The West has lost the will for peace

Feb 5, 2024
Grinding gears of national flags of the USA and China. Illustration

Détente would be good. Dialogue and diplomacy would be better. An end to US-led covert actions and cold wars would be better still.

And what about an enduring peace that balances interests of all concerned? Such a peace, surely, is the end to which the détente statement, led by former Foreign Ministers Carr and Evans and signed by 50 eminent, brave Australians including John Menadue, is one tentative step.

Such a peace might allow the USA to withdraw military forces from Europe and the Western Pacific, 80 years after World War Two.

Such a peace might remove the shackles from the Charter international system founded in 1945. It might end the suppression of the United Nations by American primacy.

But this peace remains a dream, even though it was the goal of détente. It inspired détente’s greatest achievements, the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, leading to the 1975 Helsinki Final Act. Its principles of collective security and sovereign equality lived on in Moscow’s peace proposals to Washington in 2021. But the US refused to talk.

So this dream will not be realised, and, despite the best intentions, a call for détente will be a straw in the wind; because the West has lost the will for peace.

Not peace, not diplomacy and not even détente will be realised because American supremacists still rule in Washington, Westminster and Brussels, and their servants submit in Canberra. So despite the admirable letter, do not expect détente or diplomacy or honest dialogue on peace any time soon.

The détente statement is to be applauded. It surely beats calls for conscription, and media-intelligence confections about the Red Threat of China. But it saddens me that détente – a limited success from the Cold War – is the best that Australia’s best can offer those who govern us.

It dismays me that our leaders will not listen to anything bolder. If they had asked for more, the 50 signatories would be slurred as agents of foreign governments. But alas, even so, the insults came.

It is a sign of how far we have fallen in our ambition for peace.

The difficult admission Australia may need to make is that to expect détente, dialogue or diplomacy from the USA is a comforting delusion.

The USA does not want détente, and the world does not need the US to offer a false détente, like a dying king choosing his successor. The world needs the limited disarmament of the USA: quit some of its 800 military bases, forswear primacy, and look after its own people. But limited disarmament will only be achieved when the USA admits that defeats have diminished its status in the world to just one of five great powers.

In the last three years, the US has experienced effective defeats in Kabul, Ukraine, Africa, and West Asia. But it remains in denial. Its ranting supremacists want to forestall defeat in Taiwan, and ignore how the BRICS+ economies are larger than the G7. The US grows more isolated diplomatically, while the Global Majority asserts its voice. The US’s humanitarian interventionism has been defeated by US disgraces from Serbia to Gaza.

The greatest ever army was undone by its own vanity. The empire of democracy was defeated by inventing too many of its own realities. Even its grand alliance, NATO, is tasting defeat in Ukraine. Does anyone in Australia remember the late 1980s dream, inspired by détente, to dissolve NATO, just like the Warsaw Pact?

Détente was a brief episode of the Cold War, supported by a US President in rare moments of imperial self-doubt. It was initiated by de Gaulle, who sought Europe’s future beyond a bipolar world, in “détente, entente and cooperation”. He backed détente with action, when he withdrew France from NATO’s integrated military command in 1966. Its greatest achievement was the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, which for a few years kindled hopes of peace without US missiles across all of Europe.

Yet détente lasted less than a decade, and less in America. Gerald Ford banned the term from his campaign. Jimmy Carter’s Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance, clung to the dream to deliver the SALT treaties. But the American hawks, principally Brzenzinski, turned an evangelical President into a crusader of American supremacy. By Reagan’s election, American Supremacists ruled the roost again. As Odd Arne Westad wrote in The Cold War: A World History

“Ultimately, though, detente was defeated by politics in the United States. …. Most Americans were simply not willing to tolerate that the United States could have an equal in international affairs, in the 1970s or ever. And they elected Ronald Reagan president to make sure that such a devaluation of the American purpose would not happen again.” (p. 500)

I wonder how Xi Jinping would respond to the modest Australian proposal for détente? He might ask China’s closest strategic partner, Russia: should we trust the USA or Australia with this initiative?

We can imagine the likely response. Laughter, and a careful setting out of the record of decades of American deception and dishonesty, starting with that promise not to move NATO one inch eastward. He might suggest reading Richard Sakwa, The Lost Peace.

Xi might consult his own memory. Did I not offer to Obama to demilitarise the South China Sea, and he said, no? Did I not tell Joe Biden, in diplomatic words, that I cannot rely on his word as US President, since he does not meet his commitments? Then he called me a dictator, twice.

Xi might consult China’s history. When Henry Kissinger met Zhou Enlai secretly in Beijing in 1971, Zhou told him that the US

“must recognise the PRC as the sole legitimate government of China and not make any exceptions. Just as we recognise the United States as the sole legitimate government without considering Hawaii, the last state, an exception to your sovereignty, or still less Long Island.”

Kissinger never delivered in full. US diplomacy frankly never does.

Xi might consult their trading partner and middle power, Australia. But why consult them when the USA holds sway over that subordinate power, and most of the world has China as its major trading partner.

Australia’s wish to conduct middle-power diplomacy, as proposed in the détente statement, is a reasonable aspiration; but an unrealistic assessment. The statement rightly refers to diplomatic achievements of the 1990s. But for three decades since, has not our great ally, who we remorselessly cheer onto war, undone unilaterally any minor progress on nuclear disarmament that was then achieved?

Australia has burned its credibility as a middle power. It is a sunken diplomatic shipwreck far off the continental shelf of the new multipolar world.

I wish there was something more I could do. I wish there was a more compelling, courageous letter that I could sign; but I see no Western leaders with the courage and skill to find the true path to peace.

I fear I have a long wait through a dark winter while America recklessly takes the world to more devastating wars that it still believes will leave America on top.

I fear this broken commonwealth will endure a long sleep until this country’s elites reverse the abasement of their minds by American imperialism and the vapid theatre of modern politics.

But I will wait, and endure; because I know that the tides of history have turned on the vengeful American empire. I will not stir from my beach to save its drowning leaders. May they go down with the USS Exceptionalism. I will stay ashore, and tend my garden, and wait for the new waves of the better world to come.

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