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Dennis Richardson’s defense “feelings” · 22 September 2012

Dennis Richardson, who will soon move from the job of Secretary of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs to that of Secretary of the Department of Defense, recently commented on the debate about whether Australia’s growing trade relationship with China is compatible with its military alliance with the US. He said:

“Our alliance with the United States is not up for sale. Since when does any country worth its salt auction its alliance to the highest bidder?”

These words are both misleading and emotive in nature. They present the issue in terms of a stark choice between money (“highest bidder”) verses morality (“worth its salt”). It plays on our individual psychological distaste for someone who would sell-out a friend, and maybe each of us, for money (ie a type of Judas betrayal).

So, why did Richardson use these words?

I think that there are three possible basic reasons.

The first possibility is that Richardson’s intellectual ability is such that he actually believes that anyone who thinks that Australia is too obsequious in its dealings with the US (including vis-a-vis China) views life exclusively through a monetary lens.

Two other possibilities relate to “feelings”.

One of these possibilities is that Richardson is letting his feelings over-ride his intellectual ability (irrespective of its standard). Norman Dixon, in “On the Psychology of Military Incompetence”, wrote that “the apparent intellectual failings of some military commanders are due not to lack of intelligence but to their feelings”. He wrote that such things as cognitive dissonance, denial and anti-intellectualism are all, in reality, “more concerned with emotion than intelligence”.

The second possibility related to “feelings” is that Richardson is cynically presenting the issue in terms of feelings – ie money verses morality – because he is afraid of losing the debate (or at least part of it) on logical grounds.

There may be elements of all three possibilities behind Richardson’s choice of words. Assuming that Richardson has a reasonably high level of intelligence, we are left with at least some influence of “feelings”.

This then highlights the extent that individual psychology – that of Richardson or of the majority of individual Australians whom he is trying to influence – can impact on attitudes toward international relations.

Peter Loewenberg, professor emeritus of history and political psychology at UCLA, has written that “too much history is still written as though men had no feelings, no childhood, and no bodily senses.” To this I would add that too much analysis of international relations is conducted “as though men (and women) had no feelings etc”.

So, what are the implications for the issue of possible inconsistencies between Australia’s alliance with the US and its trade relationship with China?

I think that Richardson may be out of his intellectual and/or emotional (ie feelings) depth in handling this issue in a “competent” way. And, he will now be responsible for the “military”!

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