How to get votes and alienate people: a look back at John Howard’s foreign policy

His eyebrows, his steamy morning jogs and his mad DJ-ing have captivated the nation since 1996.

BY Isobel Armstrong.

Prominent political theorist Paul Kelly (not to be confused with Gravy Prince Paul Kelly) once noted that, in the 25 years prior to John Howard’s election, Australian foreign policy could be summarised by three common points. Prior to 1996, as they do now, governments struggled to encourage national maturity in overcoming engagement with Asia and its regional institutions- meaning, essentially, drop the political pastime of good natured, fun-loving Aussie racism (to quote my Cards Against Humanity deck). They promoted multilateral diplomacy through organised platforms of global governance, such as the United Nations, and they recognised that our alliance with the USA was precarious at best. During the long reign of Howard, however, these notions disappeared. Potentially under his eyebrows.

This remarkable because, although the Howard decade appears on our political timelines as a brief interlude of unorthodox and even atavistic pragmatism, Howard himself is recalled by many Australians as the pinnacle of good government. Suburban, conservative Methodist, dry neoliberal- these are the characteristics that 50% of surveyed voters considered the best government for Australia in 2011. The support for Howard’s approach is distinctly foregrounded against Australia’s second choice- a paltry 13% of voters who selected Paul Keating or Bob Hawke as the best prime minister of all time, and another 12% who selected Kevin Rudd.

Howard-era foreign policy themes tend to be inextricably linked to our national self-perception- to our fundamental conceptions of identity, of white-ness, and of the Other. That Howard was able to draw a line from each theme to his own conception of The National Interest (monocultural, pragmatic, Anglo) repeatedly for a decade is a key factor to his veneration. But has popular support for a Howard-esque hard-right approach to several key foreign policy themes truly reemerged in the 21st century?

Pragmatism, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, means you deal with issues and events sensibly and realistically, in a way that is based on practical rather than theoretical considerations. Like many realists (though the label is admittedly contentious), Howard and his Foreign Minister Alexander Downer considered multilateral institutions like the UN useless and, frankly, unrealistic. This very duo reviewed Australia’s engagement with the United Nations when it failed to benefit their government any longer, and, from this review, announced a step back from UN involvement. Who needs international cooperation anyway?

When Howard’s administration did engage in regional multilateralism, it seemed to be only at the request of the United States. For example, several negotiations between the Pacific Islands Forum member states and Australia took place regarding growing instability on the Solomon Islands before Australia made a conditional offer to assemble a restorative order mission there. The Islands’ capital, Honiara, had reportedly requested assistance for three years to no avail, until then-President George W Bush personally entrusted to Howard to clean up the mess. Howard then went on to note that the “rest of the world sees [the Solomon Islands conflict] as Australia’s responsibility.” Evidently, Australia had not been involved in the conflict at all until that point- so that ‘responsibility’ must have been drawn from some vaguely neo-colonialist idea born of both the Bush and Howard administrations.

Good international citizenship seemed favourable when the United States wanted it. This makes sense to a pragmatist- it is one of the longest running, most tangible and referable bilateral arrangements Australia has been party too. Nothing else compares beside the Motherland. Multilateral institutions of the Asia-Pacific region were, to Howard, nonfunctional, unfamiliar and frankly unworkable unless they directly benefited Australia and/or the perception of Australia at home and abroad.

But Australia is engaging now more than ever present in many multilateral institutions, especially within the conceptual sphere of the middle power. The dawning age of globalisation and indeed, global governance, is hard to ignore. Australia is now party to several middle-power type organisations based on shared values and interests, such as MIKTA (Mexico, Indonesia, Republic of Korea, Turkey and Australia), or based on economic leadership, such as the G20 and the OECD. We have also had a former Prime Minister (Rudd) become the Chair of the Independent Commission on Multilateralism and President of the Asia Society Institute. Bipartisan commitment to economic cooperation has generally survived leadership spills and elections, although the commitment to other global themes such as environmental preservation, climate change and the rights of asylum seekers have often faltered.

In any case, the pledge for multilateral engagement is present and tangible, as is the optimism behind it. In her treatise on the Labor approach to foreign policymaking, shadow foreign minister Tanya Plibersek wrote that we “will not prosper in the Asian century by retreating into the Anglosphere, any more than we will enhance our reputation in the region by seeking to shirk our obligations as a prosperous nation, opting to pass by on the other side of the road”. Similarly, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop wrote that current government initiatives with India, Indonesia, the Philippines, the East Asian Summit and the Shangri La Dialogue “are not being pursued for activity’s sake”- suggesting a more open-minded approach to multilateralism even within the traditionally hardheaded Liberal party. If this attitude continues under the Turnbull government and beyond, it would be plausible to conclude Howard’s pragmatic and sometimes confusing approach to multilateralism has been abandoned.

Howard’s approach to Australia-US relations, however, is more complicated. Not only did the Howard decade put an end to analysts’ hand wringing over our relationship with the US diminishing in importance, the influence of his unswerving loyalty is still detectable in the polls today. Results from the ANU Australian Election Study of 1987-2013 evidence this- when asked how important the Australian alliance with the United States under the ANZUS treaty is for protecting Australia’s security, 36.5% of those surveyed in 1993 said very important. In 2001 under the Howard administration, this number skyrocketed to 57%. Six years post-Howard, the public perception of US importance had not dwindled back to its original level: 45.8% said the alliance was still very important.

Similarly, when asked how much trust they placed in the United States to come to Australia’s defence when under threat, 25.4% of those surveyed in 1993 said a great deal of trust. In 2001, the number had once again surged to 38.5%, and in 2013 it had only dropped another two per cent. In each case Howard’s influence never truly ebbed. This suggests Howard’s approach to what Switzer called “emotionally pro-American”  foreign policymaking has been decidedly influential.

But the constant effort to ‘band-wagon’ with the United States has produced several destructive responses, such as the motion to deploy troops in Afghanistan and to eventually adopt the allocated ‘deputy sheriff’ role. These have detracted from Howard’s credibility and therefore also from broader public opinion of his policymaking. The same Australian Election Study reported that, when asked whether Australia should provide military assistance for the War on Terror, 20% of all respondents strongly agreed in 2001 compared to the 8.2% of 2013. Similarly, the ‘strongly disagree’ response doubled over this time period.

Howard testified that  “Australia has a commitment to acting where appropriate in different parts of the world to defend the values that Britain and Australia and the United States and other countries hold in common”. This highly Orientalist attitude is not at all unfamiliar to students of Australian politics, and even less unfamiliar to the political leaders of Asian-Pacific nation states who have rightfully taken offence to it. The perception of Australia as America’s deputy sheriff has continued to plague our foreign ministers well into the 21st century- almost any movement in the Asia-Pacific region of late has immediately copped the now undesirable label. It is worth noting that the Turnbull government rejected a US request for additional military support against Islamic State, given the limited nature of Australian military power and the fact that Islamic militants are in actuality not a direct existential threat to either nation at this time. This is of course a far cry from the contentious call to arms Bush administered following the events of 9/11: to which Howard devotedly responded.  

When The National Interest was given a rest, Howard and his government often employed the linguistically similar rhetoric of ‘common values’ to sustain pragmatic governance. It’s something you’ve definitely heard on the news as of late regarding new, stricter citizenship testing. These would again be monocultural, pragmatic values that stem from the Anglosphere (an imagined transnational community grown strong from the seed of British culture). At its core, it insulates a set of countries where English is the primary language from the rest of the world with no regard for geography, politics, or, geopolitics. The Anglosphere, combined with a hardcore utilitarian attitude towards economic engagement with Asia, demonstrates how Howard managed to achieve relative success in the Asian region while preserving a relic of engrained anti-Asian cultural sentiment.

According to Howard himself, we did not need to choose between our history and our geography, or “apologise for our place in the Western political tradition” in the hope of building up our relationships in Asia. Despite visiting China before the US in office, despite Downer declaring closer engagement with Asia the Australian Government’s highest foreign policy priority, and despite claiming Asia first (but not Asia only), Howard as a cultural traditionalist valued our links within Asia purely on an instrumental and economic basis, and failed to ever move past this and into a warmer diplomatic climate.

Trends in Australian Political Opinion from 1996-2013 queried whether our government building closer relations with Asia has gone ‘too far’. In this case, ‘too far’ is assumedly determined by the respondent’s own sense of cultural identity. The ‘much too far’ response sat at 10.9% of respondents in 1996 under the Howard administration, and dropped by half to only 5.5% of respondents in 2013. The same survey also queried whether Australia’s trading future lies with Asia- to which 23% of respondents strongly agreed in 1993, but this again dropped to 10.8% in 2001. The rate has risen to 19.6% since.

In the current political environment, it’s strange that Howard is widely remembered as The Best Prime Minister of All Time (unofficial title). His eyebrows, his steamy morning jogs and his fictional DJ-ing have captivated the nation for the last decade. He is frequently called upon as a strange, bushy sort of wise elder to speak out against present policymaking in the Liberal Party- and used to slap a bad name on the current inhabitants of Parliament House. If John doesn’t like it, it can’t be right.

The 2016 federal election saw Pauline Hanson return abruptly to Parliament, with 9% of the vote in Queensland. Radical nationalist groups such as ‘Reclaim Australia’ and the ‘True Blue Crew’ have formed and acted vocally in all major cities, citing goals including the preservation of ‘traditional’ values, criminalising Halal certification, introducing ‘pride in the Australian flag’ to school curriculums, and ending the ‘Asianisation of Australia’.

When I started this article I expected my research would confirm that Howard’s style of foreign policy had secured a place on the pedestal in Australian history. The recent rise of the far right has a lot in common with Howard’s preoccupation with our national self-perception, and indeed, with our fundamental conceptions of identity, of white-ness, and of the Other. In our relationship with the United States, we face successive crises regarding our proximity to great and powerful friends. Howard’s pragmatism diminished these concerns by unabashedly taking on the unofficial role of George W Bush’s deputy sheriff in the Asia-Pacific region. In multilateralism and engagement with Asia, we face successive crises of identity and our place in the world, of rejection by Asia and of inclusion in the Anglosphere. Howard’s pragmatism soothed these anxieties with formidable statements that told the public that we have always been Australian and we didn’t need to worry about being part of a “part of a mythical East Asian hemisphere”. This article doesn’t even begin to cover Howard’s role in systemically denying Indigenous Australian land rights, promoting absolute blissful ignorance toward our black history, and essentially beginning the good old Aussie vendetta against refugees. But those actions are probably why he has remained popular to this day.

The hardheaded and straightforward- but not altogether consistent- attitude of the Howard-Downer partnership was appealing to an Australian public who, for the last 25 years had been tumultuously uncertain. Although that uncertainty has returned- and sequential governments have since reintroduced the fundamental questions of who we are, how to deal with where we are, and who to befriend- it is perhaps for the better. In a nuanced age where good international citizenship battles rising nationalism and global governance battles outdated norms of power, the Howard approach appears not to have been ultimately vindicated, although it wrought heavy-handed influence on public opinion well into the 21st century.

He’d certainly be on good terms with this guy.

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