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Allan Gyngell and "Australia in the World"

05 May 2023
By Dr Darren Lim
Allan Gyngell speaks at the AIIA National Conference in 2023.

Allan Gyngell AO FAIIA, immediate past president of the Australian Institute of International Affairs, passed away on 3 May 2023. I had the pleasure of co-founding and co-hosting the “Australia in the World Podcast” with Allan, one of Australia’s greatest thinkers on foreign policy and my friend.

Australia in the World” had an unlikely beginning. I barely knew Allan when, over coffee in early 2018, I pitched to him a podcast on Australian foreign policy that would grapple with the news of the day and invite practitioners to discuss their work.

At the time, I perceived a lack of depth in the contributions of senior Australian practitioners, both serving and retired, in helping Australians understand what was happening in the world. With a few notable exceptions, the most one could expect were curated opinion pieces in the papers and blogs, and occasional public roundtables comprising a 15-minute talk and a few questions.

But the world was bonkers! Donald Trump was president of the United States, the UK was exiting the EU, and, of course, the People’s Republic of China continued to do its thing. Consequential events seemingly happened almost every week, and I wanted to know what senior policymakers—the ones who craft and carry out foreign policy—thought about it all, ideally with follow up questions.

As fate would have it, Allan was already an avid podcast listener and, having taken leadership of the Australian Institute of International Affairs, he was intrigued by my proposal. What I would come to learn about Allan is that he cared very much about ideas and, like me, saw an opportunity for a contribution to the Australian community centred around ideas rather than conclusions. With “Australia in the World,” we sought to initiate a process of discussion, debate, and inquiry that would highlight the complexities and trade-offs in foreign policy.

As his dear friend Dennis Richardson told the Australian Financial Review, “Allan understood nuance. He often said ‘I’m not a strategist, I’m a foreign policy analyst and adviser’. A strategist sees the world in black and white. An analyst sees the shades of grey and deals with it accordingly.”

Six months later, we recorded our first episode. It was terrible! Indeed, it was so bad we ditched it entirely, rewriting and rerecording the entire thing the following day.

But in the weeks and months that followed, we developed an easy rapport. Often, I would get overexcited about some news event, only to be calmly informed by Allan—drawing on five decades of foreign policy experience—that it had all happened before. He’d tell me, for example, that every Australian government “discovers” India at least once during its time in office, or that there are certain things all Australian leaders must say when giving speeches about the US alliance, though these differ by political party.

As an outsider looking in, Allan helped me pierce the veil of the foreign policy apparatus, providing insight into the complexity (and necessity) of bureaucratic processes and fostering a keen appreciation of the trade-offs decisionmakers face every day.

While I learned so much from him, his impact on me was even more profound. As a PhD “theorist” with only a handful of years of real-world work experience, I initially assumed I had little to contribute to the discussion other than to ask the questions. To my surprise, Allan was relentlessly curious to hear my theorist’s take on events, and he was utterly respectful of my views.

Allan was someone who could be persuaded. He would always engage, giving me the space to make my point and, when necessary, he had the patience to teach me when my theorising took me far past the bounds of reality. He saw my voice, and our dialogue, as a meaningful contribution to his larger project.

With his encouragement, I developed confidence in my belief in the utility of developing “models” for understanding the world, and with that confidence came my voice. And I am not unique. Allan believed that the foreign policy community’s younger generation had a vital role to play, and no doubt my experience is mirrored in the hundreds of others Allan mentored across his career.

Not six months after we launched, I moved to Lebanon with my family to accompany my wife on a diplomatic posting. The relationship Allan and I had cultivated in person translated seamlessly online, and the podcast went from strength to strength.

Diplomatic postings can sometimes be isolating and even lonely experiences, especially for partners. At times, you can feel like you’re losing your sense of self, a situation that was exacerbated with the pandemic and, in Lebanon, the trauma of the Beirut Blast.

But the fortnightly structure of the podcast imbued our collaboration with a regularity that transformed it into an unexpected friendship. Allan became a very close friend during my time away, and I’ll forever be grateful for the time and care he dedicated not just to the podcast but to my welfare.

In our final phone call less than two weeks ago, when it was clear that his continued participation on the podcast was unlikely, Allan expressed frustration that he was being substituted off the field at possibly the most important moment for Australian foreign policy in his lifetime. His motivation to continue the conversation, to continue the inquiry, and to continue the mission of the AIIA – to help Australians know more, understand more, and engage more in international affairs – was undimmed.

As Allan tells us, foreign policy is the way the state manages its relationships with other actors in the international system to preserve its national security and prosperity, protect its interests, and advance its values at minimum cost in treasure and blood. Effective foreign policy ensures that no matter how international developments unfold, we will always have options to act.

Allan described foreign policy as “much of the work of my life.” It was a true honour to undertake a small slice of that work with him and share it with many other Australians. His work, and his life, set an example to which we would do well to aspire.

He is gone now, and we mourn his loss. But, for all of us, the work remains.

Darren Lim is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Politics and International Relations at the Australian National University. He is co-founder and co-host of the “Australia in the World” podcast.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.