page loader

At what point did perceptions of a clear sighted, can do American start to change? Was it with the assassination of President Kennedy, Vietnam, with Johnson/ Nixon, Afghanistan with Reagan/Bush/Clinton/Bush, Iraq and the GFC with Bush, or with Trump? Whatever the point it has happened, and in foreign policy terms, America’s role in world affairs is about to be redefined.

I was recently in the Philippines and spoke to a cross section of people including businessmen and women and journalists on local papers including the ‘Philippine Daily Inquirer’, one of the more respected papers in the Philippines.

The general consensus was that the Philippine President, Rodrigo Duterte, would have moved toward China irrespective of who won the American Presidency. Duterte was described as a cunning and clever politician, who should be judged on his actions not his words. He has been very rude toward Obama, although quite conciliatory in his remarks about Trump. It was put to me that he believes he has Trumps measure.

All my interlocutors were critical of the activities of his death squads. At the street level people are pleased that neighbour hoods are ‘safer’, but no one believes it will last. The drug barons are untouched and protected by wealth and position. They will bide their time. Drug pushers and couriers can easily be recruited with grinding poverty providing a very strong incentive.

That aside Duterte has made his play clear. He wants an understanding with China that allows trade and economic activities, such as fishing in disputed waters, to take place. His recent visit to China was regarded as a success and he claimed aid and investment projects were promised amounting to US$32billion.

US officials in the Philippines were reported as playing down any major rift in the relationship, claiming that the US and the Philippines had historic, deep and abiding ties that would overcome any temporary hiccups. The US wants to ramp up its use of the Subic Bay naval facility and Clark air force base as part of its containment of China.

Duterte has turned his back on the recent adverse ruling of an International Tribunal at The Hague on China’s claims in the South China Sea. As a result China has allowed Pilipino fisherman to enter the waters around Scarborough Shoal for the first time since 2012. Chinese patrol boats although present have not interfered with fishing activities.

The Filipino President has made recent visits to Vietnam and Malaysia and according to senior journalists Duterte is seeking to pull ASEAN states together in order to collectively deal with China and the United States. They claimed Duterte would attempt to play the major powers off against one another and that he was looking for other states in the region to do likewise. Duterte also paid a recent visit to Japan which the local media claimed was a success.

Many of those I spoke to said there was a growing expectation that regional states would be able to increase trade and other opportunities through the foil of playing off China and the US, but also Japan and Russia if they showed an inclination to be independent players in the region. There was a belief that benefit could accrue to smaller states if they handled the diplomacy involved with alacrity.

Australia is seen as a possible participant in this developing dynamic, although recent, ‘all the way with the USA’ statements from Australia’s governing LNP, following the Trump victory, were seen as naive.

Australia has the opportunity to become a regional player and participant with ASEAN states and it should do so. It should seek to play our major trading partner off against our old ally. An ally who has demanded and received a lot more than it has given, from Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan to the FTA and expensive defence purchases, at times of dubious strategic value.

It is right to have reservations about aspects of China, but it is the major player in the region and reality demands that it be dealt with as such. And it has been a major presence in the region for thousands of years. It is from this perspective that it perceives its growing power and its place in the region. That is the new reality and we need to deal with it; has the US the maturity to do that. And would Australia really use it’s yet to be built submarines against its major trading partner? (Or against what might then be its rogue former ally!?) Why wouldn’t China seek to defend its trading partners and its trading routes with them?

Australia is changing, but it is in the grip of reactionary forces intent on hanging onto the past and as a result politics is dominated by white, mostly male conservatives. They are not inclined to be inclusive, innovative or imaginative. They will either go down screaming and kicking or with a whimper, hopefully the latter. However in the meantime they are denying the country opportunities.

Australian diplomats are capable of rising to the challenge; they should be encouraged to do so.

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat.

I went to a Chautauqua in Greensburg, Indiana in the Fall of 2015. It was held in the auditorium of the Greensburg Community High School on the 5th and 6th of November. So what, you might ask, is a Chautauqua?

Chautauqua was a movement to bring speakers on a variety of topics to rural and remote America. It was founded in 1874 on the banks of Lake Chautauqua in New York State. It was a feature of American life until the 1930’s when cars and radio undermined the need. It aimed to educate and put before communities people and ideas they would not otherwise be exposed to. It was strong on social justice and science but operas and jazz bands also toured as part of the mix.

The movement still exists in America but on a much reduced scale. Nine years ago a mid-west history teacher, John Pratt, revived the tradition and in conjunction with his high school has run a bi-annual Chautauqua, each with a different theme.

John brings to Greensburg celebrities, adventurers and reformers from around the world. Most forego fees in keeping with the philosophy of altruism and fostering of the public good embodied in the notion of Chautauqua and embraced and encouraged by John. It saves fundraisers and donors money and makes possible the holding of a really dynamic event in a small community. With respect to the Chautauqua I was lucky enough to participate in the guests, having agreed to donate their time, entered into the spirit of the undertaking.

The theme of the 2015 Chautauqua was, “Based on a true story”. There were eight participants all of whom had been portrayed in feature length films. David Paterson was depicted in ‘Bridge to Terabithia’ adapted from his mothers book about David’s life. Sister Helen Prejean, a long term and fearsome advocate of the abolition of the death penalty in the US was played by Susan Sarandon in ‘Dead Man Walking’. Benjamin Mee, was depicted in ‘We Bought a Zoo’, he still runs the zoo in Dartmoor, UK. Dr Jeffrey Wigand was portrayed in, ‘The Insider’. He was a whistle blower with respect to the tobacco industry in the US. He was played by Russell Crowe. John McLaughlin, a policeman who led first responders into the World Trade Centre. He was buried for 22 hours when the building collapsed. He was in an induced coma for six weeks and was operated on 27 times. Nicholas Gage played him in the Oliver Stone film, ‘World Trade Centre’; and myself, portrayed by John Hargreaves in the Richard Attenborough anti-apartheid film, ‘Cry Freedom’.

There was also a local baseball hero, Bobby Plump, from the 1954 Milan Indians championship game, shown in the film ‘Hoosiers’ and Daniel Diaz, a Mexican/American who pulled himself out of poverty through his success at running. He was depicted in the film, ‘McFarland USA’ starring Kevin Costner. Each of the guests was allocated an hour and a half, with half the time given over to questions. I had the furthest to fly and was the first to arrive. My time was not wasted as I spoke to many classes in the host school of over 1000 pupils. It was great fun.

Guests at other Chautauqua’s included Susaye Greene, a member of the Supremes, Ron Rosser, Korean War Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, Ed Asner star of the ‘Mary Tyler Moore Show’, Nancy Nevins, lead singer of ‘Sweetwater’, John Stokes, original plaintiff in Brown v Board of Education, Dr. Terrance Roberts and Carlotta LaNeir of the Little Rock Nine and Jill Wine-Banks, a member of the Watergate prosecution team.

Funding is from local businesses, government and school fund raising. Each Chautauqua has its own theme and John says, “It is something big, something that changed or saved lives.” High school students volunteered to look after the guests for the period of their stay. I was lucky to get Adrian Hunter and Lauren Koester, well mannered and bright as buttons; they took me under their wing and showed me all there was to see including the piggery where Lauren worked after school. Greensburg bases its wealth on agriculture, corn is grown but most cattle are now sadly raised in feed lots. Because of this there were not many fences. The students, town and beyond turned up in droves for the sessions. The Greensburg Library hosted a Q&A with some of the guests.

The concept of a Chautauqua could be applied in Australia, particularly in rural Australia. The idea is to open students and the town to the wider world, to let them hear and interact with guests who have had unique experiences and contributed positively to humanity.

At the cost of covering expenses John has said he would be happy to come to Australia and help communities get a Chautauqua or an Australian equivalent off the ground. John can be contacted on,

Bruce Haigh is a retired diplomat and political commentator