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Book Review: Fear of Abandonment: Australia in the World since 1942

19 Apr 2022
Reviewed by Melissa Conley Tyler FAIIA

Australian Institute of International Affairs National President Allan Gyngell starts his history of Australian foreign policy with the observation that Australia’s myths are mostly military ones: “The story Australians know best of their country’s engagement with the world is one of wars and battles.”  

As we approach ANZAC Day, I wonder what we could choose if we were looking for a diplomatic day of remembrance? I don’t expect Australia to go as far as Brazil, with its statues of diplomats and a whole institute of diplomatic history. But if we were choosing a moment to raise a quiet glass in honour of Australia’s foreign policy, when might it be?

The book suggests some options. 1 September for the signing of ANZUS, a key building block of the alliance with the United States. 20 May for the establishment of the Colombo Plan, bringing Asia’s future leaders to Australia for education and training. 23 October for the Cambodian peace agreement that was energetically brokered by Australia. 13 January for signature of the Chemical Weapons Convention, an example of Australia playing a constructive middle power role. 6 November for the first meeting of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), or 14 November for the first G20 Leaders Summit, successfully securing a seat for Australia at regional and global tables. 5 January for Australia’s response to the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. 21 July for the UN Security Council Resolution condemning the shooting down of MH17. Other events would be hard to pin down to an exact date, such as the role of the Fraser and Hawke governments in ending apartheid in South Africa. But each is a great example of Australia using tools of persuasion based on the “conviction that Australia needs to be active in the world in order to shape it, and that gathering combinations of allies, friends and ad hoc partners is the best way of doing this.” 

What I take away from the book is a sense of the importance – and perhaps even heroism – of this task. Foreign policy and diplomacy, which the book describes as its operating system, have a specific job: “to expand the space within which the nation-state can operate; to increase its options and maximise its choices.” 

One thing the book clearly achieves is explaining why this is important – and why it is more important now than ever. The international order Australia has known is changing, which is uncomfortable for a nation that has known only a globalising world. It means that “If Australia is to secure its future, it will have to become even more directly and deeply engaged in the international diplomacy necessary to shore up the system and establish new rules.” 

For those familiar with the first edition, there is much continuity in the updated version. There is a new section on the period 2016-2020, which is dubbed “Sovereign Borders.” But beyond bringing the story up to date, the book is little changed, even in its introduction and conclusion. This is a sign of how clearly the author identified key trends in 2017, including the decline of the rules-based international order and the pushback against globalism. Although he may not have picked just how much “Fortress Australia” would take hold during the COVID-19 pandemic, having congratulated Australia for its historic tendency to reject isolationism. 

For those not familiar with the first edition, this book is a must-read. Gyngell quotes great diplomat George Kennan as saying that if we are unaided by history, we have only a “feeble lantern” to gain a vision of contemporary events. Understanding the history of Australia’s engagement in the world since 1942 provides invaluable context for the issues that face its foreign policy today.  

Reading history in an election campaign is instructive. It reminds that Australia needs its leaders to have an expansive view. Gyngell suggests that at their best, “Australian policymakers have shown that they possess the skills to recognise the moment when it is possible to drive new paths through the international landscape and have the creative tools to forge them.” 

But he also notes that foreign policy and diplomacy require imagination and effort: “First, a government has to determine how it wants the world to look – a vision – then what it can do to bring about that outcome – a strategy – and finally – tactics – how to use skilful advocacy and negotiation to bring it into being.” Australia needs leaders and policymakers with the ambition and tools to pursue this – and a public that understands this as an important part of leaders’ role. 

The fact that diplomacy is full of “adjustments and compromises” and “backroom demands” means that it doesn’t sit easily for many Australians. But diplomacy needs to be seen as a heroic part of the national endeavour.  

Perhaps Australia will need some new myths. 

This is a review of Allan Gyngell, Fear of Abandonment: Australia in the World since 1942(Black Inc, 2021). ISBN: 9781863959186.

Melissa Conley Tyler FAIIA  is program lead at the Asia-Pacific Development, Diplomacy & Defence Dialogue (AP4D). She was National Executive Director of the AIIA for 13 years.

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