The annual Bob Hawke Lecture takes on a special meaning this year as it falls on the anniversary of the beginning of World War I.
To commemorate the anniversary, this year’s speaker, Professor Hugh White AO of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University, questioned the traditional view of why Australia entered the Great War to highlight the theory that the situation today in Asia is similar to Europe in 1914.
Professor Hugh White
Prof White says that today popular opinion sees “Australia as innocent of the folly that caused the war, and this innocence is part of the very special image we have of Australia’s experience of the war – the image of ANZAC.”
He challenges this perspective by exploring the circumstances in which Australia decided to take part in a major European war.
“I’m not going to argue that Australians were especially culpable in the decisions they made, or even that their decisions were necessarily wrong,” Prof White states. “But I will argue that Australia made a clear choice to go to war, and that the reasons for those choices need to be understood, if we are to understand all the other things that we will be commemorating over the next four years.”
In the lead up to the declaration of war, Europe and world had undergone a tremendous shift in the balance power – a balance that Australia relied on to stay safe.
Prof White says that rapid industrialization also meant that “the war which they imagined in the first days of August, and which they chose as the lesser of the evils, was nothing like the war that actually engulfed them. In a very real sense the European statesman of 1914 didn’t know what they were doing.”
“They did not want war, but they feared backing down would have disastrous consequences for their place in the new European pecking order. So they simply assumed that their opponents would back down instead, and they were all wrong. Europe went to war on a wave of wishful thinking.”
Prof White argues that a similar shift in the balance of power and the rapid expansion of the economies of Asia means that Australians must be aware that they live in a time comparable to Europe in 1914.
“Over the last year or two a minor industry has sprung up drawing analogies between 1914 in Europe and the world – especially Asia today. It is tempting to dismiss this as just another example of the strange hold that anniversaries, and especially centenaries, have on our imaginations. But there are similarities between Europe in 1914 and Asia today which do bear serious examination. Nothing in 1914 made a major European war inevitable, and nothing makes major Asian war inevitable today. But many of the factors which created the conditions in which war could break out in 1914 have their analogues in Asia today.”
He warns that if the balance of power in Asia is not addressed properly – which he acknowledges is “very difficult, but clearly possible” – then it is possible that 21st century Asia may go the way of 20th century Europe.
Read the full lecture here.