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The fall of a civilisation, or just a ‘torn country’?

Tom Switzer on Harvard professor Samuel Huntington, who memorably crossed swords with Paul Keating

4 February 2009

12:00 AM

4 February 2009

12:00 AM

About a year after his devastating 1996 election defeat, Paul Keating remarked: ‘Over the course of a long political career, you get accused of many unflattering things. But I have to say that the most spectacular of all the charges against me came from…’

Guess who? Newspaper columnist Paddy McGuinness, attacking Keating’s big picture of Asia, republicanism and reconciliation? Liberal senator Michael Baume, relentlessly putting the case against Keating? Or prime minister John Howard, lobbing another grenade in the culture wars? No, it was Samuel Huntington, the distinguished Harvard academic, who died recently at the age of 81.

The former Labor prime minister was responding to Huntington’s clash of civilisations thesis, first posited in an article in Foreign Affairs magazine in 1993 then three years later in a book entitled The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order. The fundamental source of conflict in the post-Cold War world, he argued, would not be ideological or economic, but cultural.

Intriguingly, Australian newspaper coverage of Huntington since his death has glossed over the stoush between the American intellectual and the Labor politician. Yet the incident provides a revealing insight into how Keating and Howard defined their leaderships and their nation’s place in the world.

According to Keating, Huntington accused him of ‘precipitating the fall of a civilisation’. In fact, the doyen of political science suggested that, among other things, the policy favoured by Keating’s government of converting Australia from being Western to being ‘part of Asia’ was not only doomed to fail, but highly dangerous. It would, Huntington argued, end up weakening Australia’s cultural ties with our traditional and culturally compatible Western friends, while struggling to make us acceptable to the Confucian and Islamic countries to our north.

Australia, in Huntington’s phrase, would become a ‘torn country’. But unlike Turkey, Russia and Mexico, whose leaders wanted ‘to make their countries members of the West but whose history, culture and traditions are non-Western’, Australia, if Huntington’s thesis were vindicated, would provide the first example of a historically fully Western country in which a significant section of the elite advocated a move to membership of another, non-Western civilisation. Better for Australia, he suggested, to define itself as a Pacific country and align itself with the US ‘whose values of the Declaration of Independence accord far more with Australian values than do those of any Asian country’.

Keating complained he was misunderstood regarding whether Australia should become part of Asia and shed its Western cultural character. He was probably right. Still, many of the opinion-forming elite in Australia were enthusiastic in their misunderstanding. And, as Howard warned, Keating’s pronouncements coincided with a ‘perpetual seminar about our national identity’ and an ‘extraordinary period of navel-gazing’ in the 1990s about Australia’s place in the world.

This was a time, remember, when Keating was calling for Australia to cease being a ‘branch office of empire’, become a republic and aim for ‘enmeshment’ in Asia. Australia, he insisted, ‘cannot represent itself to the world as a multicultural society, engage in Asia, make that link and make it persuasively while in some way, at least in constitutional terms, remaining a derivative society’. As Huntington pointed out, Keating complained that Australia had suffered untold years of ‘anglophilia and torpor’ and warned that continued association with Britain would be ‘debilitating to our national culture, our economic future and our destiny in Asia and the Pacific’.

Keating’s defenders have since insisted that all this was merely rhetoric, that Keating was every bit as committed to our Western allies as he was to Asian engagement, and that the substance of Keating’s foreign policy was little different not only from his predecessors Gough Whitlam, Malcolm Fraser and Bob Hawke, but also his successors Howard and Kevin Rudd.

But the Asian elite — political and diplomatic figures alike — certainly took Keating’s rhetoric seriously enough. So seriously, in fact, that they regarded his language as representing a major departure from orthodox Canberra policy. How else to explain the fact, which Huntington documented in his book, that many Asian figures — and not just Malaysian prime minister Dr Mahathir — went to great lengths to pour scorn on Keating’s big picture?

Would Huntington have described Australia as a ‘torn country’ during the Howard and Rudd eras? I doubt it. Put simply, Keating put more stress on Asia than his successors and predecessors. John Howard, a Western values man, was also a strong proponent of increasing Australian bilateral ties to East Asian nations, but he never over-emphasised his commitment to Asian engagement in the way that Keating did.

Howard signed Australia’s record trade deal with China in 2002. He led one of only two nations to support all three financial bailouts of Thailand, South Korea and Indonesia during the 1997 economic crisis. And he led Asian democracies to protect helpless East Timorese from brutal attack by the Indonesian military in 1999.

Keating lambasted Howard over the intervention. But as one regional newspaper editorialised at the time: ‘While Mr Keating never stopped spouting slogans about Australia being part of Asia, only with the intervention in East Timor has Australia met and passed a real test of being a great Asian neighbour.’

Indeed, Keating’s talk was cheap. But it nevertheless gave the widely held impression that he wanted to make Australia part of the East. Howard, on the other hand, was never in any doubt about Australia’s liberal identity and Western cultural heritage. Today he recalls how Huntington’s analysis revealed something about the ‘foolish, destructive and introspective’ debate the nation was having about itself in the mid-1990s.

‘If Huntington were to write again in 2008,’ Howard remarked a few months before the Harvard academic died, ‘such a description would be unthinkable. There is nothing “torn” or “indecisive” about Australia’s place in the world. We are seen as a strong exemplar of Western civilisation: a nation that has managed to sit at that unique intersection of not only history and geography, but of culture and political belief. We have always had very strong links with North America and we have built profound, enduring and everlasting links with our friends and neighbours in the Asia-Pacific region. And that is how it should always be. This nation should never have been prodded to choose in some way between its history and its geography.’

I suspect Huntington would be saying Amen to that.

Tom Switzer is a research fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs and a research associate at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.

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