ADELAIDE - There are moments in history when its future course is altered by a single event.
These turning points, while seemingly innocuous or unremarkable at the time, may have profound consequences.
For example, the arrival of a handful of Spanish adventurers in Mexico in 1519 was, in itself, not especially remarkable. It initially attracted no great interest in Spain or anywhere else for that matter.
Yet within a few short years the great Aztec empire was in ruins, its people enslaved and the course of history was changed forever.
In a somewhat similar way, the appearance of Captain James Cook at Botany Bay on 29 April 1770 probably caused no more than slight anxiety to the handful of Aboriginal people who witness the event, yet is was truly a moment of profound significance for their future.
60,000 years of undisturbed occupancy of the Australian continent by its indigenous population was about to be irretrievably ruptured by the arrival of an utterly alien culture.
In a similar way, the first Europeans who arrived in Papua New Guinea would have been regarded as curiosities to be either killed or, at best, tolerated. Few among the Melanesian people would have grasped the true significance of the appearance of these outsiders.
Now, of course, we are witnessing the arrival of a new and virulent communicable disease which seems likely to permanently disrupt our lives. Coincidentally, it has already revealed a great deal about both the strengths and weaknesses of those nations which it has afflicted.
I got to thinking about this last night as, perhaps unwisely, I watched the television news.
It was, as you might imagine, not a joyful or edifying experience. Death, economic dislocation and political muddling seem to be in great abundance right now and this is all grist to the media mill.
A moment came when there was a report about the latest doings of President Donald Trump, an ever reliable source of contentious and sometimes truly bizarre pronouncements.
I listened to him spouting excuses for his appalling failures as a national leader in a time of crisis. He was, as usual, blaming someone else for his own failings.
This time it was the Chinese government upon whom he vented his wrath. In them, Trump has at least chosen a target whose own egregious behaviour of late makes his accusations seem at least plausible to many Americans.
I have no liking at all for the Chinese government, whose policies are clearly designed to allow it to achieve political, economic and military dominance of those nations whose unhappy fate is to lie within what it regards as its legitimate sphere of influence.
Despite this, I could not help but feel great unease at the sight and sound of a US president castigating a foreign power for his own personal political purposes and doing so in terms calculated to cause the gravest possible offence.
It was then that I realised that I was very possibly watching an event of profound historic significance.
It was not Trump himself, much less anything he had to say.
Rather, it is what he symbolises, which is the awful and I think irretrievable decline in what was once held out as the world’s greatest democracy.
I cannot imagine past Republican presidents like Abraham Lincoln or Dwight D Eisenhower or Ronald Reagan or even Richard Nixon behaving as Trump has behaved.
They would have been far too conscious of the burden and dignity of their great office and the fact that they had a moral duty to represent America, and by extension the democratic world, in a way that was measured, rational and calm.
Yet in Trump we have a person whose demeanour is that of a spoiled child and who resorts to evasions, half truths and outright lies to justify his actions or inaction.
This is not the behaviour of a person who truly understands power and knows how to wield it effectively. It is the behaviour of a demagogue whose like we see all too often across the world.
Such people routinely evade, lie and hurl accusations at others in order to deflect attention from their own failings and weaknesses. This is a strategy of the weak and fearful, not the truly strong and unafraid.
Bluster and bullying can get you a long way of course but, eventually, there comes a time when such leaders are exposed. The results are usually very ugly. The violent demise of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu springs to mind as an example.
Anyway, here we have a president of the United States who resorts to the tactics of a demagogue in order to attract or retain the support of sufficient citizens to stay in power.
Astonishingly and appallingly, there do indeed appear to be many Americans who respond favourably to these tactics. Trump invites them to be their worst selves and they respond with enthusiasm.
When I see a Trump rally I am reminded of an observation by an ABC journalist who spent four years in the USA. In his final piece to camera before returning to Australia, he observed that no-one should underestimate the ignorance and parochialism of most Americans.
Americans are educated and encouraged to believe that they and their republic are truly exceptional and thus need pay no attention to the rest of the world. For them, America is the proverbial light on the hill, to which all eyes must naturally and inevitably turn.
Trump’s claim that he will make America great again is a clarion call to this sense of exceptionalism and so resonates powerfully with many Americans. They apparently are willing to overlook his painfully obvious failings in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic and much else besides.
To many outsiders at least, Trump’s every utterance reveals him as the proverbial hollow man, for whom words are merely wind, lacking in any true substance or meaning. By this means Trump has succeeded in materially diminishing America’s prestige and influence in the world even if his supporters think otherwise.
Surely we have reached a turning point in history, where we are witnessing the diminution of our once great and powerful friend from the status of the world’s sole superpower to merely that of a great power as that latter term was understood in the late 19th century?
If this is so, then the world’s democracies are being collectively cast adrift in a world where what was once certain and secure is no longer so.
In the absence of a generous, benign and selfless America, there is no longer a recognisable leader of the free world, only a mere facsimile of it.
As in the 19th century, I fear that the new world order will be composed mostly of predators and prey, where bribery, blackmail and force are used to secure compliance with the demands of the powerful, not persuasion by reference to facts and truth, let alone collaboration freely entered into to allow humans to meet the many challenges of the future.
This type of world was supposed to have been finally vanquished with the demise of, first, Nazi Germany and then the USSR. Instead, a new and even more powerful anti-democratic force is now asserting itself in the world.
The USA was supposed to be the ultimate guarantor of peace, freedom and the rule of law yet it seems to have now given up that role, preferring to put America first in a futile effort to recreate its supposedly lost greatness.
That greatness was never a function of what America did for itself, but of what it did for the sake of others. It cannot be restored or enhanced by simply putting America first. Trump does not appear to understand this, unlike his predecessors.
If I am right then lesser powers like Australia, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand and other even smaller Pacific nations need to draw closer together so as to provide mutual support and protection against the actual or potential depredations of the ugly, greedy and dangerous manifestations of authoritarian global capitalism which we now see at work in Papua New Guinea and many other places besides.
Our great and powerful friend of the past is still powerful but no longer great, so it seems that we must fend for ourselves as best we can.