the United Nations leading up to the decision to invade Iraq without specific Security Council agreement. Many predict that the more or less unilateral exercise of United States power will create a countervailing reaction of hatred and terrorism in the Muslim world and perhaps elsewhere. Australia appears to be discounting that possibility.

The realist tradition in Australian foreign policy would support increasing emphasis on alliance with ‘great and powerful friends’ at a time of rising uncertainty and insecurity. Idealism would push us towards increasing efforts to strengthen multilateral mechanisms for underpinning security—the United Nations and arrangements with our Asian neighbours. Many Australians would like to see foreign and security policy reflect a balance between realism and idealism—implying rather less active involvement in United States intervention in Iraq and other geographically remote places, and rather more effort to avoid explicit policy differences with neighbours on these issues.

Australian governments have been finding it difficult to recognise that it may often be in our best interests to take a lower profile in international relations.


Carr, E.H. 1948, The Twenty Year Crisis 1919–1939: An Introduction to the Study of International Relations, Macmillan & Co., London.

Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade 1997, In the National Interest, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra [Online], Available:

Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade 2003, Advancing the National Interest Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra [Online], Available:

Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates 1976, House of Representatives, vol. 99, pp. 2735–43, 1 June.

Garnaut, R. 1989, Australia and the Northeast Asian Ascendancy: Report to the Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Australian Government Publishing. Service, Canberra.

Huntington, S. P. 1996, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, Simon & Schuster, New York.

Morgenthau, H. 1948, Politics Among Nations: The Struggle For Power and Peace, Knopf, New York.

Waltz, K.N. 1979, Theory of International Politics, Addison-Wesley, Reading, Mass.

Rawdon Dalrymple is a former lecturer in moral and political philosophy and former visiting professor in International Relations at the University of Sydney.