Journal Entry #34

Epistle to the Australians.

NORFOLK, CONN., MAY 31—Every time I pick up an edition of Quarterly Essay I envy Australians. It is published by Black Inc., a book publisher with discerning judgment, in Carlton, near Melbourne, and is among the cleverest ideas in publishing I have come across in I cannot think how long. Americans have no such thing as QE, and I wish it were otherwise.

Each edition presents a single essay, making just four a year. The writer can run long: These pieces are typically seventy-five pages. And the topics never fail to draw me in. The back part of the book is given over to what QE calls “Correspondence,” wherein a variety of writers are invited to respond to the essay carried in the previous edition.

QE 68,out at the end of last year, was given over to an essay by Hugh White called “Without America: Australia in the New Asia.” White, a longtime heavyweight in Australian government circles, is now a professor of note at Australian National University. In his QE piece, White considered Australia’s anxiety in the face of China’s emergence as a Pacific power. What’ll the Americans do, leave us all alone out here? Then what’ll we do? Do we have to choose between America and China? These are the questions, very prevalent among Australians now, that White considers.

I found it fascinating to be taken inside the psyche of a nation amid a bout of angst. Reading White was like sitting behind a door while those in the next room talk among themselves. So much of politics and history have a psychological thread running all through.

Chris Feik, QE’s attentive editor, included me on his list of “correspondents,” which also featured some noted American sinologists (of which I do not count myself one). It occurred to me the other day that it might be useful to share my thoughts with those who are unlikely to see QE. They are below, in the form published. I hope I have supplied background enough to make them comprehensible.

Interested readers can find QE at White’s essay is to be found there. It will also lead to Black Inc.’s interesting list.

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WHAT A LEVEL, CLEAR-EYED assessment Hugh White has written as China emerges, the U.S. dithers in clouds of nostalgia, and Australians must determine how to proceed amid these momentous transformations. I privilege this as my opening remark on White’s intricately reasoned essay because, as an American watching Washington closely as a matter of my profession, “level” and “clear-eyed” are not terms I am accustomed to typing. White comes out right: Here is what the 21st century looks like, take it because there is no leaving it. “Let’s get on with it,” as his last sentence puts the point.

Without America” is at bottom the record of an intellectual journey. I hope the rest of Australia’s paying-attention people make the same one. And not reluctantly or with trepidation, as seem to take up too much room in White’s rucksack, but with alacrity and self-possession. To be wary of change is human, O.K., but we of Western heritage have carried this trope to a paralyzing extreme. Anyone who does not understand that anxiety and anticipation are the dark and light sides of the same moon is bound not to do well in the era upon us.

In truth, I did not begin White’s piece so approvingly. I expected to read another connoisseur of the exquisite circularity of Western-centric strategic reasoning, if this is the word. The early signals were many: “America will lose, China will win,” “how the contest will proceed,” “a new, China-led order,” “an Asia dominated by China,” “a country’s willingness to go to war… determines its place in the international system,” and so on. This is the zero-sum myopia that afflicts Washington: What China gains is our loss. It is an adjunct of the “indispensable nation” routine—which, in turn, gives rise to the with-us-or-against-us bit. George W. Bush made this explicit after the September 11 tragedies, but as White reminds us, Barack Obama treated Australia to a full-dress rendering when he addressed parliament a decade and two months later.

America has the frame wrong, as White notes with a splendid bluntness. This seems to be a realization that arrives bitterly among Australians, and one understands: It rather cancels many decades of assumptions. White walks through and out of these—the virtue of his piece. This is what Australia has to do. It is what Europe has to do, too, but I will get to that in a moment.

China’s rise does not imply a contest. In that speech Obama delivered in Canberra in November 2011, he announced that the United States had decided to turn it into one—a very different thing. This is the frame, and it has proven the fatal flaw in American thinking ever since. The emergence of China as a regional and global power is neither more nor less than history’s wheel turning. It is a challenge, certainly—no surprise, as history is never short of these—but it is not a challenge to confront, or to turn back. That is sheer folly, as White remarks in so many words. The challenge is to find opportunities in the soil of an unfamiliar landscape. It is to advance imaginatively into a new time, confident of one’s competence to do so. It is to remain game, in a word: aware of the past but never its prisoner.

White writes quite a lot about “great-power politics,” hegemony, the ambitions of powerful nations. He refers severally to the 19th century conduct of the European powers. Good enough to have a sound grounding in history, something we Americans flatly decline to cultivate.

But I urge White to dilate the lens still further. Parity between West and non-West, in one or another manifestation, is in my view the 21st century’s single most momentous imperative. Humanity has known nothing like this for at least half a millennium (taking my date from da Gama’s 1498 arrival in Calicut). The past is not going to be so reliable a guide, precedent not so strict a professor—this for the simple reason non-Western nations are going to do things differently. Empire-building, to make the most obvious of many distinctions, will not figure among their priorities.

How does a nation’s intent come to be as it is? Or its ambitions? What gives rise to them, and why? History, culture, traditions, long-embedded values—these, the soil of politics, are my answers. If we think about China in this way, what might we surmise?

Anyone who has walked to and fro on the mainland understands that the Opium Wars were the day before yesterday to the Chinese sensibility. So there is the question of humiliation and its overcoming—redress, in a word. The Western powers walked all over the Chinese by way of territorial integrity, but let us not stop there: Pile a set of historical maps atop one another and leaf through them: What makes China China has been a question requiring careful management as long as there has been a China. Closer to our time, it is worth considering the Five Principles of Peaceful Co–Existence Zhou Enlai articulated at Bandung in 1955, when the People’s Republic was a struggling six-year-old. Four had to do with mutual respect—territorial integrity, non-interference, a recognition of equality, and so on.

The Cold War being as it was, China’s record in these regards is other than spotless. But vastly on the whole, it indicates that Zhou, 57 when he went to Bandung, was not a mere spouter of platitudes. There is a thread of continuity in China’s conduct, then to now. It dropped no bombs last year and sent no drones into civilian populations in other nations. It has no record of fomenting coups, fixing elections, or, as White points out, insisting that others adhere to its political and social ideologies.

I read Xi Jinping’s monumentally sweeping speech at the 19th Party Congress last October against this background. It is clear to me that China sees its best interests—stability (another long preoccupation in Beijing) and prosperity for its 1.3 billion people—as lying in the cultivation of these very things as far as it can go from Shanghai to Lisbon. The American dailies groused endlessly about self-interest when Xi celebrated his Belt and Road initiative at a quite well-attended forum in Beijing last spring. This is what I mean by the opportunities that are there to be exploited but overlooked when the frame is threat and rivalry. I read the list of the 1,700 BRI projects already on the books and thought, “With enemies like this, who needs friends?”

One of the decisive passages in White’s piece comes after he ticks off all the worst outcomes now laid out in situation rooms in Canberra (and of course Washington). “Beijing could one day try to impose its brand of authoritarian politics, dictate national policies, and control our economy to its advantage,” he writes. “At worst it could invade the country and subject it to direct rule from Beijing.” I had not thought our American brand of paranoia had spread so far. But then:

There is no evidence that this is how China’s leaders see things today. Their territorial ambitions seem limited to the lands that China already occupies or claims…. They show no desire to proselytise an ideology or export a political system. Nor do they want radical change in the regional or global economic order…

My first thought on reading this was that White would have a tough time finding a professorship in the U.S. if he insists on tossing this sort of thing around, but that is another conversation. This is the kind of clear sight Australia needs to rely upon—a starting point, no more—as it decides how to locate itself as a Pacific nation in the 21st century. As to the rivalry theme, I propose to dispose of it this way: America has a lot of frontage on the Pacific lake, and no one wishes it were otherwise—not even the Chinese. They are not saying, “Go, your time is over.” They are saying only, “Move over.” But as White points out, the American diplomatic tradition is far too underdeveloped—we have no gift for it because sheer power has left us with no need of it—to manage even this easily achievable subtlety.

White protests repeatedly against the common theme in Australia of recent years, “We don’t have to choose.” I agree it is wrong, a weak-minded flinch, but I do not agree on the choice as White describes it. Australia does have a choice to make, but it does not lie between Beijing and Washington in some contrived either/or fashion. Tipping toward paradox, Australia has to decide if it accepts the choice the U.S. presents it with: Us or them, Aussies, choose. I urge Australians to recognize this as a monumentally inconsiderate proposition on America’s part, one in which Australia would do well to detect a fundamental indifference to its own interests at the core of American policy. The latter has long begun and ended with the preservation of primacy, all else judged as serving it or not. This, along with the nostalgic folly of American strategy in the Pacific, ought to make Australia’s true choice a lot easier, I would think. It is the choice of refusing the choice. The truly consequential choice is America’s: It lies between past and future.

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I CONCLUDE WITH TWO final remarks. One has to do with global order and the other with the independence of nations within, broadly speaking, the Western alliance.

White refers often to the post–1945 order, or “the region’s ‘rules-based order,’ by which they [the optimists in Canberra] mean the US–led status quo,” as something many Australians consider the grail to be preserved as they contemplate their future. Fair enough. Many people in many places think this way. But I think nations such as Australia would do well to reconsider the record, as this, too, would make their deliberations easier. There are too many truisms and gloss-overs inscribed in the orthodoxy on this point. There has been an awful lot of disorder in the western Pacific in the decades of American primacy—and long before them, indeed, if we go back to the war in the Philippines. It is off the point, but I must respectfully take issue with White’s remark that Latin America, with its decades of dictators, civil wars, endemic poverty and violence, has by and large done well under American dominance. We—we all of us, with more voices at the table and less hegemonic ambition—can do better by way of a global order worthy of the term.

Second point.

Australia is going to have a more independent foreign policy in the new Asia—more independent of Washington, that is—whether it likes it or not.” So White writes midway in his essay. I do not quite comprehend the whiff of stage fright. One has long understood Australia’s place as Washington’s “most obliging ally,” as White puts it. But for me, at least, there has always been an assumption of some… what?… some faint ignominy attaching to this position. Taking possession of a voice of its own will certainly bring Australia challenges and responsibilities. But how salutary a prospect nonetheless. Taking the point further, I would say even the challenges and responsibilities will do the nation a power of good.

I have wondered for decades when in hell the Europeans will learn to stand up and speak for themselves instead of dutifully yes-ing Washington even when it is diametrically against their interests to do so. They have their own perspectives, their own view of diplomacy as against conflict, much that is evolved in their address of the non-Western Other. They mutter of these things among themselves but then resume the forced march. The world would be better for this balancing voice to articulate clearly, especially as it would come from within the old Atlantic alliance.

It is time, I think, to argue again for this. The Europeans will soon face a series of important decisions. Do they conduct themselves as part of the Eurasian landmass as this draws together in one of the truly historic motions of our time, or stay loyal to the alliance in a way wholly lacking in imagination and confidence? White’s very thoughtful essay moves me to suggest that on its side of the world—different topography, a sea and not a landmass—Australia faces a version of the very same question.

One of the truths I learned when reporting Indonesia during the first post–Suharto years, when various provinces were fighting for autonomy, was that to stay together it would be necessary for the Indonesia republic to come partially apart. Reading Hugh White’s essay, I wonder if the same may now prove so of the West and all who identify as belonging to it.

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