RICHARD BUTLER -Rationality and Fairness in International relations

Mar 22, 2019

The reliable and stable conduct of international relations rests on two key assumptions: rationality and fairness. Both are in dangerously short supply today. When a new government is formed in Australia, it should at least make a start on correcting the part we have played in shaping these circumstancesAll useful understanding of the mechanisms of international relations begin with the assumption that states, and by extension their leaders, will be rational actors. This does not ensure that good or uniform decisions will be made by any of them. Rational judgement of issues can lead to differing opinions on them. But it does assert that decisions and policies can be understood rationally. That their premises, evidence base and ,chain of reasoning is intelligible, not obscure. It is equally the case that stability is threatened most sharply when actions taken by states are seen to be unfair, unjust, selfish, hypocritical.

It’s worth recalling that the late John Rawls in his seminal study of the concept of justice, defined it as: fairness. People get angriest when they feel they are being treated unfairly. On these bases, we are in a heap of trouble today. Here are just some examples.

First, the global economy is in a fragile state, below the surface. The details are well known. They include: too much debt; uncertain prices for major goods in trade; institutional uncertainties in Europe and WTO; significant problems of management and governance in former Soviet economies, especially Russia’s; and, now the Trump Administration has submitted to Congress budget which would enlarge the deficit of the world’s largest economy to $1.1 trillion. or 87% of GDP. Such figures can be numbing and economists argue endlessly about what debt, in fact, means in practice. Where there can be no argument in the case of this US budget proposal, is that it hits the poor very hard and increases benefits to the relatively well off. It dramatically fails the test of fairness. ( See Katharine vanden Heuvel’s analysis: “Trump’s Budget is a Bitter Betrayal”: The Washington Post, March 19th).

Secondly, turning back now to the notion of rationality, the last 10 days or so, has confronted us with multiple examples of the horror irrationality can author and, the reality that as a political phenomenon, it is spreading.The murders in Christchurch, then just 2 days later in Utrecht are this weeks’ examples. Prime Minister Adern has been praised around the world for the clarity and measure of her response. In contrast, Trump, outrageously claiming innocence of any encouragement to white supremacy movements and his warm affection for muslims, has been enough to send people crazy. And, on that subject, his “twitter storm” of last Sunday, which failed to mention the dead in New Zealand but did vilify Senator John McCain, who has now been dead for some months, and a raft of other perceived enemies of the people; led to the most exposed public speculation, yet, about his stability/rationality/sanity. The distinguished Republican lawyer, John Conway, did it all rather economically when he tweeted the relevant page, that on Narcissistic Personality Disorder, from DSM-5, the US Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The list of characteristics of that disorder, given on that page, fit Trump admirably. It is worth reading.

Thirdly and further on rationality, we must never forget that the bedrock theory on the use/ non- use/ deterrence of the use of/ nuclear weapons rests on the assumption that the persons with the power to take those decisions is rational. It should also not be forgotten that when Nixon was nearing his political end, key officials around him, secretly removed his ability to access the nuclear codes.

Trump’s delusions and attachment to bellicosity was reinforced, a week earlier, when in response to their launching investigations of his possible criminal and unconstitutional conduct, he threatened Democrats by stating that they should bear in mind that he commanded the weapons of the US military, the police forces and, the “bikers for Trump”.

In our own country, where there should be reflection on our own engagement in the vilification of muslims and others, the essay by Jason Wllson: “Islamaphobia is Practically Enshrined in Public Policy in Australia” ( The Guardian Australia, March 17th ) traced impeccably, the nature and origins of this reality, beginning in the modern period, with John Howard and Tampa.

What, may we ask, did PM Morrison mean, specifically by his warning to Turkish President Erdogan, that “all options were on the table” in his consideration of Australia’s response to Erdogan’s absurd threats to Australian planning to visit Gallipoli in April. Morrison’s and Erdogan’s statements had transparent domestic political motives but Morrison’s inability, or refusal, to judge the circumstances for what they plainly were was pathetic and self indulgent. He could’t pass up an opportunity for a spot of Anzackery.

The incoming Australian government has a lot of work to do to. Clearly it must first address facts of central concern to Australians such as: growing income inequality, affordable housing, the conduct of the banks and non-bank financial institutions; and, protection of the environment, to name just four of the many areas in which change and fairness, is required. Labor leaders will know the truth of the adage that governments don’t win elections on foreign policy but can lose them on it. But, they will surely also know, that there will be no serious attempt by the coalition to make -up the ground Australia has so evidently lost, intrinsically and in the view of so many others, apart from in the US, that Australia needs to regain it’s footing as a rational and fair actor in international affairs; in possession of an independent foreign policy with cooperation with others, particularly it’s neighbours, at its heart.

It could begin by withdrawing our forces from participation in the US’ wars of choice in the Middle East and South Asia and, put the US on notice that we have no interest in going to war, with them, on China and ,we do not believe that such a war is inevitable.

Richard Butler AC former Ambassador to the United Nations


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