JERRY ROBERTS. The American Empire, China, the Region and Australia

As the American Empire weakens we see a tendency to look to China and seek security in a nebulous concept of “the region.” We are not facing up to the defence of our continent by Australians for Australians.

There are vast differences between the cultures of Australia and the United States of America. We should avoid mimicking American society.  America’s affinity is with Rome and the key to understanding this likeness is the Latin word,”virtus”, from which we derive “virtue.”

In our society a virtuous person is an upright citizen, God-fearing and church-attending, living by the 10 Commandments.  In Rome “virtus” meant manliness.  It meant a fearless willingness to die, especially to die well.  This is the link between Rome and America.  It is an attitude to life and death.

In Australia, we can’t afford to hold this attitude.  We don’t have lives to squander.  We live on a harsh, sparsely populated continent.  We have to look after one another.  That’s why we developed mateship.  That is why we will never forgive the Pommy generals for using our blokes as cannon fodder in the trenches of the Great War.

I was born in small-town USA and enjoyed a happy childhood there. From the beginning of our education in Grade One the class faced the flag, standing to attention and recited: “My country ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty ….”  By the age of seven years, we were all singing the battle hymn of the Marines.  I can still sing it.

From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli

We fight our country’s battles by land and air and sea.

We are watching the eternal triangle destroy the family and career of Barnaby Joyce but the triangle that blew away the 21st Century from its outset was the love between George W. Bush, Tony Blair and John Howard.  Strange things happen under the Texas moon and they were all married men.  For the unfortunate inhabitants of the Middle East, it was a match made in hell.

We are not likely to see any Australian government in the foreseeable future taking the radical wrecking ball to the American alliance recommended by Malcolm Fraser in his old age.  If I were Prime Minister I would not be telling the Americans to shoot through. I would not pick a fight with the Yanks, at least not directly.  The Battle of the Coral Sea saved Australia’s bacon.  The problem of American over-reach will be solved internally.  As Michael Keating notes (30 January), they can’t afford to be here, there and everywhere.  Not even the Americans can go on making war while lowering taxes.  The reason taxes were invented was to finance Kings and their wars.

The last Australian political leader with a spine was Mark Latham but Mark lacked subtlety.  He still does. Mark as Opposition Leader said Australia would withdraw our forces from Iraq.  I didn’t go along with that.  Once you’re in and you have allies and local dependents, unilateral withdrawal is ill-considered.  The mistake was getting involved in the first place.

Australia had no business entering either of the Gulf Wars and as for Afghanistan, you have to be joking.  Look at those mountains and if you can’t read a map, read the history.  We had no business sending our young people to such a place and when they come home we need to look after them with deep care and respect.  We don’t want another Agent Orange fiasco when our soldiers who had put their lives on the line had to employ lawyers to fight for compensation.

Nor can I see any reason for America’s involvement in the Middle East, apart from the influence of rich Zionists in New York. The strategic value of the Middle East is to provide a land route between Eurasia and the continent of Africa.  The Chinese will secure safe passage through the Middle East without blowing the place to bits.  They will use the same weapon employed in Australia – the chequebook.

As we come to view America as the bad guy it is a mistake to assume China is the good guy.  Alan Gygnell (14 February) suggests practical measures to improve Australia’s understanding of China.  It might be helpful to reverse the focus and consider what China thinks about us.  It would be impossible to over-estimate the contempt with which the Chinese political, business and military leadership regards Australia’s politicians, businessmen, institutions and our complacent general public.  China sewed up a 99-year lease on the port of Darwin, Australia’s gateway to the New Silk Road, with such ease and in such secrecy that even the loquacious President Obama was almost lost for words. Lots of Australians remain unaware of this shameful episode in our modern history.  They have been too busy watching an over-priced version of hit-and-giggle beach cricket called 20/20.

The two key factors in a country’s ability to defend itself are its industrial economy and the character of its people. Russia’s victory over Germany to win the Second World War is the classic example. Russia won the war.  Compared to Barbarossa the other campaigns were sideshows.

Australia no longer has an economy.  We are a quarry and a real estate auction room. In Melbourne, earlier this month, we stayed at the quiet end of town in Little Bourke Street.  My evening jog took me down Spencer Street, across Collins, over the Yarra where the Polly Woodside has her permanent berth, past pencil piers with ugly stink boats and a few nice yachts including the rakish Sydney-Hobart veteran, Brindabella, to a barrier for a real estate project at Wharf’s End, within cooee of the Bolte Bridge, a more handsome structure than the old coot after whom it is named.  On all sides massive apartment blocks rose into the sky.  It was like a science fiction horror movie, a sort of real estate Day of the Triffids.  I immediately thought of Paul Frijters, Cameron Murray and The Game of Mates.  A high-rise building is a giant corrupt pie in the sky and everybody gets a slice, from the owners and developers to the unions and the builders, perhaps even an honourable member or two.

In these pages, we have discussed the catastrophe of the defeated mining tax in 2010 when the City of London and the Gnomes of Zurich used our Parliament as their branch office.  The earlier economic catastrophe was the loss of BHP as an integrated iron and steel producer.  As Sydney consulting engineer John Blakemore noted, this was the harbinger of subsequent disasters such as the loss of the motor vehicle manufacturing industry. BHP became just another predatory multi-national.  It is now trying to re-establish Australian credentials using the tried and trusted medium of advertising on commercial television to turn the population into morons.

I agree with Pauline Hanson and Dick Smith, but for different reasons.  We have overdone immigration and multiculturalism but the issue is not economics or the environment.  It is the character of the people.  Sheri Berman makes the point in “The Primacy of Politics.”  It is necessary to have a fair degree of homogeneity in a society to achieve the consensus needed for the progressive taxation and re-distribution policies that are central to the social democratic project, not to mention the increased defence spending needed for an independent foreign policy. We are getting on fine now in times of peace and relative prosperity.  It is fun to go shopping and see so many people from different parts of the world in their colourful costumes but will we hold together in times of depression and war?

We see news items flash across our TV screens and some leave a disturbing impression.  Two that worried me occurred during the Australian visits of the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, and Chinese Premier, Li Keqiang.  As reporters noted, Modi was greeted like a rock star by crowds of Indians, presumably Australian residents and perhaps even citizens.  They gave the impression they were there as proud Indians, not Australians.

More concerning was the scene in Canberra when supporters of the Tibetan cause protested at the visit of Premier Li. They were met by an ugly crowd of young Chinese. According to reports, these were students.  I would like to have seen them deported on the next plane but then the universities would have bellyached about lost tuition fees.  We do have a potential problem with a Fifth Column.  This is more serious than malcontent Muslims.

I would feel happier about China if the Communist Party leadership would show respect to the Dalai Lama and leave Tibet alone. One of the great figures of the modern world was the Chinese poet and activist Liu Xiabo who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010.  He was in gaol so the prize at the ceremony in Norway was placed on an empty chair. Liu was a Chartist, campaigning for democratic rights we take for granted.  I was hoping the Chinese might transport him to Australia like the Poms did with some of the 1848 Chartists.

Another magnificent figure is Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist, who wrote the back-page feature in the Guardian Weekly of 9 February. “The refugee crisis is not about refugees,” wrote Ai. “It is about us. Our prioritisation of financial gain over people’s struggle for the necessities of life is the primary cause of this crisis.  The West has all but abandoned its belief in humanity and support for the precious ideals contained in declarations on universal human rights. It has sacrificed these ideals for short-sighted cowardice and greed.”

Dr Chongyi Feng is a Chinese intellectual teaching in Sydney who was detained by the thought police when he visited his mother in China.  He writes: “The golden age of healthy and equitable development of the West during the 1950s to 1970s did not involve China at all.  What is praised as ‘The China Model’ is actually a strange brand and the worst form of capitalism combining communist brutality with neoliberal brutality. This combination ensures efficiency through extraordinary mechanisms such as State corporatism, developmentalism in its extreme, bans on collective bargaining by independent trade unions and forced sacrifice of social justice and environment for profits. The combination is strange and ironic in the sense that the aim of communism is to eliminate capitalism but communism in China has now been married to and is parasitic on capitalism.

“Freedom is the most valuable possession for humankind.”

Foreign policy is important and for Australia to have a foreign policy would be an interesting innovation.  But neither China nor “the region” will make Australia secure and we are forgetting about the elephant in the regional living room, namely West Papua. An independent foreign policy needs to rest on the solid foundation of an independent country.

Our visit to Melbourne coincided with the promotion of a television documentary in which John Howard appears on screen calling Bob Hawke Australia’s greatest Labor Prime Minister.  What have we done to deserve this drivel from the national broadcaster?  Two smug old farts congratulating each other on prime-time television.  Howard’s comment was ridiculous.  John Curtin was Australia’s greatest Prime Minister and for any of the tiny-tot snot goblins who have strutted over our parliamentary stage in the last 30 years to be mentioned in the same breath with the wartime leader is political historical heresy.

On the recommendation of Anne’s cousin in Horsham we detoured through the Grampians before returning to the main highway, where we missed the turn-off to Ballarat and found ourselves heading towards Creswick.  “Good,” I said to the navigator. “I think Creswick is where Jack Curtin was born.  His Dad was the policeman there.”  Then I paused.  “Or was it Norman Lindsay?”

We parked in front of the war memorial and there was a small, modest plaque for Curtin.  Nearby was a glass-encased display of the fire reel and the drawing of it by Norman Lindsay from The Magic Pudding with Bill Barnacle, Bunyip Bluegum and the puddin’ thieving Possum disguised as a fireman running at full tilt.  The town of Creswick is a sacred site.

John Curtin was Australia’s only Prime Minister at the only time we have needed one.  We were fortunate he was in Canberra at the time of crisis.  To be precise, he was in Melbourne when the news came through from Pearl Harbour. He was the only bloke in town who knew what to do and his colleagues had enough brains to recognise that fact.  Curtin looked to America in desperation.  Our hardened troops were in North Africa, of all places.

When France was revealed as our submarine designer it sounded like the right move.  The French have good technology and they have the advantage of being neither German nor Japanese. Similar thoughts applied to Sweden’s design for the Collins Class.

The new submarine construction in 1985 started with a competition between the States.  In Western Australia RAN submarine Commander Peter Horobin headed up our project team.  Nic Dragecivich from the Department of Industry and Commerce did a mountain of work.  Cloughs, the major engineering firm, had their representative and we had occasional visits from the Navy’s armaments boffin to make sure we were not doing anything silly. My role was as a sort of literary cement mixer.  The technical people poured in their ideas. I rolled around and poured them out in the form of an English language narrative. One of the phrases that pleased the team was “a national defence industry infrastructure.”  It was a good way to write policy.

When all parties were relaxed and happy with the final draft they asked what we were going to call the document.  I said I would think of something. Next meeting, I produced the title: “Towards a Secure Australia.”  The Minister and Deputy Premier, Mal Bryce, added one word in a cautious, political compromise and the published title read: “Towards a More Secure Australia.”  Mal thought (correctly) that the original title implied Australia was insecure.  I think I got it right first time.

We had a good case in the West based on the strategic history of Fremantle’s role as the major allied submarine base after the destruction of Pearl Harbour.  Kim Beazley awarded the project to South Australia because they needed it more than we did.  This was the heady time of our America’s Cup defence and the era of entrepreneurial Perth fatcats.

We have worshipped false Gods – Uncle Sam, Chinese chequebooks, Swiss banks, London boardrooms.  Curtin in extremis looked to America.  Now we need to look to ourselves.  Australians have to look to Australia, to our country and its continent, its industry and its people.

Jerry Roberts is a former parliamentary reporter.


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One Response to JERRY ROBERTS. The American Empire, China, the Region and Australia

  1. Paul Frijters says:

    Enjoyed the article, thanks! I agree with the observation that the US cannot afford to take on China in a new arms race and that they will discover this by themselves anyway.

    I do see important differences between the US and Rome, though I get the point about Virtu, which indeed is very similar between the two. Yet, the Romans were not into saving others, certainly not in the first few centuries. They came to enslave and tax whole regions. Their system of occupation and taxation meant they had to administrate the occupied territories, which in turn made them into an Empire. The US taxes by proxy and via firms, which is a much less involved and trickier balancing act. It means their Empire is far less secure and they have far fewer real allies because they do not make soldiers out of the occupied populations, unlike the Romans who could indoctrinate and self-replicate.
    So perhaps the biggest difference between the Romans and the US is that the Romans were good at winning the peace and the Americans are really bad at it. The lack of education, sophistication, and practice at running foreign places means the US lack the intellectual firepower to win the peace. They simply don’t know what to do and make mistake after mistake.
    Two examples. When occupying Iraq they put the Sh-ites in charge via elections, who of course immediately made an alliance with their Iranian brethren, alienating the Sunnis who ran to join Daesch. A rookie mistake.
    In Afghanistan, they failed miserably on many counts. For one, they should have taken over the opium trade rather than be stupid enough to try and close it down. But most importantly, they should have killed the system of polygamy in that country which every generation breeds millions of men who have no other means of winning women than to fight for them. But the Americans were too blind to see either of those realities, which ultimately comes from their lack of experience of running complex foreign societies. So when they take over, they keep making the mistake that they can transform the place into a US look-alike.

    Will the Americans learn this? No, because they are locked in via the way their political economy is organised: their own large companies will keep pushing them not to truly take over any region they occupy, because it is more lucrative to those companies to dominate the contracts and the business opportunities that open up when a place is conquered. A strong occupying administration would hinder those companies, which is why they prevent that from happening. So the Americans will keep losing the peace in whatever war they win.

    I should write a book to explain this more properly, but I don’t have the time.

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