BEFORE THE WAR on terror, there was the Cold War. When the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) was formed in 1949, it was frequently described as Australia’s ‘fourth arm of defence’ after the army, air force and navy. Labor Prime Minister Ben Chifley created ASIO because the United States refused to share defence and technology information with Australia. The US said that Australia had been penetrated by Soviet intelligence and defence secrets would not be safe until it had created a professional agency for internal security. Chifley did this just before Labor was swept from office in 1949. ASIO bore the hallmarks of World War II as it prepared for the dangers of a third world war. Robert Menzies, the incoming prime minister, appointed the former head of military intelligence, Charles Spry, to run ASIO, entrenching a military ethos in the new body. In 1951, Menzies said he aimed to put Australia on a ‘semi-war footing’ and that democracies had no more than three years to prepare for a new war.
Preparations for the outbreak of a third world war saw ASIO officers spend thousand of hours preparing legal briefs that ensured over a thousand leaders and activists of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) would be marched into internment camps were war to eventuate. At several points during the Cold War, police and security carried out raids on the homes and offices of communists. For several decades, national politics pivoted on a fear of communism. The Liberal–Country Party coalition won election after election by smearing the Labor Party as having communist influences.
There are lessons from the Cold War that are relevant today, but they are not necessarily the lessons that some might imagine. Today, many people see the Cold War as the persecution of a small minority over their views by a secret security agency whose actions were largely dictated by the political need for an internal enemy around whom all kinds of exaggerated fears could be stoked. Many people see the current issue of terrorism in a similar way: a small religious community is being persecuted by a powerful and secret agency that uses raids and arrests to stoke exaggerated fears of terrorism, which is politically convenient to the current conservative government. This comparison between the Cold War and the conflict over terrorism is both misleading and superficial. To understand why, it’s necessary to look concretely at the nature of the fears and threats.
DURING THE COLD War, the communist threat to national security was grossly inflated: the Communist Party of Australia never had the capacity to launch a revolution. True, at times it was able to make life difficult for governments and employers through its strength in the trade union movement, but this was far from a realistic threat to overthrow the government in a style akin to the Russian Revolution. Moreover, from the start of the Cold War through the 1960s and 1970s, the CPA’s capacity to exercise political influence shrank continuously. (Paradoxically, while this was occurring ASIO was gaining strength and prominence.) Nor was the CPA a violent organisation that might present some form of threat to the civil order. The fundamental reason for the heavy surveillance of the CPA was its links with the Soviet Union; in turn, this led a small number of party members to commit espionage by leaking a series of secret British documents to the Soviet intelligence service.
What of the nature of ASIO during the Cold War? It was a largely unaccountable body whose operations and actions were totally secret. From 1949 until 1972, Liberal prime ministers and attorneys-general frequently used ASIO for unofficial political vetting, as well as encouraging it to target political movements that were opposed to conservative views. The author of ASIO’s recent official history, David Horner, said that this approach ‘had a corrosive effect within ASIO whose officers came to believe that leftist dissent – and the advocacy of what would become relatively mainstream views about feminism, social welfare and indigenous Australians – indicated potential disloyalty’.
Little of this bears any resemblance to the contemporary issue of terrorism and security. The Cold War communists bear no resemblance to the modern religious terrorist groups, nor does the ASIO of the Cold War resemble the ASIO of today. The CPA of the Cold War was a radical political group embedded in the labour movement. Although it was allied to the Soviet Union and doggedly followed its political direction (until the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968), the CPA also represented a local radical tradition that stretched back well before the 1917 Russian Revolution. Whatever illusions it held about the revolutionary potential of Australia, it was a secular, progressive force whose Marxist ideology constituted a continuation of the radical wing of the Enlightenment. This is a long way from the various organisations that represent the violent aspect of Islamist fundamentalism. These groups form a new global force in the post-Cold War world. Apart from Syria and Iraq, Islamist terrorism is a major force in Kenya, Mali, Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Philippines. Among other things, they bomb schools that educate young women, as well as kill those they perceive as critical of their violent version of Islam.
The nature of ASIO, too, has changed markedly since the Cold War. Today, complaints about its actions are regularly investigated by the inspector-general of intelligence and security. It reports to a parliamentary committee, is obliged to produce a public annual report to government and advertises for potential employees openly. Its requests for additional powers are vigorously and freely debated. None of this is perfect, but none of this existed during the Cold War. Perhaps the greatest difference is this: during the Cold War, ASIO spied on the nebulous political force of ‘subversion’. Today, it spies on criminal offences defined by law (such as terrorism and related offences). When ASIO information leads to raids and the arrest of individuals, these actions are tested by the court system. This is light years from the Cold War, where progressive individuals were denied jobs or discriminated against on the basis of unknown information and untested claims.
IT IS TRUE that fear of terrorism within Australia is politically useful to conservative leaders, who are more than happy to pose as the protector of ordinary people against terrorism. But this does not mean that terrorism is a contrived threat exaggerated largely for political purposes. If people on the left oppose point-blank any changes to anti-terrorism laws, then they play into the hands of such conservatives.
After the events in Martin Place on 15–16 December 2014, we cannot imagine (if we ever could) that the threat of terrorism in Australia is negligible. Over a hundred Australians have been killed in terrorist attacks in Indonesia since September 2001. Within Australia, two major terrorist attacks were prevented in 2005, largely through the actions of ASIO and the federal police. The planners of these attacks were brought to trial, found guilty and jailed. Most are still in jail, but one of those with a shorter term was released in 2009, and last year went to Syria to fight with the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Around seventy Australians are participating in the Syria–Iraq conflict, mainly with the terrorist organisations Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIL. In 2013, an Australian man drove a truck bomb into a Syrian checkpoint. In July 2014, an eighteen-year-old man from Melbourne killed himself and others in a suicide attack near a Shiite mosque in Baghdad. In September 2014, a Melbourne man was shot dead by counterterrorism police after attacking them with a knife, following a call to do this by an Australian jihadist overseas. Also in 2014, the government cancelled the passports of more than seventy people whom ASIO suspected of leaving to join terrorist groups in the Middle East, fearing most that participants in these groups would return to Australia with enhanced skills and a determination to carry out terrorist acts.
Critics of stepped-up action against domestic terrorism sometimes point out that the number of Australians who have been killed in terrorist events is miniscule compared to those who die in road accidents or in bushfires, or from excessive tobacco and alcohol consumption. But such comparisons are facile: unlike bushfires or car accidents, terrorist actions are political and involve planning and purpose. By committing terrorist acts, perpetrators aim to attack governments, ferment suspicion and split societies – often on ethnic or religious fault lines. Sometimes they seek to goad governments into repression, to take revenge or achieve massive publicity for their cause. Comparing such calculated political acts to road accidents and bushfires is misleading, and trivialises a serious matter.
If more terrorist attacks occur in Australia, it could precipitate an upheaval that would change the face of modern Australia by shattering our achievement of multicultural acceptance. Already, terrorism here and overseas has stoked a rise in racist attacks on Australian Muslims. Fear and paranoia is in the air and many Muslims feel unfairly targeted. In this context, it is possible that ASIO and the police might act unjustly, hastily or with prejudice at some point in exercising their wide powers. But none of this justifies a kneejerk dismissal of the threat of terrorism and the measures needed to prevent it. The lessons of the Cold War are not necessarily straightforward.
4 February 2015
From Griffith Review Edition 48: Enduring Legacies © Copyright Griffith University & the author.
As a result, the 1990s was a lost opportunity for international cooperation, particularly to combat disease, poverty and inequality. The most glaring examples of these omissions were former Cold War battlefields like Afghanistan, Congo and Nicaragua, where the United States could not have cared less about what happened — once the Cold War was over.
The second was the Bush version. Where President Bill Clinton emphasized prosperity, President George W. Bush emphasized predominance. In between, of course, stood Sept. 11. It is possible that the Bush version would never have come into being had it not been for the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington carried out by Islamist fanatics (a renegade faction, in fact, of an American Cold War alliance).
The Cold War experience clearly conditioned the United States response to these atrocities. Instead of targeted military strikes and global police cooperation, which would have been the most sensible reaction, the Bush administration chose this moment of unchallenged global hegemony to lash out and occupy Afghanistan and Iraq. These actions had no meaning in a strategic sense, creating 21st-century colonies under the rule of a Great Power with no appetite for colonial rule.
But the United States did not act out of strategic purpose. It acted because its people were understandably angry and fearful. And it acted because it could. The Bush version was directed by foreign policy advisers who thought of the world predominantly in Cold War terms; they stressed power projection, territorial control and regime change.
The post-Cold War era was therefore not an aberration but a continuity and confirmation of an absolute historical purpose for the United States. Gradually, however, over the course of the generation that has passed since the Cold War, the United States has become less and less able to afford global predominance.
As America entered a new century, its main aim should have been to bring other nations into the fold of international norms and the rule of law, especially as its own power diminishes. Instead, the United States did what declining superpowers often do: engage in futile, needless wars far from its borders, in which short-term security is mistaken for long-term strategic goals. The consequence is an America less prepared than it could have been to deal with the big challenges of the future: the rise of China and India, the transfer of economic power from West to East, and systemic challenges like climate change and disease epidemics.
If the United States won the Cold War but failed to capitalize on it, then the Soviet Union, or rather Russia, lost it, and lost it big. The collapse left Russians feeling déclassé and usurped. One day they had been the elite nation in a superpower union of republics. The next, they had neither purpose nor position. Materially, things were bad, too. Old people did not get their pensions. Some starved to death. Malnutrition and alcoholism shortened the average life span for a Russian man from nearly 65 in 1987 to less than 58 in 1994.
If many Russians felt robbed of a future, they were not wrong. Russia’s future was indeed stolen — by the privatization of Russian industry and of its natural resources. As the socialist state with its moribund economy was dismantled, a new oligarchy emerged from party institutions, planning bureaus and centers of science and technology and assumed ownership of Russia’s riches. Often, the new owners stripped these assets and closed down production. In a state in which unemployment had, officially at least, been nonexistent, the rate of joblessness rose through the 1990s to peak at 13 percent. All this happened while the West applauded Boris Yeltsin’s economic reforms.
In retrospect, the economic transition to capitalism was a catastrophe for most Russians. It is also clear that the West should have dealt with post-Cold War Russia better than it did. Both the West and Russia would have been considerably more secure today if the chance for Russia to join the European Union, and possibly even NATO, had at least been kept open in the 1990s.
Instead, their exclusion has given Russians the sense of being outcasts and victims — which, in turn, has given credence to embittered jingoists like President Vladimir Putin, who see all the disasters that have befallen the country over the past generation as an American plot to reduce and isolate it. Mr. Putin’s authoritarianism and bellicosity have been sustained by genuine popular support.
The shocks of the 1990s have given way to an uninhibited cynicism among Russians, which not only encompasses a deep distrust of their fellow citizens but also sees conspiracies against themselves everywhere, often contrary to fact and reason. Over half of all Russians now believe Leonid Brezhnev was their best leader in the 20th century, followed by Lenin and Stalin. Gorbachev is at the bottom of the list.
For others around the world, the end of the Cold War undoubtedly came as a relief. China is often seen as a major beneficiary of the Cold War. This is not entirely true, of course. For decades, the country was under a Marxist-Leninist dictatorship that was out of tune with its needs. A result, during the Maoist era, was some of the most terrible crimes of the Cold War, in which millions died. But during the 1970s and ’80s, Deng Xiaoping’s China benefited hugely from its de facto alliance with the United States, both in security and development.
In the multipolar world now establishing itself, the United States and China have emerged as the strongest powers. Their competition for influence in Asia will define the outlook for the world. China, like Russia, is well integrated into the capitalist world system, and many of the interests of these two countries’ leaders are linked to further integration.
Russia and China, unlike the Soviet Union, are not likely to seek isolation or global confrontation. They will attempt to nibble away at American interests and dominate their regions. But neither China nor Russia is willing or able to mount a global ideological challenge backed by military power. Rivalries may lead to conflicts, or even local wars, but not of the systemic Cold War kind.
The ease with which many former Marxists have adapted themselves to post-Cold War market economics raises the question of whether this had been an avoidable conflict in the first place. With hindsight, the outcome was not worth the sacrifice — not in Angola, not in Vietnam, Nicaragua or Russia, for that matter. But was it avoidable back in the 1940s, when the Cold War went from an ideological conflict to a permanent military confrontation?
While post-World War II clashes and rivalries were certainly unavoidable — Stalin’s policies alone were enough to produce those — it is hard to argue that a global Cold War that was to last for almost 50 years and threaten the obliteration of the world could not have been avoided. There were points along the way when leaders could have held back, especially on military rivalry and the arms race. But the ideological conflict at the root of the tension made such sensible thinking very difficult to achieve.
People of good will on both sides believed that they were representing an idea whose very existence was threatened. It led them to take otherwise avoidable risks with their own lives and the lives of others.
The Cold War affected everyone in the world because of the threat of nuclear destruction it implied. In this sense, nobody was safe from the Cold War. The greatest victory of Gorbachev’s generation was that nuclear war was avoided. Historically, most Great Power rivalries end in a cataclysm. The Cold War did not, but on a couple of occasions, we were much closer to nuclear devastation than any but a few realized.
Why were leaders willing to take such unconscionable risks with the fate of the earth? Why did so many people believe in ideologies that they, at other times, would have realized could not possibly hold all the solutions they were looking for? My answer is that the Cold War world, like the world today, had a lot of obvious ills. As injustice and oppression became more visible in the 20th century through mass communications, people — especially young people — felt the need to remedy these ills. Cold War ideologies offered immediate solutions to complex problems.
What did not change with the end of the Cold War were the conflicts between the haves and the have-nots in international affairs. In some parts of the world today, such conflicts have become more intense because of the upsurge of religious and ethnic movements, which threaten to destroy whole communities. Unrestrained by Cold War universalisms, which at least pretended that all people could enter their promised paradise, these groups are manifestly exclusionist or racist, their supporters convinced that great injustices have been done to them in the past, which somehow justify their present outrages.
Often people, especially young people, need to be part of something bigger than themselves or even their families, some immense idea to devote one’s life to. The Cold War shows what can happen when such notions get perverted for the sake of power, influence and control.
That does not mean that these very human urges are in themselves worthless. But it is a warning that we should consider carefully the risks we are willing to take to achieve our ideals, in order not to replicate the terrible toll that the 20th century took in its quest for perfection.Continue reading the main story