It’s one thing to understand history; another thing to be its prisoner.
It’s one thing to understand history; another thing to be its prisoner. If you want to understand politics then you have to understand two things: economics and history. And if you want to understand the political trouble spots of the world, you have to understand politics. If you know nothing of history and can’t work out how a modern economy functions, then keep away from politics and eschew diplomacy. That’s my advice. Here’s an example of what I mean. As a contribution to trying to bring the Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders closer together, I organised a dinner for them earlier this year. It was to be a simple affair which included the two leaders and their wives, me and my own wife and my deputy and her husband. I suggested the dinner be held on May 29. Kaboom! All hell broke loose. May 29 was the date the Ottoman Turks sacked Constantinople, destroying the Byzantine Empire once and for all. That wasn’t recently. It was in 1453! I quickly changed the date to May 30. But there is another point to think about. The Age of Enlightenment was a period of unbridled optimism driven by philosophers, scientists and politicians who believed the world could escape from the conflicts and deprecation of the past by learning, thinking, experimenting and changing the way things were. I was reminded of all this during a recent four day visit to that great city, Tokyo. In 1942 my father was captured and incarcerated by the Japanese during the fall of Singapore. He spent three and a half years struggling to survive in the harsh and brutal Changi prison of war camp. He was one of the lucky ones. He managed to live, although only just. Four years after he returned to Australia he became a member of the federal parliament. Two or so years later the Menzies government asked the parliament to vote for the peace treaty with Japan which drew the final curtain on the Pacific War. Although a supporter of the Menzies government, my father couldn’t bring himself to support the treaty which left Emperor Hirohito on the throne and Japan free from paying huge reparations to the Allies. Put simply, he hated the Japanese for all they had done to him and his mates in Changi. He vowed he would never forgive them. He was – understandably – a prisoner of his own history. A few years passed; his anger remained unassuaged. But then in 1957 the Japanese prime minister – the grandfather of the present Japanese prime minister by the way – visited Canberra to sign with the Menzies government the 1957 Commerce Treaty which became the foundation of Australia’s modern economic relationship with not just Japan but more generally with Asia. It was one of the most historic moments in the long story of Australia’s engagement with Asia. So what was my father to do this time when parliament was asked to approve the Treaty? He held his nose and voted for it. He knew it made sense for Australia even though the Treaty was signed with the hated Japanese. The years passed, our trade with Japan grew and the personal relationships between Australian and Japanese business people, academics and politicians began to prosper. In 1996, my father’s son became the foreign minister. On my first visit to Japan in that role I was urged by returned services organisations in Australia to demand a more wholesome apology from the Japanese for the horrors of the Pacific War. Driving from Narita airport to Tokyo, I discussed this with our redoubtable ambassador, Ashton Calvert. His only advice was for me to make the political judgment. So I did. The war had ended over half a century earlier. We had to move on. So I didn’t raise the issue with my Japanese hosts. By the time my colleagues and I were bundled out of office by Kevin Rudd, our relationship with Japan had gone ahead in leaps and bounds. We even set up a Trilateral Security Dialogue with the Japanese and the Americans and arranged a joint meeting between the Japanese, Australian and American heads of government and their foreign ministers during the 2007 APEC Summit. Japan had fully graduated as one of Australia’s most reliable friends and a champion of advancing Australian participation in Asian organisations like the East Asia Summit. The last chapter in our family’s great Japan adventure came on Christmas Eve 2011 in Tokyo. My daughter gave birth to a little boy in Tokyo’s Aiku hospital. So there we have it: in three generations our family has gone from Changi to Aiku. It’s a metaphor for the way Australia’s engagement with Asia has changed so dramatically. In two generations we’ve gone from protection from Asian threats to bonding with Asian opportunities. There’s a lesson there for much of the troubled world. It’s one thing to understand history and to appreciate its influence on our ways of life. It’s another thing to be its prisoner.