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There goes the neighborhood ?

March 24th, 2011

I just got a plug for a new book by Michael Wesley of the Lowy Institute (published by UNSW, 20 per cent off offer here) for which the blurb states

The challenges that lie ahead are international, not domestic. Michael Wesley, Head of the Lowy Institute, Australia’s most respected policy think tank, argues that the benign and comfortable world that has allowed Australia to be safe and prosperous is vanishing quickly.

Wesley and Lowy have always seemed sensible to me, and I haven’t read the book or even seen a summary of the argument, so I’m shooting from the hip in response (this is a blog, after all). That said, the quoted claim seems to me to be impossible to sustain.

At the global level it’s hard to think of a time when we have been less threatened, at least within living memory. The threat or reality of global war was ever-present from 1914 to 1945, only to be succeeded by the threat of global annihilation in the Cold War. There was a brief period of premature optimism then (though wars continued in Yugoslavia and elsewhere through most of the 1990s) ended by S11 and, in our own region, the Bali terror attack. While the Global War on Terror is still dragging on, it’s become obvious over the last decade that Al Qaeda is not the existential threat that it seemed to be. Nothing new has emerged to replace it. Looking at previous work by Wesley, I suspect he’ll want to talk about the rise of China and India. But China today is far less of a threat to Australia than it was when real communists like Mao Zedong ran the show, and the rise of India seems entirely beneficial to us (among other things, ending the old fear that the starving millions of South Asia would come to fill the empty spaces on our map).

Within our immediate region, the big news is surely the spectacular success of Indonesia in making the transition from dictatorship to democracy. While Suharto kept the lid on things, his regime was scarcely a comfortable neighbour, since no-one knew when it would fall or what would happen when it did. When Suharto finally went, a decade or so ago, there were plenty of risks, with East Timor an festering source of dispute and resenment between Australia and Indonesia, Aceh in open revolt, JI a powerful force, and the military stirring up religious tensions. Now all of these things have greatly abated. And as far as I can see the same is true of problems in Malaysia, the Phillipines, Vietnam (it was only in 2002 that the Russian navy finally pulled out of Cam Ranh Bay) and most of our other neighbours.

The book is described, predictably enough as “A loud and clear wake-up call to Australians”. But unless commenters can point to something I’ve missed, I’m going back to sleep.

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  1. Ikonoclast
    March 24th, 2011 at 17:00 | #1

    I wonder if climate change and peak oil get a mention? If so, I might pay attention. Or is it just a shiny new rebadge of “The Yellow Peril” thesis?

  2. Alice
    March 24th, 2011 at 17:58 | #2

    I disagree with the Prof getting so comfortable he just goes back to sleep. It may not be armies or warrior threats we face but we sure do face global rather depressing economic forces at play (otside the orthodox view – “whats good for mining is good for Australia).

    Its the rest of the domestic scene that is a bigger threat and that comes down to our own economic policies

    Just before you doze off Prof (might be easy to do) Id like to post this link

    http://www.wsws.org/articles/2011/mar2011/bank-m21.shtml

  3. Alice
    March 24th, 2011 at 18:20 | #3

    @Alice
    and for something less socialist there is the labour underutilisation rates courtesy of the ABS. The threat is internal and external economic rather than external and military.

  4. iain
    March 24th, 2011 at 18:44 | #4

    Some general arguments/talking points from Wesley:

    Increasing relative power, affluence – shifting from Washington, Brussels etc to Beijing, New Delhi etc.

    “Perhaps the biggest choice will be over how Australia reconciles its two core interests – its security which is tied to the United States, and its prosperity which is ever more closely tied to China.”

    “How Australia chooses to fit – or not fit – with the emerging Asia will play a major part in its
    international fortunes strategically, economically, diplomatically and culturally.”

    “How do we maintain our international competitiveness and make sure that the resources blessing does not turn into a resource curse?”

    I assume “resource curse” refers to the paradox of some resource-rich nations suffering relatively low growth rates – due to a variety of reasons – eggs in one basket, institutional corruption etc.

    I agree with Ikono – the only really significant future concerns are exceeding geo- limits (climate change, peak oil), and how we respond to this (reshaping of community and economy). Asia only factors into this thinking in terms of regional stability in the face of economic restructuring and community upheaval.

  5. Robert Merkel
    March 24th, 2011 at 19:49 | #5

    This may be a variation on the thesis that Hugh White was putting around in “Power Shift”, his Quarterly Essay.

    In a nutshell, since WWII the USA has been a regional hegemon in Asia . This is unsustainable given the rise of China, but the USA won’t accept the end of its hegemony.

    Hence, fun and games for all.

    I don’t actually buy the argument, but that’s it in a nutshell.

  6. March 24th, 2011 at 20:52 | #6

    It would be unwise to be complacent about continued, determined efforts in the USA to demonise and antagonise Muslims. Given that the world’s most populous Muslim nation sits right next door, it would be very nasty for Australia if the Horowitzes and Boltons and Palins and Becks and Pipes and Steyns and all the rest of the contemptible Islamophobes succeed in creating the global war of civilisations that they obviously lust after.

  7. paul walter
    March 24th, 2011 at 21:04 | #7

    Robert Merkel’s point reminds me again tha the first really difficult problem Bush faced, a decade ago, came of a fight he picked with the Chinese in the South China. The Chinese proved as surly toward the US as the US was toward China and I think it truly jolted the yanks. I think I see the source of some of that wounded pride that drove the US’s “hit out ” responses, after S11.
    That leads to Ken’s comment concerning the inability of the US political mindset to “grow up” since those times, despite the phenomenal wastage of a decade.

  8. March 24th, 2011 at 23:02 | #8

    But none of that matters compared to the real dangers posed to us by the collapse of democracy in Fiji.

    Some people can’t take yes for an answer. It’s certainly true that we have some new security problems to face, but unless you’re talking global warming the overall trends are positive.

  9. stockingrate
    March 24th, 2011 at 23:39 | #9

    The military capabilities of Australia and its allies are in rapid decline vis a vis China.
    Climate change and ground water depletion, population growth threaten food security perhaps within a few decades. Consequently the old fear that the starving millions of South and East Asia would come to feed themselves is realistic though not imminent.

    Peak oil is a given and energy entanglements constitute nearer term war risks as do iron ore entanglements.

  10. Paul
    March 25th, 2011 at 01:06 | #10

    John, could you please publish your Chron of Higher Ed op-ed? It’s behind the firewall.

  11. March 25th, 2011 at 04:53 | #11

    Pr Q said:

    Does anyone have any insight into what’s going on here? Is this just some bandwagon-jumping or is there a real resurgence of One Nation and similar groups?

    Abbot is trying to do to the L/NP what Palin did for the REPs, start a grass-roots Right-wing populist rebellion. One Nation is the epitome of that political movement (AUS’s Tea Party). But the prospects for anti-scientific Right-wing populism are less glittering in AUS, our electorate is pretty well grounded in reality.

    Also, having the former stars of ON fall in to a rabble-rousing rally is a bit like having a re-union of the Sex Pistols thirty years on. What might have been interesting, infuriating and incandescent when it first happened grows old fast.

    More generally the AGW-denying Right-wing in both US (TP) and AUS (ON) are both in the same boat, they need to whip up public enthusiasm for their cause based largely on free-floating anger and ignorance. But this kind of political sentiment invariably suffers burn out if it is based on nothing much more than confected outrage and personal grievance. Also, the generational and racial demographics tides are flowing against them.

    I thought the Right-wing burn-out would happen sooner rather than later. So I (mis-)predicted that Palin-REPs would do poorly at the 2010 Congressional election and the Abbot-L/NP would do poorly at the 2010 Federal election.

    However the AGW-denying Right-wing burn-out is now on the cards. It looks like these movements are starting to splutter & cough, going by polling numbers.

    My predictions that Obama-DEMs will win in 2012 and the ???-ALP will win in 2013 remain in place.

    My ALP (FEB 2009election predictions stand up pretty well to hind-sight:

    If the peridocity of the electoral cycle has any regularity then its the ALP’s turn to have a decent go at federal administration. Such “turns” usually last a minimum of two terms. We are still in the early stages of the procession of this cycle.

    Also the state ALP govts are likely to start toppling over the next few years. This will only serve to make the federal ALP look like a good bet, based on the counter-cyclical balance of power theory of fed-state partisan alignments.

    events appear to favouring the ALP. By this I mean that the ALP is probably trusted to fairly pump prime the economy with social spending rather than tax cuts. Also the attenuation of cultural identity and national security issues, partially through Howard’s successful policies, has neutralised these issues – paradoxically helping the ALP.

    So there is an over-determination of causes promoting ALP success over the longer-term. Based on these considerations I predict a three-term ALP administration. This will occur irrespective of whether Rudd, Gillard or someone else are leader.

    My MAR 2010 prediction for the Obama-DEM election in 2012 is also looking good, going by the betting market:

    My psephelogical instinct is that the REPs are committing slow-motion political suicide by having no positive program. Their rabble-rousing do nothingism will work in the short-term 2010, but back-fire big-time for them in the long-term 2012+…

    I predict that Obama will win convincingly in the 2012 elections, doing better than Bush in 2004.

    Its time for other self-styled psepheologists to come out of the wood work and place their predictions on public record. Generally speaking very few pundits make predictions and then review them.

    Punditry and social science seem to be parting company in the internet age.

  12. Scott
    March 25th, 2011 at 05:42 | #12

    I guess Jack’s comment was supposed to go on a prior post.

    As to this book, I guess it is pretty reasonable to expect that the head of the Lowy Institute would bang the drum for foreign policy; just as an economist would point to the importance of the economy and the head of the AMA would call for more money for doctors.

    I never bet against self interest.

    Australia’s always had a very placid and pleasant international environment to live in; even in the tumults of the 20th centuries, the worst thing that happened here was Darwin getting bombed a few times. Compared to the calamities that happened nearly everywhere else, we get off lightly. But there’s always rabble rousers ready to scare the ignoramus people of Australia with Reds under the Bed and the Yellow Peril.

    We need to move Kevin 24/7 747 to somewhere else and put Steven Smith back in at DFAT and let the neighbourhood alone again.

  13. john malpas
    March 25th, 2011 at 10:12 | #13

    Perhaps Australia will go the way of the UK. A government who thinks unlimited immigraqtion is the anbswerr to not only future workers but suppressinbg the liberal opposition. A police force debauched on diversity training. An education system much given to indoctrination and much denied ghettoes and tribalisation.

  14. john malpas
    March 25th, 2011 at 10:17 | #14

    Sorry about the spelling – it got uploaded before i had a chance to correct things – I am a two finger typist at best.

  15. KayBee
    March 25th, 2011 at 10:44 | #15

    John said “When Suharto finally went, a decade or so ago, there were plenty of risks, with East Timor an festering source of dispute and resenment between Australia and Indonesia, Aceh in open revolt, JI a powerful force, and the military stirring up religious tensions. Now all of these things have greatly abated.”

    Much as I would like to agree with this, it’s too rosy a view. It’s clear that the extremists are still around, and there doesn’t have to be many of them in a country of 250 million people to wreak havoc. Last week 4 parcel bombs were sent to various public figures in Jakarta, and this week, Al Jazeera put to air an interview with a former army chief of staff who’s openly conspiring with Islamic elements to bring down the govt., using the persecution of Ahmadiya adherents as the vehicle. http://www.newsvideoonline.com/latest-news/plot-to-topple-indonesias-government/ Few people in government or religious circles speak up strongly for the Ahmadiya, suggesting that the constituency for “tolerance” is soft, and doesn’t extend much beyond the victims’ rights to live – so long as they don’t forfeit it by practising their “deviant” religion.
    Going beyond daily ephemera, a 2008 survey of 500 school religious teachers also found a high degree of intolerance, which of course has implications for the future, given their influence over young minds. http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2008/11/27/islamic-teachers-%E2%80%98lack-pluralistic-perspectives%E2%80%99.html My own experience of studying at a prestigious Islamic university here showed that distortions by religious teachers exist (about Christianity, about Australia), and are taught to a receptive audience.
    Whether SBY is a weak leader as commonly portrayed here, or playing the best he can with the (bad) cards he has been dealt is an arguable point, but corruption is a festering sore which provokes much popular protest. It seems quite possible that the (unpredicted) ferment for change in the mideast could have some demonstration effect on Indonesian politics with unhappy consequences.

  16. may
    March 25th, 2011 at 13:58 | #16

    the neighbors from hell were also holding the placards behind a.abbot.

    said it before–say it again.

    if you want to indoctrinate your children,don’t expect the costs to be met from tax revenue.

    duck.

  17. snuh
    March 25th, 2011 at 14:42 | #17

    debauch (de|bauch), verb [with object], destroy or debase the moral purity of; corrupt. (OED). what does it say about your conception of a police force if “diversity training” (whatever that is) “debauches” it?

  18. Freelander
    March 25th, 2011 at 20:25 | #18

    “There goes the neighborhood” is a very strange title; a title many people north of Australia might take offense to. Implicit is an aversion to whoever or whatever the ‘new’ entrant to our neighborhood is or will be. Likely to be as charming, to northern ears, as was the defense white paper.

    Doesn’t seem to be a sensible policy to greet new realities with needless offense, pointless sabre rattling, or by attempting to cling ever more closely to a fading power. Surely, some lessons ought to have been learnt from the ‘dear old England’, ‘mother country’, orientation of those in the 1950s (and those like Howard and Abbott and Professor Flint who have never left the ’50s)?

  19. wilful
    March 28th, 2011 at 10:41 | #19

    I have no idea what you’re on about john malpas

    john malpas :
    Perhaps Australia will go the way of the UK. A government who thinks unlimited immigraqtion is the anbswerr to not only future workers but suppressinbg the liberal opposition.

    ??? WTF ???
    Apart from the fact that immigration has bipartisan support, you’re the first person I’ve heard of claiming that current high immigration levels will do anything to change Australia’s political hue. By what mechanism would “liberal opposition” be suppressed?

    A police force debauched on diversity training.

    Putting aside the fact that we have eight police forces, in what sense does the word “debauched” have meaning here? I’m sure it’s meant negatively, so can you tell me what you think you really mean when you think diversity training is a big problem? Certainly the hardehads at VicPol would disagree with you.

    An education system much given to indoctrination and much denied ghettoes and tribalisation.

    I have no idea what this means or is supposed to mean.

    And please show me the education system in the past that hasn’t indoctrinated.

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