Double standards are a feature of Australian foreign policy.  We condemn China for doing what we and other countries do.

Australia should not assume that democracy is the one true political faith that everyone in the world wants. We have the right to uphold our beliefs but others have the same right.

We should adopt a less hysterical and more realistic approach to who hacks whom. We all look at the world through the prism of our own history, experience and beliefs which not everyone shares.

I used to teach a graduate course at Macquarie University in Intercultural Communication. The underlying point was that different cultures see the world differently and often have different values or ways of doing things which affect the way they communicate. These differences can lead to important misunderstandings especially because most people think they are right and others are wrong or, more often, do not understand there is a difference. Students were required to discuss ways in which people fail to understand where others are coming from and the consequences.

The course aimed to give students an awareness of difference and how to understand other cultures so as to be able to apply this knowledge more effectively in business, media and government. Australian politicians and most of our journalists would have failed the course. Far too many of them would share Harold Nicholson’s view expressed in the 1930s that it was not the job of British diplomats to understand what foreigners were saying but to ensure that the foreigners understood what we were saying.

Those of us who share a Judeo-Christian heritage are particularly prone to intolerance because God lays down the law which we must obey.  European history is characterized by intolerance of heresy. The European enlightenment took God out of the story but replaced Him by universal values not all of which were Christian. For hundreds of years, Christian missionaries spread over the planet preaching the one true faith.

Today, countries like Australia and other Western countries spread the one true political faith with equal zeal. Democracy is based on faith just as much as any other ideology but anyone who questions this in Australia is burned at the intellectual stake as is any other country which does not practice it. There does seem, however, to be growing disillusionment among younger Australians and disagreement about what democratic values are. Calls for strong leadership are interesting. Do democratic leaders need to be strong or are they supposed to follow the wishes of the people?

A problem, of course, is just what is democracy? The old criticism tells us that if 51% of the community votes to shoot the other 49% that is a democratic decision.  So we try to include minority rights but we do not have a good record on minority rights as any aboriginal Australian can tell you. Then we add the rule of law but it was the rule of law that sent people who stole a handkerchief on convict ships to Botany Bay. And anyway can’t you have the rule of law in authoritarian systems?

The British, for example, prided themselves on the rule of law in their colonies which were not at all democratic. Then we ask who has the vote. Jefferson’s famous statement might more accurately have said that he took it as self-evident that wealthy white males are created more equal than others?  As we have seen with denial of the vote to women in Western societies, who gets the vote reflects the cultural values of the time.

Freedom of the press is usually considered to be a vital part of democracy but opinions vary on what restrictions are justifiable. Mot countries have libel laws and security needs may impose restrictions on what can be published. The journalist Peter Greste recently claimed that lack of freedom of the press leads to political instability but provided no evidence. China does not have a free press but is stable while the USA does have a free press and is not very stable at the moment.

Press barons like Hearst or Murdoch can dominate the media and influence opinion.  The media can ruin reputations and impose hardship on innocent people through their sensationalist reporting. Even a republican must have sympathy for Prince Harry’s complaint that the gutter press killed his mother and were out to get his wife.

We also tend to mix up democracy and capitalism. A socialist system can be democratic and capitalism can certainly be autocratic? Or you can have a mixed system.  Politically, perhaps there are many options along the continuum between anarchy and dictatorship?

It seems that many Chinese value harmony over our combative system. The Javanese value a consensus system where a compromise acceptable to all is reached. Like most democracies, ours is a win or lose one. You are either voted to govern in which case you run things or you lose in which case you suffer from what Gareth Evans called relevance deprivation syndrome. Our legal system is essentially the same. You are guilty or not guilty. So if you are guilty of murder the state punishes you but does nothing for the victim. In parts of Africa, a murderer is kept free but must support the widow and children of his victim. Which is the better system?

Our foreign policy is said to be based firmly on our values and beliefs. We want to ally ourselves to those we believe to share our values even if they don’t always share many of them. (see Michael McKinley’s P $ I article on 12 July) We praise our concept of human rights and conveniently ignore the fact that most of those who created the relevant UN documents were in breach of them when they signed. e.g. France, Holland, UK, USA, Australia..  I spent three years in the UNGA Third Committee on human rights. On one occasion a Scandinavian member was accurately criticizing Iran for a breach of the Convention.

The Iranian delegate replied that when the law of man clashes with the law of God the law of God must prevail. Sir Thomas More said much the same thing for Christians when he said he was the King’s good servant but God’s first. If you believe in any of the three Middle Eastern monotheisms you must surely accept that God comes first. A problem, of course, is that believers have different interpretations of what God wants of them. The point, however, is that there is no universal agreement on morals or political systems. We tend to assume that we are right and everyone else will or at least should come to agree with us and if they don’t that they are wicked.

Double standards are a feature of Australian foreign policy.  We condemn China for doing what we and other countries do. ASIO is based on the British MI5 and ASIS on MI6. A British observer put the difference pithily by saying that MI5 exists to stop other countries doing to us what MI6 is doing to them. Before mounting our moral hobby horse we might think on this.

We cannot assume that our friends are not hacking us too. There is no evidence to suggest that democracies act any differently from authoritarian regimes internationally nor that friends or allies do not conduct espionage against each other. So perhaps a less hysterical and more realistic approach to the subject of cyber and other kinds of espionage might be wise. Yes, let us protect ourselves as best we can against cyber attacks and other forms of espionage but let us not be naive about which countries or criminal gangs might be having a go at us.

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Cavan Hogue is a former diplomat who has worked in Asia, Europe and the Americas as well as at the UN. He also worked at ANU and Macquarie universities.

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