H-Diplo Article Review 917 on “With Friends like These: Australia, the United States and Southeast Asia Détente.”

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H-Diplo Article Review 917

9 January 2020

Andrea Benvenuti and David Martin Jones.  “With Friends like These: Australia, the United States and Southeast Asia Détente.”  Journal of Cold War Studies 21:2 (2019):  27-57. DOI:  https://doi.org/10.1162/jcws_a_00876.

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

Review by Michael Rainsborough, King’s College, University of London

For a prime minister whose tenure in office was relatively short lived, some two years and eight months (or relatively long judging by the standards of more recent Australian premiers), the influence of Edward Gough Whitlam has been remarkably enduring. Whitlam governed Australia between December 1972 and October 1975. He was dismissed from office by the Governor-General when he refused to hold a general election, having lost control over the upper house, the Senate, and was unable to pass his budget into law.

Whitlam never held major public office again and died in 2014. His obituaries paid tribute to his broader impact on Australia’s political landscape, with one commentator declaring that he “bequeathed to his successors a series of policy glories to be defended” (27). Such a view repeated the orthodox foreign-policy establishment assessment of Whitlam even when he was alive, namely, that he succeeded in remodeling the character of Australian foreign policy away from the languor of the Menzies era, lifting a traditional dependency on powerful and distant external protectors, such as the United States and the United Kingdom, and shifting Australia towards a more independent, regionally orientated, posture that was more open to its Asian neighbors.[1]

The Whitlam legacy has been subject to critical dissection over the years, with the first substantial revisionist critiques appearing in the later 1990s and early 2000s, though the stock understanding that his was a watershed premiership has remained largely intact to the present day. Nevertheless, “policy glories” is a bold claim to make.[2] What are these policy glories? Evaluating Whitlamite foreign policy on relations with the United States in the years when the Americans were reappraising their role in Southeast Asia is the subject of “With Friends Like These: Australia, the United States and Southeast Asian Détente,” and it is hard—as the authors Andrea Benvenuti and David Martin Jones show—to make the case that this constituted a “policy glory” in any sense of that term.

Recasting Australia’s place in the world was clearly one of Whitlam’s priorities, evinced by the fact that he served as both prime minister and foreign minister in his first year of office. As an incoming Australian Labor Party (ALP) prime minister after some three decades of unbroken conservative Liberal-Country Party rule, Whitlam was intent on reassessing the country’s national interests. Ostensibly this involved repudiating the policy of containing communism in Asia in an era where President Richard Nixon’s ‘Guam Doctrine’ prefaced the U.S. withdrawal from South Vietnam, whilst simultaneously pursuing détente with the Soviet Union, and reconciliation with China. As the article’s authors discern, the clash of foreign policy perspectives was to cause the relationship between Australia and the United States to nosedive, from which there could emerge only one loser: Whitlam and his idealistic visions of a new Australia.

Andrea Benvenuti and David Martin Jones’ analysis is fair to Whitlam. They point out that American military retrenchment inevitably altered regional dynamics. It prompted many countries in Southeast Asia to reconsider their ties to the United States. It was not unreasonable to expect Australian policy makers to think likewise and to perceive, in particular, that normalizing relations with the People’s Republic of China and the Communist world more generally would, among other things, be a reasonable proposition. The key insight that authors establish, however, is that the basis for subsequent misunderstandings between Australia and the U.S. was rooted in differing visions about how to build peace and security in the region, but one nevertheless based on Whitlam’s fundamental misreading of American intentions toward Southeast Asia.

For President Richard Nixon and National Security Advisor Kissinger the ‘Guam Doctrine’ was never about U.S. disengagement from the region. It was about the recalibration of priorities. No longer would U.S. foreign policy be based on overt interventionist principles to prop up non-Communist regimes. Instead, U.S. policy shifted towards self-help: supporting—economically, politically. and diplomatically—those states that took a lead in their own defense and internal consolidation. Such a policy, according to Benvenuti and Jones, required the continuation of a “credible Western politico-military presence” in order to maintain regional stability (56). This necessitated a careful balance: reducing the U.S. military presence, yet reassuring regional allies about a continuing American commitment to the region, whilst also managing détente with the USSR and seeking rapprochement with China.

The subtleties of Nixon’s and Kissinger’s prudently realist approach to regional security was evidently lost on Whitlam, who believed that the American military drawdown presented the opportunity for an “ideological holiday” in the course of which old Cold War certainties could be thrown overboard and new alignments wrought (49). In this regard the key contention put forward by Benvenuti and Jones is that this led Whitlam into a “somewhat idiosyncratic and moralistic reading of the Cold War in the era of détente” (32), and in particular reflected a need to appease the radical left members of the ALP, who were decidedly antagonistic to the precepts of American foreign policy.

The ALP radicals did not have to wait long to disport their anti-American predilections. The Christmas 1972 bombing campaign unleashed by the U.S. Air Force against Hanoi and Haiphong—Operation Linebacker II—incurred the fury of many on the Labor left. For the Americans the Linebacker II raids were essential to communicate resolve in order to compel the North Vietnamese back to the negotiating table and to reassure the regime of Nguyễn Văn Thiệu that it was not going to be abandoned (just yet), thus enabling South Vietnam to accept the treaty with the North that formally ended the war on 23 January 1973. In that sense, as Benvenuti and Jones observe, the raids were strategically successful, thus allowing the Americans to withdraw with honor.

Whitlam’s reaction to the resumption of the aerial bombing of North Vietnam was to write a note to Nixon in which he rebuked U.S. actions and called for renewed peace negotiations with the North. The Americans were far from impressed. According to the White House tapes, Kissinger described Whitlam’s letter to Nixon as a “cheap little maneuver” and bristled at being put on the same moral plane as the North Vietnamese Communists (36).

For the Americans the situation was this: Australia was a friend and ally. They wanted support to bring an end to their military involvement in Indochina without being humiliated. To be hit with brickbats from Whitlam was therefore deeply irritating. This was especially the case since the United States remained integral to Australia’s security, not least through the Australia, New Zealand, and United States Security Treaty (ANZUS) alliance.  In Kissinger’s view, Australia ultimately needed the U.S. “one hell of a lot more than we need them” (37). For Nixon, Whitlam was “one of the peaceniks” whose actions threatened to endanger the U.S.-Australian bilateral relationship (37). U.S. Secretary of State William Rogers was particularly frustrated with Australian attacks on the administration, declaring that America was “distressed” that “leaders of friendly countries publicly denounce our actions,” and pointedly noted: “when the going gets tough, we look to friends to give us support” (40).

It is interesting to ponder the ironies that were at work. Whitlam believed that “there could not be peace in South East Asia until the United States got out” (39). Yet, that was what the Americans themselves wanted to do, at least in the direct military sense. As the article suggests, the deterioration in U.S.-Australian relations reflected not only Whitlam’s objections to military operations against North Vietnam per se, but wider differences about what U.S. military withdrawal signified. For Whitlam it was a chance to explore the possibilities for a grand settlement—an Asiatic version of Ostpolitik—giving “license to abandon Cold War calculations” (41). Benvenuti and Jones are very effective in outlining Whitlam’s idealist outlook. They cite Whitlam’s own flamboyant rhetoric. He wanted to “shed old stultifying fears.” He wanted a “new regional community,” but “without ideological overtones,” and “free” of “great power rivalries” (42). 

Whitlam’s foreign policy ambitions, therefore, called for the radical reshaping of the regional order and the rejection of the logic of containment. In that regard, Whitlam and his acolytes probably discerned that under this new security dispensation ultimately there would be no real need for continuing U.S. engagement in the region at all. Indeed, towards mid-1973 the Australian government began to openly question the existence of U.S. intelligence facilities on Australian soil at Pine Gap, Nurringar, and North West Cape. To the Americans, by contrast, Whitlam’s grandiose plans for a new regional order lacked seriousness, and reeked of half-baked naiveté, pushed along by the ideological left of the ALP.

The premises upon which containment policy was based and the nature of the Communist threat during the Cold War are ideas that can be usefully discussed and contested through historical analysis. Given the diametrically opposed visions of regional security promulgated by Whitlam and the Americans, it was perhaps inevitable that U.S.-Australian relations were destined to suffer. After all, this was the price to be paid for a stance that, in Whitlam’s words, rejected the notion that South East Asia should be regarded “as a frontier where we fight nameless Asian enemies” (41). The charting of a new course in Australian foreign policy to that extent was bound to end up riling the Americans.

What it is more difficult for Whitlam’s admirers to contest, however, is that his vision of a new direction in regional security had any purchase over Australia’s Asian neighbors, who were, by turns, alarmed and repelled by what they were hearing from Canberra. Many of the countries in Southeast Asia were far less sanguine about the prospects for security and stability. For them, they were not threatened by “nameless enemies” but genuinely feared Communist subversion of their states. They had far more sympathy with the more cautious American view of the region, and, indeed, saw the continuation of U.S. involvement as vitally important to counteract Soviet and Chinese influence.

For this reason, Whitlam’s overtures to Australia’s Southeast Asian neighbors were comprehensively rebuffed. The Indonesians rejected Whitlam’s concept of a broader East Asian regional grouping—a forum in which the influence of China and Northeast Asia more generally would likely predominate. Benvenuti and Jones rightly criticise Whitlam here for misreading “the Indonesian New Order’s understanding of regional resilience, predicated as it was on the rejection of the Communist threat” (44). 

Indonesian concerns were shared in one form or another by Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore. Thailand’s foreign minister publicly repudiated Whitlam’s contention that a continuing American military presence on Thai soil did not contribute to regional stability, claiming that these were the views of a “farang” (derogatory Thai reference to a foreigner) (47). Singapore’s premier Lee Kwan Yew, meanwhile, despised Whitlam from the outset, seeing him as a hectoring parvenu. According to Lee, Whitlam’s ideas for withdrawing Australia from the Five Power Defence Agreement were “sheer lunacy.” He remarked to the U.S. Ambassador to Singapore that despite Australia’s contribution to regional security in the past, Whitlam had “thrown it all away by his inept handing of matters since taking office” (45).

For a foreign policy commentariat that sees the Whitlam era in terms of the construction of a more independent path in world affairs based on greater openness and sensitivity to Asia, the reactions of Australia’s near neighbors to the plans for a new regional security architecture are instructive. Ultimately, they reveal the greater truth that Benvenuti and Jones’s judicious analysis exposes, which is that Whitlam’s idealism, far from being more attuned to the new security realities in Asia, was substantially out of touch with them.

The conclusion of Benvenuti and Jones’s measured appreciation of the Whitlam era on U.S.-Australian relations is harsh but fair, and bears close reading for anyone interested in this period. Although Whitlam came to power with a certain preachy moralizing tone that brushed both the Americans and the Southeast Asians the wrong way, Washington’s frustration with Canberra stemmed largely from the “Australian government’s radically different assessment of political developments in contemporary Asia” (55). Historians can evaluate the wisdom of those assessments in hindsight, but the practical diplomatic impact at the time was unambiguous, and Benvenuti and Jones are correct to argue that in seeking to dramatize a new departure for Australian foreign policy Whitlam “ended up conveying the wrong kind of symbolism: that Western power was no longer necessary to maintain peace and stability in the region” (56).

Moreover, to the extent that Whitlam’s new look foreign policy displayed increased sensitivity to anyone, it was in a desire to placate the major Communist powers of the USSR and People’s Republic of China (PRC) and to temporize before regional autocrats. It was a policy that resulted in, among other things, the recognition of the de jure incorporation of the Baltic states into the Soviet Union (Australia was the only democratic Western country to do so); professing sympathy with North Vietnam’s violation of the Paris Peace in its invasion of the South in 1974; refusing to offer direct help to the ‘boat people’ after 1975 lest it affront the regime in Hanoi; and, turning a blind eye, if not offering de facto encouragement, towards Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor. These were certainly symbols of a more independent course in world affairs. But ethical or “policy glories” they surely were not.

Michael Rainsborough is Professor of Strategic Theory, and Head of the Department of War Studies, King’s College, University of London. He has written extensively on the contemporary history, politics and security of the Asia-Pacific. His work has appeared in numerous publications, including International Affairs, International Security, Journal of Cold War Studies, Cold War History, Review of International Studies, and the Australian Journal of International Affairs.



[1] See for example, Gareth Evans and Bruce Grant, Australia’s Foreign Relations in the World of the 1990s (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1995), 15.

[2] Although few in number, critiques of Whitlam’s foreign policy did appear contemporaneously or in the few years after the end of this term in office. These emerged, however, mainly from journalistic perspectives. See for example, Owen Harries, “Australia's Foreign Policy Under Whitlam,” Orbis XIX:3 (1975): 1090-1101, and Patrick O’Brien, “Constitutional Conflict in Australia,” Conflict Studies 116 (March 1980): 1-20. In all other respects, academic assessments offered little critical evaluation, and mostly fawning praise for Whitlam. More critical scholarly reflections only began to appear some twenty-five years after the Whitlam era. See for example, David Martin Jones and Mike Lawrence Smith, “Misreading Menzies and Whitlam: Reassessing the Ideological Construction of Australian Foreign Policy,” The Round Table 89:355 (2000): 387-406 and David Martin Jones and Mike Lawrence Smith, Reinventing Realism: Australia's Foreign Policy at the Millennium (London: Royal Institute of International Affairs, 2000).