H-Diplo Article Review 868- Benvenuti on Halvorson. “From Commonwealth Responsibility to the National Interest: Australia and Post-war Decolonisation in South-East Asia.”

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H-Diplo Article Review No. 868
27 June 2019

Article Review Editors: Thomas Maddux and Diane Labrosse
Web and Production Editor: George Fujii

Dan Halvorson.  “From Commonwealth Responsibility to the National Interest: Australia and Post-war Decolonisation in South-East Asia.”  The International History Review 40:4 (2018): 870-892.  DOI:  https://doi.org/10.1080/07075332.2017.1357135.

URL: https://hdiplo.org/to/AR868


Review by Andrea Benvenuti, University of New South Wales, Australia

Dan Halvorson’s “From Commonwealth Responsibility to the National Interest” is an interesting article that aims to “re-examine the drivers” of Australia’s engagement with Southeast Asia in the three decades following the end of the Second World War (870). It is based on solid research and shows a good balance between primary and secondary sources. While it is not, strictly speaking, a work of political or diplomatic history, Halvorson’s article blends history and political science to create a thoughtful analysis of Australia’s post-war engagement with Asia. Its key contention is that Australia’s policy towards this rapidly decolonising region—an area of growing strategic interest for Australians—“was driven” not only by Canberra’s calculation of its cold war strategic interests, but also by “normative sentiments of responsibility to the [British] Commonwealth” (872). Halvorson defines responsibility as a political concept that is “normative rather than self-interested” since “it is dedicated to the common good defined according to a set of cultural values” (874; emphasis in the original). He agrees with Richard McKeon that a political “community reflects a tradition of responsibility based on the character of the community,” which is “responsible to the requirements of common values and of the common good.”[1]

In the specific case of Australia, it is worth recalling that in the first two decades after the Second World War, Australia still shared close political, cultural, and economic ties with Britain and the formerly British Dominions of Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa. In varying degrees, Australia and these other British settler nations all enjoyed a strong sense of identification with Britain and the British Commonwealth. In practice, this meant, as Halvorson puts it, that “[f]or self-governing [British] Dominions, the organic, intangible bonds of the British Commonwealth were an independent community of values with a common rationality, to which responsibility was felt to be owed” (874). With this in mind, while recognizing that Australian policymakers’ emerging concerns about regional Communism no doubt played a significant role in shaping Australia’s regional role in the early Cold War, Halvorson nonetheless contends that such a role was by no means defined by “narrow strategic interests” (871). On the contrary, Australia’s growing involvement in Southeast Asia also derived from a sense of “responsibility” towards the British Commonwealth and its regional policies, including that of securing an orderly transfer of power in British colonial territories in Southeast Asia (Malaya, Singapore and the Borneo States). In this last respect, he emphasizes Australia’s significant contribution to the “decolonisation and nation-building of former British dependencies, whether directly in a security sense as in Malaya, and later Malaysia, or with the provision of aid and technical assistance through the Colombo Plan” (871), which was a 1950 British Commonwealth scheme aimed at fostering economic and social development in South and Southeast Asia. He further argues that “the sense of Commonwealth responsibility only began to decline” in the mid-1960s when Malaysia was made safe for decolonization in the aftermath of Indonesia’s botched campaign of Konfrontasi (Confrontation) and Britain began to withdraw from Southeast Asia (872). In a nutshell, believing that the notion of “Commonwealth responsibility” has not been given “sufficient explanatory weight” in the existing literature on “Australia’s post-war engagement with South-East Asia under both Australian Labor Party and Liberal-Country Party (Coalition) governments” (871), Halvorson sets out to provide a corrective analysis to the standard interpretations of Australia’s post-war engagement with its neighbouring region.

In my view, the strength of Halvorson’s article lies in this corrective analysis. Conventional readings of Australia’s post-war policy of engagement with Asia hold that Ben Chifley’s Labor government (1945-1949) positioned Australia well, in diplomatic terms, to take advantage of its expanding regional links.[2] Generally credited with the crafting of a more independent foreign policy—one that was not so reliant on Australia’s special relationship with Britain—the Chifley government, it is maintained, showed itself to be more attuned to the aspirations, sensibilities and needs of a decolonising Asia and in so doing, it was well placed to make Australia an active and respected regional player. By contrast, most scholars of Australian foreign relations have regarded the coming into office of Robert Menzies’s conservative Liberal-Country Party Coalition government (1949-1966) both as a major departure from this approach and as a retrograde step in Australia’s incipient engagement with its neighbouring region. As the standard interpretation goes, Menzies’s “British race patriotism” and his staunch support for American and British policies of containment in Asia not only sat uncomfortably with Asian demands for self-determination but also antagonized important regional actors. Simply put, far from engaging meaningfully with its Asian neighbours, the Liberal-Country Party government isolated Australia from them.[3]

Contrary to prevailing scholarly opinion, Halvorson wisely argues that no such a divergence existed between the left-wing Chifley government and Menzies’s conservative administration.[4] In fact, the opposite is true, with both governments showing remarkable continuity in their approach to Southeast Asia (871). Within the restricted confines of a brief article review, it is not possible to do full justice to Halvorson's key arguments. However, suffice it to say that, in his view, both governments contributed significantly to deepening Australia’s relations with Southeast Asia and that, to some degree, they did so by taking on greater Commonwealth responsibilities in the region. As Halvorson puts it, if the Chifley government’s “perceptions of security interests in Australia’s ‘near north…informed and structured its Commonwealth responsibilities,” in Menzies’s case his “British Commonwealth responsibilities sometimes took precedence over U.S. conceptions of strategic interest in South-East Asia until the mid-1960s” (872).

While Halvorson makes a welcome contribution to the study of Australia’s engagement with Southeast Asia, his analysis, however, does contain some minor problems of historical interpretation and accuracy. One is his somewhat brief treatment of Canberra’s approach to the decolonisation of British Southeast Asia. Although he is right to emphasise that Australia’s defence commitments to Commonwealth defence in Southeast Asia through the Australia, New Zealand and Malaya Agreement (ANZAM) and the Commonwealth Strategic Reserve “served to foster Australian involvement in the British decolonisation process across the Malayan peninsula and archipelago,” this involvement is cast predominantly in politico-strategic terms. Little is said about Australia’s attempts at nation-building beyond Australia’s politico-economic contribution through the Colombo Plan’s economic aid and technical assistance.[5] The article does not, for instance, shed light on how Australia viewed and responded to British colonial policy in Malaya/Malaysia, Singapore and the Borneo States (and how Australia’s notion of ‘Commonwealth responsibility’ stopped short of Canberra becoming associated too closely with Britain for fear that close identification with a European colonial power might complicate Australia’s growing efforts to engage with Southeast Asia).[6] Nor does it devote attention to how Canberra increased contacts with local nationalist elites and developed greater familiarity with them.[7]

Moreover, while sympathizing with Halvorson’s contention that ‘Commonwealth responsibility’ has not received enough scholarly attention in the existing literature on Australia’s engagement with Southeast Asia,[8] this reviewer remains somewhat sceptical about the weight given to this factor in explaining Canberra’s deepening regional involvement. In this reviewer’s view, strategic considerations, rather than Australia’s notions of Commonwealth responsibility (or, to put it somewhat differently, Australia’s strong political, economic, cultural, and sentimental ties of empire), played a primary role in driving Australia’s approach to the region. It was Canberra’s sense of strategic vulnerability and its continuing dependence on the British strategic ‘blanket’ in the absence of a tangible American commitment to regional security that drove the Chifley government “to renew Australian efforts to achieve greater Commonwealth defence cooperation in Asia” and “[ensur] that Singapore and Malaya would continue to play a significant role in Australian post-war foreign policy and defence thinking.”[9] Similarly, it was the onset of the Cold War in East Asia and Washington’s reluctance to make specific peacetime commitments of American defence forces to the Southeast Asian mainland (and, inter alia, its unwillingness to agree to close policy coordination and strategic planning with its Western allies in Southeast Asia) that compelled the Menzies administration to revive ANZAM arrangements and strengthen Anglo-Australian defence cooperation in the mid-1950s.[10] This, however, was not the whole story. The Australian government was also pushed in that direction by its desire to make sure that Britain would not be tempted to pull out of an area of growing strategic interest for Australia.[11] Not surprisingly, in January 1955, the then Secretary of the Australian Department of External Affairs, Arthur Tange, warned his Minister of External Affairs, Richard Casey, that Australia “might hear rumbles of a change back to a [British] policy of abandoning Malaya unless we show that the Government here is willing to address itself seriously to the kind of defence effort required for its retention.”[12] Last, but not less importantly, Menzies also felt that unless Britain and its former Australasian dominions convinced Washington of their resolve to hold Malaya, the United States might be reluctant to assist in Southeast Asia.[13]

In spite of this minor criticism, Dan Halvorson’s “From Commonwealth Responsibility to the National Interest” remains a welcome and valuable contribution to the study of Australia’s relations with Southeast Asia during the early Cold War. It is all the more welcome because it provides some much-needed balance in an otherwise somewhat unbalanced treatment of Australia's regional engagement.


Andrea Benvenuti is a Senior Lecturer in international relations at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. Educated at Florence University, Monash University and Oxford University, he currently teaches twentieth-century diplomacy at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels. His research interests lie in the field of post-1945 international history with a strong focus on the Cold War.  He recently published Cold War and Decolonisation: Australia’s Policy towards Britain’s End of Empire in Southeast Asia (Singapore: NUS Press, 2017). He is currently working on a co-authored book on the impact of Western power on the shaping of the Asian regional system (1900-1989) and a single-authored book on the Western alliance and the challenge of Afro-Asianism and non-alignment in Asia.

© 2019 The Authors | Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License



[1] Richard McKeon, “The Development and Significance of the Concept of Responsibility,” Revue Internationale de Philosophie 11:39 (1957): 25.

[2] Meg Gurry, “Identifying Australia’s Region: From Evatt to Evans,” Australian Journal of International Affairs 49:1 (1995): 21-22. For a detailed discussion of the existing literature on Australia’s post-war engagement with Asia, see Andrea Benvenuti and David Martin Jones, “Myth and Misrepresentation in Australian Foreign Policy: Menzies and Engagement with Asia,” Journal of Cold War Studies 13:4 (2011): 57-78, DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1162/JCWS_a_00168; see also Michael Rainsborough, H-Diplo Article Review 343 of Andrea Benvenuti and David Martin Jones, “Myth and Misrepresentation in Australian Foreign Policy: Menzies and Engagement with Asia,” Journal of Cold War Studies 13:4 (2011): 57-78, 13 February 2012, https://hdiplo.org/to/AR343.

[3] Benvenuti and Jones, “Myth and Misrepresentation,” 57-60.

[4] Robert Menzies would remain Prime Minister of Australia until January 1966 when he retired from politics.

[5] Having said this, this reviewer is also cognizant of the fact that it would be difficult to cover this whole ground in a relatively short academic article. For the Colombo Plan, see Daniel Oakman, Facing Asia: A History of the Colombo Plan (Canberra: ANU E Press, 2010), available at https://press-files.anu.edu.au/downloads/press/p52161/pdf/book.pdf.

[6] Andrea Benvenuti, Cold War and Decolonisation: Australia’s Policy towards Britain’s End of Empire in Southeast Asia (Singapore: NUS Press, 2017).

[7] Benvenuti, Cold War and Decolonisation.

[8] As this reviewer has recently argued, although “Britain’s ‘return’ to Southeast Asia was far from being a negligible factor in shaping Australia’s regional policy, studies on post-war Australian foreign and defence policy have insufficiently discussed the impact of such a ‘factor’ on Australia’s regional engagement and post-war alliances. Britain’s decline as a global and imperial power in the 1950s has barely registered a blip in the large and ever-growing literature on Australian foreign relations and has generally been treated as a familiar historical trend—perhaps all too familiar to warrant scrutiny”. See Benvenuti, Cold War and Decolonisation, 9.

[9] Benvenuti, Cold War and Decolonisation, 14. For the term strategic “blanket” this reviewer is indebted to David Goldsworthy, Losing the Blanket: Australia and the End of Britain's Empire (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2002).

[10] Benvenuti, Cold War and Decolonisation, 20-27. For Washington’s reluctance to coordinate strategic policy, see David Lee, “Australia and Allied Strategy in the Far East, 1952-1957,” Journal of Strategic Studies 16:4 (1993): 512-527. For American unwillingness to take on burdensome Southeast Asian commitments under President Harry Truman, see Gregory Pemberton, “Australia, the United States and the Indochina Crisis of 1954,” Diplomatic History 13:1 (1989), 48. For President Dwight Eisenhower’s policy towards Southeast Asia, see Robert McMahon, The Limits of Empire. The United States and Southeast Asia since World War II (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 42-104.

[11] Benvenuti, Cold War and Decolonisation, 26.

[12] Tange cited in Benvenuti, Cold War and Decolonisation, 26.

[13] The National Archives of the United Kingdom, Kew Gardens, DO 35/5986, Appendix I to letter J 481 of 25 November 1954: note of discussions between Menzies and MacDonald on the 17th November 1954.