OPINON: WWI and its centenary highlight leadership weakness


Crispin Hull


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Prime Minister Billy Hughes in about 1915. Image: National Library of Australia.


When US President Woodrow Wilson tried to belittle Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes at the 1919 Versailles peace conference by asking who he represented, Hughes replied: “I speak for 60,000 Australian war dead.”

Hughes may have been bellicose, belligerent and vengeful, but at least he was there, unlike the present Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison.

After four years of having to put up with the jingoism, glorification of war and exaggerated nationalism of the Anzac legend during the centenary of World War I, the one time the real horror and futility of war is marked with quiet dignity, our Prime Minister is missing in inaction. He is on a bus eating pies and drinking beer in Queensland.

Shameful. It was almost as shameful as US President Donald Trump’s absence at the first ceremony near Paris because of rain.

It was not enough that the representative in Australia of the British monarchy (which got us into the World War I mess in the first place) attended.

Enough has been written about the centenary. This is about leadership and international co-operation – the absence of which led to World War I and allowed it to continue for so long.

The leadership of Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel contrasts with that of Trump and Morrison.

Perhaps the three issues that highlight leadership or lack of it most are: foreign aid, climate change and people movement.

They share the trait of being easy to use to stir up xenophobic and nationalistic attitudes: foreign aid is a waste of money when we have so many problems at home; climate change is an international conspiracy to destroy our economy; movement of people presents a threat to our way of life.

Precisely because it is so easy to kindle those fears that it requires good leadership to make sure they are not kindled, and that the issues are dealt with sensibly.

It used to be that other nation states could be the source of easily whipped up xenophobia, which is what happened in 1914. These days, however, it is more fashionable to direct xenophobia at international forces, mainly because foreign invasions are too costly and unworkable, as Afghanistan and Iraq have proved.

So let’s start with foreign aid. Generous well-targeted foreign aid would do much to alleviate the poverty and lack of education in developing countries that does so much to fuel hatred and violent attitudes towards developed countries.

But while France and Germany lead, Australia and the US are going backwards.

In his 2018 speech before the UN General Assembly, Trump said, “Moving forward, we are only going to give foreign aid to those who respect us and, frankly, are our friends.”

Fortunately, congressional approval is required to change a lot of the aid budget and Congress has ignored him. Even so, the US spends just 0.18 per cent of GDP on real foreign aid – when you exclude self-serving military and political aid.

Australian foreign aid has been cut every year for the past five years of Coalition Government. It is now a third less than the last year of Labor Government, down from 0.34 per cent of GDP to just 0.23 per cent of GDP. Morrison, as Treasurer, presided over many of those cuts.

And we wonder why China was able to fill the vacuum in the Pacific now leaving us frantically to patch up with too little too late.

German and French foreign aid is much more generous than Australian or US aid. German foreign aid has gone up significantly since 2013 from 0.38 per cent of GDP to 0.66 per cent. France’s aid has gone up slightly from 0.41 to 0.43.

Britain provides three times the foreign aid as a percentage of GDP as Australia. That is shameful.

It is so easy to cut foreign aid without a voter backlash because Australians grossly over-estimate how much we give, so they think it is too high.

A 2018 Lowy Institute poll shows the average Australian believes we spend about 14 per cent of the federal budget on foreign aid. In fact it is just 0.8 per cent.

If they knew how miserable our government is, especially compared to Britain, it should not take much leadership to convince them to be more generous.

Climate change. Dealing with climate change to save the planet and its people from untold economic damage, injury and death will require a great deal of international co-operation.

France hosted the 2015 climate conference and the French and German Governments have ambitious plans to reduce emissions. In the case of Germany a conservative government has the leadership to acknowledge climate science and do something about what it is telling us and at the same time see the economic and energy-security benefits of renewable energy.

On the other hand, the US is pulling out of the Paris agreement and Australia has no climate-change policy at all – dangerous vacuums.

On people movement, France and Germany have coped with millions of refugees pouring out of Syria and with thousands leaving hopeless economic conditions in Africa without the insults, lies and outright cruelty displayed by the US and Australia.

Morrison does not understand the complexity of foreign relations. He did not see that his thought bubble of a move of the Australian embassy to Jerusalem to a local audience would wreck our improving relationship with our nearest neighbour and most populous Muslim country on earth, which also happens to be a democracy.

Understanding complexity and inter-relatedness is crucial in international affairs.

Perhaps France and Germany learnt from the difference between the aftermath of World War I, on one hand, and World War II, on the other. At the 1919 Versailles conference Billy Hughes, France and Britain were vindictive, vengeful and unforgiving. The resulting punitive treaty was exploited by Hitler enabling his rise to power and World War II.

After World War II, on the other hand, the constructive co-operative rebuilding of Germany and Japan, the United Nations and other international institutions did much to help world peace, freer trade and prosperity.

If we want the security that comes from an international rules-based order, the Australian and the US leaders must start behaving more like the thoughtful and intelligent Macron and Merkel and less like the spoilt, petulant Trump and the immature thought-bubble PM with learner plates Morrison.


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