RICHARD BUTLER. What is History?

President Macron’s warning against growing nationalism and the need to ensure the preservation of values, as against unalloyed selfishness in international relations, was an important way to mark the Centenary of the end of the First World War. Trump was present, but certainly not listening. The show was not about him and, he couldn’t find his umbrella.

It is now Almost 60 years since EH Carr’s study “What is History” was published, that is, 22 years after his definitive theory of international relations; “The Twenty Years’ Crisis – 1919- 1939” was published, on the eve of the Second World War.

The answer Carr gave to his own question was; Historiography – History is what those who write it, say it was. It all depends on the view, biases, choices of the historian. Facts are subordinated to those perspectives.

Carr would not have heard of the notion of “fake news”, to which we are subjected on a daily basis today. But, given his view of the centrality of historiography, he would surely have not been surprised by it. And, his theory of international relations, emphasizing the conflict between realism and idealism, remains incisive.

This week, in Paris, at the commemoration of the centenary of the Armistice Agreement ending the First World War, President macron voiced a view of what that cataclysmic war should teach us: nations should cooperate to ensure peace.

He spoke plainly against nationalism, which he distinguished from patriotism. He saw the former as leading to conflict, the latter as an understandable, wholesome, sentiment, which if un-manipulated, should not lead to conflict amongst nations. Indeed he stated that it should embody national values and above all, its moral values.

It is beyond doubt that Macron was addressing the current surge in nationalism in Europe, which presumably he saw as holding the same dangers it held in 1914 and led to the First World War, but also an important member of his audience, Donald Trump, who recently went beyond his mantra of “America First” and, declared himself, publicly and proudly, to be a nationalist.

In doing this, Trump who obviously is not remotely a historian, of any kind, not only ignored the now widely perceived to be ominous resonances of that concept, but instead embraced them in ways consistent with what has become his deployment of racism and xenophobia in US domestic politics.

Macron’s speech, particularly its emphasis on the importance of moral values and the imperative of nations’ commitment to seeking peaceful solutions to disputes, was more than high minded rhetoric. What he called for is needed, urgently, in many parts of the world. Carr would, certainly, see this as realism

Its not easy to know however what sort of historiography Macron would employ in considering the disaster of the First World War, beyond reflecting on the impact that conflict had on mainland France.

For example, the French lost some 2.5% of its population in that conflict. Australia, as a consequence of its colonial loyalty to Britain, deployed on the ground, mainly in defense of France, lost some 1.5%. I don’t know, perhaps Macron does, what those same figures were for troops mustered from French colonies, such as Senegal and, indeed from Islands in the distant Pacific.

Returning to the phenomenon of the recrudescence of racism in contemporary politics, not simply through the desperate malevolence of Trump, within the US polity, but now spreading in Europe; an essay written at the 99th anniversary of the Armistice bears reading: ”How colonial violence came home; the ugly truth of the first world war” by Pankaj Mishra; The Guardian, Long Read, November 10th, 2017.

Having drawn an irrefutable connection between the colonial competition between the metropolitan European powers and their treatment of their non-white colonial subjects on the one hand and on the other hand, their entry into the conflict in Europe, which became the Great War, Mishra writes:

“ The experience of mass death and destruction, suffered by most Europeans only after 1914, was widely known in Asia and Africa, where land and resources were forcefully usurped, economic and cultural infrastructure systematically destroyed, and entire populations eliminated with the help of up-to-date bureaucracies and technologies. Europe’s equilibrium was parasitic for too long on disequilibrium elsewhere… In the light of this shared history of violence, it seems odd that we continue to portray the First World War as a battle between democracy and authoritarianism, as a seminal and unexpected calamity. The Indian writer Aurobindo Ghose was one among many anticolonial thinkers who predicted, even before the outbreak of the war, that “vaunting, aggressive, dominant Europe” was already under “a sentence of death”, awaiting annihilation”.

The problem of unilateral US interventionism and the militarization of its foreign policy, has been a pervasive one, particularly since the Second World War. This has been felt in some 72 countries. It has not been marked by what on any objective measure could be called successful outcomes: from Korea, to Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, for example.

A study published, last week, on the human cost of the post 9/11 wars by Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, asserts that between 480,000 and 507,000 people have been killed in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, in the wake of 9/11. The authors of the study believe that these figures are very likely to be an “undercount”.

Pankaj Misha and the authorities he draws on, including the late and great authority on totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt, insist that there is a continuum between a countries domestic policies and attitudes and their conduct towards external powers. President Macron seemed to touch on the same notion in his insistence on the importance of maintaining national moral values

When seeking to understand the tenor of US external conduct, it seems relevant to reflect on the culture of guns and violence within the US, on the management of which they seem to be no more successful than they are proving to be externally.

Is it not hard to see why the US weapons industry is so significant within US policy formulation, in which the contemplation of military solutions to problems is always so near to the surface?

And, now, under Trump, the highly explosive fuel of racism and xenophobia is being added to this mixture.

Australian policy makers seem unprepared to reflect on these questions, confining themselves instead to seriously tired notions of the Alliance with the US, which up to now, has us on course, with our absurd submarines, to conflict with China, because key US policy centres say its inevitable; for which, unfortunately, read; desirable.

Hopefully our government’s excellent decision, just announced, to significantly increase our civil aid to the Pacific signifies new thinking in Canberra, new values.

Richard Butler AC former Ambassador to the United Nations


Richard Butler AC former Ambassador to the United Nations; Head of the UN Special Commission to Disarm Iraq.

This entry was posted in Asia, World Affairs. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to RICHARD BUTLER. What is History?

  1. Ronald Mackinnon says:

    Nationalism, if Macron used the word nationalisme, is defied in the Oxford Dictionary as “1. strong support, sometimes extreme, for and pride in one’s own country. 2. a belief in political independence for a particular country”. Macron a centRALIST, who believes in surrender of national sovereignty to Brussels, incorrectly distinguished nationalisism from patriotism when they are synonyms. Richard Butler is also critical of Trump for being a nationalist – proud of his country. The principal aim of The Treaty of Rome was always the surrender of the national sovereignty of participating nations and Britain, waking up to the pedigree and attempting to exercise the ultimate freedom of opting out, has predicably elicited the anger and double speak of Macron

  2. Lesley Finn says:

    This is an excellent article.

    I have studied both Carr and Hannah Arendt. Both should be more widely known.

    The latest book on WW1 Sleepwalking by Christopher Clark makes it clear that nationalism played significant role in the origins of the war.
    Unfortunately nationalism is confused with patriotism and even that as Samuel Johnson tells us is the last refuge of a scoundrel

  3. Jim Kable says:

    Beautifully expressed – and excellent your reference, Richard, to Pankaj Mishra. Was it in the ABC News or 7.30 or in one of the on-line forums I read last night where the point was made (in connection with the nonsense from Morrison that maybe/maybe not Australia will place its Israel embassy in Jerusalem to join the Trumpian mistake) that Australia is now the place of world expertise on what is hapoening in Indonesia and this silly LNP government can’t seem to find its way from The Parliamentary Triangle in Canberra to the ANU or to pick up a telephone/dial a mobile to any of a number of other universities in Melbourne and Adelaide and speak to true experts on what to do or not to do should one want a so-called free trade agreement with Indonesia. Oh, right – I just recalled – experts are to be avoided – my thought bubble equates with experts’ long established studies, research and relationships. The power to make ignorant and ill-informed/hubristic national policy must be taken from the ignoramuses (aka politicians) and placed into the group hands of properly qualified persons whose educated and informed opinions must not be ignored by those afore-mentioned ignoramuses. And think Scallion and disbursement of Ear-marked funding for Indigenous Australians to his huntin’ n shootin’ non-Indigenous buddies. Where are the gaol terms for this kind of rorting – or for a PM determined to stick his rude finger up at our Indonesian neighbours to suit an ideological (fundamentalist christian) bent towards the criminally corrupt Netanyahu regime in Israel – still murdering Palestines!

  4. Kien Choong says:

    Hi, I suspect the indigenous peoples of the New World and the Antipodes suffered equal (if not greater) atrocities, in some cases approaching genocide. The peoples of the Old World owe it to the indigenous peoples of the New World and the Antipodes to ensure that we do not repeat this.

    I don’t understand why Europeans do so little to mitigate the harms currently experienced by the indigenous Palestinians, on whose lands European Jews have (in seeking refuge from anti-Semitism in Europe) founded modern Israel.

  5. michael lacey says:

    Macron is a patriot to the neoconservative neoliberal system! A supporter of unchecked corporate power . He is a supporter of the virtue of self-interest and the pursuit of material wealth making sure austerity stays firmly in place. He is married to a brand of capitalism which is devoid of any sense of social responsibility and is driven by an unchecked desire to accumulate capital at all costs. As power becomes global and politics remains local, ruling elites no longer make political concessions to workers or any other group that they either exploit or consider disposable.

    He has aided the rise in nationalism and extremism!

    good article!

    US has Interfered in Elections of at Least 85 Countries Worldwide Since 1945

Comments are closed.