Earlier this week Foreign Minister Julie Bishop gave a speech at the Sydney Institute in which she made the rather startling claim that terrorism represents 'what I see as the most significant threat to the global rules based order to emerge in the past 70 years - and included in my considerations is the rise of communism and the Cold War.' In fact, she seemed to go further by applying this description specifically to ISIS rather than to terrorism more broadly, though the speech is not completely clear on that point.
Others have already made the case that this is a somewhat ahistorical judgment on Bishop's part. It is also the wrong strategy. In the past I have criticised politicians for inflating the threat of extremist terrorism. It's not only factually incorrect to argue that the threat to Australia is 'existential', it is also counter-productive, because it elevates in status a cause which ought to be treated as much as possible as a criminal threat, not a political one. Terrorism is a tactic of the weak designed to provoke over-reaction from the strong, and rising to such provocation, even if only rhetorically, just helps the terrorists. After all, the primary cost of terrorism is not in the damage done by the terrorists, but by what we do to ourselves in response. ISIS, for instance, has so far done less damage to Western values than we have done by restricting our own liberties in the name of security. And the cost of al Qaeda's attacks on the US on 9/11 pales in comparison the cost of the wars launched in retaliation to that strike.
I think all of those arguments remain valid. Yet Bishop's references to the Cold War also prompt a different thought about historical perspective.
When we view the Cold War in its entirety, Bishop's claim that the war against ISIS is the most significant in 70 years is easy to counter because we know so much about how the Cold War developed. As Paul Dibb points out in today's Australian, The Cold War nearly resulted in a nuclear holocaust that might have led to human extinction. It was also marked by proxy wars all over the globe which killed hundreds of thousands. ISIS is a vastly smaller threat than the Soviet empire became.
However, we are only two years into the struggle against ISIS. So if Bishop (and her critics) are going to draw historical analogies with the Cold War, the proper point of comparison is not the 'mature' Cold War of the 1950s through to the 80s, but the early post-World War II stage. Bishop should have made her claim not from the position of historical hindsight, but in comparison to what we knew about the Soviet threat in the early years of the Cold War.
Based on those grounds, her claim might have looked slightly more credible. In 1946, for example, the Soviet Union didn't look all that mighty. It had lost 20 million people in defeating the Nazis, the Soviet economy was on its knees, and it did not yet have the A-bomb. Yet 1946 is the year Winston Churchill delivered a speech which, for many historians, marks the beginning of the Cold War. He warned that 'an iron curtain has descended across the Continent'. Eastern European capitals, he said, lay within a sphere 'subject in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and, in many cases, increasing measure of control from Moscow.'
I am not ready to credit Bishop with Churchillian prescience. I think she's wrong about the scale of the ISIS threat. But if she turns out to be right about ISIS in the way Churchill was right about the Soviet Union, it's worth pointing out that Churchill's speech called on the world to act through the United Nations, including by giving it armed forces, initially in the form of air squadrons from each of its member states ('They would not be required to act against their own nation, but in other respects they would be directed by the world organisation').
That's a bold proposal, to say the least, and what's notable about Bishop's speech is that she proposed nothing remotely as radical to meet this allegedly world-historical threat. Australia has sent a handful of fighter aircraft and a few hundred soldiers to Iraq to fight ISIS, a response Bishop calls 'proportionate and appropriate'. That tells a rather different story about how seriously Bishop takes the ISIS threat.
Photo by Flickr user Morgan Davis.