This week in Sydney, US Senator John McCain made a speech on Australia-United States relations that ought to have been as surprising to us as gravity. This was textbook post-war Pax Americana: only the US can guarantee world peace; only the US can set the terms of trade; “No one has ever gotten rich betting against America.” Really? Tell that to the short-sellers of the world.
Given that we Australians have been hearing this malarkey since 1945, you’d think that the description “extraordinary” was a little misplaced. Still, this is how local media responded to a boilerplate moment. While there was once nothing exceptional about statements of US exceptionalism, now, McCain’s calls for a full return to DC-led international order made our journalists swoon.
Call me old-fashioned, but I miss a time when this stuff caused us to groan or protest. Opposition to the US invasion of Iraq was very widespread among the young just a decade ago. Older Australians had long thought of Americans as flashy and deluded about the purity of their hegemonic intentions. We all received America’s gifts of military alliance and nylon stockings, but we didn’t accept the Land of the Free crap that went along with it.
Over at News Corp and at Fairfax, though, they’re now eating it up with a spoon sold in preferential trade. This ordinary speech is now extraordinary, simply because we all despise Donald Trump — an execrable and dangerous person, to be certain, but in possession of a single good quality: he doesn’t sermonise to other nations about “democracy”.
I guess a lot of our commentators are missing these sermons, as they received McCain’s with such uncritical joy. Not only is the man himself forgiven for the role he personally played in the US rise of Paleo-conservativism by giving the monstrous Sarah Palin a platform, but everything the US ever did, including war atrocities in the Middle East and North Africa that we know have led to our own problems with domestic terrorism, is forgiven as well.
This guy? Really? The man who spoke out so forcefully and influentially against the Obama administration’s crowning foreign policy achievement, the Iran nuclear deal? He is our peace guy?
As far as I can tell, our journalists suspended criticism of the liberal Republican for two reasons. First, they’re having a protracted nervous breakdown about the long death of daddy — like it or not, US global power has been diminishing since the end of the Cold War. Second, McCain offered the line that China “seems to be acting more and more like a bully”.
That McCain’s description of China — a nation, apparently “asserting vast territorial claims that have no basis in international law” — applies very precisely to the post-war US could not be perceived by our papers. This is not just due to their revulsion for Trump, which produces a tolerance for anything that isn’t Trump, but, I reckon, the choice of the word “bully” itself. The overused term can now describe anything, from vehement disagreement to building infrastructure for the Global South. But it always means “bad”.
News of McCain’s speech came to me yesterday as I had felt the word “bully” wielded in two distinct contexts. First, a young sales clerk in a women’s clothing chain-store demanded money from me for a vague corporate empowerment program that would “stop bullying of girls in our schools!” (I didn’t give her any). Then, in a curious and widely reported interview with world champion bigot Margaret Court, I saw it again. Opposition to her opposition is, you guessed, it “bullying”.
“Bullying” has come, rather craftily, to signify anything one doesn’t like, from the stuff I write in Crikey to the PRC’s economic growth. From the schoolyard to international relations, the “bully” stands as the threat that doesn’t need to be explained. To oppose the bully is an effective virtue signal for women’s chain-stores. To describe, as Court does, the anti-bullying program of Safe Schools as itself bullying is now peculiarly possible. To say to an immense audience, as both Andrew Bolt and Shannon Molloy have done, that you are being “silenced” by bullies, even as you are as amplified as you can possibly be in this nation, is somehow acceptable.
This is the, um, bullying power of the term “bully”. It has now elevated trivial moments of disagreement and trivialised serious moments of genuine abuse.
And, it makes it possible for McCain’s very ordinary plea for a return to Cold War conditions — those that guaranteed US dominance of two-thirds of the globe — to be read as “extraordinary”.
China is no “bully”–which is not to say it’s as benign as a high-school self-esteem program. It is to say that the power has carefully expanded over the decades. And largely with projects that promise, or deliver, prosperity. But without very many empty sermons about the good old days, such as that lapped up by our nervous journalists and delivered by John McCain.