Oz strategists: Owen Harries (part 1)
6 Jul 2020|

As a foreign affairs intellectual, Owen Harries was an idea-slinger with a measured draw and a true aim.

A well-argued stoush suited this man from South Wales who embraced Washington and adopted Australia.

Harries knew that in running government and making policy, you can’t get light without producing heat.

After Harries’s death at the age of 90 last month, Australia’s prime minister and foreign minister called him ‘one of the architects of Australia’s modern foreign policy’ and ‘the driving force behind Australia’s post-Vietnam foreign policy’. It’s a notable tribute for a thinker—certainly a highly skilled surveyor of the foreign policy terrain—who spent only six years in government service in Canberra.

As Paul Kelly wrote, Harries’s career impact was as an editor, writer, networker and intellectual participant: ‘His battlefield was the world of ideas and he was a dedicated and engaging warrior. He understood the techniques needed to influence power. He talked and wrote with reason, logic and eloquence and was fused with intellectual integrity.’

Harries’s journey was from the socialist left to the anti-communist right. Growing up in a Welsh mining valley during the 1930s depression, Harries observed, ‘I don’t think I saw a live conservative for the first 20 years of my life.’

As a senior lecturer at Sydney University and then professor of political science at the University of New South Wals, Harries was an ‘unapologetic cold warrior’ and supporter of the Vietnam war. Ahead of the 1972 election, though, he was so dismayed at the disarray of the Liberal government he decided to vote Labor. When he told Gough Whitlam, the Labor leader responded: ‘Well, Owen, if you’re going to vote for me, I’m going to win.’

It was an uncharacteristic Labor moment. Harries’s intellectual influence in Australia tended to be on the Liberal Party view of the world.

In 1974, Harries did something that’s normal in the US but highly unusual in Oz: he left his job as a university professor to work for the shadow foreign minister, Andrew Peacock. When the Libs took government in 1975, Harries became head of policy planning in the foreign affairs department, and then adviser to Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser.

In early 1978, Fraser appointed Harries to head an inquiry on Australia’s relations with the third world. That was when I first experienced the full force of the Owen effect. I remember strolling back from the foreign affairs building to the press gallery in the old parliament, reflecting that Harries was unlike any diplomat or public servant I’d ever met. This was a man with the warmth and smarts to beguile Peacock, yet the steel and fire to argue with Fraser.

The Harries report reflects the times and what Australia saw as it peered west, north and east. As Harries later said:

You must remember that from 1973, when OPEC made its first move and forced up the price of oil, when America was very much on the defensive after Vietnam and Watergate, the Third World was at its most militant. It was riding high, it was exerting a lot of pressure on the West, and in those circumstances, it was felt—by Peacock and Fraser—that Australia was particularly vulnerable as a sort of outpost of the West with a lot of Third World neighbours. It was rightly felt that we needed to give serious consideration to what all this meant.

Harries offered a meditation on the nature of his adopted country and what it must do internationally. While Australia was a ‘Western country, we are Western with a difference’, located in ‘the Asia–Pacific region far from the traditional centres of Western power’.

The report is still fresh in emphasising Southeast Asia (‘a living reality for Australia’) and the economic strength, political stability and self-confidence of ASEAN.

Too often, the Harries report said, Australia had used the ambiguities of ‘the celebrated tension between our history and our geography’ to maintain an ambivalent posture towards Southeast Asia. The tempo of change meant Australia would have to decide ‘what sort of country we are going to be and what kind of relations we are going to have with our neighbours’.

After the dark tone last week of Australia’s new defence strategic update, ponder this Harries wisdom from 41 years ago: ‘Today, our defence—while still dependent basically on the global power balance—needs to take more account of our own neighbourhood and the possibility that we might on occasion be alone in meeting threats originating in, or transmitted via, that neighbourhood.’

Fraser appointed Harries as Australia’s ambassador to UNESCO in 1982, and its Paris HQ became a glorious new battleground.

Harries was the most undiplomatic of diplomats in his attacks on UNESCO as corrupt, inefficient and grossly anti-Western: ‘Even by UN standards, UNESCO was pretty outrageous, and I always argued that even those who believed in the UN should have wanted to criticise and attack UNESCO because it was giving the UN a bad name.’

For a journalist (I was an ABC correspondent in London at the time), Harries generated great stories. When Whitlam followed Harries as UNESCO ambassador, the yarns multiplied—much heat, little light. Harries claimed a win when Ronald Reagan withdrew the US from UNESCO in 1984. The UN rejectionism that afflicts the Oz Liberal Party has plenty of DNA from Harries.

From Paris, Harries headed to the US to become the most influential Australian in Washington during two decades as the founding editor of The National Interest (see Kissinger’s letter to Harries in the Lowy Institute tribute).

As a master controversialist, Harries probed and slashed at ‘the dangerous rise of a hubristic triumphalism in America’. But he was also the smart editor who published Francis Fukuyama’s essay on The end of history.

Come the 21st century, Harries returned to live in Sydney. In 2003, he delivered one of the most brilliant lectures ever on Oz foreign policy and the US alliance. Please savour Harries at his grandest—as you listen to his voice and read his words—in his Boyer lecture, ‘Punching above our weight?