I'm a few days late to the debate on ASPI's The Strategist blog concerning the 'Anglosphere', but not too late to join in, I hope.

The discussion was prompted by Hugh White's latest SMH column, particularly this section:

...Abbott's foreign policy is a long way from being Jakarta-focused, or even Asia-focused. He talks little about Asia, and plays down the political and strategic significance of China's rise, predicting in his book Battlelines that it would make no difference to Australia's foreign policy. Instead his deepest commitment is to the ''Anglosphere'' - the agreeable idea that the world should continue to be run primarily from Washington and London, by people just like us.

The subsequent debate between Hugh and Peter Jennings has (almost inevitably) become a definitional one, with Peter Jennings making what is, for me, too broad a claim about what constitutes the Anglosphere:

I see the term as largely synonymous with the accepted global international order...The list of what the Anglosphere has delivered includes the UN, Bretton-Woods, NATO, ANZUS, the English language, international law, support for human rights, the internet, fast food and precision-guided munitions. Oh yes, and they brought peace after World War II, which is the basis for—among many other benefits—economic growth in Asia.

But the 'global international order' is not really an achievement of the Anglosphere.

I think it's more accurate to say that the international society which we have inherited is a European achievement which we trace back to the Treaty of Westphalia or even before, and which took a truly global shape after 1945, when former colonies began to be included in world affairs as equal members. If you think 'European' does not do full justice to the American place in all of this, you could just say 'Western'*.

From what Peter Jennings has said on this topic so far, my guess is that he might be willing to concede this point. And perhaps Abbott would too, since he sometimes conflates the Anglosphere with 'the West'. Here he is in Battlelines

The notion that 'I am my brother's keeper' has taken particular root in America, as it has in all the English-speaking countries. It's an aspect of the West's ethical heritage that seems to be strengthening its hold over the civic culture of the anglosphere which is fastidious about the need for fairness, especially to outsiders. Along with representative democracy, the rule of law, and civic pluralism, it's a key element of the Anglo-American legacy to the world.

The bonds between the countries of the anglosphere arise from patterns of thinking originally shaped by Shakespeare and the King James Bible, constantly reinforced by reading each other's books, watching the same movies and consuming the same international magazines. It's a solidarity based on ideas in common and even mutually shared differences of opinion rather than on race, religion or economic self-interest.

Similarly, in a speech in the UK last year, Abbott said 'insatiable curiosity and ceaseless questioning...is the hallmark of Western civilisation (especially in its English-speaking versions) and provides our comparative advantage among the cultures of the world.'

Talk of the West having an 'advantage' over other cultures will sound parochial and triumphalist to some (Abbott also talks about the victory over the Nazis as if the Soviet Army had no hand in it), and perhaps it is just this sort of language that led Hugh White to say that Abbott would prefer the world to be run 'primarily from Washington and London, by people just like us'.

But the passages I've just quoted don't quite support that conclusion. Abbott may sound parochial and triumphalist, but at least it's an open and liberal form of triumphalism.

My guess is that, for Abbott, the Anglosphere is not a nostalgic longing for the days of British empire. Nor is it an organising principle for Australian foreign policy or a nascent diplomatic mechanism. Rather, it exists in the realm of ideas; it is a common civic heritage to which Abbott feels attached. And you don't need to be born in a particular country to be a member. In fact, quite the opposite. Abbott talks of the Anglosphere as a civic institution marked by pluralism, democracy, and fairness. It is a 'solidarity based on ideas'.

I don't think the Anglosphere will be a big part of Tony Abbott's foreign policy, should his party win office. But it is a window into Abbott's worldview, and it's a more liberal worldview than his critics concede.

(BTW, congrats to ASPI's The Strategist on its first birthday.)

* Late thought: Although that might then exclude the Russian and east European role in the development of European diplomacy.

Photo by Flickr user djking.