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The Foreign Policy White Paper: a Plea to See Things as They Are

“We have now sunk to a depth at which restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.”

— George Orwell.

First, let me start with a stereotypical Jesuit habit: for what you are about to read, I seek forgiveness not approval. [No doubt this slanders the Jesuits: my excuse is that I was taught by an order of priests founded in post-revolutionary France who were not especially confraternal whenever the Society of Jesus was mentioned – a disposition that only encouraged me to redefine some of their alleged conceits as intellectual virtues].

Accordingly, in the light of the evolving character of current global politics in general and the forthcoming Australian Foreign Policy White Paper in particular, there is an overwhelming need to abandon the exsanguinated accounts on offer in the great majority of media reports, general commentaries, and academic journals. This site, however, has provided many exceptions, most notable among them the recent posts by Richard Butler, Quentin Dempster, and James O’Neil.

What follows is an extension of their arguments by way of a synopsis of prevailing conditions among the many countries that now constitute the US-dominated system of alliances and strategic partnerships. By way of philosophical orientation it follows the injunction of George Orwell in a similar time: “We have now sunk to a depth at which restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.”

To begin, democracy is a declaratory and not an operational mode of governance; oligarchies and dictatorships reign expressing their putative political philosophy in simpleminded terms indistinguishable from Social Darwinism. Disintegration in the form of civil strife, anger, violence, socioeconomic collapse, homelessness, sexism, cruelty against minorities and the poor follows naturally and logically, as does depression and the sense of futility among the governed. Understanding that conventional politics has nothing to offer them, they eventually express their rage by irrationally supporting those that promise to improve their lot, or worse, those that guarantee to destroy the current establishment in its entirety and restore the exclusively defined nation and culture to an imagined antediluvian unity and grandeur. Without exception, violence – threatened or actual – will be deployed in order to achieve this objective.

To a greater or lesser extent these conditions are widespread: in Asia, IndiaJapan, and the Philippines critically informed commentary by writers of sound mind and sober judgement has come to the fore and with deeply concerning conclusions. Within NATO’s European membership, Turkey has descended into an unapologetic dictatorship, and the “toxic ideological brew” in the politics of Hungary and Poland, all the way through to government level, is now officially recognised by the European Union as a threat to fundamental democratic values. And then, not in government, but influential nevertheless, is the gathering right-wing wave of racism, resurgent nationalism and xenophobia in Austria, France, Holland, and the United Kingdom. Overshadowing even these transformations is the realisation of previously embryonic forces in the United States that have gestated into the politically regressive phenomenon of President Donald Trump.

What connects them, and they all have in common, is a cluster of features which, briefly described, includes: life conceived as a form of permanent warfare; an impatience to commit to wars of choice; a cult of tradition; the toleration of contradictions if they support the political cause; an hostility to new truths which might render the overall beliefs false; a rejection of Enlightenment rationality; distrust of the intellectual world and an obsession with action for its own sake; holding disagreement and dissent to be treasonous; fear of difference; appeals to those who feel besieged or alienated and frustrated by change or disparities of wealth by promising the restoration of a clear social identity; contempt for the weak; a disdain for women accompanied by the condemnation of nonstandard sexual behaviour; an underlying contempt for “the people” once they have fulfilled the role of theatrical props; and a form of communicating marked by an impoverished vocabulary and elementary syntax.

There is no ideological center, only rhetoric; no coherence, just discombobulation. Where one of these features exist, it is common for other to “coagulate” around it. Its strength lies in its emotional appeal to an imagined era convivial to the displaced.

The name for this form of thinking and acting which has permeated so much of the politics of what is loosely called the Western Alliance is Fascism. Needless to say it is a term that most writers have eschewed: when confronting the politics described above the preference has been to see them as outbreaks of authoritarianism, even populist authoritarianism. Rightly, they might say, where is the rampant anti-Semitism, where are the death camps, and how is it that citizens in the US conduct their lives in more or less unmolested ways?

The answers are quite clear: there is such a thing as participatory fascism and frightened and insecure people are likely candidates to practice it. More significantly, however, the reflex to exclusively define fascism as Nazism robs us of the understandings of Ur Fascism, or Eternal Fascism elaborated by the renowned Italian intellectual, Umberto Eco, in an extraordinarily prescient essay published in the New York Review of Books in 1995. Specifically, the conditions referred to above are those found in the Italian variant of fascism and that alone should provoke a more inclusive definition in these times.

To absolve current fascists by finding them a variant of authoritarianism is to fall back on the bastardised, but indulgent understanding that US Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick provided the Reagan Administration. Then, she was concerned to establish that Soviet bloc and other Communist regimes were totalitarian and thus anathema, irredeemable, but that US-supported anti-communist, militaristic regimes who professed to be pro-Western were merely “authoritarian” and thus reformable.

At considerable cost to those who suffered under American patronage she was wrong then. And Australia will be wrong, and to considerable cost once again, if the language and explicit understandings of the White Paper fall back on obfuscation and the national tradition of obsequiousness in alliance politics and allow them to overrule Orwell’s “restatement of the obvious.”   There’s a passage in Berthold Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui that is worth recalling:

If we could learn to look instead of gawking
. We’d see the horror in the face of farce,
If only we would act instead of talking,
We would not always end up on our arse.

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Michael McKinley taught international relations and strategy in the Department of Politics, UWA.  From 1988 to 2014 he taught international relations and strategy at the ANU. He is currently a member of the Emeritus Faculty at the ANU. 

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