Australian Outlook

In this section

Book Review: Australia and the World 1931-1936. Documents on Australian Foreign Policy

25 Nov 2022
Reviewed by Allan Gyngell AO FAIIA

James Cotton’s selection of key documents from Australia’s diplomatic history in the 1930s extensively details Australia’s historical commitment to principled leadership in bilateral negotiations and at multilateral institutions. Various contemporary debates, which resemble those of the period covered, will resonate with readers.

In contrast to the rich legacy of official histories of the Australian Defence Force’s operations, the published record of Australian diplomacy has been much smaller. In some ways, that’s no surprise. The stories of battles and heroic actions are an important part of Australia’s national story and more dramatic by far than the words of its diplomats.

Even so, the latter have just as much to say about who Australians are and the pathway Australia took to reach its present place in the world. In the face of serious resource constraints, the commitment by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and its historical section to the publication of historical documents should be applauded. So should the contributions of the historians and former diplomats, often volunteers, who have made it possible.

The newly published Australia and the World 1931 ̶1936. Documents on Australian Foreign Policy is edited by Emeritus Professor James Cotton, a historian who has already contributed so much to Australia’s understanding of its diplomatic history and who is also a Fellow of the AIIA. The current volume takes up the story from Cotton’s last volume, published in 2019, on the years 1920-30.

It follows the same format—the documents are organised according to eight (sometimes broad) topics and presented in chronological order. There is the same meticulous editing and attention to context, and each topic chapter is prefaced with an editor’s introduction offering an overview of the material, with selective reference to relevant secondary sources.

Though some historians may quibble over the principles of inclusion (and exclusion), at 1300 pages it is certainly detailed enough for most needs. Unlike the earlier published Documents series devoted to the years 1937-1949, it pays systematic attention to trade issues, as well as to foreign affairs, and defence.

The story opens with the 1931 Manchuria crisis, during which Australian policy makers sought to keep a low profile, though they understood that developments in that part of the world were portentous for Australia’s future. The lengthy chapter, devoted to the events leading to the 1932 Ottawa trade agreement, presents almost a textbook case of how to conduct such bilateral negotiations. Stanley Melbourne Bruce may have been an imperialist, but the inference to be drawn from these documents is that he was a hard- headed champion of national interest and so determined to prevail that should statistics and appeals to sentiment prove unpersuasive, more forceful (not to say obstructionist) methods were considered justified. The chapter reminds us that Australia’s enthusiasm for anti-dumping mechanisms is not new.

At the League of Nations, Australian spokespersons managed to contribute to the everwidening agenda of the global organisation while defending (sometimes against the egregious acts of local agents) the nation’s record as League mandatory in New Guinea.

Again Bruce, as Australia’s chief delegate to Geneva, is a surprise, embracing at the League progressive ideas of global nutrition, thereby simultaneously addressing a major source of global insecurity while also advocating a policy likely to be a stimulus to Australian agricultural exports.

The chapter devoted to relations with Asia demonstrates that a significant body of Australian policy thinkers—and, indeed, some of the actors—could see a major future for Australian trade with the region. Despite this, the dispute with Japan generated by the trade diversion policy set back a clear trend toward regional engagement. On defence, the struggle between the Singapore basers and the advocates of local self-reliance (Frederick Shedden and John Lavarack, respectively representative figures) demonstrates that while the advocates of the imperial connection held the political trump cards, the champions of self-reliance had the better of the argument. There are some clear contemporary resonances in this episode.

The chapter devoted to the non-status quo ideologies of the time—communism, fascism, and nazism—shows Australian policy-makers were slow to appreciate the threats posed to global order, but quick to grasp any impact these movements might have on domestic politics. Regarding the Ethiopia crisis—during which British policy was both a guide and a frustration—Bruce, again prominent as high commissioner in London, very early understood that the failure to check Italy at the League marked the end of the organisation’s claims to provide effective collective security. A final chapter is devoted to building Australian’s foreign policy machinery, the Trade Commissioner Service and the Department of External Affairs (the latter restored to full autonomy in November 1935).

Including a remarkably comprehensive index, a full bibliography, and biographies of the main characters, this volume is an exceptional example of editing skill by the indefatigable James Cotton. Its production by the University of New South Wales Press is first-rate. When the volume devoted to the period 1914-1919 (announced as almost ready some ten years ago) finally appears, we will have a rich documentary basis for further work on Australia’s foreign affairs and trade record almost from the inception of the Commonwealth down to quite recent times.

This is a review of: James Cotton (ed.), Australia and the World 1931 ̶ 1936. Documents on Australian Foreign Policy (Sydney: University of New South Wales Press/Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2021).

Allan Gyngell AO FAIIA is the national president of the Australian Institute of International Affairs and a former director-general of the Office of National Assessments.

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