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Book Review: No Enemies, No Friends: Restoring Australia’s Global Relevance

05 May 2022
Reviewed by Melissa Conley Tyler FAIIA

Australia now appears to live in a new and less predictable world. If, as most agree, this is true, a book like No Enemies, No Friends: Restoring Australia’s Global Relevance helps us look beyond the status quo.

Last year I was in a workshop with Allan Behm where we discussed Hallin’s spheres, a framework developed by US journalism theorist Daniel Hallin consisting of three concentric circles: a central “sphere of consensus,” where there is implicit societal agreement; a “sphere of legitimate controversy,” where issues can be debated; and a “sphere of deviance” where the ideas are considered too radical.

Policy advocacy is often about moving an idea from one sphere to another, usually from the fringe to permissible debate. It can also go the other way. For example, the idea of Australia acquiring nuclear weapons was under active consideration during the Gorton government, then went to unthinkable, and now might be at the edge of the zone of debate. Sometimes the transition can happen very quickly. the idea that Australia should maintain positive relations with China was official policy in 2015, and now it is seen as on the outer.

In his new book, No Enemies, No Friends: Restoring Australia’s Global Relevance, Allan Behm shows that he is a master of these spheres, of trying to move unfashionable ideas into permissible debate and criticising the “entrenched orthodoxies” of any given time. I might not agree with all his provocations, but I appreciate the endeavour.

Allan Behm’s foreign policy credentials are clear. His three-decade career in the Australian public service spans the Department of Defence, Attorney-General’s Department, and Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, and includes diplomatic postings in Asia and Geneva. His politics are equally clear, having been chief of staff to Greg Combet and senior advisor to Penny Wong. These days he is director of the International and Security Affairs Program at the Australia Institute, taking a consciously progressive approach to foreign policy.

One interesting aspect of the book is the way he melds a progressive political philosophy into security policy, an area often viewed as bipartisan. People often draw a sharp distinction between domestic and international, but he would say that national identity issues are intimately involved in what he calls security mindset (and Mary Kaldor calls security culture), which helps explain why decision-makers make the decisions they do.

He diagnoses a deep sense of insecurity and lack of confidence leading Australia to approach the world with a fearful and defensive posture: “We have persuaded ourselves that the more we invest in the instruments of war, the safer we will be from having the instruments of war used against us.”

At times, he paints an unflattering picture of Australia’s foreign policy as full of “bluster,” “bravado,” and “braggadocio” based on deep-seated self-doubt. He sees complacency and dependence on others to fix problems leading to reputational damage, with Australia being viewed as “heartless, hypercritical and mean-spirited.”

But it’s clear that he’s proud of many parts of Australia’s heritage, including universal suffrage, fair pay, and social safety nets – and of Australia’s long-term contribution to multilateralism, including under Prime Minister Billy Hughes and Ministers for External Affairs H.V. Evatt and Percy Spender. For readers who haven’t lived through as much Allan has, the book has a helpful focus on history to provide context for policymaking today.

He suggests that, with confidence and imagination, Australia could develop a vision of itself as constructive actor on the international stage. He sees Australia as a “wonderfully endowed nation” that can have much greater agency.  For example, he sees Australia as having the capacity to build coalitions for regional peace and security, engaging with its neighbours to plan for a cohesive regional neighbourhood as an “antidote to isolation.” This means moving away from the default of demanding military or quasi-military responses and turning to other tools of statecraft that enable Australia to be outward-looking and engaged. This includes overseas development spending and “an active, engaged and properly endowed diplomacy that builds the kind of world we would like to live in while we deal with the world in which we in fact live.”

Allan revels in being heterodox: “To be relevant in a disrupted world in which many issues are unconventional, conventional thinking ill-equips a policy adviser for the innate ‘wickedness’ of most contemporary strategic problems.” Whether you agree with his prescriptions or not, the book raises questions that Australian decision-makers need to grapple with – avoiding group think, asking questions, and challenging assumptions. Unconsidered orthodoxies aren’t good for any country. Good foreign policy needs a few stirrers.

This is a review of Allan Behm, No Enemies, No Friends: Restoring Australia’s Global Relevance (Upswell Publishing, 2022). ISBN: 9780645248029

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.