The age of stupidity and enthusiastic folly – Australia, an endangered nation

Aug 15, 2022
Canberra, Australia -View of The Commonwealth Coat of Arms, the formal symbol of the Commonwealth of Australia, in bronze outside the old Parliament House.

It is difficult to understand how weirdly Australia now conducts itself internationally, the postures it adopts. We have notionally a new government with a sense of social justice and a vision opposed to inequality. But it is promptly, a neocon enthusiast.

Notions of democracy being argued for are in reality an imperialistic drive for maintaining American power. This moral superiority has murdered perhaps six million people in unlawful wars in the last thirty years, aiding destruction of the global climate.

If I take off my shoes to count all the countries that might be thought party to this monstrous white man’s rampage. We are, AUKUS and NATO, scarcely 10% of the world’s population. We are part of the 10% of privilege, hostile to the historical reality of the end of American dominance, though America rots as we speak.

Last weekend (I write on 9 August) foreign minister Wong, who had recently and fawningly sought to rekindle relations with Asia and the Pacific, attended an ASEAN+ meeting in Phnom Penh. The ASEAN countries issued a statement calling on both sides in the Taiwan situation to exercise moderation. Wong stepped outside where with the US and Japan they could issue a raging denunciation of China.

In 1963, President John Kennedy, father of the new US ambassador to Australia, Caroline Kennedy, made one of his most important speeches, soon after the Cuban missile crisis, in which he spoke of peace not as an object or objective but as a process of constant engagement with the other. (Read also Jeffrey Sachs.) We do no such thing, like schoolyard children we shout at wretches over the fence.

In 1963, confronted by a process underway of the Soviet Union locating missiles in Cuba, President Kennedy rejected the advice of the Joint Chiefs to go to war. He had asked members of his cabinet to read a new best seller, Barbara Tuchman’s August 1914 in which she ascribed the horror of the first world war as arising from statesmen only having mental states and plans for war. That is exactly the situation of the west since September 11, 2001, magnified again this year.

We went to war thirty years ago as eagerly and swiftly as possible. In Afghanistan for 21 years, with an unlawful assassination as coda just this week, to draw attention to defeat, to withdrawal in shame, to ongoing sanctions, seizure of funds, blockade of assistance, effectively murder of children and families… in the name of democracy! In Iraq in 2003 with deceit in intentions and propaganda we took down a bad government and rendered the country ungovernable and the in large part uninhabitable. See here an image of Levison Wood, intrepid British ex-soldier adventurer, in the centre of Mosul in 2019. Sigh at Mosul’s presence on the ‘tentative list’ for UNESCO world heritage status, brought to its knees after two and a half millennia.

Barbara Tuchman wrote two other books (among many) of relevance here. A Distant Mirror compared the horrors of the twentieth century with the 14th century with new barbarity in weapons and the Black Death. The March of Folly discussed the strange tendency of states to act contrary to their interests and be brought down… “from Troy to Vietnam”. Tuchman died in early 1989, before the Berlin Wall came down. Before the prime ministers of the Slav states, Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia, held a meeting and then rang Mikhail Gorbachev, President of the Soviet Union, who yanked the Soviet Union into the light and reform, to tell him “Gorby we just abolished the USSR, you don’t have a job”. She died before the notion of American exceptionalism, fired up in the ruthless conquest of their continent, gained new strength after the collapse of the Soviet Union: the notion of a post-history total American command of the planet: messed with their own heads; messed with so much of the world.

In 2003 many of us took to the streets to oppose the Iraq war. But that was in the Howard years of assurance that we could forget community and look after ourselves, sneering that they’d ended the deficit, having completed the Keating process of selling off public ownership, every building too, except the parliament, the official residences, and the defence properties. Sold the silver, put future generations in debt. And wide screen television arrived. The nation disappeared into self-infatuation or fantasy. Until the rise of the Teals… whose views on the wider world remain to be tested.

H R McMaster, once a lieutenant general, won his place in Donald Trump’s ‘heart’ and as his national security advisor with a book entitled Dereliction of Duty which begins with a tirade against Kennedy for taking the advice of civilians and not the Joint Chiefs who wanted promptly to go to war with the Soviet Union. The great debates of our era are between the defence commanders and industries and the rest of us: about this challenge to civil government and society. For the moment “the rest of us” have lost.

The Australian government has announced a Defence Strategic Review to add more stuff to the 2020 Update. Somehow we’ve lost bearings. An enemy focused military strategy must be subordinate to a civilian approach to build friends with the world and avoid war, to mutual benefit. It’s stupid to think of attachment to one great power or another. The future must be multipolar; it’s happening, mostly peacefully. Contrast this young Chinese entrepreneur’s view of the world, with this madness of American officials, Nuland and Pyatt, organising the overthrow of a democratically elected government in Ukraine in 2014, the trigger for the present Ukraine war, and the year when the present war began. Nuland is now Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, with her husband Robert Kagan a potent neocon combination.

I have some sympathy for the mild-mannered deputy prime minister Mr Marles, Minister for Defence, in having to face up to a defence force that has largely eliminated civilian control over itself. But that’s his job and it’s very foolish of him to turn himself into a QC fiercely representing their notions of enemies. It’s their job to identify possible enemies. It’s his job, the job of government, and of the nation to ensure they don’t mindlessly gobble all our resources and actually make enemies.

We have to turn around education. Howard encouraged people to study commerce and get rich. Morrison increased the cost of study in the humanities, seeing from his narrow mind no need to understand the world.

Fixing our future requires a generation more engaged with the world, better educated about the world. We need time. But in reality we don’t have time. We need a jolt out of folly.

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