A tribute to Allan Gyngell

A tribute to Allan Gyngell


It is no overstatement to say that the death of Allan Gyngell represents a genuine loss to Australia and leaves the country without a figure who, with warmth and good humour, enhanced its capacity to navigate its challenges in the international arena.

Allan’s career was distinguished: he served as a diplomat, advised Prime Minister Paul Keating, was the first head of the Lowy Institute, was head of the Office of National Assessments, and an honorary professor at the Australian National University (ANU). He wrote Fear of Abandonment (published by La Trobe University Press, a joint imprint with Black Inc), a definitive and indispensable history of Australian foreign policy, and was head of the Australian Institute for International Affairs. He was also consulting editor of Australian Foreign Affairs, a role that allowed me to experience – as so many others in Australia have – his unfailing generosity, wisdom and thoughtfulness.

In his many public roles, and from his reading and conversations, he collected a deep reservoir of knowledge about Australia, its diplomacy, its politics and its region – and, armed with his generosity and his commitment to public life, he became an unparalleled source of guidance and insight to policymakers, politicians, diplomats, academics, analysts and journalists.

Reflecting on his death this week, Tim Watts, Australia’s assistant minister for Foreign Affairs, wrote: “He was a mentor for half of Australia’s foreign policy community.”

Rory Medcalf, head of ANU’s National Security College, wrote: “I can't think of any serious person in our foreign policy community who was not influenced by Allan for the better, even when disagreeing.”

Allan had been fascinated by international affairs since he was a teenager. He was not guided by ego or ideology; if anything, his single guiding dogma was that nothing, really, is unprecedented – that history and experience are the best tools for understanding the world and how to respond to its challenges.

His approach to foreign policy reflected his personal temperament: he was calm, questioning, curious, kind and fair, willing to be persuaded and willing to stand his ground.

In an era in which politics is deeply partisan and foreign policymaking is increasingly divided, Allan’s counsel was sought and trusted by those from all sides of the divides – from hawks and doves, and from politicians of all stripes.

Responding to critics of an Australian Foreign Affairs essay on China, whom he sensed had “a slight disappointment with what [one critic] calls my ‘even-handedness’”, he wrote:

“As this is a discussion about China, I’ll call to my defence the voice of Confucius, as imagined by Ezra Pound in The Cantos:

Anyone can run to excesses,

It is easy to shoot past the mark,

It is hard to stand firm in the middle.

As any politician will tell you, the middle ground is where the battles are fought and won.”

Penny Wong, Australia’s Foreign minister, described him as “our finest mind in Australian foreign policy”. He will be greatly missed.

On behalf of Australian Foreign Affairs, Black Inc, and the Schwartz group, I thank Allan for his writing and his guidance, and send condolences to his family.