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Greg Sheridan – “Carr’s Modern Classic” (The Australian, April 11, 2014)

April 11, 2014

Bob Carr has written a minor classic of Australian foreign affairs. But perhaps the word “minor” is unfair.

His diaries are full of substance and revelation, a high-octane internal dialogue on several key issues. Like all good political diaries, they are spiced with telling reflections on many colleagues. But there is also the characteristic Carr wit and, at times, self-deprecation.

No official should write a book like Carr’s, which is full of revelations of private conversations. But I can’t get too fussed about a minister doing so.

Recently retired American cabinet secretaries write this sort of stuff all the time: witness the many startling revelations in the superb recent memoirs of Bob Gates, defence secretary under US presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Carr agonises throughout his diaries over the balance in Australian policy between the US and China; he and his government disagree sharply with Washington and London over Sri Lanka; he pioneers the closest engagement with Myanmar, including ending sanctions against that benighted country; tries to put the Association of Southeast Asian Nations at the centre of Australian regional diplomacy; pursues the closest relationship he can with his Indonesian counterpart, Marty Natalegawa; leads a frantic and ultimately successful campaign to win a seat for Australia on the UN Security Council; and leads a successful revolt against then prime minister Julia Gillard on elevating Palestinian representation at the UN.

Now, I don’t agree with Carr on every aspect of each of these issues, but it is a huge agenda of substance. Carr was impatient with Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade paperwork; he hated the tedium of the speeches and often the briefing notes they prepared for him. But the diaries reveal a minister grappling with enormous policy issues.

They are laced with humour, irony, caricature and self-parody. These are dangerous commodities to trade in, here in Australia.

But inevitably some of his reflections and reports about his colleagues will command attention. Two of the strangest concern Kevin Rudd. One has Carr arguing about the Middle East with Gillard. She tells him Rudd “had kept going to Israel, driving (Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu mad proposing a batty peace plan and promising to commit Australian troops to patrolling borders”.

Carr’s comment: “I quickly agreed this was nuts.’’

This all demands serious elucidation.

It reminds me of the account in Stephen Mills’s book The Hawke Years, never really contradicted, of Bob Hawke coming up with an equally batty peace plan for Saddam Hussein and Iraq and persecuting the first president Bush with many telephone calls about it. These things never make their way into prime ministerial memoirs.

Carr recounts the No 2 official at the commonwealth secretariat complaining of Rudd’s rudeness, with Rudd telling him: “If I want your opinion, I’ll ask for it.’’

He also details a number of Australian officials describing extremely aggressive body language from Rudd in encounters with Japanese and Singaporean foreign ministers. These are all quite devastating revelations for Rudd.

On Gillard, Carr is less damning at the level of personal style but makes it clear that he believed that in foreign policy, as generally, she just could not embody or project sufficient authority for the job of prime minister.

Partly because it records so many conversations at the top of international affairs, Carr’s diary is full of substance. But the workings of his own mind on Australian foreign policy are also profoundly absorbing and insightful.

Carr has a dialogue with himself, all the way through the book, about the proper balance of Australian policy between the US and China. He accepts the nearly universal Australian support for the US alliance. He accepts its contribution to Australian security. He believes in the future of the alliance, as well as its past.

But he is partly susceptible to the idea that Canberra has got a bit too close to Washington, and has perhaps needlessly distanced itself from Beijing. This is a theme handled, in my view, with great honesty and intelligence by Carr throughout the book. He has a Socratic dialogue with himself on this. Indeed, I am reminded irresistibly about a line on George Orwell in a recent biography, that he left behind not so much a body of work as a mind caught in words.

I think at times Carr is a little too sensitive about Beijing’s allegedly hurt feelings. And he takes up the foreign minister’s role having absorbed a certain amount of the pro-China, anti-American zeitgeist promoted in different ways by Paul Keating, Malcolm Fraser and academic Hugh White.

But reality keeps intruding and Carr is far too smart to ignore reality. He sends an email to Kim Beazley, our ambassador in Washington, retailing an argument that Australia has got too close to the US. One of the best things in the book is Beazley’s cable in reply, printed in full.

Beazley points out not only that the US is getting more deeply engaged in Asia, partly as a response to the persuasive arguments put to it by Labor governments, but also that Australian governments have shrewdly used the alliance to leverage Australia’s distinctive interests and policy objectives across the board.

Carr also reports a deep DFAT analysis that says China does not place Australia very high in its estimation of nations, and the one thing that makes us more important to the Chinese is our closeness to the Americans.

It is worth quoting Carr at length on this. He writes: “Keating launches Hugh White’s book on the US and China. He’s half right — but to talk about us giving China strategic space? What does that mean, strategic space?

“Does he endorse White’s view, for example, that Japan should move out of its alliance with the US? And South Korea as well? That Vietnam should accept Chinese dominance? Well, that’s strategic space.

“Beijing would relish this discussion in Australia. After all, the Chinese want to see us disoriented over our bilateral relationship.

“I form the view that we should not react. The basics are good, we trade, we talk: the metrics are healthy, as our Ambassador put it to me. The pro-China lobby are over-egging the pudding.

“They want to make us fidgety and defensive about our China policy. Make us anxious. That’s not the way to respond. In this phase of the relationship, with them making us uncomfortable, a bit of benign neglect is needed, not letting the Chinese think we care too much. Until things settle. I resolve on this.’’

This is eminent common sense from Carr.

Elsewhere, recounting the effort, which was ultimately successful, to get the Chinese to commit to a strategic dialogue at leaders’ level, Carr determines to be relaxed about the timing, and to say that he’s relaxed about the timing. To be unruffled. To be constructive with the Chinese, and certainly not looking for arguments, but not to shy away from defending Australia’s interests, and not to give the Chinese the impression that we are desperate for their approval.

All this is the sound workings of a good mind on Australian policy. I sincerely hope Carr follows Beazley’s advice not to change these sober, sensible but inherently unsexy views when he is out of office and freed from the responsibilities of power.

Carr champions engagement with Myanmar and definitively lifting, not suspending, sanctions on the nation, and helping it with the EU and the UN. Again, this is good policy judgment.

He tries to put ASEAN high in our diplomatic priorities.

He pursues Australian interests with Sri Lanka and shares with Alexander Downer the simple insight that it is good that the Tamil Tigers terrorist outfit was defeated in the Sri Lankan civil war and that positive engagement and encouragement for Sri Lanka is good policy in itself, as well as allowing Australia to pursue its own interests with Colombo.

I disagree with Carr’s decision to abstain rather than oppose the move at the UN to upgrade the Palestinian representation to nearer that of a state. I don’t think it helps the peace process.

But Carr’s book also contains many positive things about Israel. He tells a Palestinian delegation he will not criticise the separation wall the Israelis have built, that if bombs had been raining down on Sydney while he was NSW premier he too would have built a separation wall.

I think Carr overestimates the power of the Melbourne-based pro-Israel lobby and writes about it in a way that is needlessly hurtful, but I also believe he holds his positions in good faith and with goodwill.

He makes the right strategic call about switching to a much more robust position to deter illegal immigrants coming by boat.

There are things I disagree with in the book, but overall Carr made a very strong contribution to a very weak government.

He had a genius for presentation and a zest for argument and explanation that is a kind of zest for life.

This is evident in marvellous passages giving thanks for the good fortune of having this splendid job of foreign minister, and in one beautiful passage about his wife, Helena.

Overall, this is an important and highly entertaining contribution to a rare popular foreign policy literature in Australia.

5 Comments
  1. derekdownunder permalink
    April 11, 2014 7:29 pm

    I have heard your views on radio and with respect you write for Murduch and hold far right views and it fact I have complained about the air time given to you by Faine as you have Murduch press to promote your views of Murduchs view of the world. Derek Rollins business person eltham

    Sent from my iPad

    >

    • Paul permalink
      April 19, 2014 8:38 pm

      What?

  2. Greg McLean permalink
    April 11, 2014 10:08 pm

    Thanks ..I can only agree …knowing Bobs thoughts, humour and support from democracy and the need for citizens to know .. I would regard the statements so far as open democracy …which we need more of …im looking forward to a great read. Its about time we had this sort of honest candor from our politicians ( I note Bobs not on the pay roll of a multi national ) . Good to see democracy , political and open discussion/information. ..well done Bob….The masses are entitled to know !!!!!!!! Thank you

    Greg McLean OAM

  3. April 14, 2014 4:06 pm

    GS on a good hair day! What would KRM make of it all?

  4. Paul permalink
    April 19, 2014 8:39 pm

    UN? Rudd?

    Are you serious? Or do you know him, and the UN better than we do?

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