RICHARD BUTLER. What is History?

Nov 15, 2018

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


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