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Cabinet papers 1990-91: the new world order that fizzled

Gareth Evans, foreign minister in the Hawke government, brought an ambitious vision for Australia’s international diplomacy to cabinet. AAP

Cabinet papers 1990-91: the new world order that fizzled

With the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, the reunification of Germany the following year and the winds of change blowing across the Soviet Union and much of Eastern Europe, it seemed as if a new world order was on the way.

Selected key cabinet records for 1990 and 1991 released today by the National Archives of Australia convey little of that sense of excitement. The language of the cabinet submissions, memoranda and decisions is certainly not that of a government intent on rethinking Australia’s international relationships.

The Hawke cabinet’s approach to foreign affairs, security and defence during this period is well captured by its handling of three issues: relations with China in the wake of the Tiananmen events of June 1989, the response to Iraq’s annexation of Kuwait in August 1990, and the Cambodian peace initiative.

China

In January 1990, cabinet agreed to lift some of the restrictions it had imposed on official dealings with China in July 1989. Reciprocal visits by some ministers as well as Chinese provincial governors and Australian state premiers could now proceed. Other political and security exchanges could be considered on a case-by-case basis.

More important than the decision’s specifics was its underlying rationale. The submission to cabinet found it reassuring that the downgrading of the bilateral relationship and representations on human rights had not jeopardised “trade and working-level exchanges in most areas”.

Foreign Minister Gareth Evans indicated that it might soon be prudent to resume “a correct relationship with China”. Two national interests were said to be critical:

… encouraging China to be receptive to Western influences;

and Australia’s:

… substantial commercial interests based on the complementarity of the two economies and China’s potential for growth.

Pragmatically speaking, the thought that these two interests might have to trump human rights concerns was relatively straightforward. But, in time, Australia’s China conundrum might not be so easily resolved. What if Australia’s future dilemma came down to choosing between its perceived security interests (its alliance with the US) and its commercial links – specifically its economic ties with China?

To this unpleasant prospect, cabinet was – for now – happy enough to turn a blind eye.

Gulf War

The first Gulf War was in some ways even more revealing of the drift of Australia’s foreign policy thinking.

In August 1990, Prime Minister Bob Hawke took charge of Australia’s response to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. On August 6, he announced a package of sanctions to be imposed on Iraq. On August 10, the government made public its intention to despatch two guided missile frigates and a replenishment tanker involving a complement of 600 sailors to join the US-led blockade of Iraq.

Having duly noted these decisions on August 14, cabinet agreed to review the Australian ships’ future operational role in the light of changing circumstances.

Though cabinet was responding to a submission from Defence Minister Robert Ray, it was left to Foreign Affairs and Trade to offer a more elegant justification for these decisions. It cited Australia’s commitment to international peace and security and the threat Iraq’s actions posed to Australia’s strategic and commercial interests.

Perhaps the most illuminating part of Defence’s submission was the acknowledgement that Australia’s contribution was made in response to a US request, and that US objectives went far beyond enhancing the effectiveness of UN sanctions. These were said to include restoring Kuwait’s government, ensuring the security and stability of the Persian Gulf, protecting American citizens abroad and US vital interests in Saudi Arabia.

The larger US agenda would in due course be facilitated by further UN Security Council resolutions, in particular Resolution 678 (November 1990). This authorised member states “to use all necessary means” should Iraq fail to comply with previous UN resolutions by January 15, 1991.

Soon after this deadline had passed and US air attacks against Iraq began, Hawke formally committed Australia to the war. He placed the guided missile destroyer HMAS Brisbane and the guided missile frigate HMAS Sydney under the control of the USS Midway carrier battle group and authorised them to use force as required.

Available records suggest the cabinet’s role was limited to receiving and duly noting oral reports from Hawke on January 16, January 29 and February 27.

In the parliamentary debate on January 22, 1991, Labor MP Barry Jones, though reluctantly supportive of the government’s decision to enter the war, voiced five misgivings:

  • the remoteness of the parliament and the caucus from the decision-making process;

  • the eagerness and speed with which the government acted;

  • the failure to recognise the West’s complicity in building up Hussein’s power;

  • the belated recognition of the centrality of oil as an issue in the Gulf crisis; and

  • the lack of a clear post-war strategy.

Cabinet submissions and prime ministerial decisions took little account of these concerns.

The war lasted no more than six weeks and the coalition sustained only 166 fatal casualties; none of them Australian. But the war left at least 100,000 Iraqis dead and set in train a simmering conflict that would trouble the region for the next decade and eventually unleash the second Gulf War, which began in 2003.

Australia’s current involvement in Iraq is very much part of the unfinished business of the first Gulf War.

Australia’s current involvement in Iraq has roots in its participation in the first Gulf War. AAP

Cambodia

Australia’s international engagement struck a happier note in Cambodia.

For Evans, Australia’s activism in promoting the peace initiative reflected its interest in regional security and economic co-operation and the need to stem the flow of refugees. He also saw it as a “humanitarian obligation to help resolve the tragedy”.

Evans’ untiring efforts eventually bore fruit with the Paris agreement of October 1991. In anticipation of the agreement, cabinet approved on October 9 a substantial Australian involvement in the UN peacekeeping force in Cambodia.

Cabinet’s decision to maintain a high profile, seek “to provide the force commander and headquarters staff and observers” and open a greatly enlarged diplomatic mission in Cambodia was a measure of the ambition Evans had brought to Australian diplomacy generally and to global and regional multilateralism in particular.

Lessons

Over the two years, cabinet considered a number of other issues, including the relationship with Taiwan, the international terrorist threat to Australia, and nuclear non-proliferation. In these as in most other areas the analysis remained cautious and the initiatives at best modest.

On a somewhat less conventional note, cabinet agreed in May 1991 to introduce legislation to exempt from compulsory military service those with a conscientious objection either to war in general or to particular wars.

The cabinet papers are particularly telling for what is left unsaid. We find here little of Evans’ sweeping analysis of a rapidly changing world order or of his vision of good international citizenship.

Evans often castigated the media for its failure to engage in intelligent debate and informed discussion on global and regional security, the role of the UN system, the changing nature of alliances, the arms control and disarmament agenda, and ways of advancing human rights. One could be forgiven for thinking that much the same criticism could be levelled at a good many of his cabinet colleagues.

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