One lesson I have come to learn in my brief time in academia is that it is not wise to just try and write ‘about’ a subject, with the hope the argument or insights will come later. There’s often a pressure to contribute your name to the current debates, but unless you really have something to say, the result is often more generic, less engaging and less memorable than you’d hope.
This was my surprising reaction to Coral Bell’s Dependent Ally: A Study in Australian Foreign Policy. Widely regarded as the classic work on the alliance, I got the feeling reading it that Bell wanted to write about the alliance (having done so indirectly for much of her career), but didn’t really have anything urgent to say.
The title of the book suggests a demonstration of Australia’s reliance on the UK and US. That is a theme, but it’s assumed as much as argued. Typical of Bell though, this book contains an original take on the issue. Rather than identify the cause of Australia’s dependence in a psychological need for security as the Left argues, Bell places it in the global lot of middle powers in a hierarchical world. Australia contributes to the global balance of power via its connection to the large states.
This asymmetry she seems to argue is inescapable while also far less harmful than many on the left presume. It’s not that the dependence doesn’t exist — as scholars such as David McLean or pundits like Greg Sheridan have argued — but rather it is somewhat harmless. She seems to find it far less interesting than noting internal changes in Australia, an evolution of ideas about its region, identity and capacity. There are occasional moments —1942 & 1963— where dependence emerges but it quickly returns to the comfortable, albeit unbalanced, norm of a smaller country making its own way in the world.
Dependent Ally does a solid job of covering the big debates, drawing out the nationalist threads of rejection, setting in context the moments of followership and poking holes in the common myths of the day — For instance the historical record is clear that Australia pushed the US to deal with Vietnam, a threat of much more direct concern for Canberra than D.C, rather than the other way around.
The final chapter is worth a read in its own right, though all the insights there — the importance of personality to the alliance’s health, the economic and social benefits Australia has gained from migration—seem somewhat unconnected to the historical cataloguing that preceded it. As such, I was left uncertain of what Bell was trying to say. There’s not enough scholarly scrupulousness or punditry passion to really define the book. Bell is consistently engaging, but at a lower altitude than many of her best works. The problem may simply be that of time. The book was published in 1988, and we know far more these days, with much richer archival and historical material to draw on.
Virtually everything written on Australian foreign policy at some point engages with the country’s relationship with the UK and US. In my recent review of the literature substantially on the ANZUS alliance I found more than 350 entries (and I’m still counting). It was perhaps inevitable then that Bell, a fantastic commentator on US policy in the Cold War would turn to how to look at how Washington’s policy has shaped her own country of Australia.
This is probably still the best one volume treatment of Australia’s relationships with its great and powerful friends. But I’d rather read books that either trace one single thread, like David Lowe’s biography of Percy Spender, or that reveal a particular moment in fresh detail, as James Curran does in ‘Unholy Fury: Whitlam and Nixon at war’ (review coming soon).
Trying to say it all, and writing ‘about’ a topic, often means saying nothing much at all. Or not really making clear what you want to say. Either way, this was a surprisingly disappointing read. Though my admiration of Coral in the pantheon of great Australian contributors to the study of world affairs remains firm.