When the Chips Are Down, the Gulls Get Pecking


Nations are selfish by constitution. Exclusive, and often boys’ clubs, they function to win people over to the narcissistic idea that there is a national character and a national interest that must be preserved. But this is not fruit we are talking about – nicely jarred in some rustic kitchen. No, the ‘national interest’ animates political life: commercialized sport is its stupid aspect, war its most malicious.

The ‘national interest’ is advanced by, among other things, the covert state, the military state, and diplomatic gymnastics. Sometimes the national interest advances through breathtaking pragmatism – witness the ‘no we won’t sign, yes we will’ position of the Australian Government regarding ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation. Episodes such as this are as enlightening to the true nature of the beast as watching seagulls fight over castaway chips on St Kilda beach.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

Alexander Downer (a seagull in stockings?) has long been underestimated by those who glorify the legacy of the ALP’s Gareth-Gareth Evans. He can squawk with the best of them – when the chips are down he goes in for the peck. He plays the game, and has won some mighty things. Thankfully, during Downer’s tenure as Foreign Minister there is none of the dovish indulgence that featured in the preening days of Evans.

Gareth Evans, with Bruce Grant, wrote Australia’s Foreign Relations in the World of the 1990s (MUP, 1995). The book was an unabashed eulogy to Evans’s foreign policy and became the standard text in university foreign policy courses. That’s like reading history only through the memoirs of its vainglorious makers. It poisoned the critical mind of a generation of scholars and students with the idea that a government in power might do something good in the world if it could balance, prudently, morality and national interest. In his own reckoning, it seemed as if Evans was at the centre of every progressive development in international politics while he was Australia’s Foreign Minister.

This is what the mass of former diplomats miss the most, having a leader who gave their cause nobility. Downer has turned the diplomatic corps into second-hand car dealerships, soap-boxing for Australia’s ‘national interest’. There is no shame in what Downer does: if we must go to war on totally false pretenses to maintain the US alliance, then that is what we must do. How more refreshing could it get? Downer has knifed the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade of its rhetorical fat, and given us a lean, mean machine of national interest.

Downer spares us the huggish language of international good citizenship. He spares us having to cringe at a duplicitous policy shrouded in the language of noble intent: think the ALP, Evans and East Timor. Instead, Downer knows that the business of foreign policy is not to get elected to the UN Secretary General’s position with barrels of idealist trash, but to get at the chips before the other bastards do. As he said in a speech at the National Press Club in Canberra, in May 2002, ‘To borrow the words of English realist Martin Wight, œA foreign minister is chosen and paid to look after the interests of his country, and not to delegate for the human race. ’

When Alexander Downer is seen as a paragon, the prudent foreign policy sage in all his pedestrian venality, we know something is wrong not just with the player but with the rules of the game. Indeed, let’s go so far as to say something is wrong with the game itself.

Do we really want to cling to a vision of the world based on map-lines that are materialized, very selectively, by passports and visas, and which are enforced by war machines? Should birth on the wrong side of a border have to entail starvation, as the world’s nations judge famine to be low down in their priority list of national interest, even as they applaud themselves for their altruism on debt relief?

But what is the national interest? One answer is that those who have the power to define it, do so as they see fit. If this is so, we should understand foreign policy, contra textbook definitions, as ‘the externalization of vested interest presented as the outcome of a national mandate’.

That stamp – the mandated national interest – is more virtual than real because of the manufactured indifference to world affairs inherent in a consumer citizen. There is no real national mandate for foreign policy, only a slothful mandate at the best of times. For example let’s take the typical consumer citizen: Epiphany, the sister of Mercedes and Paris, knows there is something wrong with the world when the petrol for her Landcruiser, which she needs to get her to rock-climbing classes at her inner-city gym, costs more than a meal in London. As she drives away from the petrol bowser, she hopes the US hurries up and wins the war in Iraq. Another example: Phillip, who enjoys knitting and delivering meals-on-wheels, is more upset by the number of times he has to knock on the door to rouse his soporific clients, than he is by ASIO’s right to break down his neighbour’s doors and take them in for questioning.

The whole character of contemporary life is geared towards the inane not to rational engagement with the world. Big Brother was not meant to be the spectator sport of watching characters with poorly-formed morals stumble through 24 hours of invited, benign surveillance. It was supposed to be a warning about the dangers of surrendering hard-won civil liberties at a time of crisis. But the state doesn’t need the real Big Brother (except in reserve, for those few who escape the loop of inanity) as long as its dilettante cousin, TV, delivers the Weapons of Mass Stupefication.

Apart from fleeting interest, the massacres, tragedies, betrayals and struggles that play out around the world, rarely touch us. Instead of hearing in the wind the sigh of humanity, we wonder if the wind portends rain and whether we should fetch an umbrella. In our inane world, tragedy and joy ring out equally from the cash register. It’s a world of the envied nip-and-tuck as observed on TV; of fib and fuck in cricket; and of a squib of global havoc on SBS news.

I am not running the familiar ‘the masses are stupid’ argument. We are not. Rather, the system we currently labour and love under allows self-aggrandizing elites to ascend the ladder of opportunism, while ensuring there are enough crumbs to keep the masses at bay.

It is a smart game, but not one the Establishment always wins. Millions protested the illegal war in Iraq, Americans are currently turning against Bush, and Blair remains under pressure despite a bomb-induced national piety. As for Howard, we have a case of knowing what we’ve got: he softens an impending economic downturn by digging the quarries for the China boom, while shoo-ing concern for human rights into a private bilateral dialogue with the Chinese leadership; he keeps the national budget surplus by never allowing a line to be drawn in the rightful place across the Timor Sea; he signs and signs Free Trade Agreements with all and sundry to enable us to do what, by constitution, he deems we should do: produce and consume – in the national interest.

On Thailand, where I am currently based at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, I did not hear a pip-or-squeak from the Australian Government over the ‘war on drugs’ in 2003 that left close to 3000 people dead, nor was there any public statement against the mass killing of Muslim protestors in October 2004. Well of course I didn’t hear anything – Australia was in the middle of negotiating and implementing a Free Trade Agreement with the Thai Government. The ‘big-quiet’ on Thailand makes
me wonder why Australia was reported as having concerns about ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation and its principle of non-intervention/interference in the internal affairs of a member state. After all, when it comes down to it, Australia seems quite exemplary at keeping its hands off and its nose clean.

Break down this stupor of the ‘big-quiet’ and we may succeed in seeing the crooked ways of a world bound by national boundaries and conceits, and recognize how such boundaries limit what we see and say. We may well be able to say that foreign policy is not in our name, only in our credit cards’ name. Then we could begin the process of undoing the dissemblance of foreign policy and of the ‘national interest’. We could construct policies that speak to our real selves as members of a broad human community, beyond the exclusive borders that enslave us to national accounts.

Were that the case, the London bombings would not have led to the shameful liberal hysteria that recently arose around multiculturalism. Instead, we would look beyond national boundaries and ask what is wrong with ourselves and the world. At the very least, we would find that part of the answer lies in the national boundaries that imprison us all, and we might realize that if anything is in the national interest, then chances are it’s wrong.

Treaty of Amity and Cooperation is available here

Speech by the Hon. Alexander Downer at the National Press Club is available here , Canberra, 7 May 2002

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.