March 2011

Arts & Letters

Balancing acts

By Hugh White
Stanley Melbourne Bruce in the early days of his prime ministership, c. 1923. © Newspix/News Limited
David Lee’s ‘Stanley Melbourne Bruce’ and David Bird’s ‘JA Lyons’

Most of us think that for much of Australia’s history we have not really had a foreign policy. We assume our approach to the world has always been determined for us by our great and powerful friends – that Australia’s leaders have passively accepted policies set in London and Washington, and loyally sent troops to fight in the resulting wars. Certainly this seems true today: John Howard wrote in his memoirs that our alliance with the United States meant that there was never any question of joining Bush’s invasion of Iraq, and – perhaps more surprisingly – Paul Kelly recently has suggested that the closeness of the relationship means there is no scope for Australia to do anything but support American policy on China.

But has it always been that way? Both sides of politics share the assumption that it has. Conservatives are proud of it; they think loyalty to the leaders of the Anglosphere is a natural and proper expression of shared values and identity. Those on the Left see it as a regrettable failure to realise our true destiny as an independent country. Both sides find their prejudices confirmed and neither side asks, nor perhaps cares, if their view of our history is correct.

The truth or otherwise of these conceptions matters a lot, however. How far we have gone in the past beyond passive compliance to challenge, shape or oppose the polices of London and Washington must help us consider our future choices. And, at a time when two-and-a-half centuries of Anglo-Saxon primacy in the Pacific is drawing to a close, we have some big choices to make.

The conventional wisdom about Australia’s foreign policy is quite wrong. Just how wrong was decisively established some decades ago by a generation of historians. JA La Nauze’s marvellous biography of Alfred Deakin showed how trenchantly Deakin developed and promoted a distinctively Australian approach to our unique strategic circumstances, both before and after Federation. LF Fitzhardinge did the same for Billy Hughes. Neville Meaney’s recently completed, magisterial history of Australian defence and foreign policy from 1900–21 shows how leaders during that time conceived Australia’s specific interests, and how they pursued policies to serve them, particularly in relation to Japan.

Until now, though, little has been written about Australian policy in those awkward decades between the wars. Two recent biographies of the two key figures in Australian foreign policy in the ’20s and ’30s fill this gap. David Lee’s Stanley Melbourne Bruce: Australian Internationalist (Continuum, 256pp; $120.00) and David Bird’s JA Lyons – The ‘Tame Tasmanian’: Appeasement and Rearmament in Australia 1932–39 (Australian Scholarly Publishing, 431pp; $44.00) explore in detail the foreign policies of the two leaders whose decisions led to the most serious strategic crisis Australia has so far faced. In doing this they quietly reaffirm the value of old-fashioned history – narrative history focused on national leaders and great events.

These books show how Bruce and Lyons, trying to navigate dangers that their successors today could barely comprehend, were remarkably active and bold in developing and promoting policies to protect Australia’s interests. It is striking how completely their approaches and achievements have slipped from the public consciousness, as well as from that of Australia’s foreign policy community. There are several reasons for this. Most obviously: their attempts ultimately failed. For all their efforts, war came again and Australia ended up, in early 1942, facing exactly the danger Bruce and Lyons had tried so hard to avert. Another reason is that both leaders were appeasers, so their work quickly came to be seen not simply as unsuccessful but as contemptible.

The careers of Bruce and Lyons were closely connected, and each figures largely in the other’s biography. Bruce was prime minister from February 1923 until October 1929, when he lost office and his own seat to Labor under James Scullin. Lyons deserted Scullin’s ill-fated government for the other side of politics; he led the newly formed United Australia Party into office in January 1932, serving until he died in office in April 1939. Though both were leaders of conservative parties, the two men could hardly have been more different. Bruce was wealthy, worldly and urbane – the Cambridge-educated scion of a great business family. Lyons was a homely Tasmanian schoolteacher of humble origin.

David Lee’s biography addresses directly and illuminatingly the central conundrum of Bruce’s career: the curious business of having to balance being both British and Australian – which Bruce’s generation took for granted and which we find so hard now to comprehend. In many ways no one could have been more British than Bruce, but he consistently identified Australia’s interests as distinct from those of the UK. Lee gives chapter and verse to Bruce’s many tussles with London to reshape imperial policy. There is much to learn from studying what he tried to do, and how – not always in vain.

Our recent leaders have not shown they share Bruce’s clear view of Australia’s interests or, indeed, his courage and skill in arguing for them in imperial capitals. Bruce never followed British policy unquestioningly, as Howard followed George Bush into Iraq. Nor would he have imagined, as both Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott seem to, that Australia should simply keep quiet about any issue vital to its future – as is happening now with America’s growing strategic competition with China. Tellingly, Bruce’s assertiveness didn’t harm his relationship with the UK. And, in many ways (Kevin Rudd take note), his career as an international statesman took off after his defeat as prime minister, when he went to London as Australia’s high commissioner from 1933 to 1945.

The catalogue of his honours and achievements over these years is extraordinary: a leading figure in the League of Nations, chairman of major international conferences, champion of economic and social development as a factor in international affairs, godfather of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, and a serious contributor to American thinking about the postwar settlement. He turned down a lot along the way, including a preliminary offer to become chairman of the BBC and repeated requests to come home again as prime minister. David Lee’s book does this remarkable career full justice.

Lyons came to office with the task of steering Australia out of the Depression, but soon found himself dealing with the complex interconnecting crises that led eventually to World War II. David Bird’s book gives an insightful account of the policies that Lyons adopted to deal with these threats as they grew. Lyons was keen to conciliate Japan, to reduce the risk of conflicts in Europe that would limit the UK’s ability to help against Japan, to solicit help from the US, and to develop Australia’s own forces in case we ended up facing Japan alone. In pursuit of these aims, he sent Australia’s first-ever diplomatic mission round Asia to find a settlement of the Manchurian crisis in 1931, developed and promoted an idea of a ‘Pacific pact’, undertook a major rearmament and defence industry development program, and played a surprisingly active role in European power politics.

The climax of Lyons’s story is his pivotal role in perhaps the greatest diplomatic drama of the century: British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s last-ditch effort to appease Hitler in Munich. From Bird’s account, based on fresh evidence in Lyons’s records, it was Lyons – prompted by his remarkable wife, Enid – who persuaded Chamberlain to meet Hitler one more time with Mussolini as mediator. Chamberlain returned to London in triumph, waving his “scrap of paper”, and Lyons was delighted. Lyons died in April 1939 before the consequences became clear.

Bird also does an excellent job of exploring the apparently contradictory, but actually understandable, way in which Lyons paired a fervent commitment to appeasement with an equal commitment to rearmament in case that failed, showing that, while the Lyonses – especially Enid – did have a dreamy side, the mainspring of policy during his leadership was a commendable blend of working for the best and preparing for the worst.

More than six months into her prime ministership, Julia Gillard has said nothing substantial about how Australia should respond to the remarkable transformation of Asia that is taking place on her watch, as power shifts to China. She says she isn’t interested in foreign affairs. She seems not to realise that Asia’s power shift poses challenges to Australia comparable to any we have faced in our history. She has no choice but to be interested.

Hugh White

Hugh White is an emeritus professor of strategic studies at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University.

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