The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
Profile of Owen Harries in the Australian Financial Review
Published on December 17, 2006

In case you missed this about AI editorial board member Owen Harries…

FRI 15 DEC 2006, Page 47

The influencer

By: Story by Andrew Clark


Owen Harries cuts a dapper figure. Short and slim, dressed in a blue and white T-shirt, fawn trousers and white plimsolls, he looks as if he might be preparing to grace the boardwalk in Brighton on one of southern England’s rare sunny days. Except, that is, for his intense gaze, unnervingly similar to that of the late Alan Reid, the legendary journalist from Sydney’s Daily Telegraph, and a fellow UK native. There are other clues to his real identity, too, spread across the coffee-table in his airy apartment, close to the harbour on Sydney’s North Shore. A copy of the conservative US magazine, Commentary, lies open on an article titled: ‘Is the Bush Doctrine dead?’, The New York Review of Books beside it, opened to an article on al-Qaeda.

Rather than an English retiree readying himself for his afternoon constitutional, the character in the plimsolls is, in fact, a unique Australian. Through intellect, prescience, editorial flair and formidable contacts, he exerted significant influence on American foreign policy in the last years of the Cold War and for the first decade of the post-Cold War world. Indeed it was Harries, as editor of the hugely influential, Washington-based The National Interest magazine, who launched the catchcry of an era, ‘the end of history’, months before the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

He is, in short, an Australian worth listening to. So how does the man who midwifed the post-Cold War era view the current state of play of Australian-US relations? Choosing his words carefully, as always, Harries, an informed conservative realist, says that a key objective of foreign policy should not be to make Australia “popular”, but “respected”. Australia should have declined to join the US-led invasion of Iraq, according to Harries. The correct approach, he says, is to treat the US alliance “discriminatingly”. Refusal to support the US militarily in Iraq would have caused some tension with Washington, but the fallout would have been manageable, he says. Further, “there were plenty of reasons to say no”. Australia’s neighbour, Indonesia, is the biggest Muslim country in the world and there is an arc of chaos to our north, with instability in East Timor, the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Bougainville and Fiji.

As the Bush era unravels in Washington after the shellacking the Republicans suffered in the November congressional elections, Harries’ remarks appear unexceptional, in line with the majority Australian view. What makes them significant is that they come from a man with such impeccable conservative credentials, albeit one who made a negative early call on the invasion of Iraq – a venture crafted and executed, moreover, by some of Harries’s old friends and colleagues.

“The Iraq war started off by dividing the country very seriously, but the mid-term election seems to indicate a move to the centre from both wings and a substantial degree of agreement that Iraq was a vast mistake,” Harries says. “Despite the outcome of this election, there is no satisfactory outcome to the Iraq mess. Democracy is impossible, stability is very unlikely and the most we can hope for in the immediate future is an acceptable degree of instability. Even that will be hard to achieve.”

Similarly, to understand the full significance of Harries’ critique of Australian foreign policy, and the shortcomings of the Howard government’s handling of relations with what Sir Robert Menzies referred to as “great and powerful friends”, it’s necessary to appreciate that, alone among Australians, Harries had real clout in Washington. Further, he was one of the first to identify the schism among US conservatives – between neoconservatives and realists – that has been opened up by the Iraq war disaster.

Less well known is the fact that, for a shorter period, Owen Harries also had a significant influence over the development of Australian foreign policy. Australia is not without contenders for the Harries crown of global foreign policy influence, but they are only pretenders. During World War II, when Australia’s prime allegiance switched from the UK to the US, there was the brief international rise of Dr H.V. (Bert) Evatt, the Curtin government’s external affairs minister and president of the United Nations General Assembly 1948-49. Evatt’s global star expired during the Greek civil war in 1947, which also marked the effective start of the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union.

More recently, another former foreign minister, Gareth Evans, has developed some influence as head of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. This non-profit, non-government body aims to prevent and resolve deadly conflicts through field-based analysis and high-level advocacy. But while Evans has entree in Europe, his influence, such as it is, does not stretch across the Atlantic.

A man of humble origins, Harries, on the other hand, was the quintessential Washington insider over a 16-year period that ended five years ago. He supped with the great and the good, and was on first-name terms with figures such as Henry Kissinger, Colin Powell and Paul Wolfowitz; among his legion of fans were the late George Kennan, architect of the Truman doctrine of containment of the Soviet bloc. In a letter written by the man behind the Nixon visit to China and the Vietnam peace accords, among other things, Kissinger told Harries: “I can’t remember when I have read an article in which I have agreed with every word.”

Now 76, Harries returned to Australia in 2001 because he “did not wish to be a retiree in Washington”, rattling about in the drawing rooms of the elite, reminiscing about the good old days, and hanging out for invitations to this or that seminar. Instead, he is spending his autumn years as a senior fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies, andvisiting fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy, both in Sydney. Suggest to Harries that his life has been extraordinary and he shrugs it off. “People invent themselves. That’s one of the great things about an open society,” he says. Perhaps. But what an ‘invention’ the Harries persona has been. He was born in 1930 and raised in the small Welsh village of Garnant, about 18 kilometres north of Swansea, where Dylan Thomas grew up. A little further away was Port Talbot, where Richard Burton and Anthony Hopkins were born. Another Garnantian was John Cale, composer and pianist with the rock group The Velvet Underground.

Garnant sat on the border between Welsh and English speakers and was on the edge of the South Wales industrial basin, a once thriving coalmining area that lost its way as shipping and railways switched from coal-fired steam to oil and electric power. Harries was born into a region crippled by the Depression, with local unemployment near 60 per cent.

But in a lesson for life, he later wrote “Garnant not only held together, it showed great resilience and vitality”, with its eisteddfods, play readings, brass bands, intense loyalty to the British Labour Party, active union presence, and working men’s halls. It was this region, laid waste by the remorseless change of industrial society, but with a spirit that soared on the voices of its Welsh inhabitants, that incubated one of the most original, influential, conservative foreign-policy figures of the postwar era. This son of the owner of the local drapery store excelled at school, and studied politics at Oxford University. A restless soul, he moved to Australia in 1955, and progressed through academic ranks to become associate professor of political science at the University of NSW by 1971.

Harries was an able academic, a vital presence on campus, and a loud supporter of the US’s massive, doomed military intervention in the Vietnam War. But it was his co-curricular intellectual life, in small-circulation magazines and as a voluble presence in the anti-communist movement, that later gave his career such remarkable velocity. He became an active member of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, a virulently anti-communist group of academics and writers that supported magazines such as Encounter in the UK and Quadrant in Australia. It also received secret CIA funding.

At the same time, Harries was making his first moves in a direction then regarded as off-the-pace but that helped propel him into the vortex of Washington power. He joined the editorial board of the Current Affairs Bulletin, then a somewhat drab publication specialising in worthy discourses about subjects such as Australia’s membership of the South-East Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO), or the reserve price scheme for wool.

Harries also edited the Australian Highwayman, published by the Workers’ Educational Association. In 1958, he devoted a full issue to the role of John Anderson, who was a professor of philosophy at Sydney University, a fierce anti-communist, and godfather of the Andersonian ‘Push’ of demi-mondaine figures who, at one time, included Germaine Greer in their lese-majeste activities.

The key year came a decade later. In 1968, the Viet Cong’s Tet offensive swung US public opinion around to oppose the military involvement in Vietnam. It was the year of widespread campus revolt in the US, and of les evenements in Paris, when students and striking workers closed down much of France. It was the year of the assassinations of Martin Luther King jnr and Senator Robert Kennedy, of a police riot at the Democratic Party convention in Chicago; the year when the counter-culture -hippies, acid rock, Vanilla Fudge, Bob Dylan, illicit drugs, sexual licence – took hold.

It was also the year Owen Harries met Irving Kristol, and it is hard to imagine two figures more antithetical to the counterculture wave. Harries was visiting New York, and met Kristol under the networking umbrella of the Congress for Cultural Freedom. Kristol was one of agroup of New York intellectuals who early coalesced around radical publications such as Partisan Review, and from the thirties to the seventies migrated ever further to the right, from Trotskyists to Social Democrats to a new movement, dubbed ‘neoconservatism’.

As the neocon movement developed in the US, Harries was being noticed by influential figures back home. After the election of the Whitlam Labor government in 1972, he began advising the Liberal Party, and wrote the coalition’s foreign policy document before the December 13, 1975, poll. The Coalition won and Harries took leave from the university and advised former foreign minister Andrew Peacock, headed the policy section in the Foreign Affairs Department, and later became an adviser and speechwriter for former prime minister Malcolm Fraser, who remembers Harries as having “a very good mind. It was analytical. He dealt with things objectively. I thought he was really first class.”

Harries also authored The Harries Report, a 450-page document about Australia’s ties with the third world, which became a basis for a seminar in the British Foreign Office. He was later appointed Australian ambassador to UNESCO in Paris. After Labor returned to office, and he was looking around for something to do, Kristol and Norman Podhoretz, the two leading figures in the American neocon movement, persuaded him to take a one-year fellowship at the right-wing Heritage Foundation in Washington.

A man of great intellectual energy, Harries began writing articles for Foreign Affairs, published by the US Council on Foreign Relations, and Commentary, edited by Podhoretz. During this period he made UNESCO a negative cause celebre for the right, and the force of his written attacks persuaded the Reagan White House and the Margaret Thatcher-led tory government in Britain to withdraw from the body.

Harries became well known in the US. The Heritage Foundation had a “superb system” for quickly disseminating articles by staff members out there in influence-land. This was before email, but the day after publication, copies of a Harries article would be on the desks of members of Congress, their staff, and of the op-ed page editors of 100 American newspapers. The foundation sent him on extensive speaking tours in Europe.

WHEN hiS year with the foundation was up, Kristol suggested he edit a new magazine. “Irving’s great solution if there is a problem in life is:’Let’s start a magazine’. At the time, there weren’t that many outlets for someone of a conservative disposition,” he says. So The National Interest was born. Kristol raised the money from the Olin, Smith Richardson and Bradley foundations. Under Harries’s engaging, intellectually combative editorship, the quarterly became the most influential foreign policy publication among American conservatives. Contributors included Paul Wolfowitz, later a deputy secretary of defence and architect of the plans to invade Iraq and remove Saddam Hussein, and now president of the World Bank; Colin Powell, who was US chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff during the first Gulf War in 1991 and Secretary of State in President George W. Bush’s first term; and Richard N. Haass, later a director of policy planning at the US State Department, and a significant influence on Bush’s Iraq strategy.

A key to the success of The National Interest, Harries believes, is that its lively edge reflected an inner tension between the neocon and moretraditional realist schools of thought on foreign policy, with Harries holding the latter position, and Kristol the former. It was a Cold War magazine “but we were better after the Cold War than before”. In fact, almost alone among American publications, it anticipated the post-Cold War period. In a stunning editorial coup, it foreshadowed the key global characteristics of the post-Cold War era that lasted for 12 years. These were encapsulated in Francis Fukuyama’s article ‘The End of History’.

Published four months before the November 9, 1989, collapse of theBerlin Wall, Fukuyama argued that all rival ideologies, particularly communism, had been discredited, and the regimes based on them having failed, the future belonged to liberal democracy.

Harries knew he had a major piece and commissioned comments of Fukuyama’s thesis, published in the same issue: from the late Senator Daniel P. Moynihan; the Chicago academic Allan Bloom, who later authored the best-selling book The Closing of the American Mind; and Kristol himself. After publication, Harries says “there was no pick-up on Fukuyama and then whoosh”. Time magazine and The Washington Post ran major features on the Fukuyama thesis. The US State Department, the Kremlin in Moscow, the Quai d’Orsay in Paris and other foreign ministries ordered copies of the article. Such was the sudden fame that Fukuyama, who had been paid $US1,000 for The National Interest piece,was soon offered $US600,000 ($775,000) to turn the idea into a book.

Twelve years later came the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. The outrage changed the way America dealt with the outside world. As Harries said in his 2003 Boyer Lectures for the ABC, “with the attack of September 11, America’s alleged ‘holiday from history’ came to an abrupt end. In an instant, the terrorists had given the country the clear purpose, the central organising principle, that it had previously lacked and that some had been strenuously demanding. That organising principle came under the name of ‘a war on terrorism’, a concept that is general enough to support more than one meaning.

“It can be interpreted precisely, in terms of destroying the organisations and instruments of terror and protecting the homeland against their efforts,” Harries said. “But it can also be defined much more broadly to encompass changing the conditions that give rise to terrorism, and the creation of an international order that would be inimical to its existence, not only ‘draining the swamp’, as the phrase goes, but creating a fertile liberal and democratic pasture in its place.” This is what is known as the ‘Bush doctrine’, a doctrine first enunciated by the neocons.

What followed was not just the destruction of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan but the US-led invasion in Iraq. The Bush doctrine of America leading and others following was in full swing. From Fukuyama’s ‘End of History’ we had moved into Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations theory. The world had become more complex and frightening.

The disaster in Iraq triggered a schism in conservative ranks, with neocons sticking to The National Interest, and Fukuyama and others such as the distinguished US foreign policy specialist, and former National Security Adviser in the Carter administration, Zbigniew Brzezinski, peeling off to create the more critical The American Interest. Harries is reluctant to turn publicly on the individuals involved, even though he was warning against the Iraq venture months before it was launched.

So does he have a sense of Schadenfreude? “I prefer dealing with English words,” he replies.

This new era has also changed the nature of Australian foreign policy. “If you go back and look at Australian foreign policy, what strikes me is its extraordinary simplicity,” Harries explains. Under this old logic, Australia attaches itself to a powerful, compatible country and follows that country’s foreign policy. “It’s the status quo countries – the haves of the world, Britain and the US. And Australia attaches itself in this way for the very good reason that Australia is a status quo country. Australia has enjoyed its share and is enjoying more than its share of the good things of the world, and the object of its policy should be to keep things like that.”

For much of the Australian alliance with the US, the latter has also been a status quo country, one that took on Nazi Germany in World War II and the Soviet Union in the Cold War. These states were both “forces for change”. But following September 11, “Australia as a status quo country finds itself attached to a revolutionary superpower” in a US practising the Bush doctrine, Harries says. Meanwhile, John Howard’s approach has been one where “we have been locking ourselves more and more into the upper reaches of American power and more inter-operability with the American military”.

The second great change from Australia’s point of view has been China, Harries says. It has replaced the US as its second biggest trading partner, so “we’ll have to balance our relations with two great powers. The only other time that happened was when Menzies represented Britain in Egypt in the Suez Crisis in 1956, but Australia very quickly realigned with the US. The reality of British weakness was exposed.” Now the alliance with the US “is embedded in the Australian psyche”, but Australia will have to go its own way more often, he says.

On that issue, Harries refers to the comment by a former deputy secretary in the US State Department, Richard Armitage, that Australia could not “pick and choose” and “must stand ready to give military support to the US if Washington goes to war with China”. Australia should have told Armitage to “shove off”, Harries says. “Picking and choosing is precisely what it will have to do.”

“People don’t respect other people who don’t disagree occasionally and have their own opinions, even among friends,” Malcom Fraser has said, and Owen Harries says pretty much the same thing. The boy from Garnant may have lived through heady days in Washington but, true to the spirit of the Welsh valleys, his head wasn’t turned.

Irving Kristol once famously wrote that a neocon is a “liberal mugged by reality”. Neoconservatism is a largely American movement, which emergedin the late sixties as an effort to combat the radical cultural changes taking place. According to Kristol, “if there is any one thing that neoconservatives are unanimous about, it is their dislike of the counterculture”.

Ira Chernus, professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado, argues that the deepest root of the neoconservative movement is its fear that the counterculture would undermine the authority of traditional values and moral norms. The prefix ‘neo’ refers to the fact that many of the movement’s founders, such as Kristol, were originally socialist, and that neoconservatism is a fairly recent strain of conservative socio-political thought.

The neocons had a significant influence on the foreign policies of the Reagan administration and have been even more powerful in the George W. Bush White House. Adherents found succour in right-wing think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, and US magazines such as Commentary – also edited by Kristol, and later by Norman Podhoretz – and The Weekly Standard.

Neoconservatives say they believe national security is best attained by promoting freedom and democracy abroad through the support of pro-democracy movements and, in certain cases, military intervention. In his 2003 Boyer Lectures, broadcast on the ABC, Harries had already identified the Bush doctrine as an urgent issue because of the “implications and prospects of the proclaimed American policy of assertively promoting democracy in countries where it does not exist, by encouraging and pressurising existing governments to move in that direction, or even by the use of military power to bring about regime change”.

Realists, he said, “tend to view” this approach “sceptically and critically”. For critics “the belief that democratic institutions, behaviour and ways of thought can be exported and transplanted to societies that have no experience of them, and that this can be done in the course of a few years, is profoundly mistaken … Democracy is not a commodity which can be exported, or a gift that can be bestowed.

“To be viable, political institutions and political cultures require a long, organic, indigenous growth, and to attempt from without a sudden dislocation of what exists is more likely to produce unintended consequences than intended ones. At best, it is likely to result in what one might term Potemkin democracies, a matter of facades and stage props, behind which it is a case of business as usual; at worst it will destroy the traditional system without producing anything viable to replace it and result in chaos, cynicism and disillusionment.”