Failing up is a common phenomenon in many organisations – not least those concerned with national defence and security.
It is too often revealed that some people have the knack of being dismal failures early on in their careers only to be subsequently promoted to even higher positions where they achieve simply heroic levels of under performance. Think Health, Home Affairs and now Defence. Behold Peter Dutton.
It was Hegel, refined through Marx, who noted the unfortunate pattern that, what initially appears to be a matter of chance and contingency – Dutton’s appointment as Minister of Health in 2013, was in reality a ratification of the declining faculties of the Australian Liberal Party. Evidence: his appointment as Minister of Defence in 2021, another example of what the American historian, Barbara Tuchman, identified in senile institutions as a “bellicose frivolity.”
In Health, 46 percent of 1,100 respondents in an Australian Doctor magazine survey rated him the worst health minister in 35 years. He left Home Affairs in a terrible mess. He has now in Defence, by self disclosure, demonstrated his illiteracy and incompetence in matters which are the crux of his responsibilities.
But not all the Defence blunders cannot be attributed only to Peter Dutton. There were procurement fiascos he inherited on taking over the Defence portfolio because they are of a mixed, and previous, albeit delinquent parentage.
They are also distinct from the decisions and non-decisions he has made since his appointment even though he has now joined that parentage with the actions taken concerning almost the whole of the range of capabilities which an Australian Defence Force worthy of the name should possess but doesn’t and is unlikely to for some considerable time.
Specifically, the first cause for concern arises out of frequently repeated statements by the Minister along two accusatory themes. One is that Russian President, Vladimir Putin, is comparable to Hitler; the other is that China’s increasing assertiveness is comparable to the rise of Nazi Germany. The 1930s are upon us. The Munich Syndrome lives.
The second cause is Mr. Dutton’s attempt respond to the reappeared 1930s by distilling strategic wisdom from the notion that Australia will preserve the peace it currently enjoys by preparing for war. Yes – the predicate logic is curious, akin to protecting chastity by prodigious fornicating.
Upon reflection and taken together these comprise an excoriating assault on any residual confidence in the government’s competence in defence and foreign policy. What they indicate is a Defence Minister with a broad ignorance of a period just 90 years in the past which has attracted a plethora of scholarship, an impaired cognition of events in the here and now, and spurious connections between them which suggest an imagination overburdened with bellicosity.
Debunking the Putin-Hitler / China-Nazi Germany alleged equivalents will not be entered into here on the grounds that it would be a wasteful diversion in a limited discursive economy. On the other hand, Dutton’s recalling of the 1930s is worth a brief riposte.
Consider Australia’s dominant alliance partner then and now. Domestically, predatory, supercharged capitalism dominates all aspects of life – including health, housing, education, and social welfare. A lack of regulation and government intervention facilitated the Great Depression.
Abroad (and only indicatively) the US was represented industrially by Ford and General Motors who significantly profited from their integration in Germany’s increasingly militarised economy and eventually acquiesced in the transformation of their operations to military production lines. Henry Ford received Nazi Germany’s highest award that could be bestowed upon a foreigner, was the author of antisemitic tracts, and a favourite of Hitler.
In the same period Brown Brothers Harriman (which claimed to be the world’s largest private investment bank, was instrumental in buying and sending millions of dollars of gold, fuel, steel, coal and US Treasury bonds to Germany for feeding and financing Hitler’s buildup to war. BBH was an exemplar of the American power elite: upon its board were Averill Harriman and Prescott Bush, father of GHW Bush and grandfather of GW Bush.
Diplomatically, the pattern was repeated. In 1938 the Roosevelt Administration appointed Joseph P Kennedy, as Ambassador to the Court of St. James. Significance: less that he was, inter alia, father of Jack, Bobby, and Teddy, more that he found common cause with certain members of the British aristocracy as to their shared profound hatred of the Jewish race and their fond regard for Hitler.
The point here is is not to disinter a range of obscenities simply in order to rebury them; on the contrary it is to argue that historical analogies are poorly drawn if they not only overflow with unintended contradictions, but also are dangerous to the extent that overdetermine and undermine defence policy and strategy.
The end result is actually their opposite – an attitude rather that an internally rigorous and coherent response. Which is to say that the chain of cause and effect does not accord with the comfortable narratives of good and evil.
Equally, this applies to Dutton’s exhortation to prepare for war in the name of peace.
Throughout the centuries, and especially since the advent of international relations realism, it has become a one-line doctrine justifying massive expenditures on weapons, alliances, deterrence, and balances of power.
The problem it faces, however, is that extensive and intensive research using the Correlates of War database and others, supports the conclusion that all of these doctrines and concepts are actually a cause of war, not its impediment. They lead to arms racing, distrust, and strategic instability.
Claims that adherence to them gave birth to the Pax Romana and thus a valid template to copy need to be seen for what they are. And what they are is an attempt to justify regional or global expansion, through the imposition of hegemonic power under which all opponents or independent political units have been beaten down and thus “pacified.”
This state of affairs is more correctly described as a pax imperia and for it to exist at all requires a permanent state of incipient, or actual war, subjection not being acceptable to those with a memory of identity and being pre-dating conquest.
Dutton is seemingly unaware of these paradoxes and yet strategy is a constellation of paradoxes. He is, therefore, unaware of the fact that life under the shadows of war preparation becomes, paradoxically, life under an occupying force. Peace is absent. What is present is, in the words attributed to the Caledonian chieftain, Calgacus, a desert called peace.