DENNIS ARGALL. We are ill prepared for inevitable dramatic change. and the need to shift fundamentals of national strategy

A revolution is not a dinner party”: Chairman Mao.

We are in the middle of a number of revolutions, which we must try to understand and which require independent national strategy and vigour. These processes will be rough and unavoidable. Can we make it? Not with present political leadership and community attitudes. 

With family and friends in the United States and having in the past worked on the alliance in Defence and the Washington embassy. I am deeply troubled by events in that country. I am no old anti-American.

The present crisis is very real. What I write here ought to be blindingly obvious, but our government provides no lead. All this is personal because it affects us all. It cannot be left to the wonks or to politicians’ vague reassurances. There is the ‘need to know rule’ but of more importance the obligation to say “I don’t know, we have to figure this out together, let me provide as much information as possible… and I’m not going to decorate my appearances with a general or a doctor for at least a month.”

The United States continued for long to enjoy disproportionate preeminence in the post-WW2 political, military and financial systems of which it was major architect. That fabric on which US status continued to float has been punctured by the present American Administration.

Over time, United States military adventures have produced more and more negatives and few positives and have encouraged a variety of countries and increasing numbers of non-state operatives to go violent, especially since Bush II. NATO and Australia must share blame with the US.

Gross inequality has become the norm in a world where the internet and social media show everyone everywhere everything, a matter more significant and more unsettling than the projection of war into US TV from Vietnam. There is an historical revolutionary precedent in the spread of printing presses in Europe five hundred years ago, undermining the established religious and political order, boosting nationalisms and leading to the creation of nation states from the 1600s. We should not underestimate the force of the present information revolution, and its interaction with plague and inequality. Nobody knew where things were going back then, nor do we now.

Indignation flows from anxiety. Nasty actors will destabilise more countries. Statesmen everywhere will offer solutions either imaginative or repressive, based on established practice, which will be bowled over by their own people, as France discovers repeatedly and the Peter Dutton coterie seem not to understand.

The US now denigrates and disassembles alliances, ends arms control agreements and enthusiastically reinvigorates arms race, spending more on defence, while increasingly deeply indebted not least to China… while abusing China. And while eroding America’s infrastructures of decency.

American relations with China, South Korea and Japan are descended into squabbles. The Koreans and even Japan will lean further towards China, for security, for income and social stability. Trump shot down the multilateral trade agreement which would bind the rest of East and Southeast Asia and Australasia to the US.

The United Nations is disparaged and US dues to the UN are conventionally well behind in payment. Jurisdiction of the International Court over American forces has always been rejected by the US, it’s not all Trump’s edict. The US has withdrawn from UNESCO and now says it will withdraw from WHO — turning off the taps during a fire. Part of a general rejection of multilateralism of all kinds for its insult to American exceptionalism: we are not going to be equal. Embargoes are tossed here and there, military attacks launched or threatened without compunction and with dishonest justification. Hard countries are let lose, Israel and Saudi Arabia are recipients of American money and weapons and increasingly aggressive. Iran, among the most ancient of civilisations, is given no chance to emerge from a repressive situation. Argue about details but you can’t avoid the trend.

All these things are now happening mid-pandemic, with crash of oil price, reorientation (to put it mildly) of work and business practices, with global depression, with famine expanding in hard and sick places.

It is revealed that Trump ran for his basement bunker seeing an enemy at his gate. That enemy being citizens angered by lack of leadership, by provocation to violence and by the encouragement of white supremacy from the White House. That such a story leaked, that the Great Oz was shivering, is indicative of the rotten core. How those he urged towards violence will now react to his apparent funk is not clear.

Lies and truth are seriously scrambled in this critical moment. I am reminded too that one of the problems bringing about the sinking of the Titanic was that the radio operators worked for Marconi not Cunard and were too busy with passengers’ messages (social media) to give heed to the weather messages.

American alliances, including the alliance with Australia, run out of meaning and purpose. Germany has chair of the European Council for the second half of this year and Chancellor Merkel and EU Foreign Affairs chief Borrell have made clear that this is the beginning of the Asian Century and this year the key negotiations will be with China, and Russia. Not the USA.

For Australia, our alliance with the US has allowed us to sleepwalk shamelessly through illegal wars for two decades, party to vastly more damage to communities far away than Australian communities have suffered in 2020. The alliance and its acolytes in Australia enable the Australian defence establishment to subvert civilian command of national strategy… or is it civilian government that has lazily lost its grip? The parliament and electorate at large run on repeated cliches and increasingly chauvinistic sideswipes at contrary thought. This must not prevail.

The lesson of the last summer for Australia, for all of us, should have been that security depends not on absurdly expensive submarines and warplanes and shaping our defence force to fit the US Indo-Pacific Command, but in other directions discussed in this forum.

Against this we hear the cry “the Chinese are coming, the Chinese are coming!” This anxiety is based in phobia, fed by bloated security industries and faculties, but behind their suits and uniforms, there are archaic pressures from the brain stem, shared with ants and dinosaurs, to name an enemy, get prepared, and strut… however dressed up in the big words from the frontal lobes. Fear of China is shaped by zero-sum imagining of the world: that it’s us or them.

Fear of China is fed also by racism and it is dangerous to deny that. There is also the tragically naive expectation that China as a great power would behave just like us and just like our great ally. This is simple minded, though Dostoevsky long ago said we only see a mirror.

Yes, China has become a great power. China expects to be respected and can be expected to respond to absurd outbursts from Australians who should know better. Do we forget the way Australia tends to go hostile at any international criticism? The manners of Facebook, of Australian politics, of Australian media are not and should not become the manners of constructive international relations. We are ill-equipped.

Peace, amity, climate, environment, survival, business too. Some words that annoy toughs but are embraced by some wise business leaders. There are many practicalities to flow, to rebut the cynical and dinosaurs left and right. We must put more effort into understanding other countries, understanding history, trying to figure out the complex ways economics and ecology and issues of inequality will work out. It’s not going to be easy. We have taken too much for granted.

The roads whose building dominate our politics have been financed in good part by income from exports to China. So have our hospitals and schools.

We live in, must live in, an interdependent world, a world of competition and collaboration as in supply chain networks between China, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan and Singapore, and beyond overland to Europe, networks of a complexity and international tolerance that escape our tiny focus on self-importance and hostility. We must be open to change and we must connect, not hate.

There is some expectation in Australia that things will be better after Trump. That is neither a certain soon circumstance, nor are we likely to find Australian advantage in the approaches of a Democrat president driven by desperate internal political, economic and social issues in a period of depression. Obama got the US out of the last crisis by chucking money at bankers who made the crisis. No such option exists this time.

We have to work on our own forward-looking options.

The past increases, the future recedes. Possibilities decreasing, regrets mounting.” ― Haruki Murakami

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Dennis Argall's degrees were in anthropology and defence studies. his governmental work in foreign, defence and domestic departments and for the Australian parliament. His overseas postings included Beijing as ambassador, and Washington. He regrets the extent of his personal experience with disability but it has perhaps sharpened his desire that the future be a better country.

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3 Responses to DENNIS ARGALL. We are ill prepared for inevitable dramatic change. and the need to shift fundamentals of national strategy

  1. Avatar Dennis Argall says:

    Albert, thank you. I pondered hard how to fit the ASEAN countries in, in limited space. Especially Indonesia. It deserves a whole essay: the rise and fall of our national interest in the countries next door and the tendency to see Indonesia as additional cheap beaches and inexpensive resorts. A lack of awareness that the middle class of Indonesia has outnumbered the total Australian population for a long time. A readiness to jump into Indonesian security issues from lounge chair expertise. Tabloid mindedness. We helped create ISIS in Middle East wars; our neighbours have to cope with it now.

    In my earliest days in the foreign service in the 1960s I was concerned that we might continue on a trend as was then towards being our hemisphere’s equivalent of apartheid South Africa. Wealthy, white, smug, racist, excluding. We escaped that but have turned back to lazy mental and fiscal focus on expensive forward defence posture. Nag about the inward focus of Indonesian armed forces. Imagine the wet pants and running to mamma if Indonesian forces in the last half century sprayed themselves around here the way we hoon our sailor vehicles far from home and constantly through Indonesian waters.
    It is clear John Menadue is receiving contributions from a wider number of people. Perhaps you could? The best way to wider views is to read them.

  2. Avatar Anthony Pun says:

    Many thanks to Ambassador Argall for reminding us to return from Dreamland or Cloud 9 and back to reality on earth. Liken Americans, Australians have been “brainwashed”to see China as the enemy and despite enjoying the fruits on the table curtesy of China, we are none the wiser. Our attitude in disowning Asia-Pacific as our bread and butter region and looking at EU and US, may be good for defending an imaginable enemy but beyond that, it would us in isolation in the Asia Pacific sphere where China, Japan and Sth Korea would led the Asia pack. We lack skills & will power to have a decent dialogue with China, and our experience with Indonesia is even worse.

  3. Avatar Albert Haran says:

    “We live in, must live in, an interdependent world, a world of competition and collaboration as in supply chain networks between China, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan and Singapore, and beyond overland to Europe”

    https://johnmenadue.com/duncan-graham-more-jakarta-less-geneva/

    Is there a reason Indonesia is not mentioned in this article, because one would think it would be good to have them in the tent?

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