When making the right choice is half the battle

Australian Financial Review, 29 November 2003

Some try to distinguish Wars of Choice, which we can avoid, from Wars of Necessity, which are forced on us by invasion.

But in fact all wars are chosen - indeed, twice chosen, once by the initiator and once by the opponent who chooses to resist instead of preemptively capitulating.

Australia’s choice was made in each of the five major wars of the last century and the two of this century by calculating the consequences of not going to war, of seeing the enemy victorious. And also because we did not think it appropriate to free-ride on others’ backs.

Take two instances. First, by a roundabout route through democracy, Iraq II; second, a possible future war, with China.

Is the old and revived dream of making the world safe for democracy realisable only if every nation becomes democratic? Probably.

So should those of us who have arrived at that happy state set out on a democratic crusade, taking - if not making - every opportunity to spread democracy wider yet and wider, by force? No.

The principal reason is that democracy cannot be imposed or spontaneously started where the preconditions for it do not obtain; and those preconditions are not everywhere found nor easily created.

A hundred years ago, a British prime minister pointed out that our party political system "presupposes a people so fundamentally at one that they can safely afford to bicker". Indeed so; because otherwise every change of government would involve revolution.

But the peoples of many countries are not fundamentally at one. Take Iraq, riven by ethnic, tribal and religious differences, and by dispute over whether the state itself should be secular or theocratic.

Iraqis are now engaged in a violent internal struggle over the shape of their new country and for power amongst various groups:

* The majority but hitherto downtrodden Shia who self-interestedly favour of one man one vote;

* The less numerous but hitherto dominant Sunni who self-interestedly resort to violence to strengthen their influence and destroy order to prevent elections and a Shia takeover;

* The autonomy-seeking and federally-minded Kurds;

* The secularists versus the theocrats.

The violence (almost entirely in Sunni areas) against outsiders is just part of that struggle, designed to force us out prematurely, so leaving the Sunnis free to decide by main force the struggle’s outcome.

That struggle among Iraqis for power and position, if not decided by violence alone, will be most difficult and long in the fashioning of a constitution defining the shape and governance of the new Iraq. Which is why the USA has now decided a constitution should no longer be the first requirement (its logical position) but the last.

Even so, that simply transfers the initial struggle over the constitution to the struggle over who gets "elected" to the 250-member "representative" body from which a provisional government is to be formed by next July. And then who gets to be the minister for defence and minister for internal security in that government (which could well become more than provisional).

Small chance, then, of Iraq’s emerging with elections by the end of 2005 in a basically unified country with a democratic constitution broadly acceptable to all the competing factions, who will then happily settle down to bickering.

Much more likely - because while Iraq is a state, it is not a nation - is a country that continues mightily to trouble itself and others. Including Israel.

None of this means we were wrong to bring about regime change in Iraq: Saddam was a proven threat with (increasingly revealed) al Quaeda links. But it does point up that often the first half of regime change - regime removal - is easier than the second half - regime replacement, especially if it involves nation-building and creating a democracy, which we as democrats cannot but want.

We need to recognise too that bringing in a new political order anywhere takes much time.

Federating Australia took 10 years - even though, the exact opposite of Iraq, we were a nation though not a state, and had a long experience of elected self-government. And again, unlike Iraq if it should federate, we had ready-made agreed boundaries between the states.

[Deleted from published version: And even then, Australian federation like American was possible only by having an undemocratic Senate].

Now for the second issue, a possible future war with China.

China’s incredible economy, accounting for 25 percent of global growth from 1995 to 2002 (the US share was 20 percent), is of great trade and investment moment to Australia. But China looms large for political and strategic reasons too.

China is not a democracy but, as its constitution specifies, a one-party "people’s democratic dictatorship". And a new party directive is expected banning even public discussion of political reform and constitutional change.

Moreover, China’s economic growth if continued will rapidly enlarge its strategic capabilities, increasing the possibility inherent in its geostrategic position of its one day achieving world hegemony.

Still, that day if it ever comes is distant; and war either then or in the meantime is not likely. Even so, war cannot be ruled out.

One possibility would be if China were to pursue policies so completely and widely unacceptable as to provoke widespread sanctions against it. Just such a situation led to Pearl Harbour; and Australia as a large-scale resources and energy provider to China would inevitably be involved.

Another way war might come is over Taiwan. If China, emphasising - as it did again last week - its claimed right to use force, were to name a date certain for reunification, and mean it, war with the USA would almost certainly result.

Likewise, if Taiwan were to declare independence, war with China would almost certainly result.

Neither event is likely, because the dreadful consequences are so well recognised. Still, an impatient China is marginally more likely to take aggressive action than a Taiwan which declares independence, thinking (wrongly) that it could count on US protection.

Should Australia join America in resisting an unprovoked forcible Chinese takeover of Taiwan?

Decidedly yes, not out of alliance "loyalty", but principally because of the dire consequences for Australia should America fail.

Failure would mean the effective end of the US position in north Asia, and the beginning of Chinese preponderance there and in south-east Asia and Australasia.

As a result, Australia would unwillingly find itself having to adjust its policies to fit the new realities, or having them adjusted for us. Not unlike Soviet-era Finland, in short, or worse.

Indeed, already some Australians, including a former prime minister, are so keen for Australia to please China that they advocate a Munich policy of Australia’s insisting on democratic Taiwan’s reunifying without delay or condition. This is precisely what President Hu meant when saying last month he looked to Australia to play "a constructive role in China’s peaceful reunification".

Still, no need today to choose between China and the USA. But if war should ever come, Australia would need to choose America, to help avoid the awful consequences to Australia of an American defeat.