Flat White

Courage, fantasy, and the arc of autocracy

13 May 2022

12:00 PM

13 May 2022

12:00 PM

Andriy Melnyk is the Ukrainian ambassador to Berlin. In early May he demanded the German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, respond to the crisis in Ukraine with more ‘courage and fantasy’. Whilst courage seems apt, fantasy seems out of place in the real world of conflict.

Islands in the Western imagination are idyllic and sometimes, if Shakespeare is to serve as a guide, fantastical places.

Australia’s foreign policy has on-and-off been dominated by a concern for islands because of her geographical situation. Although Australia’s first foreign war was alongside the British in South Africa during the first and second Boer Wars, there has always been an interest in keeping an eye on the vast amount of sea around us. This urge is propelled, not just by the need to support the ‘mother’ country, but also an awareness that we need to do it…

Whilst allegiances have always been important, Australia’s loyalty to Britain was never in doubt.

Immediately after the first world war at the Paris Peace Conference, both the Australian Prime Minister, Billy Hughes, and the New Zealand Prime Minister, Bill Massey, were determined to bring the Pacific islands closer. Hughes wanted New Guinea which he got in the form of a mandate after brandishing an erroneous map showing New Guinea and nearby islands in the Bismarck Archipelago almost touching Australia. Massey had his own, more correct map, supporting New Zealand’s claim to Samoa. Japan, equally aware of the importance of the islands in the Pacific, claimed and secured the Marianas, the Carolinas, and the Marshall Islands. None of these countries exhibited in Paris any great confidence in the newly formed League of Nations.

The Marianas, the Carolinas, and the Marshall Islands became major Japanese strongholds in the second world war. The Samoa Islands, including America Samoa, were an integral part of the chain of communications between the United States, Australia, and New Zealand during the conflict. Papua New Guinea was the setting for Japan’s continuing offensive south towards Australia and the fighting on the Kokoda Trail, in 1942, to push the Japanese army back.

Islands played a role.

At the end of the second world war, the Pacific found itself in an increasingly post-colonial world. Herbert Evatt, a member of the Australian delegation to the United Nations, placed faith in the idea of collective security and played a role in ensuring smaller nations, like Australia, would have a greater say in world events. However, under the hegemony of Robert Menzies, allegiances became the most important means of maintaining security. During over twenty years of Liberal government from 1949 to 1972, Australia firmly attached itself to the USA.

With this attachment came an increasing sense of importance and responsibility relevant to our wealth. This feeling also arose from how this relationship with the United States could elevate us and served to substantiate a belief that we were a very important and integral player in the part of the world in which we are situated. There are plenty of examples where it is clear others, who also reside in this part of the world, may not have the same opinion.

In response to the recent developments in the Solomon Islands, the United States has said they will reopen an embassy in Honiara. Some see this as a rebuke of Australia’s failed efforts to keep the Solomon Islands ‘onside’, but at the same time it is also a development that potentially keeps us firmly in the mindset that allegiances with powerful countries like the United States are all important.

There is increasing talk of the ‘arc of autocracy’, which has the potential in a country like Australia to manifest itself in people’s minds into an arch of autocracies bearing down on us. It is a phrase that does not lend itself to the fact that these sinister autocracies of China, and Russia are some distance away. Rather, the arc should reconstitute itself in the minds of Australians as an arc of islands stretched out over us, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, East and West Timor, the Solomons, Fiji, Samoa, and more, all countries that we can make more effort to have better relations with.

Islands are places of fantasy, countries can have courageous foreign policies, perhaps Andriy Melnyk’s strange words have meaning not just for the Germans, but for us too.

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