The Australian School of International Relations
13 Dec 2013|

Walter Crocker (1952)The existence or absence of an Australian ‘School’ of international relations is one of the billabongs in the river of argument about Australia’s place in the world. The academics have this specialist dispute to themselves. But it’s an interesting way of getting at the foreign policy dynamics of Australia’s unique geography, regional interests, and roles in the global system.

The players keen to argue these issues go well beyond academia when the problem is posed as a set of cascading questions about what Australia thinks of itself and how it thinks of the world. Scaled like this, the academic wrangle over Australia’s place in the firmament of international relations theory can add tone and texture to louder and larger arguments about our international interests. Step forward, then, Professor James Cotton with his new book, ‘The Australian School of International Relations‘.

The theoretical stoush Cotton is fighting is the claim by other academics that the discipline of International Relations didn’t get up to any sort of speed in Oz until about 1960. The Cotton argument against this claim of Oz intellectual bareness is (my summary, not his): rubbish! And this is where it gets interesting for the non IR reader. Skim the theory and enjoy the great characters and the intriguing plot lines.

Cotton offers eight chapters on eight thinkers he calls the principal members of the ‘Australian School’, all concerned in the period from 1920 to 1960 with ‘the puzzle of Australia’s place in the world’. They were analysts and academics, but also actors on the big stage, moving in and out of government service, and the cast list is recorded at the end of this column.

A couple of the School’s main concerns are settled and gone, even deceased, yet much of the big picture that confronted them can be found in today’s panorama. The puzzle they confronted had two big parts. First, and often dominating discussion, was the Empire/Commonwealth, including issues of British/Australian racial identity and racial exclusion. Second, without too much Empire ambivalence, the Australian school embraced emerging ideas of internationalism and new institutions.

From 1920, as Australia took its seat in the League of Nations, Cotton writes, the School saw the League ‘as a noble experiment, but still an experiment, whereas the Empire was altogether of much greater moment. Britain was a world power still, if a world power in decline.’ One comfort for members of the School was the assumption that the League and Empire/Commonwealth were moving towards the same goal. The most prominent of the School, Frederic Eggleston argued that ‘substantially the League was a device invented by the Anglo-Saxons, and forced by them on European peoples, who would have preferred to retain their arms’, thus seeing the League serving British (and Australian) interests. The Strategist’s recent musings on the Anglosphere would have been seen by the School as a proper discussion of one of their central obsessions.

Cotton doesn’t shirk from one great chasm that separates Australia today from these thinkers of the first half of the 20th Century. They embraced forms of racism and concepts of racial homogeneity that were central to the thinking of Australian Britons and to the White Australia policy:

Whatever internationalist sentiments were expressed by members of the Australian School, this internationalism was qualified on grounds of race. Stated baldly, there were some inhabitants of the world who, neither as individuals nor as members of indigenous polities, could claim full membership of international society. Although some of its more rhetorical flourishes might suggest otherwise, this internationalism was not an internationalism of persons, and thus also fell far short of a more inclusive cosmopolitanism. Australia’s professed role in the Pacific islands was, in part, to raise the standing of the benighted races. Britishness was seen as having a racial component.

Cotton is struck by how sceptical the Australian School was about the benefits of the American connection, even after World War 2. The Oz turn to the US had questions and qualifications. Having been disappointed by British power, the Australian thinkers were unsure of how much confidence could be placed on future US power. If Britain was gone and the US couldn’t be relied on to turn up, the Australian School had to look elsewhere, especially to the UN:

Hopes were held for international systems of rules that would deliver a degree of order and predictability in a region in which the starkness of Australian isolation was underlined by the fact that the only reliable security partner was New Zealand.

The Korean War and the ANZUS treaty were the big regional markers of US determination to embrace its new role, but through the 1950s the members of the School

… sought to distance Australia from the full embrace of the US in the belief that expedients other than power could be effective. Some considered that Australian diplomacy and regional initiatives could make a difference to Australia’s regional diplomacy and regional initiatives could make a difference to Australia’s regional reception and reputation.

The Cold War iron curtain fell across the Australian School and consigned their concerns to what seemed a long ago era. Yet with the Cold War now history— even though many of its habits and structures remain—Cotton finds a new relevance in the School for today’s analysts. The puzzle the School confronted, he concludes, has much in common with the conditions of our own time. Thus, Cotton offers something that is rare indeed in discussion of Australian foreign policy—fresh angles on familiar questions. This is history that will help with tomorrow’s headlines.

Here are the eight leading characters of Cotton’s Australian School:

  1. On Imperialism and Internationalism: W. Harrison Moore, professor of law at Melbourne University from 1892 and emeritus from 1928, deeply involved with ‘the international aspects of Australia’s claim to nationhood’; a delegate at the League of Nations who was an exception to Richard Casey’s rule that international lawyers should be used as no more than technicians in doing government business on the world stage.
  2. The Empire and the Pacific: Frederic Eggleston, the most important figure of the School, bridging the worlds of commentary and policy; Australia’s first minister to China, then in Washington; a member of the Australian delegation in Paris in 1919 and in San Francisco in 1945. In an essay in 1947, Eggleston picked up new Canadian terminology to introduce the idea of Australia as a ‘middle power’. His attachment to the Empire-Commonwealth ‘underwent remarkable change’ because it couldn’t deliver for Australia.  His expectations of Britain diminished so sharply that Eggleston ‘even questioned the future of Australia’s “British” character’.
  3. An Asian trade future and an Asian future: A. C. V. Melbourne gets one of the first mover pedestals in the Asia Pacific Parthenon and Australia’s trade interests in Asia.
  4. Theorising the Commonwealth: H. Duncan Hall, historian of the Commonwealth who worked at the League of Nations between 1927 and 1939. WW2 broadened his view of ‘the potential for the irrational and the amoral’ and thus the crucial need for Anglo-American accord.
  5. The Commonwealth and world government: W. K. Hancock was the author of the ‘immensely influential’ 1930 book, ‘Australia’, with its discussion of Australian patriotism and British sentiment, coining the phrase ‘in love with two soils’. Cotton argues for the contemporary resonance of Hancock’s work on the Commonwealth because of its focus on transnational power or governance beyond individual states.
  6. The duty of public education: Fred Alexander, academic and writer, who was passionate for the League of Nations, serving as an alternate delegate in Geneva. He eventually transferred his hopes for world order to the Anglo-American alliance. A study visit to Germany in 1932 at a crucial moment in the Nazi rise shook Alexander’s faith that economic interdependence could mitigate national differences. He returned with a sad awareness that ideological factors were probably more profound than rational calculations in national perceptions, writing in 1933: ‘Considerations of national prestige, of racial pride, of tradition, of culture go further in a great many cases than any searching after mere material advantage’.
  7. A focus on Asia: W. Macmahon Ball, Melbourne University Professor who shifted in and out of diplomacy, and a public intellectual who was a prolific media commentator on international affairs with his regular ABC broadcasts. His seminal contribution to the School was his ‘analysis of the multiple sources of rapid change in Asia’.
  8. The Afro-Asian Challenge to the International System: Walter Crocker (pictured), educated at Adelaide, Oxford and Stamford; an officer of the British Colonial Service in Nigeria who also attended the Bandung conference; an international bureaucrat at both the League and the UN; briefly the first professor of International Relations at the ANU before spending 18 years as an Australian ambassador (a chapter of his memoirs was titled ‘3000 cocktail parties for my country’). Cotton comments that Crocker’s ‘conservatism was no obstacle to his acceptance of the force of geography’ on Australia’s future. See Cotton’s account of a 1956 dispatch Crocker sent from Jakarta:

The emergence of China as the major regional power and its growing impact on Australia’s neighbourhood was a fact ‘as inescapable as the weather’, though longer term India might emerge as something of a counterweight. Geography had decreed that Indonesia lay ‘between Australia and the Sinic world’, if it could not be a ‘shield’ then ‘we might at least be able to make it a buffer’.

Those words from 57 years ago from a master of the Australia School are just one example of why that School still has much to teach us about ‘the puzzle of Australia’s place in the world’.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia.