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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

The West holding the line: two views « Previous | |Next »
August 14, 2003

This post from yesterday was accidently deleted by me. I am reposting it with new material and have reworked it a bit. The comments on the original post have been lost.

Hugh White
argues that Australia's foreign policy under John Howard is realistically based on its national interest and that it is conducted with prudence and restraint. White says that it has less "to do with following George Bush's lead around the world ...[and] much more about taking the lead ourselves in our own backyard."

Hugh White says that means:

"...there have always been clear limits to how far Howard has been willing to engage Australia in American global strategy. One demonstration of this has been in Asia itself, where Howard's consistent priority has been to build up Australia's relationship with China. This placed him at odds with many in the US, and especially in the Bush camp, who have seen China until recently as a strategic competitor."

So Howard, on White's interpretation is trying to reposition his country in terms of its national interest as best he can in the light of American global dominance. His key strategy priority is neither Asia nor America, but Australia's immediate neighbourhood.

I find this White's account of Australia as a regional power acceptable in contrast to the claim that Australia is a global power and that it should act globally. It is similar to Kim Beazley's account of a distinctive Australian approach to the region around us. It opens up for public policy discussion the question of well the Howard Government has prepared Australia for its new strategic role after Spetember 11. And this is what Kim Beazley does. He not only matches the government on national security, but he also criticizes the government for not doing enough to counter terrorism, boost our intelligence capacity and strengthen the defence forces. Very effective.

However, White's realistic account is not the only one on the table since we have a fluid situation in the making of Australia's foreign policy. Consider Tony Abbott's recent speech on the West holding the line against the Muslim world to the Centre of Independent Studies at the annual public policy conference or Consilium (it is listed under events).
A CIS consilium is the conservatives taking counsel with their associates in a group. It is closed to general citizens and the media but you get the sense that they reckon they are on the cusp of conservative intellectual renaissance.

So what are they saying? Abbott's speech provides a way for us ordinary citizens to glimpse inside the consilium. Why Abbott? Abbott is a Burkean conservative and he's known as a solid thinker who goes beyond the sneer of dismissal of a Tim Blair. So 'taking counsel as a group' means that Abbott phrases what he has to say in a common language.

This common language has three parts. Abbott's talk is premised on the clash of civilizations. I have previously argued that this underpins the conservative's understanding of the post 9/11 world. Abbott says:

"The hallmarks of Western Civilisation are scientific and cultural curiosity, belief in the equality of man, freedom under the law, and a sense that diversity is a potential source of strength not weakness. Unfortunately, what the contemporary West takes most pride in: pluralism, libertarianism, feminism and multiculturalism, is what much of the Muslim world most stridently rejects, even to the extent of cheering when passenger jets are flown into civilian skyscrapers."

The West must stand firm in the face of this challenge says Abbott:

"It's not enough for Western Civilisation to demonstrate its technological prowess, military strength and material abundance. It needs to show moral strength which even its critics can recognise and come to admire....The war on terrorism is not primarily a test of military technology or of social service delivery. It's a test of character."

How is the enemy defined by the conservatives? I suggest this account by Daniel Pipes constructs the picture of the enemy of western civilization.

In so arguing Abbott implies a unitary Western civilization, another key conservative theme. According to Abbott the Iraqi war showed a sharing of the burden of upholding common values. And:

"Historically, America, Britain and Australia's instinctive responses to foreign challenges are almost identical. A common language, similar cultures, entwined histories and countless personal links mean that there will be a tendency to think and act as one people rather than three countries."

This unitary theme of 'The West' is difficult to maintain given that historically, the West has often been historically characterised by discord, conflict and wars, not to mention the current fractures between America and the leading European nation states such as France and Germany? Abbott does not address this. So 'The West' refers to a particular interpretation of the West.

Abbott does address the divisions on the domestic front. It is here that the particular conservative definition of The West as a civilization is challenged and so have the conflict of the culture wars. Abbott refers to the "down with us" brigade--by which he means the cultural left, its political correctness and its negative historical narrative of the nation (as a people).

The cultural wars is the third key conservative theme. Abbott says that the influence of the 'down with us' groups in civil society has been marginalised because:

"...there is a new tendency to stress responsibilities over rights and unity over diversity.... The sensuality, licence and frivolity... is still on display but at least some countries have shown a newfound ability to call things by their true name and take commitments seriously...[and there is] a rediscovery of sterner and higher virtues... "

Its a bit thin. It begins with Edmund Burke and ends with T. S. Eliot. Unity is the overriding theme. It is unity at home (social stability) and abroad (the Anglo-American Coalition that pulls together.) The West holds the line through unity. That is the common language of the conservatives who cast themselves as the protectors of the nation in a terrifying and evil world.

What are we to make of it in terms of a different account of foreign policy to the one given by Hugh White above? In contrast to White's realist interpretation of Howard's foreign policy based on national interest, Abbott is all about culture and values. There is no mention of what Owen Harris addresses: namely, national self-interest, prudence and restraint, or Australian and the US national interests diverging. Harris, for instance, says that if there was conflict between China and Taiwan over the US military supporting Taiwan, and the US asked the Australian government for help, then we should say no. And say it firmly. If asked for a justification we would say that Taiwan is not like East Timor, and that Taiwan's independence vis-a-vis China has little to do with our national interest.

That example nicely highlights the constraints for the Howard Government's foreign policy: is it to be prudence and restraint in the national interest rather than tokenism? Or are we obliged to do the token number to cover the divergence between the national interest of the US and Australia? Or are we obligated to do the biddign of the US?

What Abbott's common culture and history account tacitly embraces the way the US turns the 'common character' of the US and Australia into Australia taking an international role. This is what is being argued by Richard Armitage, the US Deputy of State, (The Australian Financial Review, subscription required, 14 08 03, p.63) in a speech to the Asia Society in Sydney. Armitage says that Australia is a global power with a global role and global responsibilities. Thus the US and Australia stand together against the international terrorists and break new ground in freedom's defence. This is imperial conservatism that presumes the world is there for the US to remodel and redeem as it pleases.

That Washington Beltway “Hard Wilsonianism” is quite quite different from Hugh White's account. Since I much prefer White's account, I think we should tell Richard Armitage to get lost. We have no desire to coerce other peoples to be free. We should rip into him for telling Australian critics of the US

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 3:20 PM | | Comments (0) | TrackBacks (4)
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