MICHAEL McKINLEY. Defence policies and alliances have become a new religion. Part 5 of 5 : White Papers, Strategic Reviews, Papal Bulls and EncyclicalsJan 26, 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.
Quite naturally, given the provenance of Australia’s Defence and Foreign Policy White Papers, and, most recently, the National Security Strategy of the United States, suggest that they should be read according to what they claim to be but this eludes a fundamental angst at the core of policy-makers who confront the world: Albert Camus and Morris West captured it when they wrote of its “unreasonable silence” and its “monstrous indifference in the face of all our fears and agonies.”
Essentially, such documents and their concomitant pronouncements are attempts to overcome doubts in the face of absurdity caused by experiencing the divorce between the national security mind that requires certainty, tidiness and meaning, and a world offering only endemic disappointment. The continuous production and publication of information, data, analysis and opinion, if anything, only exacerbates this condition.
They make sense, however, if understood as authentic and solemn decrees issued by the reigning authority – in which case they are the equivalent of a Papal Bull of the type which granted the Henry II of England to invade and govern Ireland for the purposes of religious reform. Or they might be understood, as in the case of Australia’s White Papers, a circulatory letter to the local faithful explaining what had been ordained at the highest level.
Their continuing publication indicates not that they misunderstand the world (which they do), but that the basis for all their conclusions is embedded in a religious belief in certain forms of community, political organisation and violence. Put another way, they are examples of texts arrived at by committees with a stunted political imaginary which, reinforced by, and subject to rigorous scrutiny for their orthodoxy, have received the declarations nihil obstat and imprimatur of the state. Publication only encourages an illiteracy that permits the illusion of understandings which are a reproach to reason. And dangerous.
Specifically, they are so if we understand that they constitute a six-fold project in denial. First, and essentially, they are attempts to defer, obfuscate, and conceal the inevitable, which is to say, death, in its various manifestations – for example, of the government, the party, the current order (global and regional), the country, and the planet.
Second, they are, nevertheless, obligatory products of the state; in a democracy, it is entirely legitimate for citizens to expect their government to produce such programmes and their justifications in order that they might better understand, and give a more informed consent to the way they are governed, and the way their state relates to other states and peoples. The problem is, their content misleads.
Third, they constitute an anxious and ambitious engagement with the future and are prone, therefore, to gratuitous, scathing criticism which might be less the result of incompetence that an excess of enthusiasm coupled with an understandable dearth of abilities to understand what does not yet even seem remotely possible.
Fourth, because they are also exercises in self-justification, they are quite explicit disclosures of governmental discourse in action. Indeed, the rules which govern the production, and exclusion, of knowledge useful for, and by, the state are perhaps nowhere better evidenced than in such texts.
Fifth, because of the prevalence of a common discourse, the key elements of any project are inescapably subordinated, both to it, and each other – which implies that, if any one of them is discredited, the entire design threatens to undo.
And sixth, when all is balanced and brought to mind, in their own ways they seek what Robert Heilbroner describes as a “secular analgesic for … existential anxiety” by asking four questions — will human life go on; will Australia itself go on; what will be the designs of these existences, and what hope is there for the future?
Because of the first (deferral of death) the advice found in Jules Reynard’s Journal is sage: look for the ridiculous in everything and you will find it. Moreover, because of the first, quite possibly the third (anxious and ambitious engagement with the future), and definitely the sixth (the need for a secular analgesic), embarrassment is simultaneously deferred and referred to the modernist monasteries of the post-Nietzschean church, the University and “think tanks” – specifically the bought priesthood of policy wonks within them who can be guaranteed to lend legitimacy, authority and, ultimately, secular benediction to whatever findings are to hand.
Accordingly, the proposition is this: the abundance of information is inversely related to the willingness to act on it by those who can act on it because to act on it would require a radical re-orientation to the more significant issues in global politics by the alliance systems of the United States in general, and Australia in particular. Certainly, in relation to political imagination, it would require that the traditional approaches be seen for what they are – anachronistic obsessions maintained by declining powers in a declining order.
The warning signs have been around for decades. When the Cold War died and was buried, and with it, by any logic at all, the pretensions to understanding the world claimed by mainstream International Relations and Strategic Studies, as practised by the western intelligence services and published in their Reviews and White Papers, recalling Lord Byron’s Epitaph on the death of Castlereagh seemed appropriate:
Posterity will ne’er survey
A nobler grave than this:
Here lie the bones of Castlereagh:
Stop , traveller, and piss.
As Lewis Lapham wrote when the Pentagon’s infamous Defense Planning Guidance was first reported in 1992:
Nobody knows the language in which to ask or answer the questions presented by the absence of the Soviet empire. The old vocabulary of threat and counterthreat – all the acronyms, all the CIA estimates, all the computer printouts and satellite photographs, the whole archive of lovingly annotated paranoia – is as remote as the gibbering of apes.
As things have worked out, both in 1992 and later, Lapham was, as ever, insightful, but acting upon Byron’s injunction was a poor guide to action; in fact, it was rapidly usurped by Simone de Beauvoir’s insight that, if you live long enough, you will see every victory turn into defeat.
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.