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Reading Coral Bell on the Fortieth Anniversary of Dependent Ally: Style and Substance

22 May 2024
Reviewed by Benedict Moleta

On the fortieth anniversary of the ANZUS alliance, Coral Bell reflected on its significance for Australia in 1991 and the years ahead. 2024 marks the fortieth anniversary of Bell’s best-known book Dependent Ally: A Study in Australian Foreign Policy.

Anniversaries of big events in world politics often prompt the historically minded to consider how things have panned out in the long run. A good book’s anniversary of publication – at ten, fifty or one hundred years – can prompt interested readers to reflect on the book’s lasting significance, or its renewed relevance.

In 1991 Coral Bell considered the future of the ANZUS alliance, forty years after its establishment in 1951, in a long essay titled “Australia’s Alliance Options: Prospect and Retrospect in a World of Change.” 2024 marks the fortieth anniversary of her best-known book Dependent Ally, originally produced as an in-house monograph at the Australian National University, before being published by Oxford in 1988, and then revised for a new edition in 1993. With the fortieth anniversary year of Dependent Ally half over, there hasn’t been an explosion of tributes to this rather relevant study of Australia’s relations with our Anglophone allies.

In her 1991 essay, Bell reflected on the ANZUS alliance in the year the Soviet Union had come to an end. The essay is classic Bell in style; brisk prose, startling ability to evoke long-term trends in the fast-moving disorder of the present, and paragraphs that blend military, institutional, and demographic data in unfussy sentences, lit up from time to time with an image or analogy that has been bent just slightly into a new shape – “he will be militarily biting off more than he can chew.”

The essay is also classic Bell in substance. Having herself been present at the signing of the ANZUS treaty in San Francisco in 1951, Bell offers an acute survey of “prospect and retrospect,” set out in two parts, assessing Australian conditions and priorities in regional and global contexts. In the first part, changing international conditions are considered at various scales; firstly, the central US/Soviet power balance in the months after the attempted coup in Moscow in August 1991; secondly, the regional crisis of the first Gulf War and possible UN-legitimated responses to it; thirdly, what the future might hold for a European Community that was at that time a “Europe of the Twelve.”

Though she often focussed on matters of the central power balance, Bell remarked that, in the upheaval of 1991, “the conflicts once “channelled” into the central balance are dispersing into regional and domestic balances.” Aside from implications for Australia and its alliance options, one example of Bell’s cogency in seeing potential sources of long-term instability that were in the process of dispersal is her perception of the coming German dominance in Europe. Noting that a future European Central Bank seemed likely to be “the German Bundesbank writ large,” Bell could see dissent on the horizon in the form of “economic and perhaps diplomatic, or even political domination of the new Europe by the reunited Germany.” Three decades later, the problems of a Euro-centred, German-dominated European Union have come to occupy the attention of two generations of scholars – from Wolfgang Streeck to Oliver Nachtwey. These problems compel interest in German sociology and political economy because they are real and growing sources of disintegration in German national political life.

Bell’s remarks on Germany are brief, and are not central to her essay’s consideration of Australia’s alliance options forty years after ANZUS. Yet even as passing remarks they exemplify the prescience that Brendan Taylor has praised in Bell’s work; her setting upon elements of long-term change that may or may not be the seeds of future crises, but that should figure in any careful assessment of prospect and retrospect.

Concluding the first part of her essay, Bell suggests that the new post-Cold War “multilateral balance” should be taken as the “essential background” against which Australia should “examine the question of the future of ANZUS.” This future is then considered in the essay’s second half. In style it is a chronological analysis of ANZUS and its evolution, starting with the failed internationalist bluster of Evatt, proceeding through the US pragmatism that allowed Spender to secure the pact, summing up in two and a half pages the “period of alarm” from the late 1950s to mid-1960s – in which Australia’s Southeast Asian outlook grew “steadily more anxiety ridden” – then through Vietnam and the Guam Doctrine, to New Zealand’s suspension from ANZUS in the Reagan years.

In the final chapters, Australian connections outside ANZUS (from the Five Power Defence Arrangements to links with New Zealand) are not discounted, though “the American connection” does not seem likely to be pushed aside by Australia. In typically temperate prose, Bell suggests that, on the one hand, ANZUS is likely to be as relevant to Australia in 2001 as it was at the time of writing, but that, on the other hand, “for the longer term the central balance of power is unlikely to remain as conducive to the Australian national interest as it has been … in the past, and as it is in the present.” This is the sort of reasonable summation that occurs throughout Bell’s work; the implication always being that relations with great powers will always bear upon Australian interests – but this does not mean that Australian interests will always be the same as those of its great power allies.

To mark the fortieth anniversary of Dependent Ally perhaps a collection of up-to-date scholarly and biographical essays will appear – taking the next step after the excellent collection published ten years ago, edited by Desmond Ball and Sheryn Lee, and published by the ANU press. Or perhaps there is a less ambitious but still very useful set of online appreciations in the works, such as the Lowy Institute produced in 2017, on the tenth anniversary of Bell’s late essay, The End of the Vasco da Gama Era.

If any such anniversary tribute is being secretly prepared somewhere in Australia, its authors must be enjoying an edifying experience, bringing the style and substance of Dependent Ally into connection with any number of Australia’s interests and anxieties in 2024 – and comparing the book’s insights to those of prominent commentators on today’s relations between Australia and its Anglophone allies.

Paul Keating has recently bemoaned the fact that “The country is so timid,” while James Curran finds that both “Labor and the Coalition are committed to a jargon of alliance lore that has become a straitjacket.” Meanwhile Mike Scrafton argues that Australia should leave the ANZUS alliance. It wasn’t Coral Bell’s style to be polemical, to go for the jugular or to propose drastic alliance changes. Instead, her style was to bring the substance of Australia’s alliance options clearly and concisely into view, putting the prospects for credibly independent Australian foreign policy into excellent prose. Her writing was not constrained by conceptual orthodoxy, and was certainly never bland.

As she wrote in the introduction to Dependent Ally, Bell had no illusions about Australia “going it alone,” but it’s hard to deny the appeal of what she thought was a reasonable Australian objective: “behaving for good or ill like a relatively self-confident and autonomous member of the society of states.”

Perhaps the opportunity has been missed to properly mark the fortieth anniversary of Dependent Ally. Ten years should be enough time to prepare a truly substantial collection of essays to mark the book’s fiftieth anniversary. By that time, in 2034, Bell’s analysis of alliance and dependence could be considered in relation to two big events that will be just around the corner; completion of the first Australian-built SSN-AUKUS submarine in the early 2040s, and the centenary of ANZUS in 2051.

Benedict Moleta is a PhD student in international relations at the Australian National University, writing on Coral Bell and Australian foreign policy. His Master’s thesis (2020, University of Sydney) was on relations between the European Union and Palestine. He is currently researching the prospects for post-war government in Israel and Gaza, and Australia’s criminal listing of Hamas. His BA was in German and European Studies, with interests from Lessing to Lenin. Contact via ANU

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