The United States and China have arrived at a temporary truce in a trade conflict that was threatening to further destabilise world equity markets, entrench a global slowdown and cause more damage to a rules-based international order.
However, this is a temporary respite, a short-term fix, not a long-term solution to myriad trade and other tensions that have put the US and China at odds with each other.
For their own purposes and in their own interests, Trump and Xi have come away from the Argentine capital with a deal that papers over differences that extend from China’s activities in the South China Sea to its mercantilist trade policies.
As far as we know, China’s ruthless assertion of its sovereignty over disputed waters in the South China Sea was not a material subject for discussion in Buenos Aires except, possibly, in passing.
China’s rise and America’s relative decline ensure these global economic superpowers will continue to bump up against each other.
So, what was achieved and what are the prospects for an accord reached on the sidelines of the G20?
In their efforts to lower trade tensions and prevent a further erosion of global confidence, Trump and Xi agreed to a 90-day extension on the imposition of additional US tariffs on some US$200 billion of Chinese imports.
Trump had threatened to increase tariffs from 10% to 25% on an initial batch of Chinese imports from January 1. He had also flagged his intention to impose levies on another US$267 billion worth of imports if progress was not made in resolving broad-based trade differences.
A joint statement laid out a timeline for continuing negotiations. It reads:
Both parties agree that they will endeavour to have this transaction completed within the next 90 days. If, at the end of this period of time, the parties are unable to reach an agreement, the 10 percent tariffs will be raised to 25 percent.
In return for these temporary concessions, China agreed to:
… purchase a not yet agreed upon, but very substantial, amount of agricultural, energy, industrial, and other product from the United States to reduce the trade imbalance between the two countries. China has agreed to start purchasing agricultural product immediately.
China also agreed to crack down on sales of Fentanyl by making it a controlled substance. The US is battling an opioid crisis in which Fentanyl is a lethal component.
In retaliation for US trade actions, China had imposed duties on US$110 billion of imports. A principal component of this is soybeans, effectively killing one of America’s more lucrative export markets.
Trump has been under huge pressure from his Mid-Western rural heartland over a collapse in the Chinese market for American agricultural products.
These are highly complex issues and unlikely to be resolved in the short term, if at all.
In the wash-up of the Xi-Trump discussions it appears China has got more out of the deal than the US – at least for now. It has secured a stay of execution for the implementation of tariff increases and forestalled, for the time being, tariffs on an additional bloc of Chinese exports.
In return, it has agreed to buy unspecified quantities of US products and to talk about differences.
Trump’s willingness to compromise after months of bombast reflects pressures from a shellshocked grain-producing constituency and alarm on Wall Street at prospects of a full-blown trade war.
From Beijing’s perspective, China has demonstrated that its growing economic heft has enabled it to avoid the appearance of yielding to US pressure.
If not a “win-win” for China – as Chinese officials are fond of saying – it is certainly not a “lose-lose”.
In a statement at odds with months of fire-breathing rhetoric over China’s allegedly perfidious trade practices, Trump hailed his understanding with Xi. He said:
This was an amazing and productive meeting with unlimited possibilities for both the US and China.
For their part, Chinese officials were more circumspect.
Foreign Minister Wang Yi said the talks were conducted in a “friendly and candid atmosphere”. The presidents:
agreed that the two sides can and must get bilateral relations right… China is willing to increase imports in accordance with the needs of its domestic market and the people’s needs.
Impetus for a face-saving deal in Buenos Aires has been prompted by growing concerns about the global economy. The signs of a slowdown are clear. Trade volumes had begun to moderate in the third quarter, heightening worries of a global retrenchment.
Pressures on emerging markets have been rising and trade tensions have begun to have a negative impact, increasing downside risks.
In its October Outlook statement, the IMF warned about threats to global growth due to trade disturbances.
In their final communique, G20 leaders danced around contentious issues on trade to accommodate American objections to having the word “protectionism” inserted in the document.
In the end, participants settled on the need for reform of the World Trade Organisation to describe a world trading system that is falling short of its objectives. Washington has been agitating for a review of the WTO to strengthen its dispute resolution and appeal procedures.
On climate change, Washington separated itself from the other G20 members. All, except the US, reaffirmed their commitment to the Paris Agreement. The US announced in 2017 it was pulling out of Paris.
Foreign policy specialists will be sceptical about a de-escalation of trade hostilities given the range of issues bedevilling the US-China relationship.
Reflecting a hardening of US attitudes towards China, and in contrast to the optimism that had prevailed for much of the past two decades, Ely Ratner in Foreign Affairs notes:
Even if tariffs are put on hold, the United States will continue to restructure the US-China economic relationship through investment restrictions, export controls, and sustained law enforcement actions against Chinese industrial and cyber-espionage.
At the same time, there are no serious prospects for Washington and Beijing to resolve other important areas of dispute, including the South China Sea, human rights and the larger contest over the norms, rules and institutions that govern relations in Asia.
A stiffening view in the US towards China is shared more or less across the board. In those circumstances, a temporary ceasefire in Buenos Aires is unlikely to be sustained.
If you set out by dinghy from the northern-most inhabited part of Australia you will make landfall in Papua New Guinea (PNG) fairly soon.
Boigu Island, part of Queensland, is the most northerly island in the Torres Strait. With its own Australia Post outlet, it is less than ten kilometres from the PNG coast, an area known as South Fly District, part of Western Province. (Fly refers to Fly River, a major feature of the area.)
PNG, a country often overlooked by the Australian public, is enjoying the fierce competition among foreign powers for influence in the country after APEC ended in stalemate and heightened US-China tensions. APEC was held in Port Moresby, PNG’s capital, earlier this week.
For PNG, the attention may well translate to development funds. Already, the US has pledged to work with Australia to upgrade Lombrum naval base on Manus Island, in what is widely seen as a counter to rising influence from Beijing in the region.
But if foreign powers really want to make a difference to PNG, one of the poorest in the region, then funding equipment like telecommunications gear and solar power kits would be widely welcomed. One key benefit would be using mobile phones to transfer money – instead of traipsing long distances to a bank in town.
No fewer than 85% of PNG citizens live in rural and remote areas, it is estimated – so items like these are capable of making an enormous difference in their lives.
Much talk of infrastructure of late has involved the heavy duty type – ports, rail, military bases and the like. But as we all know, the biggest revolution around the globe is internet access.
Stepping into remote villages in the South Fly, one is viscerally confronted with the lack of national expenditure or international finances of any kind.
Life in rural PNG has been described in terms of its “subsistence affluence.” The people are friendly and the land is fertile, with reliable rainfall.
But the lack of roads or public transport, and access to cash, means that opportunities for enterprise and employment remain extremely low. Everyone is searching for markets for their produce and crafts, so they can get cash to buy consumables and health services, and pay school fees.
One option for transferring money in these remote areas is via mobile phones.
Recent research by Tim Grice found that people living in urban centres and rural towns in PNG are already using mobile money to send money to one another.
It is yet to take off in the South Fly but it could do soon, as people are already exchanging mobile phone credits used to top-up their phones.
Across the South Fly, villagers receive money from relatives living in urban centres like Port Moresby – or from Australian relatives in the Torres Strait – through the mail service Post PNG or the “bricks and mortar” Bank South Pacific (BSP) branch in Daru.
Households affected by the nearby Ok Tedi mine receive compensation payments into their bank accounts. The payments relate to extensive environmental damage to the area, especially the Fly River, when BHP Billiton operated the mine. But this could be done via phone payments too.
And then there are public servants or retired public servants, who burn up much of their government pay or pensions just to get to the bank and back. Mobile phone payments would improve life here too.
Paying government salaries and pensions by phone would be far easier
In the South Fly, officials get payments from the PNG government for community work projects. These officials keep careful records of the hours each villager works, but sometimes spend months in Daru, repeatedly asking the district administrator to release the funds. When the funds finally arrive, the elected official journeys home, surrounded by relatives as bodyguards, and hand delivers payments to each worker.
Much of the money goes on transport and accommodation in Daru. Again, this money could be sent via mobile phones.
PNG’s new Ireland province tested the idea of social payments for aged and disability pensions – with great success. The World Bank assessed the idea and said an electronic payment system was needed across the country.
In many South Fly villages, the shared mobile phone is found dangling from a tree or a window, in the one place where reception appears intermittently.
A lack of infrastructure maintenance and coastal corrosion have seen mobile phone coverage in the South Fly deteriorate. Work is underway to replace failing towers, ahead of moves to bring in 3G internet coverage.
Maintaining mobile phone towers is cheaper than building roads
The cost of installing and maintaining mobile phone infrastructure is lower than building roads across river deltas and flood-prone savannah. And the higher the demand for transferring money via mobile phones, the more viable an upgrade to mobile coverage becomes.
Two major mobile network operators, Digicel and B-Mobile, already provide mobile money services in partnership with BSP, Westpac, and ANZ.
Foreign aid could be sent via mobile phones, cutting out the middlemen
Foreign aid could be distributed this way, to a community-based organisation, for example. And cash flowing in means better-off citizens and more economic activity.
Another big potential benefit to all this could be tackling absenteeism among teachers and medical workers. They are often off work travelling long distances to towns to get their pay and do grocery shopping.
But there are risks. Giving the cash directly to people and organisations – where previously it was funnelled through the central government – will fundamentally shift the politics between citizens, leaders, bureaucrats, and international actors, and not necessarily for the better. Some people who may be benefiting from current arrangements may oppose change to protect the privileges they enjoy.
PNG is a place of great complexity, with a development landscape littered with failed efforts. If such changes are made, there will be winners and losers – but surely it’s worth considering new approaches, given how little money is getting to these villages now.
Port Moresby may not be Yalta, nor, it might be said, is it Potsdam. But for a moment at the weekend the steamy out-of-the-way Papua New Guinea capital found itself at the intersection of great power combustibility.
When this latest chapter in America’s relationship with China is written, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Port Moresby in November 2018 may well come to be regarded as a moment when Washington exposed its determination to reassert itself in the region.
US Vice President Mike Pence’s declaration that the US would not “change course” in its trade dispute with China until that country “changes its ways” could hardly have been more provocative.
China’s leader, Xi Jinping, took a swipe at the US when he said countries that embraced protectionism were “doomed to failure”.
Failure to secure American and Chinese signatures to a leaders’ communique arose from differences over the need to reform the World Trade Organisation.
China dug its heels in on language that might have posed challenges to the role of state-owned enterprises, and also on the question of differential treatment of developed and developing countries.
China has long benefited under WTO rules from being regarded as a developing country.
Both Pence and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison warned loans to Pacific countries were being used as a “debt trap” to assert Chinese influence. Xi strongly rejected these assertions.
Whatever the upshot of these skirmishes, America’s posture in the Asia-Pacific has shifted to one in which it seems to be spoiling for a fight. Canberra should be wary.
The Barack Obama pivot to the Asia-Pacific ended up lacking substance and has been superseded by a combative Trump administration. Its approach has less to do with engagement than with confronting China’s regional ambitions.
The pressure point for regional competition lies in the South China Sea, where China is developing base facilities on disputed features. That strategic competition now extends to the southwest Pacific.
Pence’s announcement that the US would partner Australia and Papua New Guinea in the development of a naval base on Manus Island overlooking the Bismarck Sea is, arguably, the most significant American security initiative in the Asia-Pacific since the end of the Vietnam War. Pence said:
We will work with these nations to protect sovereignty and maritime rights of the Pacific Islands as well.
Thus, Beijing was put on notice that America would adopt a more forward-leaning posture in the Asia-Pacific. Where this leads is hard to predict, but what is certain is that trade and other tensions will have a security overlay.
American bases on the Korean Peninsula and in the Japanese archipelago will now stretch into the southwest Pacific. The Manus base will overlook maritime routes on Australia’s northern approaches.
From an Australian strategic perspective, this is a hugely significant development, and one that will test Canberra’s ability to balance its security relationship with the US and its commercial partnership with China.
Beijing will correctly view the Manus facility as a joint endeavour to neutralise China’s thrust into the southwest Pacific, where it has been cultivating micro-states as part of attempts to spread its power and influence across the region.
Belatedly, Canberra is responding to this Chinese assertiveness in its backyard by ramping up its diplomatic engagement, expanding its aid programs, and now partnering Papua New Guinea and the US in the development of a joint naval facility.
In the period ahead, Australian diplomacy towards China will need to be more nimble and subtle than it has been in the recent past.
Assuming Pence’s speech represents an administration view, this should be regarded as a deeply antagonistic statement verging on a declaration of hostilities.
Pence accused China of: seeking to influence America’s mid-term congressional elections; engaging in cyber attacks against American institutions; stealing American property rights; and adopting ruinous trade practices:
When it comes to Beijing’s malign influence and interference in American politics and policy, we will continue to expose it, no matter the form it takes.
We will work with leaders at every level of society to defend our national interest and most cherished goals.
Some viewed the Pence speech as the forerunner of a new cold war. That probably overstates the case, but it is also true that relations between Washington and Beijing have taken a turn for the worse.
There is no evidence that China has ever contemplated using its nuclear weapons to coerce another state. Instead, China has maintained a “no first use policy” on nuclear weapons. Surprising as it may sound to many, China wants to build an image of itself as a responsible power.
This is the reality that Australian defence planners have lived with for some 50 years. Australian defence force planning has long accepted the premise that our self-reliance needs to be viewed within an alliance context. As recently as 2009, the government plainly conceded that the Australian Defence Force was not expected to deal with a situation:
…where we were under threat from a major power whose military capabilities were simply beyond our capacity to resist.
In such a situation, we don’t expect to be alone.
This point is important to bear in mind when we consider recent discussions of a “Plan B” to strengthen Australia’s defence posture.
Commentators have suggested recently that Australia’s strategic risk is increasing and the A$195 billion defence spending plan announced in the 2016 Defence White Paper is now insufficient.
Australian taxpayers would certainly be interested to know why a plan that doubles our submarine fleet, significantly expands our navy and adds 100 of the most advanced and expensive combat aircraft ever invented would now be seen as insufficient.
The answer lies in the shifting strategic landscape in the Asia-Pacific region, which has led to greater concerns about China’s long-term intentions and rising tensions between China and the US. So what exactly has changed?
China’s recent activities in the region
Since the last Defence White Paper in 2016, Australian defence observers have been alarmed by four things:
the election of Donald Trump as US president and the uncertainty this has brought to the region due to his disparaging of traditional alliances and disdain for multilateral institutions
These events have occurred against a backdrop of China’s rapidly expanding global footprint. This includes the establishment of its first overseas military base in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa, and its growing access to regional ports such as the controversial Hambantota port in Sri Lanka, which the Sri Lankan government ceded to Beijing on a 99-year lease.
These regional shifts have also come amid growing illiberalism in China, evidence of increasing Chinese intelligence and influence operations in Australia (especially the Dastyari affair) and bullying behaviour from Chinese officials in their meetings with Australian politicians.
In addition, Trump appears to mark a significant break with the strategic priorities of previous US administrations. He’s threatened to walk away from America’s support for the traditional allies and global trade institutions that have characterised US foreign policy since the Second World War. This has put unprecedented distance between the United States and Australia, which as a middle power needs healthy global institutions.
But on China, it’s different. The Trump administration and importantly, the US security apparatus, share Australia’s darkening view of China to the point we may now be seeing a new Cold War developing in the region.
Case in point: the recent announcement of US participation in the development of a joint naval base with Australia on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island. This is clear evidence of the US’s new willingness to compete with China and a signal the US wants to dispel the uncertainty left in the region in the wake of Obama’s problematic “pivot” to Asia.
Assessing the risks for Australia
In assessing whether Australia needs a steep increase in its defence spending, there are two questions we must ask: Firstly, what regional developments could the 2016 Defence White Paper not have anticipated? And of these, which equate to risks that increased defence spending can obviate?
Our defence planners have been well aware since at least 2009 of China’s gradually modernising defence forces and steadily growing navy. China’s moves toward a blue-water fleet, including new carriers and cruisers, were also well understood in 2016.
While the artificial islands in the South China Sea were still being built, their eventual militarisation was also anticipated by Australian defence leaders, despite China’s protestations to the contrary.
But even knowing all of this, Australia’s defence planners essentially decided in the 2016 White Paper to continue with the “Force 2030” force structure they envisaged in 2009. There have been some additions like shore-based anti-ship missiles, but our plan has largely been focused on enablers – that is, the capability to make the force operate with greater certainty, precision and coordination. Importantly, this White Paper did not envisage Australia fighting China on its own.
Of the strategic developments involving China since 2016 – from the revelations of its influence operations to its new-found interest in the Pacific – the question defence planners should now be asking is whether any undermine the fundamental judgements of the 2016 White Paper. Do they point to a need to radically change Australia’s defence posture?
Combating China’s illicit influence in Australia is being dealt with through our stronger foreign influence laws. Offsetting China’s influence in the Pacific will be best undertaken through Australia’s aid and diplomatic programs.
This leaves the big question of the role of the US in the Asia-Pacific region – the most critical of defence planning factors. Will Australia be left on its own in the foreseeable future?
And here we must observe that despite Trump’s anti-alliance rhetoric, the American force posture in the Western Pacific actually remains unchanged. There have been no base closures and no force draw-downs as of yet from the bases encircling China in Guam, Japan and South Korea, though Trump has threatened this.
Moreover, the hardening US view against China means a likely strengthening of its Asia-Pacific posture under the new National Security Statement, the cardinal US security policy document.
In fact, the US is now expanding its presence in the region with the announcement of the new joint naval base on Manus Island. The US also recently put its nuclear deterrence guarantee to Australia in writing for the first time in history. And the American Marine build-up in Darwin continues.
Although China’s military advances are making the task of possibly defeating its navy more challenging, the fact remains that it will be a long time before it’s able to start a war with the US confident of victory. The US also seems unwilling to leave China to dominate Asia.
In these circumstances, would China use its forces against other countries in the region, like Australia, without the US getting involved? In my view it could not.
Therefore, while every responsible government should continue to assess defence planning and ensure appropriate levels of readiness, the case for a sharply increased defence spending plan is not at this point compelling.
United States Vice President Mike Pence’s remarks at the end of this year’s summit season just about blasted the word “cooperation” out of the APEC acronym. Amid ill-concealed US-China tensions, it had already been looking out of place.
Pence unveiled US plans to help Australia and Papua New Guinea – APEC’s host this year – expand a military base on Manus Island, which is in PNG. In September, Australia had already announced funding for an upgrade of the facility.
Former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans famously declared in 1993 that APEC was “four adjectives in search of a noun”. As one of APEC’s founding fathers, he could be forgiven for getting the parts of speech slightly wrong.
But 25 years on, “cooperation” is looking doubtful. The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum set sail in Canberra in 1989. Two former prime ministers, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, lay some claim to its parentage. APEC has grown to boast 21 member economies (where China, Hong Kong and Taiwan are listed as separate member economies).
APEC is part of summit season in Asia in November, and the one closest to Australia’s heart, given its origins in Canberra. Three other big set pieces are also held within this week each year and bring all the key players in the region together, ostensibly to talk about advancing cooperation, community building and grappling with common problems. Two others relate to ASEAN, the grouping of 10 South-east Asian nations – its annual summit, and the ASEAN Plus 3 meeting where they bring in South Korea, Japan and China. Then there is the East Asia Summit, which comprises the 10 ASEAN members, plus Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, the United States and Russia. These talk-fests give states and economies, great and small, the chance to advance a broad-ranging positive agenda.
But the many handshakes, photo ops and positive sounding joint-statements could not mask the reality of hardening US-China geopolitical competition. It is a cruel irony that a group of meetings created to advance cooperation became the platform for what amounted to a very public drawing of lines of great power competition.
Feelings were mixed when it was announced US President Donald Trump would go to Europe for the centenary of world war one’s truce this year, instead of Asia’s summits. The signal sent that the president does not prioritise the region is unmistakable.
During his visit, Pence put on a stern face on US policy, and in his speech to the APEC CEO Summit he reinforced the United States’ wish to build a relationship with China, based on “fairness, reciprocity, and respect for sovereignty”. In earlier comments to the Hudson Institute he accused Beijing of stealing military blueprints, “and using that stolen technology, the Chinese Communist Party is turning ploughshares into swords on a massive scale…”.
Washington now sees itself in full spectrum competition with China for regional and global influence. Pence portrayed China as an aggressive and almost imperial power with a malign regional vision. In contrast, he emphasised that the US wanted to protect an open and rules-based system of genuine partnerships. He underscored the long-term nature of this commitment.
The problem, both for Washington and its partners, is that this new muscular approach to China is, as yet, not fully resourced, and does not align the military aspects with trade – notwithstanding the Manus announcement.
Trump’s economic nationalism jibes badly with the interests of its partners and its long term regional strategy. A free and open Indo-Pacific sits uncomfortably with America’s economic nationalism, imposing tariffs on allies and pleas for multilateral approaches being summarily dismissed.
At the same CEO summit, Xi Jinping gave a rare major address outside of China. Like Pence, he sought to lay out a vision for the region that presented China as a force for economic openness, integration and development.
Continuing the themes first articulated at Davos in 2017, the unstated but obvious point of contrast was with America. Xi also rebutted criticism of the Belt and Road Initiative, declaring it was neither a trap nor a geopolitical gambit but an “open platform for cooperation”. But as with his earlier efforts to paint China as a defender of economic openness, the claims remain unconvincing.
Hosting APEC in PNG was fitting, given the south-west Pacific has become a key site of US-China competition. The Manus announcement, along with another that a group of Western allies would collaborate to drive a massive electrification project in the country, gives a concrete sense of what this means for the region. As in the Cold War, when Soviet-American rivalry led to bidding wars in the developing world, today China and the US are competing for influence in the form of infrastructure and development funding.
If the speeches laid down rhetorical battle lines, APEC’s conclusion showed the consequences of this competition. For the first time in the grouping’s history, APEC members were unable to agree on the wording of a final communique. While a new Cold War is not yet here, this is another worrying step toward a serious rift in the global economy and geopolitics.
The biggest loser of the summit season is probably ASEAN. Founded in 1967 to wall off the newly independent states of south-east Asia from Cold War competition as the Vietnam war escalated, the grouping’s principal purpose has been to ensure the region does not become the wrestling mat of great power competition. It had been crucial to ensuring this goal was met in the Cold War and its aftermath. Events of this past week show it is finding that much harder to achieve as the geopolitical temperature rises.
If there were any doubts, Asia’s summit season confirms that the region has entered a new phase. Great power competition is now Asia’s most important dynamic. Even though the set piece theatre is about community building and cooperation, the reality is that China and the US have irreconcilable visions for the region and its future.
The only question is how much they are willing to pay to prevail in the contest for Asia’s future.
In October 2005 Stephen Colbert was just starting his eponymous show. It is somewhat chilling to realise that this was when he came up with the word truthiness: it seems so now.
It has taken a while to reach maturity and morphed into the even more menacing trumpiness. Truthiness captures the slippery world inhabited by those unencumbered by books, or facts, context or complexity – for those who just know with their heart rather than their heads – where things can just feel truthful.
Who would have thought that a little more than a decade later, the White House would be occupied by a man who makes the Colbert character seem almost reasonable. Quaintly charming. Trumpiness captures something even more sinister, statements that don’t even have to feel truthful, apparently ignorant rough-hewn words, weaponised for effect. Whatever comes out – alarmingly frequently words that sound as though they emanated from the crib sheet of a propaganda handbook.
In defining these words, Colbert provided a helpful predictor for a president who according to the Washington Post last week, had made 6,420 false or misleading comments in 649 days. That is industrial scale deception – small lies told over and over, medium sized lies that have become a new global lingua franca and big lies that take even his most ardent supporters by surprise and sometimes force a sort of retraction or denial – sort of, but only after they have already infiltrated the virtual world and got a life of their own.
This is not normal. It is not the way we have come to expect even a tainted public sphere, distorted by the commercialisation of public attention, to operate. The president’s mantra of fake news is, as he has admitted, a deliberate and determined effort to undermine confidence in what remains of a rigorous public sphere and professional journalism that takes itself seriously. In the unregulated, “more insidious” domain of the internet this is particularly dangerous.
Such industrial scale deception is at odds with the norms that characterise any flourishing civilisation. If truth is irrelevant to discourse, trust is not merely dented it is destroyed. Other norms of acceptable behaviour cannot be far away. What is happening now, goes well beyond spin or hollow speech. The New York Times correspondent Roger Cohen describes it as “corrosive, corrupting and contagious”.
In the shrunken global village this has dangerous implications everywhere, for public and personal behaviour. If the so called, “leader of the free world” can talk the way he does, without regard to fact or feeling, the level of civilisation is turned down everywhere he is heard.
What we are witnessing is behaviour contrary to the long-established moral core of a civilised society, arguably giving succour to evil, and deliberately destroying trust.
Democracy in retreat
So how did it come to this?
It is easy to feel that the world is going to hell in a handbasket – the news of catastrophe and disaster, the inflammatory US president, the distortion of social media, the global instability of superpower realignment, the palpable threat of climate change, the rise of authoritarian leaders – and that is for starters.
Freedom House, the Washington-based NGO, has been monitoring global freedom since 1941, when a very different US President articulated an expansive ethic that has since prevailed in “kin countries” and beyond. With the second world war in full, murderous, destructive fury, President Roosevelt declared that as human beings, all people were entitled to freedom of speech and expression, freedom to worship their god in their own way, freedom from want and freedom from fear. At the time it was ambitious rhetoric, demonstrably at odds with the wartime experience. But it provided guiding principles for a different future.
Last month in a very different context, Freedom House reported that around the world, political and civil rights sunk to their lowest level for a decade.
For the twelfth year in a row, democratic setbacks outnumbered gains. Democracy is in crisis. Values are under assault and in retreat in country after country. Young people are losing faith in politics. Trust has been eroded by commerce and the calcification of institutions. Millions of people are living without the rights we take for granted as a measure of civil, liberal, democratic society. Even nations that like to pride themselves on a deep democratic history are slipping on the scale, as trust in institutions is eroded and checks and balances slip out of equilibrium and technology remakes the way things are done.
Taking a wider view of the state of the globe provides a slightly more reassuring message, that that arc may still be bending the right way. But the tension between individual rights and popular will is fertile territory for authoritarian leaders and their shadow puppets.
Survival is deep in our make up, means we dwell on the negative, alert to threats and dangers, ready to respond to fear. But as Stephen Pinker and Kishore Mahbubani loudly proclaim, the bigger picture is not as bad as we might be inclined to think with one ear cocked to the latest news bulletin and an eye on the real Donald Trump’s twitter feed.
The Human Development Index shows that as a species we are living longer and better. Life expectancy at birth worldwide is now 71 years, and 80 in the developed world; for most of human existence most people died around 30. Global extreme poverty has declined to 9.6% of the world’s population; still limiting the lives of too many, but 200 years ago, 90% lived in extreme poverty. In just the last 30 years, the proportion of the global population living with such deprivation has declined by 75%. Equally unappreciated is the fact that 90% of the world’s population under the age of 25 can read and write, including girls. For most of the history of Europe, no more than 15% of the people could read and write, mostly men.
So despite the truthiness feeling that things are going wrong, a lot is going right, for a lot of people, in a lot of countries. But this is a moment at risk of being squandered.
‘Reason sweeteened by values’
Which invites the question of what is at stake, how might the level of civilisation here be turned up, by whom, and to what end?
This was a question addressed by Robert Menzies when in 1959, as Prime Minister, he approved the formation of the Humanities Council, the precursor of the Australian Academy of Humanities. At the time, with the Cold War in full swing, and the memory of the hot war still smoking, Menzies declared the Humanities Council would provide,
Wisdom, a sense of proportion, sanity of judgement, a faith in the capacity of man to rise to higher mental and spiritual levels. We live dangerously in the world of ideas, just as we do in the world of international conflict. If we are to escape this modern barbarism, humane studies must come back into their own, not as the enemies of science, but as its guides and philosophic friends.
Now we are more often likely to hear prominent politicians pillorying the humanities as esoteric and truth-defying, and humanities scholars as ideologues in cahoots with self-aggrandizing scientists who are addressing the existential crisis of climate change for personal gain.
To attack the university system at precisely the moment when it reaches more people, when its impact on the social, cultural and economic wellbeing of the nation has never been higher, seems perverse. Based on medium-sized lies, madness even, from the zone of truthiness.
As the debate triggered by the Ramsay proposal has shown there is a lot at stake. For all the noise in the press, the very fact that there are lots of different ways of approaching the study of civilisations, has not been addressed except by snide, often ill-informed or defensive comments about “relativism”.
I am not a scholar of civilisations or a philosopher, but I am aware of some of the complexity of these debates. The need to define civilisation, and to allow the notion of civilisations, has preoccupied fine minds, and lead to different conclusions. Are there six civilisations, as Samuel Huntington suggested remained when he wrote his most famous essay The Clash of Civilisations? Or the 26, not including the civilisation of the first Australians, which Arnold Toynbee had identified a few decades earlier in his monumental work A Study of History.
Some maintain that civilisations are shaped by religion, others by culture, cities, language, ideology, identity or as a response by human beings to nature.
Civilisations flower and die. Some leave artefacts, buildings and monuments that endure. Others leave stories, philosophies, language, knowledge and ways of being that echo and resonate long after. Some just disappear, some suicide. Others grow and respond to interaction, adapting and changing as they go. And we now know, many leave a measurable trail in the polar ice, as the recent discovery of the traces of lead from Ancient Rome from 1100 BCE revealed.
As Kenneth Clark reputedly said after devoting his life to popularising the study of civilisation, “I don’t know what it is, but I recognise it when I see it.”
I like to think of it as a shorthand for the way human beings coexist with each other, the world they have created and the natural environment which makes it possible. While recognising the contestability of values, I like the positive humanity of Clive Bell’s notion of “reason sweetened by values” and RG Collingwood’s, “mental process toward ideal social relationships of civility”.
For me, civilisation is pluralist, contestable, open, polite, robust; buttressed by law, culture and institutions and maintained by sustainable economic conditions across time and place.
The need for a bill of rights
The barbarism of the second world war galvanised the creation of civilising mechanisms and institutions. They varied from country to country, with different impacts , but the intention was generally to expand rights and enhance democracy.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which will turn 70 on the 10th of December, was the most singular global response: its 30 rights recognise and spell out “the inherent dignity and equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family”. Its symbolic power exceeds its legal effect, as George Williams has written. It forms part of customary international law and is seen as binding on all nations. It been translated into 500 languages. Australia has ratified two of the most important subsequent conventions which grew under its umbrella to define political and civil; social, economic and cultural rights – so it is not without effect here.
The Universal Declaration may well have faults and limits. Some regard it as “human rights imperialism” used by the West to run the world in ways that will protect and promote its interests. But when expansively applied, rather than as an embodiment of Western hegemony, it remains the best organising principle for civility that humanity has yet been devised. Ask women in Asia, India and the Middle East, democrats in Turkey, Hungary and Poland, activists in China or journalists in Russia.
Australians played an important role in the creation of the Declaration, but we have been tardy about its application. Ours is the only democratic nation which does not have a bill of rights – the only one. This is something that demands pause for thought. It is something we need to address if we are to foster an ethic for a distinctive, hybrid Australian civilisation.
It is probably worth noting in passing that some of the most strident opponents of an Australian bill of rights are also amongst the most vociferous promoters of a narrowly defined agenda to study western civilisation. It is easy in this environment to forget that the demographics are with those of us who see the arc of history bending up. Surveys show most Australians would welcome a formalisation of rights.
Surely a clear statement of rights and responsibilities is central to any attempt to define a civilisation and the way we co-exist, respectfully, sustainably, creatively.
More than a pale shadow
“Person by person the world does change,” Tony Abbott wrote in his essay for Quadrant that marked the beginning of the end of the Ramsay program at ANU. In his final paragraph, the former prime minister suggested that the “hundred bright young Australians” who received the proposed scholarships “might change the world”, and begin “a much more invigorating long march through our institutions!”
That makes me a little nervous. It sounds a bit like a fifth column, though I doubt that the students would be willing fodder for such a scheme. I suspect that if they were to embark on such a long march, they, like me, would prefer an open, inclusive, contested, respectful, non-ideological journey, grounded in the unique nature of this place as home to the oldest living civilisations, a product of British colonialism, the creation of people from every continent and our own imagining.
This country has a lot going for it, but we seem stuck in neutral. We need to regain ambition. To foster a remarkable country, one which learns from the mistakes of past and displaces complacent caution to imagine and create a robust, inclusive, generous, rights-based democratic order that will work well in the very different world of the 21st century.
It won’t come from politicians. It will, if history is a guide, be something that is worked up on the ground, in our universities, in our institutions, in our justice system, in business, community groups and on social media. As it takes shape, the politicians will follow and carry it forward.
There is a lot at stake. Person by person, we can help to turn the level of civilisation up in this place, so that it becomes much more than a pale shadow of the worst of the rest of the world.
This article is an excerpt of the 49th Academy Lecture delivered by Professor Julianne Schultz AM FAHA as part of the Australian Academy of the Humanities Symposium, ‘Clash of Civilisations: Where are we now?’ held at the State Library of NSW on 15 November 2018. The full lecture will be published in the 2019 edition of the Academy’s journal, Humanities Australia.
California is burning, again. Dozens of peoples have been killed and thousands of buildings destroyed in several fires, the most destructive in the state’s history.
The California fires are just the most recent in a series of major wildfires, including fires in Greece in July this year that killed 99 people, Portugal and Chile in 2017, and Australia.
Why do wildfires seem to be escalating? Despite president Donald Trump’s tweet that the California fires were caused by “gross mismanagement” of forests, the answer is more complex, nuanced, and alarming.
What caused the California fires?
The current California fires reflect a complex mix of climate, social, and ecological factors. Fuels across California are currently highly combustible due to a prolonged drought and associated low humidity and high air temperatures. Indeed, it is so dry fires burn freely through the night. Such extreme weather conditions have the fingerprints of climate change.
Compounding the desiccated fuels are the seasonally predictable strong desert winds (the Diablo and Santa Ana) that help fires spread rapidly towards the coast.
Low density housing embedded in flammable vegetation has created an ideal fuel mix for these destructive fires. Having people scattered across the landscape ensures a steady source of ignitions, ranging from powerline faults to carelessness and arson, making fires a near certainty when dangerous weather conditions arise.
Decades of wildfire suppression have created fuel loads that sustain intense fires. That these fuels are burning in late autumn is even more alarming. Under severe fire weather forest fires can engulf entire communities, with fires spreading from house to house, and human communities turning into a unique wildfire “fuel”. Suburbs can burn at the rate of one house per minute .
The standard response to wildfires is to fight them aggressively, using a military-style approach involving small armies of fire fighters combined with aircraft that spread fire retardant and saturate fire-fronts with water. Such approaches are extraordinarily costly. Annual spending on fire fighting has been steadily rising. In the US, annual fire-fighting costs now exceed several billion dollars, with individual fire campaigns costing ten to over a hundred million dollars.
Although industrial fire-fighting approaches currently enjoy political and social support, the strategy is economically unsustainable. And they are impotent in the face of climate change driven fire disasters such as those currently occurring in California.
A human disaster
Across the fire science community there is growing recognition this “total war” on fire approach has failed. The key to sustainable co-existence with flammable landscapes is instead managing fuels around settlements, and stopping wildfires from starting in the first place.
Spain and Portugal are good examples of why this is so important. In these Mediterranean lands, humans have sustainably co-existed with flammable landscapes for thousands of year. However, the near ubiquitous depopulation of rural lands following the second world war has led to the proliferation of flammable vegetation that had previously been held in check by intensive small-scale subsistence agriculture.
With the loss of this traditional agriculture Mediterranean countries are now experiencing regular fire disasters (such as the 2018 Greek fires and the 2017 Portuguese and Spanish fires). These are equivalent to fires in more recently settled flammable landscapes in the Americas and Australia.
This seems to be the story in most flammable landscapes on earth: the removal of traditional landscape management by colonisation and globalisation has combined with climate change to turn these landscapes into tinderboxes.
But just as it is unrealistic for Australia to faithfully restore Indigenous fire management practices, expecting a return to historical practices in the Mediterranean is not realistic. There is little economic or social reason for people to return to traditional rural lifestyles, and the gravitational pull of the social and economic advantages in urban areas is too great to stem rural depopulation.
Living with fire
But we can adapt traditional practices to help us live with fire. In the Mediterranean, people are already experimenting with different ways to manage landscapes, such as managing forests for cork and bioenergy, combined with prescribed burning and grazing.
This can create picturesque landscapes that are fire-resistant and easy to defend. Similarly, in Australia, the Victorian government has created parkland-like green fire breaks that were used for back burning operations to protect communities during 2009 Black Saturday wildfires.
The Hobart City Council is planning to use similar fire breaks to protect its outer suburbs with dense bushland. Such management could be used on a larger scale to substantially reduce fire risk. The challenge for landscape fuel management is providing financial and regulatory incentives for citizens and local communities to reduce fuel.
Currently, no society is sustainably co-existing with wildfire. Globally, the situation will worsen under a rapidly-warming climate with ballooning firefighting costs, and huge loss of life and destruction of property. This is the bitter lesson of the Californian fires.