The end of illusions

Dec 29, 2023
The Austrian Parliament with statue philosopher Thucydides in Vienna, Austria.

The fear that the world is falling apart is not new. It stretches back into antiquity. End of the world fears have manifested over thousands of years. For almost all recorded history, and no doubt beforehand, there have been wars, violence, greed, and cruelty committed in the name of some collective cause. For most of recorded human history, there has been slavery, hunger, famines, plagues, mass killings, genocides, human sacrifice, mass migrations, extraordinary poverty, mass illiteracy, wars of conquest, endless atrocities, tyranny and relentless exploitation of people and land.

The idea of progress, where the trajectory of economics, politics, and morality points upwards toward heaven, is a sacred liberal ideal. However, like Santa Claus, once the secret is revealed the magic disappears. Somehow though, letting go of liberal illusions is clearly a traumatic experience. It means that a cultivated sense of self-righteousness, if not an assumed superiority, is undermined. When this moral superiority is challenged, the result is rarely a heightened level of debate. Instead, the motives of those who ask questions, or highlight inconsistencies, are called into question. In this process powerful gatekeepers justify their outrageous hypocrisy by ignoring the obvious ethical implications of their words and actions.

Discussions about international law and war crimes seem to suggest we are now highly evolved beings. Yet, before our eyes over the last 60 years, the very idea of universal human rights has been diminished. With each step, each compromise, each blind eye, act of complicity, the entire principle is rendered relative, in other words, meaningless. We should be concerned about where we are headed. I suspect we are probably living through a period of history where the United Nations is in real danger of eventually going the way of the League of Nations. Powerful, or strategically useful nations, can commit almost any type of atrocity, so long as the right people and places benefit from the outcomes. In short, morality be damned.

Athenian historian and general Thucydides in History of the Peloponnesian War uses the Melian dialogue to highlight that, ‘Right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” This is the rule of force, the violence of coercion, death and tyranny. Yet there is something often missed by those who nod knowingly at Thucydides. Many of those who wrote works of history (from antiquity and others well into the 20th century), were not outsiders. They were often high-ranking people either involved in some way in what they wrote about or connected to the upper echelons of elite power. Thucydides was not an isolated academic, he was a wealthy well connected Athenian. His conclusions were strongly influenced not only by his research, but also by first-hand knowledge of just how ruthless the Athenian elites could be.

Western liberalism clings to the ideas of objective morality, human rights and legal justice for the oppressed. No doubt, there are many who genuinely believe in universal principles, but the language of human rights and international law has become a propaganda fig leaf. Nations that espouse this language from one side of their mouth, frequently use or ignore terrible violence when it suits. When Kissinger issued the infamous ‘anything that flies, on anything that moves’ instruction about bombing Cambodia, he did not care about killing Cambodians. When President Obama joked, in relation to his drone assassination programs, that he was ‘ ‘pretty good at killing people,’ it was not an idle boost. He really was good at killing people. It is instructive that both men were recipients of the Noble Peace Prize!

Australia, like other western nations, lectures others about international law, democracy, and morality in foreign affairs. But should we be so arrogant? In our own region, we have consistently ignored crimes against humanity, breeches of international law and even genocide when it has suited us. We did nothing to prevent, or punish, one of the great post-war slaughters in East Timor, now Timor Leste. Three of our most significant responses during 25 years of crimes against humanity, were to provide constant diplomatic cover, train Indonesian special forces, and eventually sign a treaty with Jakarta in 1989 over sea boundaries. To get our hands on the Timor Gap, i.e. massive oil and gas fields, the deaths of so many Timorese were no obstacle. After the UN ballot favoured independence, and despite repeated warnings of almost certain bloodshed if independence was chosen by the Timorese, the UNMET mission in 1999 (led by Australia) arrived too late to prevent mass killings and deportations of thousands of Timorese to West Timor. If we were prepared to ignore what happened in East Timor purely for our own strategic and economic gain, it is difficult to see how we can lecture anyone about international law.

Social and economic rights, democracy, education, individual freedoms, a free press, universal suffrage, private property and free enterprise are in varying degrees, indicators of a certain type of progress. However, modern liberalism vastly overestimates the extent of its enlightenment. Lurking in the shadows is a highly illiberal global order that is barely acknowledged. For example, Australia, like the wider western world, enjoys low-cost imports, made possible by cheap foreign labour. Further, powerful corporations control staggering financial and environmental resources, while governments (and others) profit from militarism. It is also a world where governments brandish genocidal weapons, where industry routinely damages our environment, and where the extraction of minerals such as cobalt, feeds modern slavery. Make no mistake, despite loud liberal democratic rhetoric, we are ready to do business with anybody who can provide the desired results. When US Presidents talk of bringing democracy and freedom to the world, they connect perpetual US hegemony with objective moral progress. But how can this be so? The world cannot help but see the striking contrast between the US reaction to Russia in Ukraine, and Israel in Gaza and in the illegally occupied Palestinian territories. If Putin at the start of 2022 had levelled Kyiv in the way Israel is currently destroying Gaza, there is no doubt the US reaction would have been framed by hysterical condemnations of Russia using the language of human rights, international law, genocide and war criminality. Now that everyone can see this shameless moral relativism, the legitimacy of liberalism itself is called into serious question.

It is ironic that the people and nations doing the most to undermine the legitimacy of international law and universal human rights are often those who most loudly proclaim faithful adherence. If international law and basic morality in international affairs exist, they are universal principles, they are equally applied to everyone, and breeches are investigated without fear or favour. If this is not the case, what then is the point of international law? As Justice Robert H. Jackson, Chief of Counsel for the United States at the International Military Tribunal Nuremberg, said in his opening statement, ‘we must never forget that the record on which we judge these defendants today is the record on which history will judge us tomorrow. To pass these defendants a poisoned chalice is to put it to our own lips as well.’

Should we all continue sleepwalking into the Thucydidean abyss, Australians (and others) should pray we never have to rely on the UN or international law for protection, or for our survival. We can expect no more adherence to the UN Charter, international law or universal human rights, than what we are showing now, or have shown in the past. In a Thucydidean future, all the injustices inflicted on others while we looked away, could so easily happen to us.

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