Insecurity in the new world order

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  • Published 20030902
  • ISBN: 9780733313318
  • Extent: 160 pp
  • Paperback (234 x 153mm)

WHEN WE AWOKE to the new century on January 1, 2000, after fireworks had ricocheted around the globe for a day of midnight – and in the spirit of the age been captured live on television – it was to a world of great promise. The threat of the Cold War had dissipated almost as though it had never existed – prosperity, safety and technology hinted at the possibility of a new enlightenment in a connected, information-rich, affluent world. Australians had taken to the Prime Minister’s modest, suburban ambition to be relaxed and comfortable with precisely the old-cardigan-and-ugg-boot certainty that he had known we would. We were richer, better educated and more confident than ever. The triumph of the Olympics later that year confirmed that we had created a remarkable and unique society, the envy of the world.

How quickly perceptions change. Polls are now recording unprecedented rates of fear and insecurity, nervousness and uncertainty.

At the beginning of the century there were, of course, rumblings of unease. Scholars debated whether a clash of civilisations would displace the clash of superpowers, others predicted blowback from those whose interests had been ignored, growing bands of internet-enabled protesters declared globalisation a dirty promise that would entrench inequity, not a swelling tide on which all would rise, and millions of people were on the move, on dusty roads and leaky boats, seeking refuge and asylum far from troubled homelands. Closer to home, those who felt that the economic and social reforms of the previous decade carried more cost than benefit clawed back, grasping at the old certainties, shouting stop to deregulation, multiculturalism, reconciliation.

The battle lines in a new ideological war began to be drawn during the 1990s. Without the polar opposites of capitalism and communism – lurking on either side of the Berlin Wall – to anchor the debate in absolutes, the new categorisation of opposites seemed weak and mealy-mouthed: the politically correct versus the neo-conservatives. This struggle lacked the rigorous intellectual underpinnings, on both sides, of the old left-right battle, but it was also characterised by stunning claims to moral certainty. It may be part of the human condition that we need something to believe in, to help make sense of the world, but during the years when a new ideological battleground was taking shape, those moorings corroded. You could hear it on talkback radio, see it in the press – the old certainties had crumbled and with them a crude intellectual infrastructure. Now contradiction abounded, truth was illusive and Google could provide enough information to reinforce any argument. They were confusing times, but the depth of confusion was obscured by the glittering promise of the future.

It was a bubble that was bound to burst; everyone knew that – the tech wreck came as no surprise. But this was to be no ordinary Wall Street correction. When the hijacked jets slammed into the World Trade Centre, the playfulness of a world where people found relaxation and amusement in similar – albeit unreal – events on mega screens was brought to a halt. Almost immediately after September 11, 2001 we were told that the world had changed, would never be the same again. It seemed like rhetorical hyperbole at the time, but it is remarkable how prescient that snap judgement has proven to be. At times it feels as though we are on a virtual-reality theme-park ride through a darkened tunnel – to the left is a tsunami, to the right a ticking time bomb; look out, there’s a burning city ahead, a train crash over there and look, a sniper in the bushes, duck or you’ll be caught in the crossfire.

So the crush of events in the past few years has barely left time for us to draw breath and consider what it might all mean. How will the world look in the next few decades? Will the 20th-century institutions crumble? Is a unipolar world inevitable? Is religion really to be the differentiator again? Or will a humane, information-rich, tolerant, secular society reassert itself?

We have become so accustomed to disasters as entertainment that there is a sense of unreality that they should have become so tangible. Yet it is real. Listen to people describing how they have modified their movements, increased watch over their kids, stopped travelling, started noting suspicious people and jotting down numberplates. Australians have very quickly moved from being relaxed and comfortable to being alert and somewhat alarmed.

IT IS NOT simply the events that have intruded into the lived reality of the land down-under – there have been other wars, other terrorist attacks, other plagues, other ideological battles – but there is now an overwhelming sense of uncertainty about how they will be resolved in the long-awaited new world order. In the days of the Cold War there was a form of global stalemate, shadow-boxing and brinkmanship. Now the opposing forces are more uneven, more diffuse. The old order shows no sign of being willing to wave the white flag and while those in the ascendancy are happy to snipe and snap at the United Nations, they still need it. As Frank Moorhouse writes in this collection, the dreaming for a peaceful world order has a long history and is not one that will be easily jettisoned. It will, however, be contested, not only by the dominance of the American empire, which is searingly analysed here by the eminent American scholar Chalmers Johnson, but also by the anti-globalisation protesters who, as Patrick Weller describes, flock like moths to the flame of international organisations.

This global uncertainty is having wide-reaching effects on policy, politics and debate, on the way we define ourselves and conduct our lives; issues that are teased out in this collection. In an extended report, Graeme Dobell goes inside the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to reveal the debates that inform policy decisions and political pronouncements, and finds a department that has become more compliant while grappling with the possibility that the nature of international relations, and Australia’s place in the world, may have changed forever. Allan Gyngell, executive director of the new Lowy Institute for International Policy, argues that it may be time to reconsider the old dualism of Australian foreign policy – with one horse tethered to the region and the other to the superpower – and be prepared for serious soul-searching that reaches beyond the prevailing accepted wisdoms of the past 50 years. Professor William T. Tow, editor of the Australian Journal of International Affairs, surveys the theorists whose work is likely to inform such thinking about the nature of the new world order.

These are not arcane academic or policy debates but important questions that will affect the way we think about the world and our place in it over the next decade. The scale and reality of this change was outlined by Prime Minister Howard in his address to The Sydney Institute in July 2003 when he advocated a new policy of regional activism to offset the potential dangers of the age of terrorism. This policy may dramatically change regional relationships and ways of thinking about Australia’s place in the world. In a fractured post post-colonial world it also has a pragmatic, back-to-the-future reassurance, although the view from the island states may be somewhat different. Whether the new approach addresses the concern of many Australians who feel as though we have lost our way in the world, too readily accepted the role as America’s deputy sheriff, remains to be seen.  According to the Grey Eye on Australia survey, the pervasive sense of insecurity felt by many has been exacerbated by a feeling of being unduly influenced by America. Locking onto the biggest player on the field may make strategic sense and it may even be relatively cost-free, but it is not one that the polls suggest Australians are instinctively happy about. Examining the ramifications of closer ties to the United States is not necessarily anti-American but it is an important debate; decisions taken now are likely to have consequences that will linger for generations.

The unease that is felt about the direction in Australian foreign policy was reflected dramatically in the lead-up to the war in Iraq, when hundreds of thousands took to the streets. The motivations of those who protested were mixed but they could not be easily dismissed as a mob, even once the war was over and they had put away the banners and turned the television back to Big Brother or The Block. The complexity of the issues and points of dissension were too diverse to be simply categorised in the terms of old ideological battles – underlying the protests was a real concern about the uncertainties and consequences of any change in the established order of international law, treaties and accepted ways of doing things. Michael McKernan documents the journey of one man, the former head of the defence forces General Peter Gration, who spoke out against Australian involvement in the Iraq war before it began. He finds parallels in the experience of senior military officers in the past who urged tough, unpalatable decisions and were demoted and sent to remote posts. Gration’s unexpected outspokenness was greeted with virtual silence – a refusal to engage limits debate more effectively than a shrill exchange.

IT WAS ONE of the small ironies of the war that News Corporation realised its longstanding ambition to acquire DirecTV and a global satellite network on the day that Baghdad fell. It was a fitting end to the most televised war in history. It probably also marks the beginning of the next phase of the media battle of ideas – not only had the war been televised in an unprecedented manner but the commentary, especially on News Corp’s Fox Channel, was an unapologetic mix of jingoism and cheerleading. The media management of the war – from the embedding of reporters, to the construction of “made-for-TV stories”, to the appropriation of images from popular culture, such as the “most wanted” pack of cards – was more sophisticated than ever before. This will undoubtedly be the subject of debate, navel-gazing and more than one doctoral thesis over the next few years.  In the meantime it is all the stuff of satire, as CNNNN’s Charles Firth shows in his memo on how to become a superpower in three easy steps.

In the 1991 Gulf War the possibilities of live television coverage were a tentative novelty, as Geraldine Doogue reflects, but even then the battle over ideas and ways of seeing made the ABC the lightning rod for political criticism and allegations of bias. In 2003, it was only after the war had ended that accusations of bias gained any currency, allegations that were repeated with regional variations in many countries where the media attempted to question the prevailing established viewpoint, or were castigated for not being critical enough. Yet, as Irris Makler reports from the Baghdad Museum, the quick conclusions that are drawn from saturation media coverage often gloss over the complicating detail. It is striking that in a world where there is access to so much information that the process of asking questions – or not asking questions – and providing a platform for competing views should generate such hostility.

Polls provide little comfort on the question of whether people would prefer more or less debate, whether the relentless process of revelation and disclosure has a phoney momentum that contributes to the sense of insecurity or whether it provides the information on which informed decisions can be made. Ways of seeing and thinking about places and people accumulate over time, as Adrian Vickers writes in his essay on the place of Bali in the Australian imagination. Before the bombs exploded in Kuta and Sanur last October, Bali had captured an idyllic space in our minds, one that we find hard to displace despite the fear of further attacks and distress caused by the loss of life and sense of freedom.

A feeling of insecurity is a valuably malleable emotion – it can be turned to anger, blame or anxiety. There is no doubt that fear can be manipulated to achieve results, as John Birmingham shows in his essay on the way leaders in Australia have been willing to exploit fear of the other to political advantage for more than a hundred years. The outcomes of fear management may be more subtle these days, with success measured in polls rather than the body count after a riot, but tapping the mythic dimension of fear is a constant that draws its currency, as Norman Swan highlights, from a deep-seated emotional response, not logic or rational choice.

Australians of Middle Eastern backgrounds have been on the receiving end of this emotional response. Eva Sallis writes of her journey through the minefield of prejudice. The desire to belong and be accepted is captured in the photo essay by Shannon Ghannam, Natasha Harth  and Damian Dunlop of women from the Eritrean, Etheopian, Somali, and Sudanese communities in Brisbane; their joy at creating a new life here is offset by the pain of loss and separation. These sentiments are also captured by mtc cronin in her poem Four Temperatures and by Margaret Coffey in her report on the need for stories and shared experiences to challenge fundamentalism.

Insecurity may be the prevailing national sentiment, captured in Tim Page’s striking cover image, but there is also a sense of joy and possibility, of beloved Australias worth fighting for, as Eva Sallis writes. Tim Page’s photos of the protest at Baxter Immigration Detention Centre at Easter highlight the imaginative ways in which some people are putting an alternative view. The battle between the police on horseback and flag-waving protesters in pink tutus on the edge of the desert highlights another set of competing realities as people try to make sense of what the new world order may mean. And finally Andrew Belk’s short story provides a very personal solution: compassion, tenderness and humour in the face of the ultimate fear.

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