Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Shaping the world of the future: Paul Keating on China

The Olympics, for all their faults have rather focused minds on the need to think through how we should respond to China's rise. So I was fascinated to read a speech today by former Prime Minister Paul Keating's calling for a new Enlightenment based on virtue and understanding, that draws heavily on some of the Pope's recent comments. And then to contrast it with an article in the Australian newspaper.

In essence, Mr Keating argues that if the West can't rise above its narrow-minded prejudices, it will be overtaken. It is a devastating analysis of the culture that draws heavily on some of Pope Benedict XVI's comments, and is well worth a close read even if you disagree strongly with where he is heading!

That said, my US (and likely some others!) readers might want to skip this one - it may well either discomfort or enrage you depending on your perspective on some of these questions...

A tale of two newspapers

The Australian today draws attention to the potential threat - the title of the article, Menace of the growing Red Fleet, says it all. It focuses on what (little) can be done military-wise in response, and basically argues that US has saved us before, we have to hope that they can do it again in the future.

The Sydney Morning Herald by contrast carries a speech by Mr Keating that points out some obvious fallacies in current US (and Australian) thinking, such as the idea that democratization will solve the problem (take a look at India and Pakistan he suggests). He argues that the approach implied by the direction of current US policy would be disastrous, not least because we are witnessing the eclipse of American power at the very same time as Russia and China are emerging nations that '...enjoy a power of galvanic action, politically and strategically, of the kind Europe had and used in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries'.

Have we become hollow men?

A lot of Mr Keating's arguments are not new - he has long argued that we are seeing a fundamental shift in the centre of gravity from Europe to Asia, and we need to come to terms with it, and find a way of building a new peace, rather than have it forced upon us. But he raises some important issues that Catholics should be thinking about in a framework that I think we can relate to (even for those of us, like myself who are rather less enamoured than he is of the last 'Enlightenment'!).

Mr Keating quotes some figures showing that 66% of the world's population now live in high income or high growth countries. He says:

"The key question now and the central one of this address is, can that two thirds of humanity, in those high income and high growth countries, assimilate that growth and prosperity, or will the condition itself corrode or hollow humanity out, slaking us of those earnest values and high convictions that have stood by us down through time.

Perhaps, more than that, will the seduction of secularity and self absorption lure us into a bubble of spiritless contentment, sustained only the inability of others to organise themselves effectively to disrupt or appropriate it?

Is it a case, as Pope Benedict recently remarked, that the Western world is a world 'weary of its own culture', a world 'weary of greed, exploitation and division, of the tedium of false idols and the pain of false promises'? That is, a world without a guiding light; one without absolute truths by which to navigate....

Benedict told us in Sydney that 'life is a search for the true, the good and the beautiful' and we know that whenever those objectives become subordinated, we become lost, in a morass of preferences and experiences uninformed by truth or ethics. Experiences, he went on to say, which detached from what is good or true, 'lead to moral and intellectual confusion and ultimately to despair'.

Are we capable - those of us in that opportune two thirds of humanity - of forging a second Enlightenment? One not solely dependent on science but one leavened by understanding and virtue, making the most of science. One which goes to the profound and innate dignity of every human life, transcending the old barriers of ethnicity and creed, and of course, geography.

In a world shrunk by transport and communications, vulnerable to shifts in climate and natural disasters and subject of devastating weapons and armouries, can a higher framework of co-existence obtain other than one governed by self interest or nationalism or indeed by a misplaced sense of superiority?

Benedict also told us in Sydney that the State cannot be 'the source of truth and morality'. That that source can only be a set of truths and values which devolve to what it means to be human, one to each other, society to society, state to state. In Benedict's terms, one of God's creatures.

We are currently living through one of those rare yet transforming events in history, a shift in the power in the world from West to East. For five hundred years Europe dominated the world, now for all its wealth and population it is drifting into relative decline.

Will our understanding of this transformation and our acceptance of its equity for the greater reaches of mankind, lead us to a position of general preparedness of its inevitability, or will we cavil at it in much the same way as Europe resisted the rise of Bismarck's creation at the end of the nineteenth century?"

Can the West be saved?

The central part of Mr Keating's speech is a rather alarming analysis of the threat to world peace posed by Russia, and the current move toward nuclear rearmament by a number of nations, including Britain. The problem of Russia, he argues, has largely been created by shortsighted US policies of the past. The threat, he argues, can be defused, but only by creating new modes of governance suitable for a globalised world.

He concludes:

"Against this backdrop remains the open question about 'the West' and its fibre. The question which was resoundingly answered by that generation who suffered the Depression and the Second World War and who delivered us into a new era of peace and prosperity. Is our culture a culture made compliant by too much coming too easily; producing a state of intellectual and spiritual lassitude which can only be shaken by the gravest threats; be they economic, environmental or indeed strategic?

As that pendulum swings from West to East, are the motivations for the West's former primacy swinging with it? Has the bounty of science and industrialisation with its cornucopia of production and wealth, encouraged us too far away from simpler requirements and concern for the needs of all?

Was the twentieth century a psychological age as Roger Smith in his History of Human Sciences pointed out, in which the self became privatised, while the public realm; the realm critical to political action for the public good, was left relatively vacant? As societies, have we taken our eye off public affairs for way too long?

Let me return to the theme I touched at the beginning of my remarks. Can we, all of us, assimilate; adjust ourselves to a constancy of peace and prosperity without lessening our regard for those enlivening impulses of truth and goodness? The search, as Benedict said, for what is good, beautiful and true.

A new international order based on truth and justice founded in the recognition of the rights of each of us to live out our lives in peace and harmony, can I believe, provide the only plausible long term template. The old order of victorious powers, of a compromised UN, a moribund G8 with major powers hanging on to weapons of mass destruction, is a remnant of the violent twentieth century. It cannot provide the basis for an equitable and effective system of world governance.

Just as world community concern has been ahead of the political system on issues such as global warming, so too world community concern needs to galvanise international action to find a new template for a lasting peace. One embracing all the major powers and regions. This can be done but it requires leadership and imagination. It cannot be done without understanding and virtue.

The philosopher Emmanuel Kant said some day there will be a universal peace; the only question, he said is, will this come about by human insight or by catastrophe, leaving no other outcome possible? Humankind demands that that proposition be settled in the former and not the latter."

Where to next?

Now personally I believe that there might be an alternative to the human insight or catastrophe dichotomy, namely the realization of the importance of God.

But all of this does provide a rather compelling case for the urgency of the task of creating a new Christendom, and the urgency of both the 'new' evangelization of the West, pushing ahead faster on some old-style evangelization of the East. It also points to the urgency of Catholics engaging in the public square on some of these debates.


Cardinal Pole said...

"profound and innate dignity of every human life"? Sorry old chap, not empirically verifiable. Now, who's for more bread and circuses?

I am surprised that you did not highlight this following bit, Terra, for its illogic:

"Benedict also told us in Sydney that the State cannot be 'the source of truth and morality'. That that source can only be a set of truths and values"

Hmm, sorry Mr. Keating, but a 'set of values' is not a source but a product: the source of the veracity of those values is either God or man. So either God does not exist and we decide values for ourselves (we are the source) or God exists and we must strive to conform our laws to His (He is the source). The State can and must decide. The State must confess Christ.

Terra said...


I do think you are misreading what Mr Keating had to say.

First, his statement on the profound and innate dignity of human life sounds like catholic teaching to me. Despite his admiration for the Enlightenment, I think he is in a similar place to many of the American 'Whig Thomists' (albeit with some diffferences over which features of the Enlightenment are positive), who believe that modern philosophy can be adapted to the Christian cause. Just because he is not in the 'My name is Kevin and I'm a Christian' self-publicization school doesn't mean he believes only in what can be proved by science.

Secondly, I don't think his words are necessarily rejecting the confessional state, just pointing out that the values that underpin that State come from a higher authority. His whole article is in fact a plea to assorted States to actually act in accordance with Christian values rather than pursue narrow self-interest in my view...

Sydney Vacantist said...

The views and opinions of Cardinal Pole help me to understand how the Enlightenment came about.

Cardinal Pole said...

Sydney Vacantist:

I note that you still have failed to explain on my blog why you think that the death penalty should be withheld. Perhaps you are better at one-liners than reasoned arguments. My offer is still open though.



"... doesn't mean he believes only in what can be proved by science"

My comment about human dignity wasn't directed so much at Mr. Keating himself but at humanists who purport to believe in human dignity without believing in God, when in fact, in the absence of God, preference utilitarianism seems to be the only logical world-view. And I note also that while humanists like to wax lyrical about human dignity the exceptions tend to flow thick and fast, chiefly with regard to abortion.

Joshua said...

Thanks, Terra, for alerting me to these comments - I found them very useful in trying to explain to others why secularism is an inadequate anthropology, to say the least. And I must say it's nice to read Keating's always informed diction.