RICHARD BUTLER. Interesting Times

Jul 18, 2016


The so-called Chinese Curse: “ May you live in interesting times”, is apparently not of Chinese origin, but certainly apocryphal and wonderfully ironic.

I think it is hard to recall more “interesting times” than those in which the world finds itself today, nor a time fraught with more danger, since the sleepwalking towards World War I.

Here’s a list of today’s main issues in international politics, 15 of them.

By way of necessary preface, I caution that this will almost certainly be found to be incomplete, and that it refers almost exclusively to politics.

It does not seek to address economic issues,they are of course connected to politics and possibly, in fact drives them, but are beyond the scope of this list.

Also, it leaves aside universal subjects, of which climate change is the obvious example, which are also inextricably bound to international politics, but again are a much wider subject.

Finally, it does not address systemic issues intimately related to the conduct of international relations, such as the role of the United Nations, especially it’s Security Council.

The list:

  1. US/Russia relations. These are in a state of renewed competition for great power, not détente, and both are building significant new nuclear and other immensely powerful weapons systems, directed mainly at each other.
  2. Brexit. This decision is not only the sheerest folly, not simply because it was unintended and achieved through gross deception of voters, but because it’s implications for stability, both internationally and domestically are huge and go far beyond Europe.
  3. The EU, the success of which was justly recognized in the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize, is in urgent need of reform as a consequence of; it’s expansion, the migration crisis, and Brexit. And, it is now considering developing a military capability.
  4. NATO. Founded in 1949 to defend against the Soviet Union, to which the USSR responded in 1955 by creating a mirror image of it – the Warsaw Pact. In1990, following the removal of the Berlin wall and the collapse of the German Democratic Republic, the USSR agreed to the reunification of Germany on the basis of the assurance that NATO would not expand eastwards beyond Germany. The USSR collapsed in December 1991, and the Warsaw Pact was then dissolved. NATO responded by embarking upon an expansion, which continues today, right up to Russia’s borders. At its Summit Meeting 10 days ago, in Poland, NATO adopted a communiqué which listed no less than 139 priority tasks, including many directed at Russia. There can be no truthful understanding of current Russian Foreign policy which does not begin with it’s sense of betrayal by the West, on NATO expansion ( see: Alexey Arbatov, Carnegie, Moscow, June 21st, 2016 )
  5. Syria. Over five years of calamitous civil war, and wars deriving from it, both by State and non-State actors, countless dead and shocking dislocation of millions of people, destabilization of the whole Middle East and Turkey.
  6. Iraq. Thirteen years after the illegal invasion of Iraq it remains in conflict within and beyond its borders.
  7. Iran. The agreement reached on its nuclear program, the only positive instance of international cooperation with respect to the Middle East in decades, is under threat from within the domestic polities of both Iran and the US.
  8. Turkey. It remains of central importance to both the outcome of the conflicts in the Middle East and in relation to developments in the EU, the latter chiefly because of its role in the migration crisis, but it is increasingly unstable.
  9. China. It is now pursuing an expansionist foreign policy, backed up by the expansion of it’s military capabilities, not least as reflected in it’s building islands in the South China Sea. It will ignore the decision against it by the International Tribunal of the Law of the Sea.
  10. Japan. Prime Minister Abe is determined to achieve an amendment to article 9 of Japan’s Constitution to enable Japan to expand its military capabilities and actions. Following the recent elections, he is likely to succeed. Unthinkable as it would seem, given Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there has even been talk in Japan of acquiring nuclear weapons.
  11. DPRK. It continues to develop its nuclear weapons and delivery system capability and agreement in the international community on how to restrain this, as was done with Iran, continues to be unavailable.
  12. The continuing instances and spread of terrorist attacks on a variety of, mainly, western countries.
  13. The global humanitarian crisis, in millions of people: forcibly displaced, 65.3, refugees, 21.3, stateless 10. ( UNHCR ).
  14. The growing strength of right- wing, populist, angry, racist, nativist political movements, particularly but not exclusively, in Europe and in the US. After Brexit, Nigel Farage told the European Parliament that he now had the last laugh. He may yet be proven wrong. That prize could go to Marine Le Pen and/or Donald Trump.
  1. Israel/Palestine. As long as this issue remains unresolved, best with a two State solution, and given Israel’s nuclear weapons, this situation has the potentiality for disaster.

International politics has always been complex, messy, an arena of human conduct often seeming to be a morality or at least ethics free zone. Thinkers from Thucydides, to Machiavelli, EH Carr, Hans Morgenthau, have suggested that this is the natural order of things. Shakespeare was ambivalent about it – Brutus/Marc Athony, Henry V, Macbeth – and the very great theorist but also theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, said it didn’t have to be so. But, what they would surely all agree on is that a conjunction of facts and conditions such as those on my list, is serious and contains the seeds of war, serious war.

These interesting times are a light year distant from Malcolm Turnbull’s cheery invocation that we live in “exciting times”.

Are the internal politics of his party and it’s coalition partners such that he feels compelled to persist with Julie Bishop as Foreign Minister. We all know the concept of the gifted amateur and it can serve us well, and we are compelled to hope that this may often prove to be the case, given the way in which Ministerial appointments are made in our system. It has not proven true with Julie Bishop as Foreign Minister, a post she has held for almost 3 years.

A survey of her press releases and statements, travel programme, where and with whom she chooses to appear publicly, and her allowing a massive, unprecedented cut in Australia’s development assistance demonstrates no serious effectiveness or possible engagement in her job. There is also no evidence of a consequential input by her in resistance to the increasing militarization of Australian foreign policy, thus sidelining her portfolio. (see: John Menadue, Pearls and Irritations, June 14th and July 18th, 2016 )

This latter issue is of the deepest importance. It now seems to be embedded in our policy deliberations and decisions that we do whatever the US does, whatever they ask us to do, and indeed whatever we think they want us to do, especially militarily. What other interpretation can be put on our extraordinary $50B decision on the building of the submarines?

In fairness, it should be noted that it was Prime Minister Gillard who agreed to the establishment of a US marines base in Darwin.

With respect to the list given above, it is important to note that many of the issues described are being played out in Northern Hemisphere space. Our more immediate part of the world, South East Asia and the Pacific is, or should be, of abiding interest to us and one in which Australian engagement should be our priority. This would produce outcomes of security and economy of obvious importance to both us and our neighbours. ( see: Dick Woolcott, Pearls and Irritations, June 25th, 2016).

I do not suggest that we should become isolationist. That would make no sense in today’s highly connected world. But I do suggest that the opposite phenomena are great mistakes: to frame policy decisions substantially on the basis what we think the US wishes, in the name of the alliance relationship, to continually determine foreign policy as a set of essentially military decisions, to relatively neglect our own region.

On the second of these points, Henry Reynolds essay on the militarization of Australian history ( see: Pearls and Irritations; April 4th, 2015) is worth re-reading.

Last week, the new UK PM Theresa May appointed Boris Johnson Foreign Secretary. This appointment was clearly driven by intra-party politics. It was met with howls of disapproval and disbelief in circles where it counts. Apparently Angela Merkel was incredulous. She knows about intra-party and, indeed coalition politics, but clearly is not convinced of the concept of the gifted amateur.

I ask Malcolm Turnbull, is there truly not an individual eligible for the coalition front bench able and interested to play an engaged and weighty role in Australian foreign policy discussion, formulation and execution, and prepared to insist that foreign and defence policies, while interactive, are distinct fields of concern. We need this and would like to think he would want it.


Richard Butler AC was Australian Ambassador to: the United Nations New York, Thailand, Cambodia, and Ambassador for Disarmament, Geneva, and later, Executive Chairman of the UN Special Commission to disarm Iraq.

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