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The Bear and the Kangaroo: poles apart?

By Peter McMahon - posted Friday, 17 November 2006


Although stuck away at either ends of the globe, Russia and Australia have always had a difficult relationship from the days when fear of the Russian fleet was one of the justifications for federation in 1901. Both countries have histories blighted by the fatal power of imperialism, but as the world enters a period of crisis perhaps they will finally find common ground.

Russia has a tragic history replete with war, invasion and repression. Beginning with the Vikings and the Mongols, whose invasions essentially defined Russia’s character, Russia has straddled east and west, and had to fend off both. In modern times it was invaded by the great European powers of Napoleonic France and Nazi Germany, defeating both at enormous cost. In between it was invaded by the (western) Allies, trying to strangle the nascent revolution. On its eastern flank it faced a bellicose Japan, losing a war in 1904 but wining one four decades later.

Perhaps, because of its geographical position and the constant threat it was under, Russia has never been able to generate a functional modern society. Right up until the revolution of 1917 it endured autocratic rulers who would not allow the growth of a powerful middle class. After 1917 it suffered under a different kind of tyranny as the Soviet Union took shape, saw off fascism and sponsored communism around the world.

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In doing this it created its own kind of empire, the remains still evident in the war in Chechnya. Most recently, with communism failed, it has been the victim of one of the great con jobs in history as Harvard economists sent its economy back to the 19th century. Only now, with the economy owned by a clutch of kleptocrats but oil exports booming, is it showing any signs of recovery.

Australia, on the other hand, has been called with some justification the lucky country. Its national character was largely decided by two unusual conditions. First, it is geographically isolated, stuck away in the south-east corner of the world. Second it was colonised after the industrial revolution was in full swing by English-speaking Europeans.

Despite this isolation, the Australian colonies slotted into the growing international economy, mostly exporting primary industry products and importing manufactured goods. Fuelled by a flow of foreign investment, it soon became a wealthy country and politically progressive, enjoying perhaps the best standard of living in the world by 1900.

But Australians have always worried about being a rich white society surrounded by what some perceived as the teeming yellow masses of Asia. For this reason it never felt truly independent, clutching at the skirts of the British Empire. When that empire showed it could not protect Australia against the Japanese in 1942, Australia switched much of its allegiance to the rising power - the United States.

For over a century the British Empire vied with the Russian Empire of the Tsars and then Stalin, even though it sometimes found itself fighting alongside the Russians in world wars. The British confronted Russian power in the region the British describe as "the Far East", fought them in the Crimea and sent troops to Murmansk in 1919.

The United States, the English-speaking heir to British power, had generally enjoyed good relations with Russia, including the Russians siding with the north against possible intervention by the British on behalf of the south in the American Civil War. But the 1917 Revolution, when the Bolsheviks repudiated foreign loans, lined the American ruling class up against the new communist nation.

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World War II made the United States the greatest power in world history, dominant militarily, industrially, financially and ideologically. It also made Russia a first class industro-military power, and positioned the world’s best army in the middle of Europe. Napoleon’s prediction that the two great nations of the northern hemisphere would then vie for world power proved correct.

World War II also provided the first real threat to Australian security in the form of Japanese forces, another fatal imperial venture. Australia quickly fell in with American strategy in the region, and this acquiescence continued after the war, formalised in the ANZUS Treaty. This resulted in Australian participation in the wars in Korea, Vietnam and the Gulf.

This subservience, Australian governments believed, was the price for assumed American protection, including, if required, against the Soviet Union. In the 1980s, with the Soviets developing a true blue water navy this actually seemed like a credible threat, but it turned out to be the last gasp of an empire in terminal decline.

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About the Author

Dr Peter McMahon has worked in a number of jobs including in politics at local, state and federal level. He has also taught Australian studies, politics and political economy at university level, and until recently he taught sustainable development at Murdoch University. He has been published in various newspapers, journals and magazines in Australia and has written a short history of economic development and sustainability in Western Australia. His book Global Control: Information Technology and Globalisation was published in the UK in 2002. He is now an independent researcher and writer on issues related to global change.

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