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There is nothing very exceptional about American Exceptionalism other than many Americans find themselves exceptional and demand that others do likewise. Australian Exceptionalism is risible.

Many American’s believe that, in the words of Tina Turner, America is ‘Simply the Best’. The notion of American Exceptionalism can be traced to the founding fathers, it evolved through the crucible of WWII into a belief that America’s destiny was to lead the world. A notion, once evangelical, became a propaganda crusade deployed in fighting the German Nazis, Italian Fascists, Japanese Militarism and later Communists in Korean and the Cold War. In reality it is all about power. With the birth of American Military Exceptionalism grew the need to maximise international outcomes favourable to America, particularly the acquisition of wealth. To do this it needs to see off rivals. American Military Exceptionalism exists and is nurtured in the Pentagon and State Department.

There are many strands to American Exceptionalism, some are idealistic, believing that America with God’s will could create a better world. That view was tied into the churches but now has become tangled into military exceptionalism which sits comfortably with increasing evangelical right-wing Christianity.

One strand is held domestically and broaches no criticism. It is narrow, inward looking and holds that America can achieve whatever it wants, whenever it wants. It is blind and exists in the face of reality. It is a view held on the right of American politics and is allied to and at times intertwined with the evangelical Christian right. It was held by President Ronald Reagan and Vice President Dick Chaney. It believes in the overwhelming superiority of American arms and believes those arms should be used to support outcomes favourable to maintaining American prestige and pre-eminence. A veritable Catch-22.

Another is held outside of America and dates back to the visits of European intellectuals and industrialists in the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century. They were awed by the wealth and power displayed by the furnaces of Pittsburgh, the trans-national railways and skyscrapers of New York and Chicago; by the opulence of theatres, universities and other public amenities. And they wrote, indeed gushed about America with envy. It is a view held by overseas right-wing politicians such as Thatcher, Johnson, Howard and Morrison.  

American Exceptionalism is often referenced back to Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson was of a type all too familiar, strong on words and ideals and weak on practice. He was a major slave owner, with a slave mistress, who saw the ‘solution to salves’ in America as sending them back to where they had come from rather than emancipation. Despite the fine words in the Declaration he refused to envision black and white Americans as equal.

With American Exceptionalism finding its apotheosis at the end of WWII, wartime propaganda was refined into a broad spectrum championing of all things American, from the Red Woods to RCA, by the media and given expression, from amongst others, by The New Yorker, Life, Newsweek, Time and National Geographic magazines, The Wall Street Journal, Newsreels, Hollywood and Sitcoms. The media in Australia was worshipful and sycophantic in its reportage of all things American, particularly cars, clothes and consumer durables. American Exceptionalism had strong currency with my generation as we went through school and university, helped along by the Cold War.

The myth becomes reality when applied to music, movies, medical research and sport. The American hold on technology as expressed through the automotive, aviation and space industries and Silicon Valley was exceptional but the lead and reputation gained has been whittled away by competitors such as Germany, Japan, South Korea and most recently China – a source of great anxiety to America. Success in sport, and America has been very successful, is an extension of the battle ground to maintain Exceptionalism. Other countries know it and have adopted ‘whatever it takes’ including taking drugs to beat America.

Some, maybe many, Protestant churches in America support the notion of exceptionalism, particularly in the south where it has co-existed with white supremacy. Many educational institutions support the notion along with the armed services where it is linked to patriotism.

Nonetheless the notion of a broad and encompassing American Exceptionalism is hard to encompass when set against the reality of history with respect to continuing discrimination against Black and Indigenous Americans – reservations and the disempowerment that accompanied their establishment, past segregation, job discrimination and tolerance of the KKK. The hostility of the President and the Murdoch press to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and support for the gun lobby undermine claims of exceptionalism.

No doubt there are many Black and Hispanic Americans who believe in American Exceptionalism but if so, they are probably sharing American wealth. Those who do not, and there are many, can be forgiven for not embracing Exceptionalism. And the chances are they are being discriminated against. American exceptionalism does not embrace discrimination.    

The ignominious defeat in the Vietnam war, despite a significant advantage in men and materiel, together with a messy campaign in Iraq, leading to Middle East instability, and an unsuccessful campaign in Afghanistan, which saw the Taliban regain control of much of the country, put paid many international perceptions of American Exceptionalism. Despite these loses, the American defence establishment continues to believe in its own invincibility.

There are hundreds of US bases around the world with 200,000 troops deployed to them. There are four US bases in Australia, with the US also having access to ADF bases and training areas. Since 9/11 the US has spent $6.4 trillion on wars in the Middle East and securing what it regards as its right to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, even though those rights were never under threat.  The US has fifty bases ringing China with the intention of containment and control; all of this to maintain American supremacy, which is itself based on the notion of exceptionalism.

We are told by Australian politicians that Australia has shared values with the US. ‘We’, the people, share some, but not many, the ruling political and business class share more. In considering American Exceptionalism we should look at Australian Exceptionalism which is based on sport and the ‘Anzac tradition’.

In my opinion Australian Exceptionalism is shrill, shallow, showy and superficial and does not stand up under scrutiny. It is embraced by conservatives in the community and the right in politics. It finds expression on Australia and Anzac Day. Cars are adorned with, and people wrap themselves in, the Australian flag.

The cultural contribution we could make is scorned and defunded by elected leaders. Aboriginal culture is derided and sacred sites and trees destroyed. Australia produces little other than mines. Good inventions, such as solar panels first invented in Australia, had to go offshore in 1983 to be produced. What Australia might be and what it is are two different things. We have failed to make ourselves exceptional whilst our leaders are besotted and blinded by their perception of American Exceptionalism.

Since Trump became President the relationship between the US and China has deteriorated to the point that some observers talk of war. Why is this? In simple terms America feels threatened by China’s rapidly expanding wealth and influence. Dangerous confrontation has resulted and Australia has been sucked in. How far remains to be seen, but it is not in Australia’s interest to be used by Trump or Murdoch.

By the early 1990’s America was pleased with itself. The narrative was that Reagan had seen off the USSR. The Soviets had been forced to withdraw from Afghanistan through American backing of the Mujahideen. Their economy collapsed because America had forced more spending on defence than they could afford. The fall of the Berlin wall in November 1989 foreshadowed the loss of the Soviet empire. The Americans declared they had won the Cold War. But when they looked around, they found China staring at them with a degree of self-confidence they hadn’t noticed. They did not have the field to themselves.

China crushed the Democracy Movement in August 1989. Premier Li Peng acted swiftly after the bloody put down in Tiananmen Square was transmitted around the world. His zeal was driven by loss of face. A year on, confidence returned and China built on the economic reforms instigated by President Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin when he became President in 1993.

One set of eyes focused on China were those of Rupert Murdoch. However almost at the same moment he set his sights on what he saw as a huge untapped communications market he blew it. In a speech delivered in London in 1993, Murdoch said, ‘Advances in the technology of telecommunications have proved an unambiguous threat to totalitarian regimes everywhere.’ Bruce Dover, who worked for Murdoch in China, observes in his book, ‘Rupert’s Adventures in China’, that when reports of Murdoch’s speech reached the Chinese leadership, Li Peng ‘was incandescent with rage’.

Mesmerized as he was with a vision of the wealth and power that a slice of the Chinese telecommunications market would deliver, it was to no avail. He was frozen out by the Chinese leadership. Nonetheless he kept trying, he spent money, a lot of it, but every move he made was blocked. He was not trusted. He employed an American educated Chinese national, Wendi Deng, to open doors for him but in 1999 before her failure became apparent, they married. They were divorced in 2013.

Murdoch has no love of China and his media empire reflects that. Lachlan, his son and heir apparent shares his views. Both father and son are close to Donald Trump, who continues the erosion of American prestige and power, assisted by earlier ill-advised incursions into Iraq, Afghanistan and the GFC.

Trump, unable to comprehend the cause of the American decline, rounded on China and was willingly assisted and encouraged by Murdoch and his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is looking for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024. He believes denigrating China will secure his base. He refers to, ‘the conflict with China’ as one between, ‘freedom and tyranny’. And Trump adviser, if there is such a person, Peter Navarro, calls China an adversary and ‘strategic enemy and revisionist power’.

China has not helped its cause. As its wealth has grown so have notions of its power and entitlement. This has grated with America. It has sought control over the South China Sea (SCS) and sea bed resources. In response to the US military encirclement it has militarised the SCS with the construction and occupation of islands and deployment defence resources, including naval, missile and air force. The US has bases or the use of bases in Darwin, Tindal, Changi, Korat, Trivandrum, Guam, Saipan, Tinian, and maybe Wake and Palau.

Regional nations are concerned at moves by China which infringe upon their sovereignty but they continue trade, tourism, cultural, education and scientific exchanges and they maintain a dialogue, which is more than Australia can claim.

China has not closed shipping routes through the SCS and has made no moves to do so. Why would it? A large percentage of its trade passes through the SCS. Yet the United States followed by Australia claims that China does wish to close shipping routes. It conducts Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) by sending war ships through the SCS. Australia has joined these exercises but to date has refused to sail within the 12 nautical mile limit, most recently reiterated at the July AUSMIN.

The Murdoch press together with right wing backbenchers and think tanks, most notably led by the Australia Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), founded and funded by the Australian government, the US government and arms manufacturers, have led the anti-China push. ASPI exists in a feed lot. US produced information is passed to it which it then regurgitates to the Australian government and media. This biased and lop-sided process dumbs down debate.

The US and Australian governments refuse to hear anything favourable about the Chinese government referring to it over past months as the Chinese Communist Party, a term designed to adversely brand and denigrate. It is puerile. In Australia adverse perceptions toward China found expression in an AFP/ASIO raid on the home of NSW parliamentarian Shaoquett Moselmane on 26 June, allegedly for “unauthorised contact with China”. There were vague murmurs of spying. Moselmane is taking the matter to the High Court. The mentality behind the raid is of concern. In democracies Intelligence agencies must be neutral and impartial and seen to be so.

Australia’s relationship with China is at its lowest point since diplomatic relations were established in 1972. And all because Australia is doing the bidding of Murdoch and the Trump administration. After a call to Trump, Morrison said the Covid19 virus originated in Wuhan and called for an investigation into the origins of the virus. It is nonsense to call for an enquiry when you announce what you believe the finding will be. It was obvious that Morrison, Dutton and Payne were being judgemental and seeking retribution. China was already embarrassed about the outbreak; they didn’t need their nose rubbed in it by a yapping dog. Australia caused loss of face. As tough as he would like to be seen Premier Xi Jinping has a glass jaw.

China has responded with cancellation of orders for Australian beef, barley and possible bans on students and tourists. It is looking for some understanding from Morrison for what is regarded as a calculated insult. They want face restored. It is beyond the comprehension of Morrison but perhaps not Payne. Australia cannot afford to be where the LNP has placed it with respect to China.

A different reading of China would see it as both assertive and defensive. It is flexing its muscles and literally testing the waters, but it remains unsure of itself. The US is bullying in trying to contain a largely contrived threat. However, as they have done before they may bring about the result they are allegedly seeking to avoid.

Australia must uncouple itself from the Murdoch/Trump axis. We don’t need it. The LNP feel they owe Murdoch for all his help. They have given News Corporation millions of taxpayers’ dollars. If they don’t uncouple, we will have to contend with Lachlan, who will be a more difficult task master than his father and more hard line on China, if that’s possible.

Australia needs to engage or re-engage with China. It needs to deploy diplomacy to engage with China, whenever and where ever around the globe. All of our diplomatic missions should be tasked with this. China is our most important relationship, now and into the future.

Bruce Haigh is a retired diplomat and political commentator.