Old Dobell’s almanac
18 Dec 2017|

As 2017 limps out and 2018 edges in, here’s Old Dobell’s almanac of the times, trends and twists of history.

Trump-eting: The US system is working, but it’s been a stress test from hell. America’s system will stand, but America’s international standing will suffer huge damage. The Donald breaks with 70 years of US history in Asia.

Accept his inauguration speech as a true statement of intent, based on Trumpian instincts:

  • America first—the line from the inauguration that’ll be remembered is ‘the American carnage stops right here’
  • protectionist and mercantilist—the global economy is a zero-sum version of the Hunger Games
  • alliance rejectionist—America wastes trillions to defend others
  • values—deals, not democracy. Strongmen and dictators, apply here.

My tip: he’ll get re-elected. We’ve got seven more years, unless Trumps gives himself a heart attack from too much dessert. Dating the superpower presidency from FDR, history says America re-elects its presidents.

Forget impeachment. The Republican Party has more to fear from the base than from Trump. A Republican Congress isn’t going to impeach its own voters.

America’s recovery is in its ninth year. The economy hums. Unemployment is 4%. Median earnings are rising and economists predict a ‘new golden age’ for American workers.

China chomps: The Oz foreign policy white paper got it into one sentence in its third paragraph: ‘Today, China is challenging America’s position.’ Even fiendishly complex trends and twists can be simply stated.

Next year, Trump will have to choose his Asia war. He can have trade war with China. Or he can do cold war with North Korea, with China’s acquiescence.

China trade war or Korea cold war: he can’t have both.

Some almanac cheer: The cold war with the Soviet Union was an ideological contest—a European religious war, largely fought in Asia. Today there’s zero ideology between China and America; this is just dollars and power. Donald the deal-maker suits China, and Xi Jinping plays him well.

More cheer: China isn’t a revisionist power like the Soviet Union. China is a status quo tidal power. Beijing loves the status quo. And Beijing knows the tide is moving its way. It wants more of both, on terms that serve the elite (aka the Communist Party) and service a quiescent people.

The nature of Oz: Australia is now a Eurasian country. As George Megalogenis records in the new Australian Foreign Affairs, this is an epic transformation, from Anglo-European to Eurasian.

The shift has gone into hyperdrive this century, fuelled (and peopled) by migration from China and India. Two and a half million of our population were born in Asia. The 2016 census says the languages spoken at home in Oz are, in order, English, Mandarin, Arabic, Cantonese and Vietnamese. Hindi and Tagalog are just outside in the top 10. Country of birth for Australians: China is number four, India number five.

Q: What will history mark as the biggest single change John Howard made to Australia?

A: Migration.

The scale and content of migration since 2001—emphasising skills, lifting numbers—remade the face of Australia. Howard created a Eurasian country in double-quick time. The man who said we didn’t need to choose between history and geography has shifted our history by embracing our geography. The law of unintended consequences has a wicked sense of humour.

Date the Eurasia project from 1972, the point Howard uses in his memoirs for the shift from excluding Asia to engagement. The early decades of the project involved openings, collaboration and what Bob Hawke called enmeshment.

The new stage—as we comprehend our Eurasian achievement—is Australia being changed by Asia. Such internal forces alter a nation’s foreign policy.

Oz–Eurasian foreign policy: Canberra’s international approach mixes Western language, US alliance and ASEAN flavour. We’re louder than ASEAN, but our positions increasingly match.

Australia does the ASEAN dance on Myanmar and the Rohingya crisis, on dealing with a murderous president in the Philippines and, as ever, on the central place of Indonesia in our future and our neighbourhood. Oz policy on the South China Sea is ASEAN’s policy with the volume turned up.

We share ASEAN’s dreams and nightmares on China. Like ASEAN, China is a presence in our people as well as in our policy. Ask Sam Dastyari or Andrew Robb how that works.

In March, the first Australia–ASEAN summit on Australian soil happens in Sydney. The foreign policy white paper is almost lyrical, as it should be:

Southeast Asia frames Australia’s northern approaches and is of profound significance for our future. ASEAN’s success has helped support regional security and prosperity for 50 years … Southeast Asia is the nexus of strategic competition, testing the region’s cohesion and ASEAN’s central role.

This almanac proclaims the Sydney summit the start of the march to Australian membership of ASEAN in 2024, the 50th anniversary of Australia becoming ASEAN’s first dialogue partner.

Uncertain era: The tyranny of the present reigns if we moan about uniquely uncertain times. Such anguish says more about Canberra than it does about the state of the world. We’ve lived through vastly more dangerous eras. Australia’s conceptual framework is being shaken, our long-term relative decline as a power and an economy in Asia proceeds as it has for decades, and the new fear is our feckless great and powerful friend. The simple response to the hand-wringing is that we’re born to uncertainty and live it all our days.

The wonderful Simon Leys, in his collection of bon mots, offers these:

Pedro Calderon: ‘The worst is not always certain.’

Nietzsche: ‘It’s certainty, not doubt, that causes madness.’

Let us fret less. And head to Christmas intoning a thought attributed to Benjamin Franklin: ‘Beer, beer, beer … beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.’