Malcolm Fraser’s foreign policy pillars
13 Apr 2015|
Malcolm Fraser's foreign policy pillars

On 11 September 1980, Malcolm Fraser stood in the House of Representatives to describe the four pillars of Australian foreign policy. The Prime Minister’s statement listed the ‘four essential components of our foreign policy’ in this order:

  1. The Western alliance
  2. Regionalism
  3. The Commonwealth
  4. Strengthening relations with middle-sized powers

In the statement, the four components were not numbered as they are here; yet adding the numbers merely highlights the hierarchy Fraser used in his list and followed in his speech.

Sitting in the press gallery at the time, I remember thinking that if these were the four pillars supporting Oz policy, then it was a rickety, lopsided building with a ramshackle roof. The pillars differed vastly in their height and strength and the weight they could support.

For Fraser in 1980, the Western alliance was the central pillar—the defining interest. The Cold War framed Fraser’s understanding of the world and power among nations. Equally, he was conscious of the rigidities and restrictions imposed by the Cold War and alliance demands. Australia didn’t have much room to move.

Points two, three and four were expressions of Fraser’s efforts to find other ways and alternate avenues for Australia’s international interests. He hankered to reinforce those lesser pillars to reach for other modes of play, beyond alliance, where Australia had more options and could play a bigger role.

Notice that point one is the ‘Western alliance’ not the ‘US alliance. This choice is a flicker of what would be Fraser’s eventual journey away from ANZUS.

In 1980, to talk of the West and alliance was really to talk of the US. Fraser nods to this directly in the first of the two key reasons he offered for why the alliance was vital to Australia:

  1. The alliance offered ‘the ultimate guarantee of our security should a direct threat to Australia ever eventuate.’
  2. The alliance was the necessary instrument for maintaining a global strategic balance ‘to ensure a measure of stability in international affairs in our region as in others.’

That word ‘instrument’ matters. Times change and instruments can become outmoded, and this is where Fraser’s flicker became a flag:

‘Let this be clearly understood: Australia’s commitment to the Western alliance is ultimately not based on historical ties or ideology or cultural compatibility, important as those things are. It is based four-square on an appreciation of Australia’s interests and what Australia’s interests require.’

In 1980, points two and four—regionalism and middle power activism—were expressions of ambition, flavoured by ad hoc opportunism and driven by hope. These pillars were still in design-and-build stages.

Read this way, the four pillars and the strange building they support are an expression of Fraser’s dissatisfaction. These were the best levers he had to pull. This was all he had to work with!

The essential components were a formalised statement of Fraser’s comment to Parliament on 1 June 1976, that a successful Australian foreign policy must be ‘flexible, alert, undogmatic. We must recognise that Australia, a middle power, lives in a world where power in a broad sense remains a major factor in international politics.’

In his 1980 statement, Fraser reached towards that goal by kicking against the failure of previous efforts: ‘On occasions in the past Australian foreign policy has been too modest and too passive. On other occasions it has suffered from delusions of grandeur and the absence of a sense of limitations.’

At the time, the ‘delusions of grandeur’ stuff was primarily about his vanquished opponent, Gough Whitlam. In Fraser’s post-politics evolution, his critique centred on a passive and fearful Australia, and the targets became more numerous.

A following column will talk about the continuities at the heart of Fraser’s foreign policy—what he carried on from his predecessors (notably Whitlam) and the elements that were, in turn, carried on by Hawke, Keating, Howard and Rudd. A big part of that continuity from Whitlam to Fraser can be found in points two and four. Whitlam’s efforts on regionalism and middle-power nimbleness were excellent expressions of what Fraser meant by an Australia that was smart and flexible.

The leaders who followed Fraser helped create more useful instruments that gave Australia a guaranteed role on important stages based on its regional role and middle power status—APEC, the East Asia Summit, the G20.

In his time, Fraser put lots of work into a vain effort to get a seat at the G7. The G7 ambition had a hint of grand delusion about it, showing Fraser’s supreme confidence that he was a leader who could play at any level. And his wish to give Australia more instruments and more room to play internationally.

Viewed today, point three is the anachronism. Expect a further column on why Malcolm Fraser was Australia’s last Commonwealth man.