Australia’s Ring of Fire


Australia is becoming surrounded by what are mistakenly called ‘failed states’, most of them Melanesian (e.g. PNG, the Solomons) or partly so (e.g. East Timor) If West Papua were ever to become independent it would rapidly join the club. In world terms, there is nothing very new about what is happening, but because it is happening on Australia’s doorstep we have to take notice of it instead of ignoring the phenomenon as we usually do when it happens in Africa.

We must first ask what is happening and why, and then attempt to decide what Australia should do about it and why. In this article, I try to identify the questions we must address and suggest some unfashionable thoughts about how we might have to approach the problem. My purpose is to stimulate thought rather than to provide pat answers.

What is happening is clear. These are not so much ‘failed states’ as ‘never were’ states. They are artificial, colonial creations. The only thing their members have in common is domination by a particular colonial power which ruled a disparate bunch of groups by force. At independence, people who had always hated or ignored their neighbours in the next valley were told that they were now supposed to love them because they were their fellow citizens in something called a nation that they now both belonged to. We should not be surprised that traditional ways and feuds continue and that people feel no loyalty to this artificial entity that was foisted upon them. The only exception is the small educated elite who see themselves taking over from the former colonisers and enjoying all the benefits of rule.

There is a widespread view in what is loosely called the West that there is something inevitable about nation states and democracy. This is perhaps a social Darwinist view although it seems more like a variation on Karl Marx: instead of Communism being the final stage of human social evolution, it is the democratic, capitalist national state. Just as Lenin felt the need to give the inevitable social evolution a push, so we feel the need to help our less fortunate brethren along the path to the one true political faith. To question the universal truth of democracy today is rather like not believing in God a hundred years ago.

We should not be surprised that these non-states failed but perhaps only if they succeed. They may eventually work out their own road to salvation but it may not be democracy and it may not be a nation state. Forcing them into a political Procrustean bed and criticising them for not fitting may not be the most helpful way to proceed.

So what should Australia do and why? Clearly there is much human suffering in the neighbourhood and many would argue that we have a moral duty to help those close to us. Since we cannot help everyone in need, it makes sense to focus on our neighbours. Some still hold the belief that we have a manifest destiny in the region or that we should take up the white man’s burden!

Then there is the realist view that we do not want unstable entities close to our borders because they might be used by terrorists or enemies or adversely affect our interests in other ways. Interestingly, this was the reason given by Indonesia for their intervention in East Timor in 1976. No doubt this intervention prevented the kind of ethnic and political based violence we are seeing now but their main reason was to prevent Timor being ruled by an unstable Communist government (Fretilin). As Xanana Gusmao has recently pointed out, the Fretilin leadership is undemocratic and not averse to bloodshed. (The fact that incompetence, cruelty and corruption by TNI later lost the hearts and minds of the people does not alter the motivation for Indonesian intervention. In my view, the high vote for independence was in fact a vote against TNI.) For realists, Australia should intervene in the region for essentially the same reason: to prevent the emergence of unstable entities which might be hostile to Australia or provide facilities for illegal elements like drug pushers and illegal immigrants. Some would add that stopping the killing was a reason, but this is probably more moral than realist.

There are therefore moral and practical reasons for us to do something. But what do we do and how do we do it? Do these entities become de facto colonies again under some kind of UN trusteeship or do we prop up dictatorships? To what extent should we interfere in the domestic affairs of an independent state? If we are to stop traditional enemies from killing each other we will have to use force which means Australian troops and police on a long term basis. Do we have the resources to do this — especially when we are involved in faraway places like Iraq and Afghanistan? Do we have the political will to prop up these places economically as well?

Then there is the long term problem of attitudes towards Australia. If we are seen as big brother will we be resented? Will we get involved in violence and will there be incidents involving our troops which cause local anger? Might we end up being to this region what the USA is to the Caribbean and Central America? On a different note, will the Americans see this as our pond and expect us to contribute to the alliance by solving the problems of our neighbourhood?

Australians are not good at thinking ahead. We tend to react to situations without thinking through the long term consequences. There is a real danger that we will react to a host of brush fires and run around putting them out without really addressing the causes. Finally, whatever we do and however carefully we plan, is the task possible or are we kidding ourselves that we can make a difference? Are we trying to square the circle? History is littered with the failures of countries that tried to solve other countries’ problems for them.

One of our problems is that our media and politicians from all parties talk in clichés and perhaps think in them too. Platitudes about freedom and democracy will not solve the problem. Nor will a preoccupation with finding someone to blame. Ultimately we are all responsible for our own actions so if the people of another country are making a mess of things it is their fault. Except, of course, that they might not want to be part of a country that means nothing to them. Patriotism to them may mean loyalty to a clan or regional territorial unit.

Although a significant number of people in these cultures value revenge or honour above all things, many people put security before freedom. They want to eat and to be safe from violence. If we want to make a difference, we need to think more about their priorities and less about our own myths. We also need to deal realistically with different cultural ideas about payback killing which is something more than just disaffected young men letting off steam.

These considerations apply equally whether you are a realist concerned only about Australian security or an idealist who wants to help our fellow human beings.

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