A World in Transition
B’nai Brith Oration – Sunday 29 October 1989
B'nai Brith is an organisation that has always paid attention to human rights. I am honoured to have been asked to speak to you tonight. If at the end I leave you with some questions in your own minds, with a wish to stand back and look dispassionately at the advancement of human rights through the centuries and at some of the possibilities and dangers of today's situation, then I will have succeeded in my objective.
Prime Minister Thatcher attracted a little criticism at the recent bicentenary of the French Revolution because, in what I thought were quite polite terms, reminded people that that revolution had ushered in one of the bloodiest centuries in Europe's history. It led not only to the terror of the French Revolution itself but to the conquests of Napoleon and all the wars that resulted. The gentle reminder that the Magna Carta several hundred years earlier was a more significant instrument in guaranteeing personal freedom did not rest well with the European hosts, however accurate it was.
Despite all the bloodshed and the terror, the French Revolution is significantly responsible for the idea that freedom also related to ordinary people. The idea was important. France's pursuit of the idea was far less perfect. Statutes abolishing slavery were passed through the House of Commons in1807. It was nearly 50 years later that one of the French Republics passed corresponding legislation. What is and what seems to be are not always the same.
In this century we have seen two of the worst wars that ever occurred. The Jewish people experienced the holocaust. Many people did not want to believe what was happening when the news first started to emerge, then the facts could no longer be denied but now there are some who write obscenely that the facts have been grossly exaggerated to attract undue sympathy for the Jewish people.
Since 1945 there have been innumerable wars, quite a number in our own region and massive refugee movements have occurred as a consequence.
I was significantly involved in the Vietnam War and have no wish to re-argue that case tonight but I was Army Minister and Defence Minister when Australia was involved. Let me say briefly that the cause was right but the issue was massively mishandled, the tactics and strategy were wrong.
The United States had half a million men under arms in Vietnam, yet her president went around the United States saying they were not at war. Such massive contradictions were bound to lose support. It was inevitable that there would be significant anti-war movements in the United States and in Australia. I could understand that, however much I disagreed with the arguments. I could understand the tears shed for those killed in the conflict. Once the war was over and the north had won, the process of eradication began and a new refugee movement was caused of massive proportion.
Six to seven hundred thousand drowned at sea, hundreds of thousands, totally ill-equipped to defend themselves in the Vietnamese countryside were expelled from the cities to survive or to die. These consequences of the northern victory were well known but badly reported. There were no tears left from those who marched against the war and for that they do not deserve forgiveness.
I am trying to emphasize the double standards, the hypocritical judgments that are so often made over the questions of right or wrong over the substance and value of individual liberty.
Whatever sins that have been committed in the name of the human race in this last century, we are approaching the last decade with more hopeful possibilities than for a very very long while. But still we find people incapable of cool analysis, incapable of making a rational judgment of the possibilities.
In the last two or three years changes have occurred which we would have believed impossible maybe five but certainly ten years ago. The entire international climate has changed dramatically. The relationship between the superpowers is greatly improved, co-operation between them has been possible in many things. New policies in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe are introducing an element of political freedom. Attempts are made at economic reform. Attempts are being made to break down centralised systems and to introduce market economies. In Hungary the communist party has disbanded. A new socialist party is to be formed. In Poland, solidarity is in government. The Soviet Union has withdrawn from Afghanistan and Vietnam has largely withdrawn from Kampuchea, but unfortunately grave difficulties remain in both countries. In addition there have been further significant changes in United States policy in relation to southern Africa and in relation to central America.
All this is for the better. The politics of fear and of ideology are being replaced by a much more hopeful world. We still need, however, to assess the total situation sensibly, responsibly. The problems are by no means all solved.
There is no sign of a solution to the intractable problems in the Middle East. In South Africa, the policies of apartheid continue despite accommodating noises from the new state president, Mr De Klerk. Economic and trade problems still affect a large part of the world. The debt of many developing countries has grown far beyond their capacity to repay. The debt of many corporations is so high that the impact of an industrial downturn would create significant strain within the financial system.
Can we make an assessment of where all this is leading? I want to look at two aspects in particular. They both involve the expansion of human rights and the introduction of some elements of democracy.
The first concerns the changes in the Soviet Union, the second concerns the prospects for peaceful change and the development of a democratic and a multiracial South Africa.
A significant American foreign policy journal a few months ago published an article by a state department official, Francis Fukuyama, called ‘The End of History’. His thesis was a simple one: the current decay in the Soviet Union, whatever has occurred in China, the movements in Eastern Europe, herald the ultimate victory for liberal democracy and the ultimate defeat of communism.
Two things were surprising about the article: first, that a relatively senior official of the United States' state department could write something so utterly foolish and second, that a normally sensible and rational journal should bother to publish it.
In human affairs, there is no ultimate, no finite anything. So often one century repeats the mistakes of earlier times, very often within a century the same mistakes are repeated. But to suggest that the end of one tyranny and the apparent movements towards capitalism and liberal democracy involves the end of all tyranny is an absurdity.
Tyranny can take many forms, it does not have to be called communism, it doesn't have to be called Nazism or fascism. To suggest that circumstances will not arise again in which a tyranny can dominate the affairs of a nation is wrong. In any case, such conclusions drawn from the changes within the Soviet Empire in the last year or two, totally overestimate the chances of those changes being successful.
I am fully prepared to accept Mr Gorbachev's sincerity, his determination to move forward and modernise the Soviet economy and political system but the chances of him being successful are not overwhelming.
It is worth looking at what has happened in China. Economic reform in China is ten to fifteen years ahead of the Soviet Union. Communism had been in place since 1949 and wherever given an opportunity the Chinese have shown that the private enterprise, capitalist, individualist approach to production has not died. Their economy has responded in a number of ways.
The Chinese government, however, has not been prepared to allow political freedom and demands for that resulted in the Tiananmen Square massacre. China has not yet learnt that economic freedom is ultimately incompatible with a totalitarian and repressive political system.
In the Soviet Union, circumstances have been quite different. Communism has been in place since 1917. The Soviet bureaucracy is more rigid, more stultified, more sterile, more reactionary, less willing to moderate its power or to adopt new ways. That bureaucracy reaching down to all levels of soviet society stood in the way of economic reform. Economic reform can be introduced in the Soviet Union if the bureaucracy itself was shaken, moved around and to some extent modernised. Therefore Mr Gorbachev had to start at the other end. He had to run the risk of introducing political reforms before he would have any chance of economic reform taking hold.
He has shown considerable courage, he has got rid of much of the old guard. He has indicated elections at local levels to shake up that old-fashioned bureaucracy, he has indicated a degree of independence for some of the republics. Some of these reforms were volunteered, some were wrung out of him by massive strikes,
But now we see the beginning of another reaction. The Baltic states have been told they will not be allowed independence. Returning from a holiday, Mr Gorbachev felt it was necessary to talk of the dangers of civil war and of the limits to freedom. Troops have been used in some instances but in others have stood by, relatively powerless, while inter-republic arguments have caused deep divisions within Soviet society.
The process of political reform has not by any means been all smooth - despite the considerable progress that he has made, there is no sign yet that economic reforms are starting to bite.
When an economy such as the Soviet Union has experienced so many years of rigidity and of artificial price-setting, the first signs of economic change are generally painful to the majority of citizens. Almost inevitably the currency is devalued, sometimes Very significantly, and domestic prices tend to rise considerably. In other words, before the Russian people experience the benefits of change, they are going to go through increased hardship. I suspect the benefits of change will have no possibility of affecting their daily lives until three years at least and maybe for as long as five. Let us ask ourselves then, what will be the impact of greater political freedom, coupled with increased economic hardship for a relatively prolonged period. Isn't it likely that there will be increased demands for more and more political freedom, isn't it likely that some of the republics, especially the Baltic states, will make renewed demands for total independence. Isn't it likely that the bitter rivalries that exist between certain incompatible republics are likely to lead to internal discontent. Isn't it quite possible that the soviet people will come to ask for a change of government.
Whatever might have happened in Poland or Hungary, I do not believe that Mr Gorbachev is in the business of running the Soviet Communist Party out of power. In other words I do not foresee events in the Soviet Union taking the direction that has occurred in Poland or in Hungary.
There are other matters that Mr Gorbachev will feel compelled to take into account as the next two or three years unfold. The pull to the west for countries such as Poland and Hungary, and even for, East Germany where there has been no reform, is strong. The western world is trying to make that pull even stronger. It is suggesting that the common market should extend to the boundaries of the Soviet Union. Austria has already applied to join the European community; there is pressure by western governments for investment in Eastern Europe.
In some ways these reactions by the west are natural but the European community in particular, and the United States, need to carefully assess where their own actions, where their own interventions might lead. In many ways the reform process has gone too far too fast. That is why Mr Gorbachev made statements about the limits of freedom, denying the possibility of independence for any of the Soviet republics.
Mr Gorbachev is not only concerned at events within the Soviet Union. Despite statements by solidarity and by Hungary that they remain firmly committed to the Warsaw Pact, the western pull has serious implications for that pact. The more Eastern European economies integrate with the west, the less they will feel a need for the Warsaw Pact, the more vulnerable will the Soviet Union believe itself to be. This will be especially the case if, in two or three years, there is no discernable improvement in the Soviet economy.
Mr Gorbachev is facing the possibility of an ungovernable situation. We know however that he is not the kind of man to sit back and let events take control. How will he react to the problems within the Soviet Union and to the attraction of the west for Eastern Europe.
There are three basic approaches that he can adopt. He can allow more and more political freedom until he has gone so far that there is a real prospect of alternative government. I do not believe Mr Gorbachev is prepared to allow that approach within the Soviet Union.
I also do not believe that he would be prepared to allow the western pull for Eastern Europe to become so strong that the Warsaw Pact would be threatened. But can he prevent that happening?
If he is not prepared to allow greater freedom within the Soviet Union or greater independence beyond a certain point in Eastern Europe, what other options are available to him? He can use force, the military have already been used to some extent in helping to quell disturbances in some of the republics. But not to the extent that has attracted international reaction of the kind that occurred in Tiananmen Square.
There is a third option, the creation of a diversion – a very traditional tactic by totalitarian regimes which believe their country or their own leadership is in trouble.
I suspect Mr Gorbachev's response to his undoubted problems will be a mixture of all three responses and, to some extent, we have already seen that. I do not entirely discount the possibility that he may be so skilled in politics that he can juggle, cajole and persuade the Soviet people to put up with hardships involved for two or three or four years so that longer term benefits of a freer, more open economy can be achieved. But If he is to be successful he is going to need all the help that he can muster and all the skills at his command.
He himself is the master of the kind of help that he can provide himself. There is one international stratagem open to him which could, in Soviet eyes, remake Mr Gorbachev as a new international hero and restore his domestic political capital in a way that would allow him to press on with his domestic policy. The only problem is the stratagem has consequences for the west which many people may not and, as I believe, should not like.
Over the last year there has been an increasing debate in western intellectual circles about the possible reunification of Germany. In the United States in particular, the debate has centred around ways in which the west may bring this about to the advantage of the west. The significance of the debate is that the question is no longer unthinkable. If it is no longer unthinkable in the west, is it still unthinkable in the Soviet Union?
Up to now, a cornerstone of much of western policy has been the belief that such reunification would be unthinkable for the Soviet Union and, on that basis, they have believed that West Germany is solidly within NATO and the western camp. I believe that that assumption is no longer valid. Indeed, I have tested it on some senior people within the Soviet system and the answer has been a shrug of the shoulders: ‘why not’.
Let me put it to you this way. Let's assume that Mr Gorbachev is in so much trouble internally that he needs a significant victory of some kind. And let us assume, for the sake of the argument, that partly because of that domestic pressure and the need for a diversion, he and his colleagues are prepared to accommodate a united Germany. He then makes a statement, offering reunification to Germany so long as a united Germany accepts Austrian-type neutrality.
Well over 80% of the German population would vote for unity under such conditions. We have seen the very large number of East Germans recently trying to escape to West Germany. Under the constitution, East German citizens are automatically citizens of West Germany. I do not believe any political leader either in East or West Germany could oppose such an offer and survive.
If that offer were made and accepted, the stability of the last forty years would be seriously damaged. The Warsaw Pact could survive the departure of East Germany, indeed, the Warsaw Pact in some ways would be strengthened because, with a united, even though neutral Germany, countries such as Hungary and Poland would feel a great need for the protection of the Warsaw Pact. procuring the neutrality of Austria is one thing; procuring for an infinite time the neutrality of a reunited Germany might be quite another.
The consequences for the west though, would be devastating. We often forget that France is technically not in NATO. So, without West Germany, NATO is cut in two. I do not believe France or other members of NATO would want the American troops and nuclear missiles presently stationed in West Germany placed on their own soil. It would be difficult to see NATO surviving the departure of West Germany.
The circumstances would also be used by those political forces in the United States who believe western Europe does not pay sufficiently for her own defence and that the United States pays too much. Such views could be so strengthened that American troops would be withdrawn from Europe. Pressures for withdrawal are in any case mounting. I doubt very much if American forces will be actively involved in Europe in ten years time whether the stage I am describing comes to reality or not.
Mr Gorbachev, therefore, has the prospect of reuniting Germany, of securing its neutrality and permanent disarmament, of destroying NATO and achieving the withdrawal of the United States at one stroke. This could easily be related in the Soviet Union as of enormous international significance and as a great victory for Mr Gorbachev. That I suppose is attractive for any politician, especially since the only apparent cost might be a speech making the initial offer.
There is no doubt, however, that the kind of stability we have known over the last forty odd years would be seriously damaged and the ultimate consequences of such a reunification could be the renewal of European discord, with unknown consequences for the European Community.
The point I want to make is simply that unthinking joy at the extent and nature and rapidity of the changes being made in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe is not necessarily the wisest reaction. This is not to say that the west should not promote individual liberty, democratic thought and institutions and open economies around the world, including the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, but when these movements are taking place, we want the results to be sustainable, not short-term.
If that is to occur, serious risks and dangers have to be avoided. We should all pray for significant economic success for Mr Gorbachev because then that can be his victory. Unfortunately prayers may not be enough. The west has no strategy that can significantly help Mr Gorbachev achieve an improved economy within a reasonable political time-scale.
One of the consequences of Tiananmen Square is the very clear message that China is not prepared to accommodate political freedom. She has yet to learn that economic freedom without political freedom probably cannot survive.
So if the advances of the last year or two which we all applaud are to be re-enforced and strengthened, the west is going to need political skills which she has not always demonstrated. We are fortunate that in the United States there is the most experienced and professional government for many decades. I have very great confidence in that administration and in its capacity to handle crises as well as they can be handled. Their skills are likely to be tested.
Let me turn to southern Africa. A new situation is developing which is of enormous interest to all of those concerned with the development of human rights and with the abolition of the pernicious and evil system of apartheid. Many things are changing. Cuba is withdrawing from Angola; the Namibian settlement is moving-forward; elections are due to be held within the next two or three weeks; even in South Africa there is a different situation. Some long term political prisoners have been let out of jail which has been heralded with great fanfare. We have not been told by the press that since Mr De Klerk became President, 200 new political prisoners have been put in jail - a somewhat larger number than those released.
While Mr De Klerk has virtually said everyone is going to get a vote and that there is no need to argue about that any more, while he has allowed some political marches which were peaceful, while he has shown some moderation, he has not laid out any blueprint for change that alters the fundamentals of apartheid in South Africa. There is general agreement that he should be given some time. I know Mrs. Thatcher two or three months ago in London told him that he would have to move speedily, that he wouldn't have too much time. That was a significant statement from the British Prime Minister. After the South African election, the United States state department issued a statement saying that Mr De Klerk should end the emergency, urban political organisations, allow political debate, free all political prisoners and enter serious negotiations with the true leaders of the blacks. That was playing back, without the commonwealth group's negotiating concept.
So far Mr De Klerk has done none of those things. It is useful to have the United States emphasizing the point, which indicates a change between the current American administration and the previous one.
What will make South Africa move? The general view is that measures that have been undertaken, the withdrawal of its army from Angola, the willingness to go along with United Nations resolutions in relation to the independence of Namibia have not occurred because the South African government suddenly has a different view of the world. The general view is that these things have occurred as a result of international pressure and as a result of domestic pressure from within South Africa.
At the recent commonwealth conference, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney from Canada said that while sanctions were neither comprehensive nor perfect, they have clearly worked. The South Africans themselves have told us that.
The prime minister went on to say: ‘The former governor of the Reserve Bank of South Africa, Gerhard De Kock, stated in May, that South Africa was 'bleeding'. Former South African minister Kobus Meiring declared, in July, that 'we have to break the isolation to get the money we need for development ...'. Law and Order Minister Vlok conceded that 'if sanctions are introduced against us we can do nothing ... We do not live alone in this world’. And President De Klerk himself has referred to 'the international stranglehold which ... Is presently inflicted on our economic growth potential'.’
‘Others see the picture in the same light. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Herman Cohen, said recently that 'sanctions have played a role in stimulating new thinking within the white power structure'. Anthony Lewis of the New York Times wrote just a few days ago that 'economic sanctions were a highly significant factor in moving Mr De Klerk ...'.
There should no longer be a debate about whether sanctions work or not, it is now widely accepted that they do.
I started by saying that I hoped I would end my speech leaving some questions in your own mind. When we are talking about people, when we are talking about political and economic rights, when we are talking about human decency, all those things encompassed in the broad term ‘human rights’ we need to have a clear and logical understanding of what we are demanding of people and what will lead to sustainable and constructive change.
In the Soviet Union we are seeing significant glimmerings of hope but the road to a free society will be a long one and fraught with significant dangers, not only for the Soviet Union but for others along the track. There is no guarantee that the whole operation will move successfully.
In South Africa, while better noises are being made than for some time, the jubilation with which these statements are greeted is premature, similar tactics have been used on previous occasions and in the end they have led nowhere.
The Commonwealth has led the way in mobilising the conscience of the world in relation to South Africa. As Brian Mulroney again said, ‘it was the commonwealth, not the superpowers, and not the G-7, that took the first significant steps to galvanize international concern and transform it into constant and persuasive pressure on the South African government.’
If the Commonwealth needed special justification, I think that alone provides it, but there are many other things that that institution is and must be involved in.
Your organisation has always been concerned with human rights and you have a proud record. The Jewish people themselves have suffered more than perhaps any other race. I say perhaps because I am not sure how to compare the different tyrannies of Nazi Germany and of the policies of apartheid.
I make a plea to you to use your influence worldwide with Israel. There are many people who supported the foundation of Israel and supported Israel's extraordinarily courageous and successful struggle against invasion and all kinds of difficulties. But some of the gloss has worn thin.
I have no easy solution to the problems of unity and of survival that face Israel today. I have no quarrel with Israel's refusal to enter an international meeting chaired by the two great powers. If they don't know what the bottom line is, what will those two great powers agree to? I can understand the difficulty in settling the Palestinian issue. If there is to be a separate state as so many demand and believe to be right, will it be used as a centre for subversion and for the ultimate destruction of Israel, or is there a way of guaranteeing peaceful and constructive co-existence. I do not know the answers to those questions.
Israel has also rubbed some of the shine off its image by a discrete but nevertheless significant relationship with South Africa. That relationship has been diminished but it still continues. I must say I find it most offensive that a people who have suffered more than any other on grounds of race should have any relationship with a country such as South Africa which practises racism more brutally than any since Nazi Germany.
My plea is for your organisation to use your influence, which I know is not inconsiderable, with the state of Israel to have the last elements of that relationship ended. I believe you would be serving the interests of Israel and also the interests of human rights and ultimate change within South Africa.
It is important for Israel not only to recapture her own sense of internal unity but also to act as a standard bearer for idealism around the world. There are none here who would want to see Norman Podhoretz' article: ‘Israel: a lamentation from the future’ become the 21st century's reality.