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Thursday 17 Aug 2017 | 07:36 | SYDNEY
Thursday 17 Aug 2017 | 07:36 | SYDNEY

Beer and the foreign policy time tunnel

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12 December 2008 13:17

'Beer….beer…beer. Beer is the proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy!' That quote is supposed to have been uttered by Benjamin Franklin. If he didn’t actually say it – opinion is divided – I’m sure he would have endorsed the sentiment. I offered the beer theology argument at the close of an address at the Australian National University, at the conferring of awards ceremony for students of the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.

Giving a university conferring address is now added to my list of things that make you realise you are getting on in years. Other items include being older than the captain of the Australian cricket team (many season ago) and now older than the Australian Prime Minister and most of his front bench (thank goodness Simon Crean is still in Cabinet). The venerable BBC broadcaster Alistair Cooke had a similar list of ageing signposts– one of his best examples was when Admirals start calling your 'Sir'.

So what could I, as a 20th century steam-driven analogue guy, say to a crowd of 21st century citizens at the dawning of the digital age? The short answer I offered was:  it’s your century, and you’re going to fix it! The broader answer is that the crisis of finance – and crisis of confidence – has produced a hyperactive panic in much of the commentary out of Europe and the US.

How to view this feverish discussion about the-end-of-capitalism-as-we-know-it and what the Asia Pacific will look like when we dance to the Beijing consensus? The sound of corporations crashing and the wailing echoing through the global village touched an echo in my memory. I went back 40 years, to the moment I set off on the road to journalism. In 1968, I started on one of the addictions I still have to feed – I began reading three newspapers a day and devouring large amounts of news.

When that year dawned, Australia was still in shock. Somehow we had mislaid a Prime Minister. Harold Holt went swimming and never came back…and the craziness just built from there. The Tet offensive transformed our understanding of the Vietnam war…the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia….waves of youth-led demonstrations swept the Western world. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated.

The TV pictures that linger in the mind were not of the assassinations or the Vietnam war: it was of the race riots that burnt through America’s cities. The pictures were in black and white and the message was even darker. The burning ghettoes expressed the fear that America was two societies, one black, one white – separate but unequal. Broken by the war and America’s own ruptures, LBJ announced he would not run for re-election as President.

In Asia, China’s chaotic nightmare – the Cultural Revolution – was reaching a crescendo. In Indonesia, Suharto was formally named as President, to match the power he had already seized. Indonesia was slowly turning away from the horror of the 1965 coup and the hundreds of thousands of deaths that followed.

Economically, a golden era was ending. Around the corner loomed the 70s decade of oil shock and stagflation. Look there if you want to see why politicians embraced the let-it-rip market mantra.

Looking back on ’68, the big question wasn’t about whether the West was losing the Cold War, as it certainly was that year. And it wasn’t about the choices Asia would have to make. It was – at a deeper level -- about the legitimacy and moral worth of some of our institutions, even our societies. From that perspective, the following 40 years turned out surprisingly well. China turned to market socialism and robust democracies have blossomed in Indonesia, South Korea and the first Chinese democracy, in Taiwan.

This quick skip through history was not meant to offer some cheerful view that everything will miraculously turn out OK.  But the law of unintended consequences often turns up trumps, not dumps. Nothing is inevitable.

If the 20th century taught us anything, as Clive James says, it is that history does not have a discernable shape or direction, a predictable outcome. Having hung round a lot of politicians over the past few decades, I would put it more simply: the cockup theory of history is usually a more useful guide than the conspiracy theory.

Times might be tough for policy makers today. But I doubt they would want to trade places and face what confronted their predecessors 40 years ago.

Photo by Flickr user benrybobenry, used under a Creative Commons license.

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