Julia Gillard began her last year as prime minister with a statement on national security declaring that “Australia enters a new era of national security imperatives”.
Pronouncing the end of the 9/11 decade, she looked to the future: “It will be an era in which the behaviour of states, not non-state actors, will be the most important driver and shaper of Australia’s national security thinking.”
In other words, time to get beyond a preoccupation with terrorism and look to the old-fashioned business of statecraft. She pointed in particular to the tensions between the United States and China as the defining question.
Tony Abbott, opposition leader at the time, took issue with her: “The most important security threats we face are Islamist terrorism and an unstable world.”
Two years on, Abbott has given his own prime ministerial statement on national security. It was wholly about terrorism and the rise of a “new dark age”. There was not a single word in last week’s speech on the dangers of competition between nations.
The rise of the barbarians of the so-called Islamic State is rightly concentrating a lot of time and energy in the civilised world.
Yet while we remain preoccupied with this new danger, the old ones are rampant.
Russia invaded Georgia in 2008. Today it is invading its neighbour, Ukraine, while pretending it is not. Russia has resumed long-range patrols of the US coastline by its nuclear-armed bombers. It is intimidating Europe with aggressive military manoeuvring.
A leader of the opposition movement, Boris Nemtsov, was gunned down in Moscow at the weekend. He was to lead a major protest rally against Vladimir Putin this week. Putin denies involvement in the murder.
Nemtsov was planning to unveil information, the opposition veteran said, about the Russian forces invading Ukraine, and this information would create “deep disgust” with Putin among the army and the security services.
China continues to advance its claims on the territory of its neighbours. Although it’s been smart enough to tone down its rhetoric in recent months, it has quietly raced ahead with building military bases and fortifications in four separate parts of an island chain that is also claimed by five other nations of Asia.
Satellite photos of the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea last month show that “where it used to have a few small concrete platforms, it now has full islands with helipads, airstrips, harbours and facilities to support large numbers of troops”, said an analyst at IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, James Hardy, reported in the Wall Street Journal.
“We can see that this is a methodical, well-planned campaign to create a chain of air and sea-capable fortresses across the centre of the Spratly Islands chain”, parts of which are also claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
Beijing had promised these countries that it would make no provocative moves on the Spratlys while it negotiated a code of conduct with all claimants. The US has described the accelerated Chinese construction program as “destabilising” and asked Beijing to desist. China, the world’s second-biggest military spender, has paid no heed.
Abbott was right to criticise Gillard for being too narrowly focused on one type of threat. But Abbot, similarly, was too narrow in his own statement. Both prime ministers were guilty of the same sin – faddism.
The truth is that Australia, and the world, have to face squarely all the threats to peace and stability. “States” and “non-states” alike. There is no need to divide them into separate baskets, with one in fashion and one out at any given moment. In fact, these rising risks can all be classed under the same broad political rubric. The world has seen it before.
The regimes in Russia, China and the so-called Islamic State are all fascist. The defining characteristics of fascists? First, they are authoritarian. Freedoms are curbed. The people are allowed no rights to resist the will of their rulers. Dissent is crushed, and crushed violently if necessary.
Second, power is highly centralised. Third, the nation is exalted above the people. Hypernationalism or jingoism is powered by a sense of historical grievance or victimhood. Putin says the West is intent on “tearing out the claws and teeth” of the Russian bear. His chief cause is restoring Russia to greatness.
China is overcoming its “century of humiliation” at the hands of Western imperialism. To this day, Chinese children are exhorted to “never forget national humiliation”. IS has declared its purpose is to “restore the caliphate”. Its leader and self-declared caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, announced that “the West has reduced the Islamic world to nothing”. His aim: “We want to restore the greatness of Islam.”
There are many differences. Russia is notionally a democracy; China is run by a party that is nominally communist; the so-called Islamic State claims to act in the name of Allah.
Yet all three operate as fascist entities. Fascism “abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion”, as Robert Paxton put it in his book, The Anatomy of Fascism.
In short, there is no need for Western leaders to play word games and declare security fashions. All three of these rising threats are enemies of freedom. They deny freedom to their own people, and they ride roughshod over the rights of other peoples.
The world confronts a resurgent fascism. It doesn’t seem that the West, absorbed with economic crises in Europe and political dysfunction in the US, comprehends fully the force and fury rising against it.
Peter Hartcher is the international editor.