Niccolò Machiavelli was no stranger to the vagaries of luck. At 29, he became Secretary and Second Chancellor to the Florentine Republic, only to be imprisoned, tortured and exiled by the Medici restoration 14 years later.
His masterpiece, The Prince, written almost 500 years ago, includes a chapter on luck (fortuna), which he compares to a “ruinous river, which when in flood” carries all before it. The essence of politics is to dominate fortuna, at times building embankments and dykes to direct its impetus.
Generally, argues Machiavelli at his most misogynistic, “it is better to be impetuous than cautious, because fortuna is a woman, and it is necessary to beat her and to maul her when you want to keep her under control”.
John Howard also knows about fortune. Made Treasurer at 38, soon after he was to bear the brunt of the Liberals’ decade of infighting in Opposition. In 1986 he famously declared “the times will suit me”, and ten years later led his party to government, becoming after another decade Australia’s second-longest serving Prime Minister.
In my recently completed book, The Howard Paradox: Australian Diplomacy in Asia 1996-2006, I argue that the Howard Government’s foreign policy successes in the Asian region - ranging from strong relationships with most regional governments to invitations to the inaugural meetings of a new East Asian regionalism - in large part derive from a fortuitous match between the Coalition’s distinctive foreign policy approach and the evolving diplomatic environment in East and South-East Asia.
In short, the Howard Government’s pragmatic, incrementalist approach has worked well in a post-Asian crisis region preoccupied with stability, development, and how to handle a rising China.
The Howard approach to Asia
There is a widespread view that Howard was not interested in foreign policy at first.
On the contrary, throughout his career, Howard has regularly aired strong views on foreign policy, telling one journalist in the mid-1980s he harboured a dream to become Foreign Minister, and another, on entering Parliament in 1974, that foreign affairs was one of the two issues in which he was most interested.
As Judith Brett argues, Howard’s political values and understandings have profoundly reshaped conservative politics in Australia; I think Howard’s values have had as profound an effect on Australia’s foreign policy as on constitutional reform, indigenous issues, or industrial relations.
One can find in Howard’s 2006 foreign policy speeches the same foreign policy philosophies and approaches that inform his 1995 headland speeches and the Coalition’s 1996 pre-election foreign policy statement, A Confident Australia.
Howard’s political values have been shaped by three major influences: his long and often bitter experience of politics; his conservatism, and his Methodist upbringing.
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