The second President Bush seems likely to shoulder much of the blame for a serious decline in American, and Anglo-American, power even though this has been in train for several decades. As Iraq and Afghanistan produce little more than negative news and economic burden, being a War President is becoming a serious liability.
American decline is inseparable from the failure of its leadership class to comprehend the unique wisdom of the Confucian-Daoist civilizations of East Asia. These have drawn on their traditions to recapture through the marketplace their pre-19th century leadership position at the centre of the global trading and technological system. The region’s wisdom has highlighted weaknesses in the West’s undue reliance on faith and reason.
Of course, America’s actions in the War on Terror have compounded its difficulties. They have helped Russia to reinvent itself as a major power, have hastened the movement of the developing world from the Washington Consensus towards a Beijing Consensus and have facilitated the emergence of influential hostile middle powers like Iran and Venezuela.
American leaders seem unable to comprehend the civilizations of East Asia. These communities, led initially by Japan, have, amongst much else, deployed with great success an ancient Chinese strategy that exploits indulgence, and "conquers through service". In the contemporary world, it becomes "we produce, you consume".
This has left America with a hollowed out economy, loss of leadership in hi-tech materials and components, near bankruptcy with an exponential growth in debt, deepening and multi-faceted dependence on East Asia, a democratic system some see approaching crisis, and a sense of desperation in seeking effective policy responses.
The success of Japan, Korea and others has made clear that America’s difficulties do not derive from low wage, coolie Asian labour, but result from an ignorance of pervasive cultural strengths. These include unfamiliar and powerful mythologies of excellence in administration, education, spirituality, consciousness, change management, science, health and human energy.
It is not insignificant that one of the key ideological concepts of contemporary Anglo-American economic policy - laissez faire - derives from an 18th century translation by the "European Confucius", Francois Quesnay, of a Chinese political ideal - wu wei or non action. This ideal has been applied in both past and contemporary East Asia with a sense of political wit inseparable from major Confucian and Daoist classics.
This poses difficulties for Australia not because it is part of Asia in a geographical or commercial sense. Rather, they are the consequence of rapid movements in global history. Today’s Australia is a creation and protectorate of Anglo-American power. It has only ever known a world where Anglo-American power is dominant. Few Australians are prepared, either practically or psychologically, for a world where Anglo-American power and influence no longer sets global standards.
The Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, is not given the credit that is due for his skill in managing this situation. His intuitive predecessor, Paul Keating, was insightful on Asia but overestimated Australian readiness to address Asian realities. While many Australians have an intuitive understanding of these realities, it is almost impossible to find politically acceptable language to articulate what is happening and why it is happening.
Howard is in good standing with traditional Australian attitudes, having maintained formal and practical support for the increasingly troubled international initiatives of America and Britain. Yet he has evaded the controversy attached to Bush and Blair and minimised the exposure of Australian forces to wartime casualties. Simultaneously, he has come close to succeeding in identifying Australia with East Asian strategies that for the present defer before the assertive power of the United States, while working hard to build an enhanced future for the region.
The use of what one writer calls intellectual apartheid to promote Anglo-American universal principles and to disparage values and thought from other traditions has been a powerful and invaluable tool in constructing today’s global community. It has organised other peoples to accept Anglo-American priorities.
Only in East Asia have various national communities been able to preserve their own traditional wisdom, master Anglo-American forms of value and behaviour, provide the Anglo-American world with excellence in service, and use this very service to establish their own superiority with a discretion that has gone almost unremarked.
One of the most insightful commentaries on the achievements of Prime Minister Howard over the past ten years suggests that he has learnt to follow his own disciplined intuitions in guiding Australian foreign policy. This approach is essential as much Western foreign policy orthodoxy has been shaped by situations very different from those confronting Australia. Arguably, intuitive judgment has, to date, saved Howard from Blair’s fate.
Interestingly, a reliance on disciplined intuition can be validated by Daoist and other Chinese classical teachings. These stress the dangers inherent in becoming captive to comfortable and abstract intellectual orthodoxies and the need to discipline oneself to be constantly responsive to the actual environment in which one lives.
Australia’s future prosperity in a world shaped increasingly by Confucian-Daoist leadership will demand the cultivation of disciplined intuition. There will be no place for the intellectual apartheid that defines many contemporary certainties. A disciplined awareness, which escapes the thoughtless, hand-me-down concepts that inform much contemporary Australian political and economic commentary, will be essential.