Australia’s three warsNov 25, 2023
In a lead article last week in The Sydney Morning Herald the political and international editor Peter Hartcher declared that Australia was ’connected to three wars’, but only one of them would be measured in decades. He was referring to the conflict in Gaza and the war in Ukraine both of which ‘affect Australia’s security’. How this was so was nowhere explained. But it is the third war which was ‘a direct threat to our sovereignty and liberty.’ Here he was pointing to ‘the Chinese Communist Party’s war to dominate the Indo-Pacific and, ultimately, the world.’ This ’unconventional war’, he declared, had been ‘underway for over a decade already’ and would continue long into the future.
Similar comments had been made a few weeks earlier by Australia’s ambassador in Washington Kevin Rudd while speaking to a defence dialogue arranged by the Australian American Association. He explained that the burden of American strategic leadership was to deal simultaneously with the triple challenges of the Israel-Hamas conflict, the war in Ukraine, and the threat of China in the Indo-Pacific. Australia’s responsibility, he told his audience, was ‘to be rock solid with the United States as it confronts each and every one of these challenges…and that is where the government of Australia proudly stands today.’ Rudd doubled down on his message more recently on the eve of the Prime Minister’s visit to Washington declaring that the Middle East was a core part of America’s concern and as a result ‘it’s a core part of Australia’s concerns’ as well. We have to assume that what Rudd was saying was not his view alone but an aspect of DFAT’s official thinking. This goes a long way in explaining why we sent both aircraft and military personnel to our apparently now permanent base Camp Baird in the UAE.
Several questions present themselves here. All this recent activity has proceeded without any public debate let alone forensic justification. Just why is the Middle East ‘a core’ concern for Australia? More to the point are the unanswered question as to which ways Australia can possibly have any influence on events in that complex and troubled part of the world? Why spend anything on such a quixotic fantasy? Presumably it is to display our ‘rock solid’ support for the Americans no matter where, when or why. So we apparently think that it helps our allies to jump into the pile-on of foreign countries interfering in the broad region even when Australia is half a world away. Another pressing question which should be seriously addressed is whether we learnt anything from our twenty year fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria? Has there been any public accounting for the treasure wasted, the lives lost, the physical and mental injuries that still blight many lives? And after all whatever was actually achieved? In what ways are we actually better off for carrying war and destruction into societies that Australians knew little about and which could never threaten the homeland? Do we ever enter into our calculations the lives we destroyed, the families ravaged and left with loss and bereavement which will span across the generations and all so we could show how unwavering was our commitment to the empire? Do our leaders ever wonder about the morality of it all? Do they ever hear that whispering in the bottoms of their hearts? Probably not: Hartcher and rock-solid Rudd, for instance seem comfortable with the idea of being beside the United States in endless future wars. Their advocacy is presented with a fair measure of bravado.
In his more recent statement Rudd declared with, what appeared to be vicarious pride, his admiration of America’s capacity to deal with any series of simultaneous challenges. It had already ‘demonstrated its ability to manage these challenges on three fronts at once.’ It is clear from this that he is quite tone deaf to the winds of change whistling across the world. People everywhere are, increasingly seeing the same attributes, applauded by Rudd, as confirmation that America is addicted to war and therefore a prime and ubiquitous source of conflict. Israel’s catastrophic destruction of Gaza has put this assessment beyond doubt. The overwhelming support from the Western powers and most of the mainstream media has done irreparable damage to images carefully curated for generations. The benign mask, having slipped from the face, lies in the dust beside the fallen myth of liberal internationalism. By a hundred actions and statements Western leaders inadvertently display their racial partiality and belief that the death of people of colour matters less than those of fellow whites. And above all, and perhaps more damaging than anything else, is the realisation that Western leaders in governments and media are high priests of hypocrisy. The sermons they have preached all over the world about a rules based international order have little purchase on their own behaviour. They may never recover their shrinking prestige.
It is not surprising that Rudd’s comments show little appreciation of the direction in which most of the world is moving. The shift of power, as well as sentiment, away from the West is accelerating. The recent meeting of the BRICS countries to address the atrocities in Gaza and the visit of a delegation of leading Muslim countries to China, with the same mission in mind, are straws in the wind. So too was the massive majority General Assembly vote in favour of an immediate Israeli ceasefire. Every major country between Sri Lanka and Japan voted for it while Australia abstained reinforcing the impression that Australia has lost contact with what is now called the Global South. The Albanese government has tied itself ever more tightly to the Anglo World and NATO and seems pleased with the result.
These were not the plans outlined by Foreign Minister Penny Wong in the early days of her tenure. There was our geography to begin with. She wanted us to not just be in South-East Asia but to be of South East Asia. She pointed to our successful venture into multiculturalism which meant our ancestral white Anglo outlook had been shed like out of date clothes. And then there was the heritage of our First Nations people who had been victims of European colonialism and were, in their own way, part of the Global South.