Foreign Policy Doctrine and the Oil ‘Gotcha’ Moment

There has been a media and blogger gotcha moment when Nelson mentioned that armed intervention in Iraq was related to securing energy supplies. We know that the Carter Doctrine from 1980 stated clearly that the US would use military might in the Gulf region if American national interests, read energy interests, were placed in danger. So any politician who denies there was a strategic interest in securing the region for energy purposes is being dishonest. Nelson was stating the obvious there.

But what does it have to do with Australia? Other than oil producing nations such as Venezuala (and until recently Indonesia) who buy off their populations dependence on government good-will through the subsidy of oil, America and Australia are two of the lowest cost energy nations on the planet. Certainly amongst the OECD nations, taxes and the cost of energy are extremely low in both the US and Australia. So we do have an interest in a stable Middle East and a breaking of energy cartels such as OPEC.

There still remains the question why we bought into the US military invasion of Iraq. That cannot be understood without a discussion of the foreign policy doctrine which has guided Australian policy making for the last century; the “great and powerful friends” doctrine or GAPF.

Australia has three competing foreign policy doctrines; the GAPF, the Engagement doctrine and International Liberalism. None of them are pursued absolutely, but they have dominated at different times the policy making decisions of different governments.

International Liberalism found a dominant voice under Doc Evatt after WWII. It sought to stop violence between nations by communicating openly and having a forum where international politics could compete in an environment that did not lead to brinkmanship or the breaking off of diplomatic relations. This is the basis for the United Nations which Evatt had a large hand in the construction of. Evatt and Burton were pretty blunt about the open communication component of it too, dispensing with diplomatic niceties and double-speak, often shockingly so.

Engagement is a very modern doctrine which Gareth Evans pursued. It seeks to leverage all the intangible soft power such as social, cultural, economic, diasporans and immigrants into national political power. The basis for it is that unless there is complete engagement by all aspects of the national character then security is impossible. It is a policy well suited to the network effects of globalisation. It has its origins in Asian Engagement which is associated with Paul Keating, but stretches back to Australian support for Asian decolonialisation after WWII and Percy Spender’s Colombo Plan.

Those two doctrines have had to compete with the GAPF; though at all times foreign policy has comprised a mix of the doctrines, the GAPF has been the one that has dominated policy making, while not absolutely, sometimes very close to being so.

The ‘great and powerful friends’ doctrine gets its name from a Robert Menzies speech but it was Billy Hughes in 1919 at Versailles who established it. The basis for the GAPF is that Australia makes its foreign policy subservient to the powerful friend in return for military security and preferential economic treatment. At the time the GAPF was Britain. Hughes was concerned that Australia was undefendable unless the Royal Navy could protect it; his other issue was that he believed, incorrectly, unless there was absolute loyal to Britain, then Canada would get greater access to the British markets for wheat. At the time Britain was a major export market for Australian products.

This was policy practiced by all governments including Curtin in WWII. It is odd, Curtin’s statement that “we look to America” without “any pangs” relating to our traditional relationship with Britain is seen as some watershed in Australian politics. It is not. It is the GAPF doctrine just with a new friend. WWII made it obvious that British blue water supremacy was gone, and replaced by American naval power.

Menzies tried to realign Britain back as the powerful friend, but it was obvious that America was the new western power. Percy Spender had his finger on the rhythms of cold war politics far better than Menzies did, it would have been interesting if Spender had the numbers to become PM. The 50s would have been far more interesting for political historians. Menzies was left promoting Briton culture in Australia while extending the GAPF militarily to the US.

Since Menzies Australian governments have embraced the GAPF uniformly, probably the only break being Keating’s government who placed Engagement as a higher priority, but even then, the GAPF played a strong role in policy making. Just as Howard has had to embrace Engagement with China and International Liberalism with East Timor. They all play their role at different times.

The main problem with GAPF is that its three major premises are all based on fallacies. The first is having a subservient foreign policy. This does not isolate or inoculate Australia from bad decision making by the powerful friend. The most recent example of the powerful friend getting it all wrong is the invasion of Iraq. But there have been others in the past; for instance Ford and Kissinger knowing about the invasion of East Timor and not telling Fraser; and the Australian involvement in the establishment of a dictator in Chile.

Related to this is the assumption that Australia can influence American policy by its subservience. As the examples above show, international politics is based on power, and the US is often belligerent in how it plays power politics – and why shouldn’t it be? The US is the dominant economic, military and political power. Pretending that Australia can influence American policy is setting a national leader up for failure and denying the realities of international power politics. Tony Blair is a good example of this.

The military component of the doctrine finds itself mythologised in the ANZUS Treaty. This was negotiated by John Foster-Dulles specifically to stop Australia ‘doing a Curtin’ should there be a global war with the Soviet Union. ANZUS is a statement that the US will protect Australia in the case of a global war so that Australia will leave its troops in the Middle East and North Africa – and not bring them home – like it did in 1942.

ANZUS has been sold in many forms to the electorate, recently as the “US Alliance” and meaning more than it really does. When the September 11th attacks occurred and Howard enacted a clause in it, there was a pause from Washington, along with a thank you and a curt reminder that it meant no reciprocal obligations from the US if Australia is hit with a terrorist attack. It was seen as a blatant and clumsy attempt by Australia to force the ANZUS Treaty to be relevant in a post Cold War environment.

ANZUS is myth now, and is a hydra of Australian politicians making that will only end in disappointment when the US inevitably ignores it for reasons of power politics. We saw that level of frustration when the US did not want to take part in the UN mission to East Timor. It has led Australia and Australians to have a sense of entitlement for American involvement in Australian military issues. Which is another negative for the GAPF.

The final fallacy is that the GAPF brings economic benefits. In the last election the Free Trade Agreement with the US was talked up as being a direct result of Australian involvement in Iraq. It was not. Any nation who was prepared to give in on agricultural quotas and who would change their intellectual property laws to match the US’s (including the DMCA) got one. Bilateral FTA agreements were US Trade policy; not a result of Australian foreign policy subservience. Singapore and Chile got FTAs despite opposing the invasion of Iraq, and Costa Rica got one, while supporting Iraq, but not sending any forces.

The GAPF is predicated on failure. The only reason I can see for it still being pursued is because it allows for lazy foreign policy, and has been built to mythical standards in the electorate that it is hard to dump it democratically. Then again, Evatt and Evans pursued differing doctrines and the sun didn’t stop shining on Australia.

So back to the oil question.

Howard and Curtin have probably been the purist supporters of the GAPF doctrine. Securing energy in the Gulf is in American interests, hence it is in Australian interests both indirectly through the GAPF and directly for Australia as a low cost oil nation. Are we there for oil? Tangentially but not really.

Australia is there because of the GAPF doctrine.

This entry was posted in Politics - national, Uncategorised. Bookmark the permalink.
Notify of
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
14 years ago

Australia’s nuclear disarmament campaign was another good example of the international liberalism strain. Perhaps it also shows how these different strains can sometimes work together. Australia’s closeness to the United States meant we could undertake a nuclear disarmament campaign without making the US itself feel threatened.

Our foriegn policy in Australia seems to be either something we can be immensely proud of, like our contribution to the founding of the UN, or absolutely cringe worthy when we desperately resort to the GAPF doctrine like frightened children.

Ken Lovell
14 years ago

All straightforward common sense stuff yet I despair of the chances of these critically important issues ever attracting much attention in Australia. Maybe enough action on blogs – John Quiggin has something with similar themes today – will slowly get traction in the public consciousness.

Two points I’d add:

(1) The current grovelling to the USA is potentially extremely dangerous for our national interests, should the US get involved in a serious confrontation with China or our anti-Muslim zealotry create a hostile Indonesia (the implications for Australia of an anti-Western government coming to power in Jakarta again don’t even seem to register with Howard’s mob, at least publicly);
(2) It’s important not to fall into the trap of believing that foreign policy is a carefully-considered rational phenomenon. Don’t under-estimate the influence of personal idiosyncrasies. Alexander Downer for example seems obsessed with boosting Australia’s role as a world power, as if international diplomacy is a kind of Olympic sport and it would be good to be up there with the big boys. I suspect this makes us look faintly ridiculous in large parts of the world – I cringe when I hear Howard recount how he’s lectured the Iraqi PM about the need to Do Better, yeah sure John like al-Maliki gives a stuff what you think about anything – but it sure panders to the vanity of the individuals concerned.

14 years ago

Maybe enough action on blogs – John Quiggin has something with similar themes today – will slowly get traction in the public consciousness.


14 years ago

IANA Geo-political historian, but the lessons we – Australia – should have taken from the Fall of Singapore and the whole “doing a Curtin” thing are two-fold

a) Eventually the Great and Powerful Friend becomes less Great and Powerful and some upstart comes along and pokes them in the eye. I imagine we still have some time before the US hegemony goes the way of the British or Roman empires, but they were probably saying that in Singapore during January 1942 just as we will be right up until the inevitable happens and someone changes the playing pieces enough to level the field.

b) Eventually the Great and Powerful Friend comes to a point where pursuing their own interests means exploiting us or looking the other way while we take a hit. We are Jughead and our GAPF is Reggie, not Archie. “Doing a Curtin” – the idea that we as a nation shouldn’t move to defend ourselves – is really quite offensive and something only an exploitive friend would ponder.

14 years ago

Very good post, Cam. Well detailed and succinctly delivered. Of course we’re there for the oil. It’s just not diplomatic to say so.

Juan Moment
Juan Moment
14 years ago

Yeah, nice post Cam. I take it you are not a subscriber to the GAPF doctrine then.

If the decision on who our powerful friend should be would be purely based on economic selection criteria, we’d be China’s underling. Asia is where we largely export to and import from. This from an Age Business report two years ago:

“….Far from becoming more important to Australia in recent years, the US has gone backwards, as an import supplier and an export market. Despite the import boom, last year Australia imported 11 per cent less from the US than in 2002 – while as an export market, the US has shrunk to the size of South Korea or New Zealand…..”

So much to the economic benefits of our alignment with the US. As you pointed out, you don’t have to be a military stooge of the US in order to do good business with the US.

I understand the thinking behind the idea of Australia prospering thanx to being in the slipstream of a “great and powerful friend”, sounds at first pretty rational. At least if taking into account the country’s strategic weaknesses, being mainly that it is a massive resource rich land mass, somewhat isolated from the rest of the anglo-saxon world, with a relatively small population of 20 million people to protect it.

It seems to me that the urge to form and stick to such an alliance is however born in an emotion far deeper running than concerns of self-defense. The feeling of belonging. It’s the family, hence we ought to stick together. The ANZUS Treaty might be dead, but I guess if it really came to crunch time, and Australia would come under some sort of attack from a hostile nation(s), the US, Canada and GB would still send help if possible. The doctrine’s assumption of mutual military support in times of crisis has some merit, based on the almost axiom like notion of “blood being thicker than water”. I can’t see that change in a hurry, labor or liberals.

However, it creates an unhealthy dependency, leaving the country in shackles bound to a “friend” who does not act that “great” at times. Quite contrary, as a result of this staunch support of the GAPF doctrine Australia found itself fighting an unjust and lost war in Vietnam and now in Iraq. It’s international reputation is that of the regional US Deputy, who jumps when told to. The current hammering the US image is receiving world wide, thanx to Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and other manifestations of US neo-con wet dreams about imperial glory, has probably also some effect on Australia’s standing, especially in our home region.

Whilst pragmatism foreign policy is vital, a regular recalibration of our strategic concepts might lead to Australia being less perceived as being the SE Asian bully who’s signed up with the biggest protection racket in town. Not very likely under Howard though, I must admit.

14 years ago

Juan, I take it you are not a subscriber to the GAPF doctrine then.

No I am not. A strong relationship with the US will always have its place but the GAPF is predicated on failure and an archaic view of Australian power and assertiveness.

If the decision on who our powerful friend should be would be purely based on economic selection criteria, wed be Chinas underling.

IIRC Japan is our largest trading partner (US is second and China third IIRC). Paul Sheehan wrote in 2003:

(It is not improbable that in the future Australia will seek such an alliance with China on the basis of this ingrained diplomatic doctrine.)

heh. Presumably Australia will be unable to grow imaginative and courageous politicians in the meantime. Should also be noted that GAPF came about when Australia was a dominion still and the Colonial Office did foreign policy for Australia. That hasn’t been true since the late 1940s and the establishment of the Department of Foreign Affairs. Menzies also handled directly a lot of foreign policy stuff as PM in the 30s.

As you pointed out, you dont have to be a military stooge of the US in order to do good business with the US.

Definitely, America is a trading nation first and foremost.

paul frijters
paul frijters
14 years ago

fascinating reading. And you’re right about the media component: it took me ages after arriving in Oz to hear and work out that foreign policy was dictated by the GAPF, but you’d never know from the statements the journos give on the news. There’s always some ‘official reason’ for doing things (like the mythical weapons of mass destruction). I think the GAPF is a very popular doctrine though. Australians seem to like to believe they still belong to the Western world because of its relation with the US. It doesnt need it to be Western but it seems to work for them in a psychological sense. It does show a lack of self-belief and self-confidence though. Why dont we simply develop a nuke of our own if we’re really so afraid of foreign agression? If 4 million Israelis can do it, surely 21 million Australians can too. Its only a matter of time till all our big neighbours have one.

Broken left leg
14 years ago

We are not in Iraq for oil, we are there for “energy security”. Iraq has a great potential to be the solar capital of the world. Good wind energy potential too!
At least one lib was honest about Iraq for five minutes.

14 years ago

Paul, Why dont we simply develop a nuke of our own if were really so afraid of foreign agression?

When it was feared that US power was collapsing with Vietnam there was a quick rush to develop nuclear weaponry in Australia IIRC. I don’t think it is necessary to have nukes. Australia has a regionally dominant military though that is being placed under pressure with some of the recent decision making that has eroded our projection capability.

The other issue is that this doctrine was developed when Australia was still a dominion in foreign policy but we have had a Department of Foreign Affairs since the end of WWII. So there is really no excuse for trading away Australian independence in that manner. I think it is just lazy and unimaginative policy making.

paul frijters
paul frijters
14 years ago

on reflection I think I agree with you that there is no strategic need for a nuke right now. They’re expensive toys to keep and we’d probably be able to develop one fairly quickly should the situation change. Developing one now would mainly be useful as a psychological statement of independence.
As the GAPF just coming about out of laziness, I’m not sure. Its a very popular doctrine. I dont really know why Australians like the feeling of being the big boy’s friend, but they undoubtedly do and would want the next PM (lib or lab) to behave that way whether he was lazy or not.