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Australia alone!...And illiterate

By Reg Little - posted Wednesday, 17 August 2011

The recent debt ceiling drama in the American Congress and the subsequent credit downgrading and market distress have made it acceptable, if not obligatory, to talk of a once taboo topic.

This is the danger that the US dollar may lose its standing as the global reserve currency, and that the Pentagon will lose its access to an almost unlimited chequebook.

Or, as the Chinese state-media outlet Xinhua put it on 6th August 2011, in words that foreshadow American, and possibly Australian, hardship: "The U.S. government has to come to terms with the painful fact that the good old days when it could just borrow its way out of messes of its own making are finally gone."


Whatever path is taken, there is the probability, if not certainty, that we are approaching the end of the Anglo-American order that has defined the past two centuries of global history and the full length of Australia's modern history.

With the imperative of finding savings to cover a present annual deficit approaching $1.5 trillion, the global role of the US would be seriously constrained, if not crippled.

Australians have no serious end of empire experience since being settled by Europeans. Despite the 2nd World War, Australia managed a relatively smooth transition from being a beneficiary of British imperial reach to being a beneficiary of American imperial reach.

Today, dependence on the United States defines the international awareness and certainties of most Australian political leaders. Of course, most recognise blandly a dependence on China for Australian economic prosperity but none are prepared to address the implications of China emerging politically pre-eminent from an American end of empire moment.

Indeed, our most recent Defence White Paper anticipated using the American alliance to confront China militarily more than a decade into the future.

The boffins in Defence saw no need to address the financial and budgetary disarray of the United States. Even further from their awareness was the improbability of America being able to maintain the Pentagon's level of expenditure even several years into the future.


Of course, recognition of such a danger is an unacceptable form of heresy in the company of innumerate military enthusiasts.

Sadly, the certainties of the American military industry complex, much as warned by retiring President Eisenhower almost half as century ago, have contributed substantially to American budgetary problems and negatively to America's international standing.

A succession of small wars has achieved little, except to enrich industry insiders and to demonstrate an American capacity to bring devastation to the lives of ordinary people.

This has been on display both in invaded countries, through destructive modern weaponry, and in America, through the cost, waste and distraction of these small wars.

Australian enthusiasm for this type of misguided and self-destructive activity was on display in the lead up to the "humanitarian intervention" in Libya. This was legitimised by widespread fraudulent media reporting, enthusiastic political posturing and wilful misinterpretation of a UN "no-fly zone" resolution.

Australia's Mandarin speaking Foreign Minister, Kevin Rudd, did nothing to win favour in Beijing, or ultimately in NATO capitals, by cheerleading the latter's Libyan bombing activities and misguided alignment with the ragtag Benghazi rebels.

The major outcomes from this initiative seem to include consolidating tribal support for Gaddafi, confirmation of African and Arab suspicions of the integrity of Western values, serious additional discrediting of UN processes, further compromised reputations for key Western leaders and another unwinnable military engagement that will bleed more resources from already bankrupt Australian allies.

Yet nothing seems to have been learnt.

The same fraudulent media reporting and political posturing is urging action in Syria while the studied neglect of atrocities in Bahrain puts on bold display Western hypocrisy.

It is self-evident that the forces sending major Western economies bankrupt in small wars just want more; and expect Australia to continue its dutiful mindless support.

This all reflects an Australian disposition, conscious or otherwise, to step back into the past.

This can only be at the cost of taking necessary action to prepare for the future.

Australia's economic, technological and, most important of all, political fortunes will depend increasingly on developing close and productive working relations with the East and South East Asian region.

Here, administrative and commercial elites have been deeply shaped by a Confucian tradition, often in a grim, if subtle and successful; struggle to recapture cultural autonomy from Western imperial powers. No serious awareness of this is reflected in Australia's mainstream media or academia – and certainly not in its political leadership.

The Confucian tradition has an unrivalled record over the past half century in equipping those it shapes to recognise and manage the West's vulnerabilities and hypocrisies.

These are, of course, inherent in the "universal values" institutionalised in the United Nations system. The Western heritage derived from Greece, Rome and Jerusalem does little or nothing to equip the dominant races of recent centuries to match wits with an ascendant Confucian world. Indeed, it even obstructs the recognition of the qualities of the Confucian communities.

It leaves the West unable to understand that the ideological labels Capitalism and Communism reflect rigidities in Western thought and are more misleading than helpful when seeking to determine Asian political and organisational behaviour.

Unfortunately, Australians have misread their ready acceptance in Asia during a period of American pre-eminence. Their standing has been largely defined as a surrogate of the world's dominant global power. In a region, or world, increasingly shaped overtly by re-energised, if cautious and discreet, Confucian values and pride, the benefits of being a surrogate for a declining imperial centre can only dissipate - quite possibly abruptly.

Indeed, in such a world, identification with bankrupt past imperial centres in London and Washington will only create psychological and political obstacles.

Even worse, misplaced confidence in these past centres of power creates educational obstacles. It obscures the reality that Australia is far from identifying and matching educational standards being established in China and elsewhere in Asia.

This problem is made even more daunting by the fact that Australian leaders have not yet even begun to recognise the imperatives and challenges inherent in developing a national understanding of a reinvented Confucian civilisation.

This renascent Confucianism increasingly seems likely to set future global marketplace norms and overshadow the past certainties of the European Enlightenment.

It is in this sense that Australia is close to being alone, apart from New Zealand, in the region that is economically and politically critical to its future prosperity, security and identity.

It is also in this sense that Australia is in danger of being identified as being illiterate in terms of the region's most pervasive civilisation, its sense of educational standards and its most formative languages.

The notion that Australia can be among world leaders with its carbon tax while the above matters are studiously neglected by political sideshows is both laughable and, potentially, tragic.

The present government fails to see that the environmental and energy problems of modern economies are far from resolution by a scientifically and economically dubious carbon tax. The reality is that economic development and small wars have become addicted to ever increasing consumption of industrial energy.

While the world has been several centuries slow in identifying apparent problems with coal, it is only just beginning to understand the dangers of possibly worse alternatives, such as nuclear, wind, ethanol, coal-seam gas and shale oil, all hyped up for gullible politicians by various sectors of the financial community.

The emerging reality again is that Confucian economies like Japan and China, out of necessity and utilising highly educated human resources, are most likely to identify viable ways to discipline our energy indulgences.

Certainly, a first step should be to follow their example and avoid the escalating wars that pollute our global environment in so many unmeasured ways. Unfortunately, our ill-informed and unreflective Prime Minister sees no incongruity in hyping her carbon tax while offering a type of blank cheque for Australian support in the Afghanistan war and allowing her Foreign Minister to urge on NATO activity wherever the ruling regime does not win the favour of failing Western interests.

Both sides of parliament are lost. While the Liberal Victorian premier Ted Baillieu has been seeking to set an admirable example in his state in preparing for the future outlined above, his party colleague and national Shadow Minister for Education, Christopher Pyne, is, according to a report in The Age on the 9th of August 2011, in London highlighting his own illiteracy by cautioning the British about ''naive'' backers of the rise of China.

He has also warned that aspects of its political and economic model are ''deeply troubling'', dwelled on ''managing the darker side of China's rise'' and called for a more tough-minded attitude towards it.

Is he following Mr Rudd's example in spruiking up NATO to come to Australia's rescue as it has in Afghanistan and Libya? Or is he planning to further dumb Australia's already failing education system so we all fall faithfully in line behind the Defence Department's follies?

Of course, it is rather poor form for dark and Communist China to be better managed financially than free and Capitalist America.

Modern western democracy often seems to have been designed to neglect underlying, long-term strategic issues and to focus on issues that produce snappy sound bites and pander to shallow fashions and hidden vested interests.

The illiteracy of electorates before this sort of politicking is just one more failing that will leave Australia ill-equipped to address the challenges of a rapidly advancing future. It is a dynamic world where no country will prosper that finds itself alone and illiterate.

Having first foreshadowed this sort of concern in the Australian Embassy in Beijing in 1976, written several books on the theme and contributed to On Line Opinion as early as 9 October 2006 under the title American decline and the Australian predicament, as well as more recently on 22 July and 3 August 2011; there is no escaping the sense that there is little, or no, capacity in Australian government and political leadership circles to address these issues with consistent resolution.

Perversely, only China shelters us from the maladies confronting the United Kingdom and the United States.

Power is moving to other cultures and other political orientations. Yet, Australians do little more that rehearse lessons taught us by failing imperial masters who have no interest in mitigating our isolation and ignorance.

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About the Author

Reg Little was an Australian diplomat from 1963 to 1988. He gained high level qualifications in Japanese and Chinese and served as Deputy of four and Head of one overseas Australian diplomatic mission. He is the co-author of The Confucian Renaissance (1989) and The Tyranny of Fortune: Australia’s Asian Destiny (1997) and author of A Confucian Daoist Millennium? (2006). In 2009, he was elected the only non-ethnic Asian Vice Chairman of the Council of the Beijing based International Confucian Association. His other writings can be found on his website:

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