Very few nation-states seem to have as much trouble as Australia does in negotiating its place in the world. The country seems torn between history (its European heritage) and geography (its Southeast Asian locale), between security concerns and economic priorities, and between insularity and openness. Too white to be truly Asian, too far away (in time and space) to remain British, too few to be self-sufficient, too small to be a world player, and too fearful to engage its region fully, Australia's is the never-ending story of a search for a sustainable regional identity.
That search, from the very earliest days of permanent European settlement in 1788 up to the policies of the current government, is the subject of Rawdon Dalrymple's book Continental Drift: Australia's Search for a Regional Identity. Dalrymple is now retired from a distinguished career in the Australian diplomatic corps that included stints as Ambassador to Indonesia, the United States and Japan - arguably three of Australia's most important foreign postings. While Continental Drift clearly draws on this professional experience, and an obvious grasp of Australia's political history, it is more of a scholarly and thoughtful consideration of the "main strands which Australia has sought to weave into its national goals and foreign policy".
The book's opening chapters plot how early Australian leaders handled the shift from dependence on Britain to the formulation of an independent Australian foreign and defence policy. While this section is full of interesting historical detail that sets the scene, the book's most valuable insights are found in its consideration of the more recent policy shifts towards Australia's "Asian future". Here, Dalrymple looks at the formulation of policy at the highest level, providing insights into the approaches of key political leaders such as former Labor Prime Ministers Hawke and Keating, and their Foreign Minister Gareth Evans. While it is clear that the Hawke and Keating governments of the 1980s and early 1990s pushed hard for a closer engagement with Asia, Dalrymple highlights some of the key ambiguities and contestations in the formulation of foreign policy. Particular attention is paid to Australia's critical but almost always troubled relationship with Indonesia, especially during and immediately after Australia's involvement in the independence of East Timor.
Dalrymple also examines the changes that have taken place since the mid-1990s when, among other things, the Australian population seems to have reacted against attempts to engage closely with Asia. This period saw significant domestic questioning of the wisdom of trying to be part of Asia, perhaps best symbolised by the calls by Pauline Hanson's One Nation party for economic protectionism and reduced migration from Asia. There was also a noticeable cooling in the attitude of many Asian leaders to Australia's inclusion in Asian politico-economic institutions.
Dalrymple notes that the current conservative government under the leadership of Prime Minister Howard, while not turning its back completely on Asia, does situate "Australia as a country of predominantly European ethnic character and history, proudly British inheritance, and of Western orientation, unapologetically in or next to East Asia". As Dalrymple points out, Howard's approach is a "recognizable version of much that is strong in the Australian story", reminiscent of conservative leaders of previous generations. The Howard government's unwavering and public support of the United States in its "war against terror" and pursuit of "regime change" in Iraq, suggests that the latest "continental drift" in Australian foreign and defence policy seems towards North America.
While Dalrymple does not champion a particular position about Australia's place in the in the world, there is more than a suggestion that Australia's best economic interests (and even security interests) lie in continued close ties with Asia. This makes Continental Drift a timely and refreshing contribution to the debate about Australia's future. The book is not, and does not intend to be, an exhaustive history of Australian foreign and defence policy, but it does take the reader through some of the major issues and debates that have engaged and continue to engage Australia's leaders. It will no doubt be an interesting and useful read to anyone interested in Australian politics. Given Australia's continuing attempts to balance cultural, political, economic and security concerns in shaping foreign policy, the book will also be appeal to those interested in international relations more generally.
Discuss in our Forums
See what other readers are saying about this article!
Click here to read & post comments.