The Suez Crisis provides cautionary lessons about Australian identity and shifts in relative of national power.
A rather unlikely contributor to International Relations theory, Tina Turner, arguably posed the most critical question to be asked of the part played by Australia regarding the Suez Crisis of 1956.
The answer, it seems, to her pondering of the value to be placed, or misplaced, on amity in international relations is “actually, quite a lot” —at least in the case of Australia and Suez.
Major changes in Australia’s strategic thinking took place in the 1950s under the Menzies government. The Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty (ANZUS), the Korean conflict and the insurgency in Malaya, the creation of the Colombo Plan and joining Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) all indicated the directions in which Australian foreign policy priorities were shifting. However Australia was unequivocal in supporting the UK throughout the Suez crisis.
Menzies’ own views concerning the global order and the relationship with Britain, his contempt for Egyptians, and his close personal relationship with the UK Prime Minister Anthony Eden were especially important in shaping the Australian approach. Cabinet records confirm Menzies enjoyed strong support among the large majority of his ministerial colleagues for his role. That included leading an unsuccessful mission to Cairo in September 1956, seeking to persuade Egypt to return the Suez Canal, which President Nasser of Egypt had nationalised, to international control.
Menzies maintained unstinting support for the UK when Israel, the UK and France invaded Egypt in late October 1956, ostensibly to secure the Canal but in reality seeking regime change in Egypt. Amidst strained relations between Washington and London over how to respond to the crisis Australia did little to support the part played by the UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold, US President Eisenhower and Canadian Foreign Minister Lester Pearson, to restore peace. Diplomatic relations with Australia were severed by Egypt, and not restored formally until late 1959.
So why did Menzies, and all but a handful of his Cabinet colleagues join the march of folly upon which Eden led the UK over Suez? Why was Australia willing to take risks to defend British actions that in the absence of a clearly articulated political objective, and without firm US backing, made no strategic sense?
There are several possible explanations, mostly unflattering to Menzies and his government.
Most historians point to ideological blinkering and systemic weaknesses under Menzies in the formulation of foreign policy where Britain was concerned. Moreover, recent research has also found Menzies withheld UK information from his Cabinet colleagues, including correspondence between Eden and Eisenhower highlighting Eisenhower’s rejection of Eden’s arguments for the use of force.
But it would have made little difference if Menzies had shared that advice. Throughout the crisis the intellectual quality of debate within the Menzies Cabinet regarding Suez was abysmal. And when the conflict broke out, Cabinet’s determination to support the UK was based entirely on political grounds.
Support for the UK at Cabinet level remained unencumbered by strategic analysis, willingness to question UK motives, consideration of possible consequences for US-Australia relations, or even any assessment of Eden’s prospects for success. There was a general feeling of condescension toward the United States, including references to the need to “tone up” the US approach to align with that of the UK. Analysis of regional political realities was entirely absent.
Menzies’ foreign minister, Richard Casey, counselled restraint, but Casey’s unsolicited advice went unheeded.
A robust exchange of correspondence between Menzies and Eisenhower, in which Menzies strongly supported Eden and chastised Eisenhower over the Suez affair, fell largely to Casey to handle. In an otherwise lacklustre, albeit courageous performance, Casey worked with senior External Affairs official, James Plimsoll, to contain the potential damage to Australia’s standing in Washington arising from Menzies’ ill-judged intervention.
It was one of the more remarkable, but overlooked, moments in Australian diplomacy during the 1950s.
In Canberra, External Affairs failed to challenge the fundamental assumptions underpinning the UK approach to Suez, or to query whether the use of military force against Nasser had even a remote chance of success in the face of firm US opposition.
It soon became clear on the ground in Egypt, and in the United Nations context in New York, that the spoils of victory belonged to Nasser. By immediately sinking vessels to block the Canal, Nasser was able to dictate the terms for its clearance and its re-opening to shipping—and he made sure that all British and French forces had to be withdrawn from Egypt first. But senior External Affairs officials — notably Alan Renouf and Charles Kevin — continued to foster the illusions of Australian ministers who were unprepared, ideologically and emotionally, to accept that reality.
Throughout the crisis, moreover, those External Affairs officials regarded by Menzies as “Casey’s men,” including the Secretary of External Affairs, Arthur Tange, were marginalised. Tange was excluded from the meetings between Menzies and Nasser. Later, when Eisenhower insisted on the withdrawal of UK and French forces, Tange tried to dissuade Menzies from criticism of the US role. He failed.
In the complex nexus between politics, personalities and foreign policy advice, romanticised notions of a British Australian identity — Tina Turner’s “sweet, old-fashioned notion”—impacted powerfully upon Australia’s policy choices on Suez. They did so despite obvious shifts in the relativities of national power in the post-World War II Middle East.
Ultimately, Australia’s stance over Suez reflected the durability of perceptions of Australia, and Australia’s place in the world, that belonged to a fading era. It also reflected popular and political concern at the decline of an empire to which, in many respects, Menzies, his Cabinet and most Australians still wished to belong.
When it came to the management of the grey space between policy advice and policy decisions driven by Menzies, it was the power of that imagined identity that prevailed.
Bob Bowker was Australian ambassador to Egypt 2005-08. His latest book Australia, Menzies and Suez: Australian Policy-Making on the Middle East Before, During and After the Suez Crisis published by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade will be released in November 2019.
This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.