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Is the world’s latest breed of ‘strong men’ leading us to chaos?

The cult of the 'strong man'CHRIS OVERLAND

ADELAIDE - Now that we are some 50 years or so into the post-colonial era, it is painfully apparent that many former European colonies are struggling to make a go of independence.

It turns out that creating and maintaining a viable democratic nation state is much harder than anyone previously thought, including those of us fortunate enough to live in places like Australia.

As our recent local troubles have shown rather graphically, we cannot afford to take for granted that democratic norms will persist if those we elect decide to ignore long standing conventions and put spite, revenge, self-interest and ambition ahead of the national interest.

Plainly, a workable democracy requires a high level of socio-political discipline and a facility for compromise in the endless contest of ideas about what constitutes "good government".

Many former colonies have suffered major socio-political problems when formerly antagonistic relations between tribal groups have reasserted themselves, with Rwanda being a prime example.

In earlier comments, I had forgotten about Indonesia's national paranoia about the influence of the Chinese. As Martin Auld rightly pointed out in his recent observation, this puts some context around Indonesia’s continuing concerns about Timor Leste.

We live in a world where a few powerful nations are constantly manoeuvring for influence and advantage. In this environment, weaker states like Timor Leste and Papua New Guinea are being manipulated by a combination of economic power, implicit threats and sometimes outright belligerence.

In many respects, we have regressed to the situation that applied in the lead up to World War I.

The main differences are that the great powers of today are much more mindful of their vulnerabilities and, of course, they have very few colonial possessions to consider in their strategic calculations.

The emergence of "strong men" as leaders in Russia, China, the USA, Turkey and elsewhere compounds the risk of someone doing something rather stupid. Strong men have, typically, proven to have feet of clay and history is strewn with examples of their hubris and folly.

Let us hope that we will not repeat those hideous miscalculations of the past, whether that be in relation to Timor Leste or anywhere else.


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