Censor what?

Wednesday, 8 December 2010 

What happens when a truckload of internal briefings from the US State Department gets dumped into a political vacuum? It ends up becoming a discussion about process. Or, as it is fashionably known these days, censorship.

First let’s deal with a bit of slipperiness that has crept into the debate. Any organisation, whether business, political or government, that must deal with opposing interests, needs to have a difference between what is said internally and what is presented externally. If there are those that are arguing for full transparency in the US State Department, then they are really saying that the US State Department should not operate. Some might want to argue this (the body count can get rather high), but to call for full disclosure without carrying it to its consequences is just hypocrisy.

But the hypocrisy is flying round in all directions. All the attention of governments has been focussed on Assange, but surely the one who is really at the centre of this is the one who leaked all the documents, not the one who stuck it on a website. The dysfunctional state of the US State Department that would allow such a massive breach is of course the unmentionable throughout this whole affair. It is not the first time. At another period of dysfunctionality in the US government, when the Vietnam War was starting to go wrong, we had the release of the Pentagon Papers detailing Washington’s role in the conflict. At that time it was dropped into a furious public debate about a war that the US was starting to lose. This time a whole lot of stuff is being released into nothing.

If the US State department is indulging in displacement activity by focussing on Assange rather than its own internal problems, they are not the only one. It is almost as though the discussion around the rights and wrongs of this random blowout of internal briefings from the US State Department has become a substitute for any real discussion for what it actually does and Australia’s role alongside it. We have already seen that the lack of domestic political pressure, combined with a war that the US can’t win, nor really lose, has left Australia caught up in a perma war that Gillard is under no pressure to draw a line under. In this context, news that the Afghan government is corrupt is forgotten almost as soon as it is revealed.

Even Assange is at pains to downplay the significance of the material released (probably the pressure he is under would encourage him to say that, but he makes a convincing case); preferring instead to emphasise the right to make such disclosure than whether there is any point to it. But this ‘censorship’ is less the US government dealing with a real problem resulting from the leaks, as it was when it tried to suppress the publishing of the Pentagon Papers, but an attempt to get hold of a process that could get out of control.

The doo-dah around Wikileaks sums up, on a grand scale, what has been an ongoing bogus discussion about censorship elsewhere. It has been especially sensitive on the internet. It is not nice to see people in positions of power bullying members of the public who make use of the internet. But the content of what is going on has been distorted on all sides. For what has been largely driven by an insecure elite, whether it’s union bureaucrats unused to public debate attacking anonymous bloggers, or newspaper editors pursuing phoney cultural wars by threatening someone on Twitter, the charge of censorship is being used to glorify it as something from below, for what is really just insecurities from above.

For the US, the weakness has come out with Australia’s most prominent entry into the Wikileaks saga, the revelation of Rudd’s advice to Clinton on China. If anyone seriously believes the US is reliant on Rudd on how to handle China, then they should travel more and get a grip on Australia’s position in the world. The idea that the US State Department would not have more expertise to handle the Chinese than Rudd’s few years as a diplomat in Beijing is a delusion that only journalists like Paul Kelly could entertain. Kelly shows how he is missing the point of it when he leaps on Clinton’s comments on “dealing with our banker” and notes:

As Clinton conceded, China has become America’s banker and this highlights a financial interdependence between the US and China without precedent in world history.

It is hard to know what Kelly thinks is unprecedented. Certainly it’s not US reliance on a foreign power to finance it. The US has been relying on Asian holdings of dollar reserves for decades. In the 1980s, it was Japan and even that hysteria about the rivalry from a major developed industrial power had far more grounds than concerns over what is still an emerging nation today. It was that relationship with Japan, and at the time, other exporting countries like Germany that the US leaned on in the 1980s to get out of recession. Under the aegis of Reagan’s second Cold War, the US used its political muscle to produce the desired economic result.

The US’s problem this time is not that China is supporting the dollar, but that it doesn’t have the political agenda to manage it to its advantage. It’s not knowledge on how to handle China that the US needs, but a global political agenda. Clinton is not asking Rudd for his opinion as a Chinese expert from his years as a diplomat, but from what he was at the time, the head of a political class that more than most in the region needed the US to have a political purpose. If that means the US being there as the only one capable of “containing” China militarily should something go wrong, then that will have to do. As usual, China-fretting is a surrogate for a much more awkward problem, the premature political decline of what is still the world’s pre-eminent economic power. The Wikileaks blowout symbolises how that political weakness is working through, but little more.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Wednesday, 8 December 2010.

Filed under International relations

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7 responses to “Censor what?”

  1. Tweets that mention Censor what? :The Piping Shrike -- Topsy.com on 8th December 2010 9:00 am

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Penni Russon, S. H. Convery and Andrew Bunn, The Piping Shrike. The Piping Shrike said: Wikileaks doo-dah misses the point http://bit.ly/hd9QqT […]

  2. Riccardo on 8th December 2010 1:01 pm

    Another excellent post. This is the one a few of us have been waiting for as an analysis of the international political system.

    Do all countries overstate their influence on the world? Or is it the insecurity of a conquering race in a part of the globe distant from their origins, having emasculated the original owners, in charge of a large continent from a position numerical weakness.

    Kimbo Beazley was always talking about ‘punching above his weight’ which means a fair bit of punch coming from him – but I did wonder why he characterised foreign affairs as punching.

    The other taboo subject is the US Alliance and what it is really about – that

    a) we won’t spend enough taxpayers money on our own military, and therefore want to ride on somewhere elses or

    b) recruit our own soldiers in sufficient numbers, by explaining exactly what the need is to the population, or use conscription to achieve a similar effect or

    c) or try and get along with the neighbours, maybe accommodate some of their ambitions or concerns, and generally try to keep out of trouble.

    No-one will begrudge us sending our military to peacekeeping or disasters or whatever…but we have a US Alliance that delivers our involvement in significant wars beyond our immediate concern, the unspoken price of an insurance policy we don’t know will ever be honoured.

  3. The Piping Shrike on 9th December 2010 3:43 am

    For Australian politicans, the US alliance is above all a political rather than military alliance. It gives the political class an authority it otherwise wouldn’t have. The military commitments are just dues.

  4. Dr_Tad on 9th December 2010 6:49 am

    Whoa, TPS, that last comment is a big call.

    I think you risk artificially separating the domestic function of the state (elite rule by a mixture of consent and coercion) and its external function (protecting/advancing national elite interests in a field of global competition) by stating it that baldly.

    There is no doubt the internal political function you describe is true and vital, and that the balance of which aspect (external or internal) predominates in politicians’ thinking at any one time can shift, but you seem to almost be trying to reverse the excesses of realist discourse with theoretical excesses of your own.

    Just saying…

  5. The Piping Shrike on 9th December 2010 8:29 pm

    Dr T, I’m not separating the two but highlighting how they are coming together. What I am saying is that both the internal need for the US alliance for political purposes is seeing the rationale for military conflicts abroad becoming increasingly political as well. It’s not really since Australia joined other pro-colonial forces in putting down insurgencies in Malaysia and Indonesia in the 1960s that Australia’s military ventures have had a clear military goal. Rather it’s generally political ventures (such as the Gulf War I and II) but now even that is draining away.

    So we now have the Afghan war without military nor really political rationale becoming little more than dues for being allowed to hang around senior US political figures.

  6. Amber Dekstris on 9th December 2010 8:40 pm

    DT, funny how people have different points of view — I thought PS’s comment 3.43am was a statement of the obvious.

  7. James on 14th December 2010 11:18 am

    The mainstream media are using the Wikileaks cables to have it all ways that suit them.

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