The 6th BHP Chair Professor of Australian Studies Program
---from The Fear of Abandonment: Australia in the World Since 1942 by Allan Gyngell, La Trobe University Press, 2017.
The election of Gough Whitlam’s Labor Party government on 2 December 1972 released a torrent of change in Australian foreign policy. Diplomatic relations were established with China, disengagement from the Vietnam War was completed, Australian votes in the United Nations on issues of race and decolonisation were reversed, and all remnants of the racially based immigration policy erased. The major elements of the foreign policies of previous governments for twenty years had clearly run their course. But as Whitlam himself acknowledged in 1973, ‘even if there had been no change of government, there would have been a change of policy; and I am not so churlish as to suggest that it would not have changed for the better.’ When the Coalition returned to power under Malcolm Fraser less than three years later, the principal elements of Whitlam’s reordering continued.
These changes were more than the outcome of a long domestic policy debate in Australia. They were also necessary responses to the global environment in which Australia found itself in the 1970s. Both Whitlam and Fraser faced a world in which Australia had more options, but which was more difficult to manage. The United States was looking inwards after the traumas of the Vietnam War and Watergate. With the Helsinki Accords of 1975, which recognised the post-war settlements in Eastern Europe, and in the negotiation of strategic arms control agreements, the gravest tensions between the superpowers were being moderated. But to some, including some in Moscow, it seemed that this détente was facilitating a shift in the balance of military power away from the West. Britain, which joined the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973, was more remote from Australian interests. China was developing a more normal pattern of diplomatic engagement with the rest of the world and, by the end of the decade, entering its period of economic reform. Australia’s relations in its own region were complicated by the aftermath of the Vietnam War, by the development of ASEAN’s regionalism and by Indonesia’s takeover of Portuguese Timor.
As the global economy deteriorated after the 1973 oil shock, and with the United States struggling to absorb the costs of the Vietnam War, the international focus, and Australia’s too, shifted from security to the economy. The chambers of the United Nations and other multilateral organisations filled with newly independent states and a North–South debate emerged between developed and developing states, complicating the established East–West strategic divisions.
The two prime ministers of the period, Whitlam and Fraser, dominated Australian foreign policy-making more completely than any of their post-war predecessors. For all their liberal internationalist sentiments, both Whitlam and Fraser thought of themselves as foreign policy realists, looking in a clear-eyed way at Australian interests and at the world as it was, but each of them saw that reality differently. Whitlam was a pragmatist. He supported the US alliance, but believed that a failure to accept the inevitability of change – whether this was communist control of China or the nationalist sentiments driving the Vietnamese resistance – brought trouble with it. ‘The real test of a successful foreign policy is the extent to which a balance is struck between a nation’s commitment and a nation’s power,’ he said. He was confident in his own judgements – over-confident in some cases, as became clear – and generally disinclined to consult much with his cabinet (an unwieldy twenty-seven members) or caucus colleagues on foreign policy.
It was partly as a result of his demands for a realistic, illusion-free foreign policy that in mid-1974, as acting foreign minister, Whitlam accepted departmental advice that Australia recognise de jure – that is, as a legal fact – Soviet sovereignty over the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, which had been forcibly incorporated into the USSR at the start of World War II. The foreign affairs department argued that such recognition would remove an anomaly and make it easier to provide consular assistance to Australians of Baltic origin by making it possible for embassy staff to travel there. The decision revealed some of the risks involved in Whitlam’s approach to foreign policy. Baltic community groups and the Opposition reacted to the decision with outrage. How did this square with the government’s insistence on the right to self-determination in places like Africa? The response was an example of the price Whitlam paid for his reluctance to take his cabinet colleagues into his confidence on foreign policy. They would surely have warned him of the likely domestic political effects of the decision. The Fraser government revoked the recognition at the end of 1975.
Fraser, too, saw himself as a realist: ‘The guiding principle for Australia’s role in the world ought to be an active and enlightened realism,’ he told parliament. Under Whitlam, he declared, ‘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’. For Fraser, that realism lay in understanding the fragile nature of détente, the advantages which he saw the Soviet Union accruing from it and the dangers that lay in challenges to the credibility of US foreign policy. Some of these, in the post-Watergate period, stemmed from America’s own internal problems. Ideology was not irrelevant to him, but it could not be a guiding principle. ‘Whatever the basis of a regime,’ he said, ‘whatever the organisation of its domestic government, the chief determinant of our relations will be that country’s approach to foreign relations, how it meshes with ours and, of necessity, the extent of the interests we share.’