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On Monday John Howard took to the op-ed pages to deny that he was “an extremist and a market fundamentalist” in his domestic policy. In today’s Australian, Paul Kelly defends him against the corresponding charge of radicalism in foreign policy.

On the surface, the charge Kelly is rebutting is just as implausible as Kevin Rudd’s claim that Howard is a Hayekian free-market ideologue. Although Kelly says “It was tempting at stages over the past decade to think that Howard and Alexander Downer were trashing the Australian foreign policy tradition”, he is unable to cite anyone who really thought that. Where Howard and his critics disagree is evaluating the worth of that tradition.

Australia’s foreign policy has always been based on a close relationship with — critics would say subservience to — a powerful ally; first Britain and later the US. With occasional exceptions, it has always been secondary to domestic policy in the eyes of our politicians. And when they do turn their eyes to the rest of the world, they tend to be reactive and opportunist.

Kelly is right to identify all these features in Howard’s record, but none of them represent a break with our traditions (nor are they peculiar to Australia — they are common themes in the foreign policy of most lesser powers). Howard, according to Kelly, “sought an ongoing synthesis between realpolitik or the national interest and being a values advocate seeking a populist domestic affirmation for his foreign policy”. But has there ever been a prime minister of whom this was not true?

Howard’s visceral loyalty to the American alliance certainly put him offside with “much academic foreign policy analysis”, but foreign policy in Australia has always been a political, not an academic, business. Howard’s support for the Iraq invasion can be condemned for any number of reasons, but not for going outside the Australian tradition. Hence Mark Latham’s realisation that the tradition, and specifically the US alliance, needed to be re-evaluated; it had been based on a premise that American policy would not exceed the bounds of sanity, and that turned out to be mistaken.

Although he is defending rather than criticising Howard, Kelly falls into a similar trap to Rudd: he takes Howard too seriously as a systematic thinker.

“Howard’s view of the alliance is based in long-range calculation. He is convinced … that in 100 years the US will remain the pre-eminent global power”. I see no evidence, however, that Howard gives even a moment’s thought to the world in 100 years’ time. Like his predecessors, his horizon rarely extends further than the next election.

Peter Fray

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