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Allan Gyngell’s Australian foreign policy legacy

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Allan Gyngell at the Australian National University.

In Brief

With the death last week of Allan Gyngell, retired but until the end active foreign policy analyst, Australia has lost what Foreign Minister Penny Wong rightly called ‘the finest mind in Australian foreign policy’.


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The ancient Greek democrat Demosthenes pointed out that the ‘ship of state’ needs all citizens to prepare to keep it afloat in calm waters, for in storms when the water is flooding in, it is too late. Gyngell preferred plain language rather than quoting the classics. But he was also a historian, and more than anyone, focused on lifting the general understanding of foreign policy across the country to avoid it running dangerously adrift, most recently as President of the Institute of International Affairs, Australia’s grassroots nationwide foreign policy community. Allan’s unfailingly thoughtful approach to foreign policy analysis was on regular display at the Australia in the World podcast he co-hosted for 112 episodes, and as a regular contributor to East Asia Forum.

While Demosthenes was trying to warn democratic Athens of the rise of Macedonia run by a tyrant, today others deploy similar rhetoric about the threat of a rising China and are often alarmingly sanguine about the possibility of war and its implications for the region. This view typically comes with the claim that China, due to its autocratic political system, requires ‘special’ attention. It’s best described as a school of ‘moral idealists’ — not offering the traditional liberal internationalist concern with human rights as an objective in international relations, but the idea (selectively applied in practice) that a country’s legitimacy within the international system rests on conforming to certain normative ideals around democracy and human rights.

Perhaps Gyngell’s most important contribution to Australia’s foreign policy debate in the past several years was to provide a compelling alternative to the moral hawkishness that marks much of the discussion of China in Australian public commentary — and the thinking about it in important parts of its security and foreign policy establishment. As in the United States, this paradigm has fashioned an alliance with supporters of traditional industry policy, such that there is an overlapping consensus for the ‘make it here, to shoot it over there’ strategic view.

The growing overlap of interests between left-wing concerns for jobs and right-wing fears of abandonment — the theme of Gyngell’s historical interpretation of Australia’s foreign policy — has supplied the political rationale for Australia signing up to a security agreement with a rapidly declining former colonial master and the unpredictable leader of the ‘free’ world — neither of which show deep interest in the region, apart from antagonism toward China.

The fact that the caulking in the woodwork doesn’t stand scrutiny only matters if you look closely — as Gyngell exhorted us to do. ‘AUKUS’, he wrote in 2021, ‘will be a sign to our neighbours that the Anglosphere is back. That Australia is in its comfortable place, locked down and hanging out with the family’.

Gyngell subtly led a ‘realist’ school in the Australian debate, with a preference for hard-headed analysis to back clear Australian interests. That school recognises coercion as something big countries use to achieve their ends which may even be welcomed in its replacement of conflict, such as in the form of sanctions on Russia for invading Ukraine.

Rather than ‘preserving’ our way of life, realists prefer to enhance it. They understand that sovereignty means something different to smaller and middle powers who need to make distinctive trade-offs from what it means to big powers who think and act as if they don’t.

It’s a reality to keep in mind as US policy and Australian interests drift in different directions, loath as some in the Canberra establishment are to acknowledge it. It is impossible to reconcile US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s ‘buy American’ strategy with the United States maintaining influence in East Asia, because jobs from our region are explicitly excluded. The United States has given up on using free trade and the prospect of US-style prosperity to glue the region to it. It diminishes its credibility to demand China ‘follow the rules’ when it is bent on defenestrating the WTO, an institution whose functioning smaller countries like Australia rely so much upon.

With China buying 37 per cent of Australian exports and supplying 27 per cent of its imports, almost no other country on the planet has more to lose from decoupling from China than Australia does. Nor is there any clear end for the ‘high fence’ that Mr Sullivan wishes to build around the US ‘small yard’ of ‘critical’ technology industries, since modern technology has so many dual military–civilian uses. Efforts to distance workers from the Chinese new economy actually cuts their communities off from much needed technology.

National security has no constraints, so is subject to mission creep — and as the political economies of ‘decoupling’ take on a life of their own, rent seekers are finding ways to convince politicians that their industry is strategically important. Too often the moral idealists have Australians on the forefront fighting battles best left to others — from antagonistic statements on the origins of COVID-19 to arguing against Chinese economic policies that benefit commodity exporters like Australia directly.

There are real problems and disagreements with China. One is democracy and human rights, about which Australia and China will never soon agree. But an approach to Asia based on cooperation with democracies and ostracisation of authoritarian states is a recipe for Australia to have few friends and little influence to pursue its interests.

Another challenge is economic coercion. Here the realist answer is more global rule making, engagement with China and regional cooperation. Hard-headed realists see China’s national interests as the world’s largest trading nation ultimately in alignment with the collective desire for enforcing rules. Others share Australia’s reasonable concerns with big countries’ arbitrary decision-making and they can form the basis of coalitions that push back against their impact. Realists dominate business and government thinking in Asia.

Gyngell’s vision of an independent foreign policy sees Australia establishing security in Australia’s region, not from it.

There have been many tributes to Gyngell, but what we mourn deeply about his passing beyond losing a friend is the gaping hole he leaves in Australia’s foreign policy thinking. Unassailable given his security background, he provided a ballast that no one else could. He knew that we are sailing into stormy seas, and no one was doing more to steady the ship.

The EAF Editorial Board is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.

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