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The foreign policies of Robert Gordon Menzies and John Winston Howard: a comparison. [Paper presented at] Australian Historical Association Conference, Canberra, 3-7 July 2006

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Australian Historical Association Annual Conference

Canberra 3-7 July 2006

The Foreign Policies of Robert Gordon Menzies and John Winston Howard

A Comparison

By Richard Broinowski

Robert Menzies and John Howard operated as Australian Prime Ministers in two very different eras. Menzies saw the country through the beginnings of a titanic struggle between fascism and democracy, and then led it in the bipolar world of the Cold War

and post-war Asian de-colonisation. Howard shaped his foreign policies in the unipolar post-Berlin Wall world of US hegemony with Australia engaged among equal states in the Asian region. Yet the foreign policies of both leaders had remarkably similar characteristics.

Defence Policies

In his first incumbency from 1939 to 1941, Menzies’ main preoccupation was to help defend Britain from the Axis powers. He did this by becoming, as much as Churchill allowed him to be, a de facto member of the British War Cabinet, and by sending a large part of Australia’s Imperial Force to the Middle East to fight under British command against Mussolini and Hitler. Menzies was out of office four months before Japan attacked Pearl Harbour. Thus he did not have to manage the desperate repatriation of Australian forces to the Pacific, which was the consequences of his unfocused military profligacy.

During his second incumbency, Menzies saw his main foreign policy objective as being to fight global Communism as far from Australia’s shores as possible. Beneath his sentimental attachment to Britain, he was a realist, sceptical of the abstract, looking for interest rather than principle as the motive for action. The best way to do this was to support Australia’s two Great and Powerful friends (he coined the phrase), Britain and the United States, especially in regional engagements. The hope and expectation was that in return the friends would come to Australia’s assistance under one or other of three defence treaties Menzies negotiated early in his second incumbency - ANZAM, the Australia New Zealand and Malayan agreement in 1949, ANZUS, the Australia, New Zealand and the United States Security Agreement in 1951, and SEATO, the South East Asia Security Treaty in 1954.

In pursuit of his ‘forward defence’ policy, Menzies sent Australian military forces to two wars and two regional ‘police’ actions - to Korea during the war on that peninsula between 1950 and 1953, to Malaya during the Emergency against local Communist insurgents and Indonesian forces during Sukarno’s Konfrontasi between 1956 and the mid-1960s, and to the Vietnam War between 1965 and 1972. He also


strongly supported an incursion by French and British forces into the Suez Canal zone after President Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal Company in 1956, but wisely refrained on that occasion from sending actual military forces.

Howard followed a similar pattern of military engagements. He sent Australian forces to East Timor in 1999 to stop killings by Indonesian-backed militia after the Timorese had supported independence from Indonesia, to Afghanistan in November 2001 as part of a UN-supported intervention by the United States and various allies to defeat the Taliban, and to Iraq in March 2003 as part of an illegal invasion by the United States and its Coalition of the Willing to remove weapons of mass destruction allegedly held by President Saddam Hussein.

In my view, Menzies and Howard engaged in their military activities with common beliefs, expectations and strategies.

One belief was that Australia was incapable of defending itself against an attack from a major power. Hence the need for a protector to whom insurance premiums must be paid.

This led to a tendency to read into our security treaties a greater sense of obligation - both by the protected and the protector - than is actually spelt out in the treaties. ANZUS for example, did not, as Howard asserts, oblige Australia to join the United States in its war on terror, any more than it requires the United States to provide military assistance if Australia is attacked.

A strategy of both leaders has been to create fear among electors to convince them to vote for conservative Liberal governments by exaggerating external threats to Australia. Menzies was a master at exaggerating the Communist threat. He used it to justify sending Australian forces to Korea, Vietnam, and into the Malayan Peninsula. And Howard has exaggerated the threat of Islamic terrorism to justify sending forces to Afghanistan and Iraq.

Coupled with this strategy has been a tendency by both leaders to send to their wars only minimum forces, which any close analysis would show are not commensurate with the threat Australia is supposed to be coping with. Thus, Menzies restricted Australian forces to Vietnam to a maximum of three battalions plus Air Force and naval units. And the ground forces were assigned to a comparatively peaceful province, Phuoc Tuy, with ready access to a port in case evacuation became necessary. And as the Fairfax correspondent Paul McGeogh has put it, Howard has ensured that Australian forces in Iraq have been ordered to spend their time ducking and weaving well away from the front line, while MPs at home huff and puff and make po-faced speeches about ‘wartime leadership,’ ‘being at war’, and wining khaki elections.

The result has been minimal Australian military casualties, and thus little or no reaction from a disgruntled electorate. In Vietnam, for example, Australia sustained 500 military casualties, their American colleagues 58,000. In Iraq, we have so far suffered no battle casualties, while the Americans have suffered over 2,500 and counting, since what was supposed to have been a successful invasion.


Other Common Characteristics

Asians are not like us

Menzies was attracted to what he characterised as a Circle of Light, white leaders led by the British. He did not get on with India’s Prime Minister Nehru. He supported the apartheid regime in South Africa under which Ghandi had suffered. He avoided visiting Asian countries except when en route to somewhere else. He loved the Commonwealth when the white Dominions dominated it. But when India became a Republic and stayed within the Commonwealth, he strongly disapproved. He disapproved again when Kwame Nkrumah , the President of Ghana, went to London and became a Privy Councillor and then came home to declare Ghana a Republic.

On coming to power in 1996, Howard was keen to emphasise Australia’s traditional links with Europe in general and Britain and the US in particular. He was anxious to challenge the Labor view that Asia was Australia’s ‘true place’, or that Australia had an Asia-Pacific future. He shed no tears when Indonesia unilaterally abrogated Keating’s security treaty.

During his incumbency, Howard could not ignore, as could Menzies, the prime importance of Asian nations to Australia, but he and his Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, could differentiate between their cultural, political and economic relevance. In Beijing in April 2000, Downer sought, no doubt with Howard’s approval, to distinguish ‘cultural regionalism’ from ‘practical realism’. To Howard, economic and security concerns were all that relations with Asia were about, while political and cultural closeness put relations with the US and UK on a different plane.

The fear of illegal immigrants

Menzies favoured the White Dominions. He favoured the White Australia policy because he didn’t want to import racial conflict. He opposed the rise of black Africa and non-white interference in South Africa. He had no time for what he characterised as the noisy debate in Australia on these issues.

Since Menzies retired, Australia changed for the better. The nation became a rich and successful mixture of racial and cultural influences, and Howard could not practise racial exclusion policies even if he wanted to. But he fomented racial prejudices and negativities about inter-racial issues. He kicked Pauline Hanson out of the Liberal Party, but borrowed her views. When he was elected he abolished the Office of Multicultural Affairs. He castigated ‘political correctness’. And during his first overseas trip as Prime Minister, to Jakarta and Tokyo, Howard said no less than 16 times that Australia was not an Asian country. He has locked up illegal immigrants, and in the Tampa affair, used the fear of the inundation of Australia by foreigners to win successive elections.

Contempt for international organizations


Menzies’ attitude to the United Nations is clear from observations he made in Afternoon Light about the Suez crisis. ‘It is, I suppose, unwise to be too positive about that strange melange of disunited nations known as the UN. But clearly, so far as the Suez Canal was concerned, no favourable action by the Security Council, with the Soviet Union Nasser’s most vocal backer, possessing the veto, could be expected, while the General Assembly, though notoriously disposed to arrogate to itself a sort of executive authority since the ‘Uniting for Peace’ resolutions, has not been noted for giving support to any old colonial power. In fact when the time came, it early relished the opportunity of coming down in favour of Nasser.’

In some other respects, Menzies allowed Australia to be a fairly responsible and useful member of the organization, but Howard’s record is altogether more sombre. He participated in the illegal invasion of Iraq in defiance of the Security Council, and has adopted the doctrine, illegal in international law, of pre-emptive strikes. He refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, or protocols on the Rights of the Child, to end all forms of discrimination against women, on torture. He rejected the Human Rights Committee’s reports on Australia’s treatment of indigenous people and refugees. He sanctioned Australia’s non-attendance at the UN Racism Conference in Durban, and did not attend the Millenium Summit. He has apparently connived in the AWB’s defiance of UN Oil for Food sanctions.

From being a good international citizen, (Gareth Evan’s characterisation of Australia’s international record), Australia’s reputation under Howard has been degraded to that of a nation determined to flout the rules of international cooperation. Australia has not been elected to a non-permanent seat on the Security Council since the 1970s.


Menzies and Howard both conned the electorate - Menzies about Communism, Howard about revolutionary Islam.