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Oz strategists: Owen Harries (part 2)

Posted By on July 8, 2020 @ 12:21

‘It is extremely dubious whether uncritical, loyal support for a bad, failed American policy will have enhanced our standing as an ally in the long run. A reputation for being dumb but loyal and eager is not one to be sought.’

— Owen Harries, After Iraq [1], 2006

The admonition that Australian strategy must be smart and cautious, not dumbly eager, is classic Owen Harries.

Much as he loved the US, Harries always warned his adopted country, Australia, to maintain a constant, steady gaze on the dangers as well as the blessings of the alliance.

In embracing the US, Harries noted in 2003, Australia must never forget that great powers are cold monsters [2], little motivated by gratitude.

These were central themes in the final two decades of his life, when he returned to Australia from editing The National Interest in Washington, joining the Sydney think tanks the Centre for Independent Studies and the Lowy Institute.

Harries was happy to share his understanding (no light without heat [3]) that good think tanks, like good thinkers, must have good fights. The founding head of the Lowy Institute, Allan Gyngell [4], gives this example of the Owen effect:

New to the world of political controversy and with my lingering public servant’s sense that controversy was to be avoided, I was shaken by the public attacks on the first Lowy poll in 2005 [5], especially in The Australian newspaper, when we found Australian attitudes to the United States that showed the Australian people not quite so enthusiastic as commentators had been arguing. (The results, in fact, were remarkably similar to those this year [6]: a clear distinction in the public mind between attitudes towards the US and its president and support for the alliance.)

Anyway, I was feeling quite shaken by the battering (charges of push polling, et cetera). But then Owen came to my rescue. I still remember him springing through the front door of Bligh Street with his eyes alight and a broad beam on his face, saying, ‘You must be absolutely delighted by the response. Just what you want!’ He made me realise for the first time that I was in a different business now.

Gyngell said it was an illustration of why Harries was so important in the early days of the Lowy effort to create an Oz think tank devoted to foreign policy: ‘Owen knew what public debate was and how you generate it, but although he had strong views himself, he was intellectually fully open to other ideas. In any case, he thoroughly enjoyed the stoush.’

Harries distilled his world view in six Boyer lectures [7] for the ABC in 2003, gathered under the heading, Benign or imperial? Reflections on American hegemony [7]. His core question: Can America’s great power be contained or balanced?

The final lecture—‘Punching above our weight? [2]’—is a brilliant bit of work. In it, Harries divides Oz diplomacy into three schools, defined through the personalities of Australian leaders: the US alliance (the Menzies tradition), multilateralism and the UN (the Evatt tradition), and the region (the Spender–Casey–Keating tradition).

The US alliance, à la Menzies

The realist view of the world is expressed by Australia’s longest-serving prime minister, Robert Menzies, with John Howard as the Menzies manifestation of our times. The Menzies tradition is all about Australia allying with a ‘great and powerful friend’.

Harries pronounced: ‘As a realist and a conservative, Menzies was sceptical of abstract, general schemes. He looked to interest rather than principle as the motive for action, to history and experience rather than abstract reasoning for the basis of sound judgement.’

Australia gives political and military support to maintain the system and seeks security in return. The mindset confers political advantage and was ‘highly congenial to Menzies personally’ because he was ‘wired into the main game of global power politics in a way that was otherwise impossible’. A visit to the White House matters, for personal, political and policy reasons.

Multilateralism and the UN, à la Evatt

As exemplified by Labor’s H.V. Evatt, this tradition is both nationalist and internationalist, seeking to establish Australia’s independence while cleaving to the framework of international rules and laws:

[I]international organisations are regarded as the most congenial and effective forums for a middle power like Australia to register its presence and extend its influence.

This tradition is assertive and energetic. It is concerned to give Australia a high profile as a country capable of making a distinctive contribution to international affairs. Sometimes it leads to hyper-activity and attention-seeking.

The core Harries (and realist) critique of Evatt internationalism is in this: ‘Power politics tends to be seen as chosen mode of behaviour, rather than something inherent in a system of sovereign states and necessary for survival.’

The region, à la Spender, Casey and Keating

The quest for Australia’s place as a natural regional player is represented by two Liberal foreign ministers and a Labor PM. Each was passionate about Asia while being firmly wedded to the alliance. The traditions aren’t separate, but intertwine and interact.

The Menzies and Evatt traditions colour Australia’s approach to the region. It starts with a first-principles commitment to the US alliance system. Working from that base, Canberra has strained mightily to help build diplomatic and strategic structures that can span the Asia–Pacific.

What this demands of Australia in the 21st century is that we achieve a balance between alliance and region. And that thought about balance—between power and purposes, commitments and resources—is at the heart of Harries’s thinking.

In a conference room in Canberra in 2002, discussing the chances and choices offered by Indonesia’s new democracy, I argued that Australia should abandon its traditional attachment to the Indonesian military as a base for stability. Starting his logical demolition of my paper, Harries told me, with a suitably Kantian knout, ‘He who wills the ends, must will the means.’

Such was the prudence Harries offered Australia in concluding his Boyer lectures. Punching above our weight, he said, may produce pride, but it’s ‘also hazardous and a form of activity best avoided’. Better to follow one of the most important sentences ever written about foreign policy, penned in the 1940s by Walter Lippmann:

‘Without the controlling principle that the nation must maintain its objectives and its power in equilibrium, its purposes within its means and its means equal to its purposes, its commitments related to its resources and its resources adequate to its commitment, it is impossible to think at all about foreign affairs.’

With that grand flourish, Harries went to the minor key to end with typically dry advice: ‘Those responsible for Australian foreign policy could do worse than have that sentence framed and hung prominently on their office wall.’

Article printed from The Strategist: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au

URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/oz-strategists-owen-harries-part-2/

URLs in this post:

[1] After Iraq: https://archive.lowyinstitute.org/sites/default/files/pubfiles/Harries%2C_After_Iraq_1.pdf

[2] cold monsters: https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/boyerlectures/lecture-6-punching-above-our-weight/3459850

[3] no light without heat: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/oz-strategists-owen-harries-part-1/

[4] Allan Gyngell: http://www.internationalaffairs.org.au/about-us/our-people/allan-gyngell/

[5] Lowy poll in 2005: https://www.lowyinstitute.org/publications/australians-speak-2005-public-opinion-and-foreign-policy

[6] this year: https://poll.lowyinstitute.org/report/

[7] Boyer lectures: https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/boyerlectures/series/benign-or-imperial-reflections-on-american-hegemony/3340974

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