Ideas@TheCentre brings you ammunition for conversations around the table. 3 short articles from CIS researchers emailed every Friday on the issues of the week.
After July’s G20 summit in Hamburg, the ABC’s Chris Uhlmann remarked that President Trump cast an “uneasy, lonely, awkward figure” who had “pressed fast forward on the decline of the United States as the global leader.” The television clip went viral online. But was Uhlmann right?
It is certainly true Donald Trump has unnerved many people around the world. His strident ‘America First’ campaign rhetoric, taken together with his decisions to withdraw the U.S. from both the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris climate accords, raised doubts about the Pax Americana. The U.S. is also bogged down in a crisis of confidence, exacerbated by its toxic polarisation and hyper-partisan political culture.
But it is also true Trump has reaffirmed the security alliances with Japan, South Korea and Australia in Asia, Israel and the Saudi-led Sunni Gulf states in the Middle East and — albeit grudgingly — NATO in Europe. So much for withdrawing the U.S. from the world. Nor has he imposed the 45% tariffs on China or 30% tariffs on Mexico that would have pushed the global economy into recession.
Although the U.S. will not command the kind of strategic and economic pre-eminence it has held since the 1940s — a trend Richard Nixon recognised as early as the early 1970s — America will remain the most powerful state in the world for the foreseeable future.
America has the largest and the most technologically superior military in the world. It has the most diverse and technologically advanced economy. Global tech platforms, such as Google, Microsoft and Facebook, are used by more than a billion people. All dominate their respective markets; all are American.
America is demographically vibrant: its fertility rates surpass those of its competitors Japan, Europe and China. It has transformed itself into an energy superpower: the shale gas ‘fracking’ revolution means energy self-sufficiency and independence.
To be sure, a clash is taking place between Trump (who is apparently attacking the liberal international order) and U.S. foreign-policy elites (who champion American global leadership). In the meantime, as the University of Chicago’s John Mearsheimer has argued, this produces an American foreign policy that is discombobulated and hard to understand. That unnerves allies.
If the U.S. is committed to keeping in check a rising China — the only true rising hegemon capable of destabilising regional order and American primacy — it needs a president who is thinking strategically and working closely with regional allies. But that is not happening, because Trump is widely perceived as a loose cannon and strikingly ignorant of the world — a potentially deadly combination.
Many people are likely to have had a lightbulb moment that made them realise our universities are in trouble.
Over the past year, I have commented in many media stories about a range of social engineering initiatives across everything from early childhood education to corporate Australia pushing the ‘diversity agenda’ in matters of race, gender and sexuality.
What has struck me is that the ideological agendas being promoted aim to shape, set and enforce the boundaries of acceptable — as opposed to offensive racist, patriarchial or homo- or trans-phobic thought and speech.
This has brought home to me the extent to which the precepts of postmodernism — which were taking hold in universities when I was an undergraduate — have entered mainstream society.
The postmodernism revolves around the idea that language used by the dominant culture or discourse creates social reality and oppresses certain victim groups. It follows that marginalised groups are liberated by restricting or regulating freedom of thought and speech around a range of issues that are simply no longer up for debate and discussion and dissent.
Yet debate discussion and dissent are the foundations of the freedom of enquiry that universities should stand for as bastions of intellectual freedom — but not in the post-modern academy.
According to Sydney University’s latest ‘Unlearn’ marketing campaign, students will not be pursuing enlightenment while studying for their degrees, but de-construction by being “taught how to unlearn…and, challenge the established, demolish social norms and build new ones in their place.”
The ‘Unlearning’ university promises not an education in how the world really works based on reason, logic, and rational analysis; it promises an indoctrination in how academic ideologues with a one-trick agenda demand it should work.
The CIS’s annual Consilium conference was held late last week and saw the usual gathering of the best and brightest minds from business, government, academia, education and science. A common refrain from those who attend the conference (and CIS events in general) is appreciation for the civil discourse that takes place — no matter the differing views, religious beliefs or political affiliations of those in the debate.
This is something at the heart of CIS mission; a platform to discuss ideas for the freedom and betterment of society in an atmosphere of civility and collegiality.
However, this attitude of respect seems increasingly rare in an age of social media snark, political point-scoring, snappy one-liners preferred over substance, and a capricious US president with a pathological fondness for derision.
Guardian Australia’s political editor and Insiders regular Katharine Murphy spoke at Consilium on the state of Australian politics, and said in her recent (and excellent) Meanjin essay, “…the tone of national affairs is reflexively hostile, trolling and takedowns set the tone of the day, and protagonists are being rewarded for their efficiency at treachery rather than the substance of their contributions.”
We see this antagonism playing out all around us; in politics and the mediasphere, certainly, but also — and increasingly — in daily life. Enmity seems to have become a default setting when reacting to the opinions of those we disagree with.
In Juggernaut: Why the System Crushes the Only People Who Can Save It, a theory of political economy from 2011, polymath Eric Robert Morse writes: “When it becomes more profitable to make fun of someone or berate them for their beliefs than it is to offer a constructive alternative, intellectual discourse is threatened. And, when a people can no longer rely on intellectual discourse, the society is bound to fall.”
Civility is part of the bedrock of democracy, without which true freedom of thought and expression and diversity of opinion is impossible. Lack of civility is corrosive in all spheres — to family and community life, organisational and business success, politics — and to democracy itself. We must find a way back towards courtesy — and, by extension, kindness — if civil society is to be civil by all definitions of the word.