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Managing an outpost at the end of empire

By Reg Little - posted Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Officers of the Australian diplomatic service are almost all dedicated, highly qualified and hard working. Yet, Australian diplomacy has functioned poorly, even failed, over a period of at least half a century.

Australian diplomats, and by extension Australian leaders, have failed to understand the peaceful rise of Asia, its cultural foundations and characteristics, and the manner in which it has already crafted an Anglo-American End of Empire. They have failed to prepare in any depth for the imminent end of several centuries of Anglo-American global order. Moreover, Australia's two centuries of European identity offer no experience with which to understand an End of Empire challenges and opportunities.

Over more than half a century, Australian diplomacy has had consistently positive rhetoric about Australia's Asian future. Moreover, it has overseen the rapid growth in Australian commodity exports to Asian markets and an increasing inflow of Asian hi-tech products. But Australian diplomacy has initiated little effective action in many of the most critical areas. Whether it is language education, cultural understanding, economic insight or strategic purpose, Australia remains trapped. A critical legacy of Anglo-American order is a range of anachronistic stereotypes that ensure that Asian languages, cultures, economies and strategies remain beyond the reach of our education and comprehension. Our fine diplomatic aspirations are exposed simply as rhetoric.


Almost a quarter century ago, the 1989 official publication authored by Ross Garnaut, Australia and the Northeast Asian Ascendancy, foreshadowed the 2012 Australia in the Asian Century report. Yet, it produced very little action apart from a growth in the economic interaction noted above. Yet over the past half century, and particularly the past quarter century, East and South East Asia have progressively, if discreetly, taken the place of the West as the dynamic centre of the global economy, and, more broadly, the global order.

Trapped in Anglo-American Stereotypes

Australia has progressed not at all in developing the knowledge, skills and experience necessary to comprehend, explain and learn from the cultural tradition that has informed this remarkable peaceful rise of most of East and South East Asia. Media, academia and officialdom all comfortably observe the certainties of an Anglo-American order that is badly compromised by financial bankruptcy, economic uncompetitiveness, educational complacency and emerging technological decline.

Australians, like other Anglophone peoples, use the American alliance to legitimise a thoughtless loyalty and inactivity. This demands little independent judgement or input concerning the transformation taking place in the regional and global order. Though much talked about, Australia's Asian expertise is notable for its conformity with uninformed assumptions in distant parts of the world. There is little hint of any cautionary comment on America's pivot to Asia. Nor is there any meaningful recollection of the cultural challenges that have in the past extracted a high price, with poor reward, for the military, political and economic aspirations of the United States in the region.

In fact, despite the distinctive and pervasive cultural qualities of East and South East Asia, neither the recent Australia in the Asian Centuryreport nor the DFAT response reveal any understanding of the fact that Asia east of South Asia is characterized as much by the seminal influence of the Chinese classics as the West is by the Greek classics.

Contesting Chinese (Confucian) and Greek (Platonic) Traditions


Indeed, the notion that the future of the global community is well on the way to being defined by a contest between what might be called Confucian and Platonic thought cultures is utterly alien to almost everyone educated in the English language. Even more alien is the idea that Chinese classical thought culture is relatively fluid, intuitive, holistic and practical when compared to the West's abstractions, theories, rationality and habits of belief.

Today, the more than 2 billion people of East and South East Asia possess the world's largest financial reserves, most advanced manufacturing, best skill-embodied workforces, most competitive education systems and surprisingly practical innovative cultures. At the same time, the West, comprised of 33 0 million Americans and 530 million Europeans, is mostly characterized by financial bankruptcy, economic decline, harmful technology, failing education and frequently unsustainable innovation. Moreover, when addressing Asia, fabricated and less than critical disputes over the East and South Sea Islands become major distractions for English language media and policy.

The most remarkable character of this situation is that there is, in the English speaking world, no purposeful or organized curiosity about these developments. Indeed, the more learned the discourse, the more aggressive is the dismissal of any curiosity and the more confident is the assertion of ignorant orthodoxies. This can only be explained as the typical complacency and misjudged sense of superiority that accompanies End of Empire experiences throughout human history.

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About the Author

Reg Little was an Australian diplomat from 1963 to 1988. He gained high level qualifications in Japanese and Chinese and served as Deputy of four and Head of one overseas Australian diplomatic mission. He is the co-author of The Confucian Renaissance (1989) and The Tyranny of Fortune: Australia’s Asian Destiny (1997) and author of A Confucian Daoist Millennium? (2006). In 2009, he was elected the only non-ethnic Asian Vice Chairman of the Council of the Beijing based International Confucian Association. His other writings can be found on his website:

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