Published as an Op-Ed piece in The Australian, September 21, 2006
In the light of the debate over citizenship and Australian values, it might seem a rhetorical question to ask whether Australia can survive the next 50 years. But how many people can name one-tenth of the nation-states that existed 300 years ago?
All things flourish and pass. Nations are no exception.
Societies evolve constantly, even without the type of great upheaval that comes, as it is coming now, only rarely throughout history.
But what do we mean by survive? And what do we mean by Australia?
When we ask whether Australia can survive, we mean can it survive in control of its own destiny, its own language, values and identity? When we speak of Australia, we speak of it as a geopolitical entity: a society of common national identity and purpose, attached to this continental landmass.
Whatever happens to our society, the landmass will remain, but the name we have given it is recent, with no guarantee of permanence. Populations will continue to inhabit the landmass for the foreseeable future, but will these people resemble our present society?
Most Australians are recent immigrants who trace their ancestry to the Eurasian landmass. And today Australians, like peoples the world over, are again on the move. It is possible that we could have already witnessed the pinnacle of the society we call Australia.
But perhaps we have glimpsed only our beginning.
The pace of change continues to accelerate. Australia did not exist 300 years ago. Nor did the US, Italy or Germany. Now we will again see this volcanic reshuffling of our societies, creating and destroying nation-states. We have tamed neither history nor our environment. And our new age of globalisation is occurring concurrently with climate change, affecting, for example, the matter of water dispersal and the viability of habitats.
Entire societies will be moved, destroyed as distinct entities, or created as new communities.
Why, then, should Australia be spared great upheaval?
The leaders of China and India know that the strategic races in which they are engaged are with themselves, more than against any outside entity. Each must satisfy increasingly restive, urbanising masses of humanity in the face of growing demands for food, water, wealth and eminence. What both governments do to address those demands will influence how they interact with the rest of the world, governing competition between China and the US, between India and China, and so on.
Australia must chart its course among giants and cannot expect always to be strategically at one with the US. Nor can the US always be the guardian of Australia's strategic survival. We moved away from dependence on Britain for strategic survival to dependence on the US. Now we must depend on ourselves for strategic survival, while retaining and strengthening our traditional friendships.
To survive, we need to ensure that Australia becomes a relatively great power within 50 years. The US and Japanese paths to global power were planned during the first decade of the 20th century. China's leaders in the 1960s spoke of their country's rise to global power in 50 to 100 years. The rise of these powers was planned and pursued.
The UN, meanwhile, will gradually become largely irrelevant because its principal job, freezing the status quo in 1945 terms, is finished. Now, global society will define itself in more natural terms, partly because sovereignty - the basis for UN membership - is again being redefined. Australia, then, should not expect the UN to be able to sustain the artificial legitimacy of the global structure. Australia must strengthen its own modalities for security, trade and influence.
Globalisation flattened the world's industrial and social hierarchical structures. This is the nuclear winter. Not the post-apocalyptic gauntness of starving survivors searching for food, but rampant, steroidal and healthy hordes searching for purpose and leadership.
But we are in denial, still seeking the stability of the pole stars of old orders, or wandering aimlessly in the well-fed freedom of our super-industrial society. To compensate for the seemingly unmanageable distress of change, we create more legislation and impose greater political correctness. Flattening social hierarchies - exemplified by the lateral flow of information, the heightened role of the media and the destruction of the eminence and vertical authority of leaders and governments - increases anxiety and, not surprisingly, the need to rebuild hierarchies.
Loss of identity security and historical points of reference degrades human ability to act collectively to ensure survival. Disorientation leads to panic and chaos.
Globalisation creates a visceral reaction because it threatens identities. For some societies, everything they believed and on which their lives and confidence were based has been washed away, the few mementos of their past now worthless in the new world.
Identity, purpose and context are being swamped by globalism. Thus we search for, and emphasise, that which makes us unique. Why else do we see everywhere today the Australian flag flying, nationalism flaunted and political correctness stressed as a mechanism to retard change, when 40 years ago these actions were not seen as necessary?
Technologies and modalities of global integration have overtaken our emotional ability to adjust.
Some Muslim societies felt overwhelmed by homogenising globalisation. The reactive need for identity, purpose and control caused the desperate, frustrated turn to jihadism we see.
But for an organised society, creating a national grand strategy, an overarching and balanced long-term plan, is the appropriate response to ensure survival and prosperity into the indefinite future. That grand strategy must not only outline national objectives and the means of achieving them within an understanding of the global environment, it must also articulate a vision of the society.
Who are we and who do we wish to be as a people are the questions at the core of it all: the fundamental starting point is to define who we are as Australians.
By understanding who we are and how we can build a common identity, we can be sure that we have the inherent confidence and efficiency to survive the next 50 years and beyond. Without a durable sense of identity, we will erode as a nation, leaving this beautiful landscape to be peopled by societies with other values, and other hopes and dreams.
Gregory Copley is a founding director of Future Directions International in Perth and president of the International Strategic Studies Association in Washington, DC. He is author of The Art of Victory (Simon & Schuster), out next month. This is adapted from his speech to the Australian Leadership Retreat run by the Australian Davos Connection earlier this month.