MICHAEL McKINLEY. Defence policies and alliances have become a new religion. Part 2 of 5: The Acutely Deranged Present.Jan 23, 2018
Government pronouncements in Australia, especially in the fields of Strategy and National Security, it is claimed, are determined by scientific rationality and definitely not configured according to religious belief. This is both fraudulent and a dangerous conceit: religion, has not been banished; indeed, the present reeks of ecclesiastical history and religion (more specifically, its deformation, religiosity). Accordingly, the proposition is that a more politically accurate understanding of Australia’s mindset is to be afforded by an interrogation of five aspects: the present state of world politics in history; the acutely deranged state of the present; the emergence of the Papal Presidency in the US; the religious state of the Australia-US Alliance; and White Papers and their like as religious documents.
For Australian policymakers long accustomed to professing the doxology of imperialisms (British, American) as their faith of choice, the decline of the old order is calamitous: with it goes habits of command and benefit that successive governments enjoyed not least whenever the appeal was to the “rules-based international order.”
Conveniently consigned to the memory hole was that the establishment, extension, and maintenance of this “order,” involved successive Administrations to adopt a grand strategy and prerogatives inimical to a true republic.
Specifically, these are measures closely identified with the worst excesses of the Romanita – the confessional imperialism of Rome itself and the post-Constantine Western Church of the Latin Rite – through legislation, admonition, and fiat – sustained throughout by magisterium, auctoritas, potestas – the office, the authority, and the power to use them all.
In terms of a broader political and social understanding, however, it is a form of atavism, a re-inscription of an ancient habit of “prescribing a juridical solution to every human dilemma, and then stamping every solution with a sacred character under the seal of the magisterium.”
Whenever criticism of the trajectory away from foundational ideals was raised self-indulgence was forthcoming by the proclamation of living in exceptional times in general and in the state of emergency more particularly. Reformist pleas were this dismissed under the rationales non e opportune (it is not timely), or non expedit (it is not expedient).
In global strategic (as well as political and economic) terms, the current crisis presents in the same way it did in antiquity – in the form of the Interregnum, the situation and period defined by Antonio Gramsci as one in which “the old is dying and the new cannot be born [and] a vast variety of morbid symptoms appear.” Ostensibly, the period is transitional – hence the inferred proclamation of justitium from Roman antiquity – in which, though the old laws are suspended; there is the anticipation that new and different laws will be proclaimed by the emergent order.
If dominant reactions to this situation may be identified in political leaders in Australia, they are a nostalgia for the lost world of Cold War certainty, and an abject ignorance of the bases for international politics. As if the decline of the United States was not cause enough to bring on this state, the contradictions and logics of the state system itself since 1945 are applying their own accents, but these seem to have been forgotten in the delusional pursuit of “managing” power relations, great and small. This project was always an outgrowth of American managerial scientism and, like so many of its close relations in university “disciplines” given over to abusive simplifications and synoptic abstractions, absurd where it is not a form of outright alchemy.
For a start, the four principles of world order which are repeated rosary-like by foreign ministers are, when taken together, contradictory. State sovereignty, self-determination, constitutional government and universal human rights might sound an impeccable schedule for world order but only if there is a universal agreement on what their content is and the need to establish them without temporising. There isn’t, and, moreover, coercion cannot impose them.
Add to this that nearly 200 states are playing power politics in different leagues, and that, even then, they do not exhaust the category of actors. Non-states, seemingly sovereign arms traders, drug cartels, currency speculators, and the general forces of a not fully understood but increasingly globalised economy in general and predatory, turbo-charged capitalism in particular either co-opt national governments or simply ignore them as impedimenta. National loyalties themselves are under siege from, or irrelevant to many groupings who have decided that religion or tribe is their exclusive commitment.
In such a world, war is normalised and agreements to limit or ban certain weapons are but occasionally successful; too often they serve only to reduce the factors by which overkill is guaranteed. The essential nature of nuclear deterrence remains what it has always been since the advent of MAD: a mutual suicide pact in the name of preserving the peace.
Something approaching panic has set in as evidenced by the need for some to seek intellectual-spiritual cafeterias in theoretical physics: “Quantum Consciousness,” “Quantum Geopolitics,” “Quantum Economics,” “Quantum Politics,” and “Quantum Social Science” have all made their debuts. But not without an importation of problems greater than the original global political puzzle it seeks to explain: whether or not the protagonists of the new thinking realise it, the relevant literature posits at least two massive distractions that might disqualify the turn from providing any immediate insights.
The first, as summarised by Christy Rodgers, is that, “Instead of illuminating ever more of the cosmos, theoretical physics now seems committed to its disappearance in a cloud of unknowing. . .” The second is that, among the ideas that are bruited is “retro-causality” – the necessity for abandoning the notion that cause always precedes effect. Perhaps it is understandable, then, that others in this category have found possibilities in Neuro-Philosophy, Biology, and, for the US in particular, Herman Melville’s 1851 tale of vengeance, obsessive hunting and restoration, Moby Dick.
None of this should surprise: long-term strategic failure (and its accompaniment, strategic surprise) is built into the foundations of the state and the system in which they are embedded. By way of a philosophical summary, and reflections derived from an eclectic reading of Karl W. Deutsch, Carolyn Marvin and David Ingle, Reinhold Niebuhr, George Bernard Shaw, and Daniel Warner, the relevant facts I propose to offer as undeniable are:  that civilization itself is founded on violence;  that political collectivities which emphasis self-interest and collective egoism are inherently brutal;  that “a nation is a group of people united by a common mistake regarding its origins and a collective hostility towards its neighbours;”  that nationalism is, ultimately, a “community of blood;”  that we are all embedded in violence and, to a greater or lesser extent, benefit from it, and  that “government is impossible without a religion – that is, without a body of common assumptions.”
So captured by forces beyond the control of Canberra, the Alliance becomes less an instrument of national security and more a commitment to salvation; strategic studies becomes soteriology. It’s almost natural and logical: this theodicy, conceived in 1941, and thus in crisis, destruction and abandonment, was born of hope and the imperative of a new beginning – in one of those moments which Heidegger captured as the realization that “only a god can save us,” and Jung as “the right moment . . . for a metamorphosis of the gods.”
For Australia, the “god” who is served because it vouchsafes the national security is the United States; the attendant alliance relationship constitutes a devout religion. Given the challenged divinity of the former, a crisis exists, one only exacerbated by the Trump Presidency – which presents itself as both predicament and syndrome. In all major characteristics, it is identical to that faced by the community of the faithful leading up to the Reformation – the existential choice between taking God seriously, or taking the Church seriously. Australia has sided with the latter and its atavistic habits of thinking and acting.
From 1982 to 1988, Michael McKinley taught diplomacy international relations and strategy in the department of Politics, at UWA. From 1988 to 2014 he taught diplomacy, international relations and strategy at the ANU. He is currently a member of the Emeritus Faculty at the ANU.