Our Idealism Is As Cheap As It Comes

New Zealand Herald, April 28, 2003

Denis Dutton



Willy Brandt, the social democratic Chancellor of West Germany, was once upbraided by idealistic members of the New Zealand Labour caucus over Nato. As Mike Moore tells the story, Brandt explained his position to the New Zealanders, and added, "Idealism increases in direct proportion to your distance from the problem."

Since we are the most distant of all the world's democracies from dictators, oppression, religious fanaticism and threats of mass murder, we can afford to be the most idealistic of all.

Not for us, however, is the hard-fought idealism of a Solzhenizyn or a Sakharov. Neither is our idealism in danger of going tragically wrong, as, say, it did for the idealistic heroes who tried to assassinate Hitler in 1944.

No, our idealism is about as cheap as it comes.

Last year I found myself in a room full of articulate, educated New Zealanders discussing world events. The Howard Government had stopped the container ship Tampa on the high seas and was not going to permit the unregulated landing of refugees in Australia. The unanimous condemnation of Australia by these New Zealanders bothered me less than their haughty, condescending tone.

A memorable moment came when I challenged the group to explain what they would do with the stream of refugees were New Zealand situated west of Australia, instead of east. What would we do if the boats were coming to us first?

The possibility had never occurred to anyone present. Like our geographic isolation, our moral superiority to the Australians was simply a given.

The corollary of our bargain-basement moralism is the easy assumption that anyone with a view of world events different from ours must be cynical or corrupt or incompetent. So the Americans are in Iraq for the oil, we tell ourselves, or George W. Bush merely wants to be re-elected. Tony Blair is just Bush's poodle. The Australians are tagging along in hope of a trade deal.

Our smugness has revealed itself most recently in comments by the present and former Prime Ministers.

Helen Clark suggested that Al Gore would not have invaded Iraq and that the war was obviously "not going to plan." Both of these false statements were made on a day when Americans and Britons were dying fighting for the security of the Western world and the freedom of Iraqis from a ruthless dictator.

As if Clark's misjudgment were not enough, David Lange chimed in a week later, defending her notion that the war was a partisan political gesture on the part of a US President wanting re-election. He added that members of the American Administration were "thugs."

Clark's insult to Australia was worse. For her "the bottom line" was that "this Government doesn't trade the lives of young New Zealanders for a war it doesn't believe in, in order to secure some material advantage," meaning that John Howard is willing to send young Australians to their deaths to get free trade out of the Americans.

Clark's suggestion is truly repellent. Consider the situation: Australia is geographically large but underpopulated, with long, hard-to-secure borders, at the edge of what is becoming an explosively unstable region. China might go completely to pieces in the next 20 years. Muslim fanatics are blowing up churches in the Philippines. North Korea now boasts of nuclear weapons and, while starving its own people, threatens both South Korea and Japan.

Most ominously, there is Australia's near neighbour, Indonesia, with 233 million inhabitants, 88 per cent of whom are Muslim. It controls a huge standing army but has vast internal problems, in the rebellious Irian Jaya, for example. The mass killing of young Australians in Bali could be a foretaste of what might become endemic terrorism. Worse, an invasion of western Australia is possible.

I don't think such an invasion would ever happen. But I also never would have predicted that the Soviet Union would fold or that passenger jets would be flown into the World Trade Centre. The world has an awkward way of coming up with surprises.

In the face of these deep uncertainties, Australia has decided to throw in its lot with the most powerful country the planet has ever seen. Both Australia and the United States are brash, spirited nations, natural allies in democratic politics, Anglo-Saxon heritage and lively temperament. These buoyant, optimistic peoples love freedom and will fight to protect it.

It is unworthy for the New Zealand Prime Minister to rubbish the Australian decision as a cynical ploy to attain a trade advantage. It's as contemptible as suggesting that the Americans are in Iraq for the oil. The Americans, in case no one has noticed, have begun a long-term war against terrorists, mainly Islamo-fascists, and their potential helpers among rogue states capable of producing enriched uranium or other devices and materials for mass murder.

The ultimate aim is to make sure that no one ever sails into New York harbour with a nuclear bomb packed into a shipping container.

Anyone who thinks this is an unreasonable fear on the part of the Americans is living in the same fantasy land as our Prime Minister. It was she who said before September 11 that our region is an "incredibly benign strategic environment" and it is she who blithely continued on a trip to Europe on that fateful day, still imagining she would still be entertained by European leaders while the Americans were sweeping up the dead bodies.

Many in the New Zealand intelligentsia think we can keep dumping on Australia and the US indefinitely and that no price will ever be paid for our smug moralising. Our self-congratulatory idealism has blinded us to the serious dangers our present and former allies face. It is they, after all, who have witnessed the massacre of hundreds and thousands of their citizens.

If we are ever in immediate, mortal danger, who shall we turn to for help? Canada? The United Nations? The French?

May our luck continue. Not that we deserve it.


Denis Dutton teaches philosophy at Canterbury University.