The Genesis of a Policy – Honae Cuffe, ANU Press, Canberra, 2021

Review by Anna Kent


Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong with King of Tonga, Tupou VI at the Palace in Nuku’alofa, Tonga, Friday, June 3, 2022. Image credit: MARIAN KUPU, via AAP Photos.

In the midst of an election campaign, with some nuanced foreign policy debate breaking through into the mainstream media, it is wonderful to read a book that challenges the conventional view on foreign policy history. Honae Cuffe’s book is a helpful addition to the scholarship on Australian foreign policy in recent years, challenging the reader to look further than the accepted narrative around the way Australia has seen itself in the world.

This is Cuffe’s first book, and began as her PhD thesis. The book traces the growth of an independent Australian foreign policy as it developed after the First World War, through until the late 1950s. Like much scholarship on Australian foreign policy of the early 20th century, Cuffe grapples with conflicts within the bureaucracy and political class. The attempts to balance the realities of geography and decolonisation against a racialised view of the world are subtly noted by Cuffe throughout, for example, noting that Richard Casey wrote in 1931 that the Asia-Pacific region was remote and ‘Australia had little need to engage’.[1] Cuffe addresses the ‘fixation on maintaining racial and cultural whiteness’[2] in her introduction, but a more thorough engagement with this idea throughout the book would have been welcome.

Cuffe analyses Australia’s shifting defence and trade needs during the interwar years, with the role and position of Japan as a trading partner an interesting element of the study. The book is, by virtue of the timeframe, also a study in Australia’s positioning in relation to the end of the British Empire. The author addresses Australia’s attempts to shape and change the British Empire in its own interests – observing that ‘Australia actively sought to enmesh region-specific interests within the imperial framework, in an attempt to reshape the outlook of the Empire into one that better served Australia’s unique strategic position’.[3]

A group of seven multinational officers meet onboard the aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne to discuss the program for SEATO exercise Sea Devil held in the South China Sea. Australian War Memorial, item no. NAVY00870

The quest to retain Britain’s interest in the region to defend Australia is noted, as is the disillusionment of officials as it becomes clear that Australia is never seen as an equal partner to the UK or the US. Cuffe outlines repeated efforts by Australian politicians and bureaucrats to have a seat at the table with the UK and the US in security discussions about the Asia-Pacific region – efforts that were largely rebuffed. Alongside (and arguably because of) these efforts, Australia pushed to develop or be part of various regional groupings and treaties such as SEATO, and the Colombo Plan, as well as larger organisations like the Commonwealth of Nations.

The book argues that Australian governments took a pragmatic approach to foreign policy, and failed on occasions to implement the ideas and approaches they believed were in the best interests of Australia. Cuffe notes that these interests were seen through the prism of Australia’s geographic position, as well as the desire for a strategic alliance with the Anglosphere. These interests, as understood by the bureaucrats and politicians discussed in Cuffe’s book, infected the nature of their policy approaches. Racist formulations and racial hierarchies were inherent in most politicians’ and bureaucrats’ minds, a world view they saw as pragmatic and completely legitimate. Cuffe’s descriptions of ineptitude and the failure to reflect on why policies did not achieve the desired outcomes mirror findings from my own research, which looked at Australian government international scholarships. I found that successive Australian governments failed to understand the context in which they were offering scholarships, and often expected significant rewards for very small investments.[4]

It was not only ineptitude, however, that curtailed Australia’s foreign policy ambitions. Cuffe, through detailing a number of engagements and setbacks, ‘highlights the challenges the small nation faced in attempting to influence its powerful allies.’ [5] By bringing attention to the power imbalance between Australia and its allies, Cuffe notes the ways in which Australian diplomats and politicians utilised regional and smaller multi-lateral organisations to achieve at least some of their policy goals. The overwhelming impression I had from the book, however, is that Australia wanted a seat at the ‘big kids table’, and many of its plans were focused on that goal rather than improving regional relationships.

Cuffe uses documents from the National Archives of Australia and the National Archives (UK) to support her argument throughout the book. Cuffe uses a fine grain reading of many of these documents, using the sources well. By taking the lens further back in time, and looking at the inter-war years, Cuffe is able to highlight records that are not often part of the conversation when it comes to Australian foreign policy development. However, this is a book only about Australia’s foreign policy, with little focus given to the places where this ‘foreign policy’ was being played out. There are reports from the responses of UK diplomats in the book, and reports from Australian diplomats overseas, but perhaps a broader international archival base might also have allowed for some analysis of how Australia’s foreign policy wants and needs were being understood by governments in other countries or the people of the colonial territories whose opinions are often much harder to find. Again, this offers an opportunity to take this fantastic research base in a new direction.

Overall, this book provides an excellent counter to some of the accepted historical narrative around foreign policy in Australia. The Genesis of a Policy and Emma Shortis’ recent book Our Exceptional Friend are excellent companions in this manner. The timing of the book is also opportune. As mentioned previously, foreign policy has taken centre stage in the 2022 election campaign, and I noted while reading the book that the recent AUKUS Security Pact appears to fulfil the dreams the Australian security establishment held in the 1940s and 1950s. Why Australia has returned to this quasi-imperial view of the world is a question worth asking, and some of the answers are certainly contained in this book.



[1] Honae Cuffe, The Genesis of a Policy Defining and Defending Australia’s National Interest in the Asia-Pacific, 1921–57 (Canberra: ANU Press, 2021), 33.

[2] Ibid., 2.

[3] Ibid., 58.

[4] A Kent. ‘Australian Government Scholarships to Papua New Guinea and the South Pacific 1948 -2018: Mandates and Mis-Steps’. PhD, Deakin University, 2021.

[5]  Cuffe, The Genesis of a Policy Defining and Defending Australia’s National Interest in the Asia-Pacific, 1921–57, 77.




Anna Kent
Anna Kent

Anna Kent has a PhD analysing the role of Australian government scholarships in the Pacific between 1948 and 2018. Anna researches international education and the intersections between international education and foreign policy.