Morals, slogans and PR hype

Apr 12, 2018

Australian politicians and media have been beating their hairy chests accusing and warning China and Russia over their failings. One is reminded of the famous  thundering headline in The Launceston Examiner ‘We warn the Tzar of Russia’ . The question is what is the motive in all of this? Do they really hope to influence these countries or is to please the US? Perhaps the more likely explanation is that it is designed to impress Australian voters? Australia has morphed from the post Vietnam distrust of militarism to almost a warrior cult so they may hope their bellicose bombast will resound well domestically. There is also an implied claim to the moral high ground  – which is hardly unique to Australia. The rhetoric from China and Russia is not much different but we think we are different. This article looks briefly at some of the claims made.

In her speech to Latrobe University Julie Bishop claims that the international rules based order has protected small nations from big nations since WW2  while the Prime Minister said that Australia would view with concern foreign bases in the Pacific. Both the Government and the Opposition claim that the US umbrella has kept Australia safe since WW2. All these claims need to be examined. Slogans are thrown around by politicians and far too often mindlessly repeated by the media especially in media outlets owned by the foreigner Rupert Murdoch.

As the Indian philosopher Kautilya observed some 2000 years ago, big fish eat little fish and nothing has changed. The USA has invaded Iraq, Grenada and Panama and overthrown democratically elected governments in Guatemala, Chile, Iran and a number of other countries. It has also interfered in the electoral processes of far more countries and propped up brutal dictators in Cuba, Nicaragua, Chile, El Salvador, Vietnam and elsewhere. The French, British and Dutch struggled to hold on to their colonies after the war. During the post war decades the Soviet Union invaded Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Afghanistan and interfered in others while China invaded Tibet. These are just some examples of the failure of the rules based order which has been flouted by the great powers, especially the USSR and the USA. For example, some of the biggest fish refuse to accept the jurisdiction of the rules based International Court of Justice. The countries extolling the virtues of the rules based system tend to to be the major rule breakers. The so-called rules based order has not protected small fish from big fish during the decades since WW2. So the myth of the rules based order  cannot be sustained.

Obviously, however flawed and however many of its values differ from ours, the USA is a democracy and is run domestically very differently from countries like China and Russia which are highly authoritarian. However, there is no evidence to show that democracies behave differently internationally than authoritarian regimes. The question is should we take into account what we think of how a country runs its domestic affairs or only look at how it behaves internationally and especially how its behaviour affects our interests? Opinions differ from highly moralistic views through to stark Realpolitik approaches. Whatever view you take it is important not to confuse the two.

What the Prime Minister really meant was that he would view with alarm bases by China. The USA already has bases all around the Pacific and France has some also. Russia has a military base in Vladivostok. Presumably the Prime Minister does not see the USA as a foreign country? It is hard to see China taking our bombast seriously. We are told that Australia views Chinese action with concern so what are we going to do about it? Send a gunboat up the Yangtze River? We are told that China is not an enemy but its rising power is viewed with concern and the White Paper suggests that it will become more influential at the expense of the USA. Certainly we cannot ignore the possibility that China will become more bellicose and it is certainly likely that China and the US will face off in some way so that little fish like Australia could get caught in the net. We have managed so far to keep our strong commercial interests with China separate from our alliance with the US but we may not be able to keep this up and leading with our chin publicly does not help. That said, our foreign minister rightly got stuck into the USA for flouting the trade rules based order where we have the same approach as China. I am not suggesting that we cannot say what we think but just  trumpeting inaccurate slogans does not do our reputation any good. If we are concerned about the possibility of a threat from China we should be working with ASEAN and our Asian neighbours but perhaps with less wind and more substance. To be fair to the government, this is being done  although it doesn’t get the same amount of publicity.  The bottom line in any public statement should be what’s in it for Australia,

Since there has been no direct threat to Australia since WW2 it would not be too hard to keep us safe! Who was going to threaten us? How did the Vietnam war keep the region stable?  Korea is the only case where the US did contribute seriously to regional security and a rules based order but then blew it when General Macarthur pushed for the Yalu. Fortunately the US nuclear umbrella has never been put to the test. We have got involved in a number of wars to support the US and any future wars are likely to be as US partners. If Australia were threatened and the USA not, would the Americans come to our aid militarily let alone with nuclear weapons? Who is likely to attack us except in our capacity as a US proxy?  President Trump will not last for ever and one can only hope that the Americans elect a more rational leader next time but as Kurds and other allies have found out American promises cannot always be relied on. American governments always have and always will put American interests first as they must but like a former Australian Prime Minister suggested, there are presumably core promises and non-core promises.

This kind of rhetoric is unfortunately typical of what passes for political debate in Australia today. The reputation of politicians in Australia is at an all time low as their antics deserve but  current international debates seem also to have degenerated into emotional slanging matches. It is probably too much to ask for calm, reasoned debate in the current political environment but we could at least make a start by replacing slogans with accuracy.

Cavan Hogue is a former Australian diplomat.

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