ADELAIDE - At 11am on 11 November 1918, the Great War between Europe’s imperial powers, which had raged for over four years, came to a shuddering halt. The costs in human lives and suffering were incalculable and the geo-political impacts were profound.
On the losing side, the previously great German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires were utterly destroyed and their remnants dismembered.
On the winning side, the largest remaining imperial powers, Britain and France, survived mostly intact. However, they had sustained what would prove to be mortal social, economic and political wounds and one more cataclysmic war 21 years later would bring about their collapse.
Only the United States of America and the Empire of Japan emerged from the catastrophe with their power and prestige enhanced. In 1918 no-one could even imagine that these two powers would soon be engaged in a life and death struggle that would engulf the entire Asia and Pacific regions of the world.
Meanwhile, far away from the centres of conflict, half of the island of New Guinea had, unknown to most of its inhabitants, come into the effective possession of one of the smallest victorious powers, Australia.
This thinly populated nation, independent from Britain since just 1901, clinging tenaciously to the edges of a huge and frequently inhospitable continent, found itself responsible for the governance of a territory about which it knew almost nothing.
One of its first tasks was to discover who and what lay in the unknown interior of the island.
The exploration of the territories of Papua and New Guinea proceeded at a glacial pace. The new Australian federal government devoted only the bare minimum level of resources to its colonial responsibilities.
The territorial administration was invariably cash-strapped and operated on a shoe string budget. This meant it relied upon the ingenuity, enterprise, courage and sheer persistence of a tiny handful of tough minded “outside men” to undertake exploration patrols into the unknown hinterland of the island.
Unlike along the coast, the people living in the interior parts of the island frequently knew of the administration’s presence only through fleeting contact with patrol officers, missionaries or miners. And many people lived far beyond the reach or even knowledge of the colonial power, especially in the highlands which remained unexplored until the 1930s.
While the island of New Guinea had largely escaped the ravages of the Great War, it was not so lucky during the World War II, when it was subjected to the full impact of industrial scale warfare.
It is hard to imagine the cataclysmic effect upon Papua New Guineans of entire armies fighting over what had hitherto been a very obscure colonial backwater. Nothing in their traditional lives could have prepared them for such an event.
The sheer scale of the death, maiming, ruination and despoliation from modern warfare must have been both terrifying and awe-inspiring for those unfortunate enough to become caught up in it. It was a truly hideous introduction to modernity.
The geo-political impact of the World War II on what is now Papua New Guinea can hardly be overstated.
Europe was prostrate, lying in ruins. Many millions of displaced people ranged across it in search of a new and safer place to live. Large numbers of these people would leave Europe forever, taking their chances in “new world” countries like the USA, Canada, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, Israel and South America.
The other great imperial powers were either destroyed or, in the case of the British, forced to disestablish themselves in as orderly a way as possible.
Two new, ostensibly anti-colonial, so-called superpowers had emerged. In the west, the USA was now clearly the dominant power while in the east, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) ruled with an iron fist.
China had at last emerged from what it now calls its century of humiliation, but was far too weak to pose any real threat to either the USA or USSR. Under the iron grip of the Chinese Communist Party, China would take a long time to even begin to realise its full potential.
PNG did not escape the geo-political reverberations of the World War II. New Guinea became a mandated territory of the newly formed United Nations, with Australia remaining in charge. Papua remained an Australian territory. Both were governed as one.
And, in the early post-war era, the Australian colonial administration rapidly extended its influence and control across the whole of PNG.
By the 1960s, the colonial administration’s primary mission had changed from one of exploration and pacification to a requirement to steadily prepare PNG to become an independent nation in its own right.
By now the focus had turned increasingly towards developing the infrastructure required to allow PNG to function as a modern state.
The development of sea, air and road transportation networks, as well as rudimentary communications, education and health systems, was seen as a necessary first step towards nationhood.
Not for the first time, the administration relied upon a relative handful of patrol officers, police, agricultural officers, surveyors, teachers, medical assistants, engineers, missionaries and private business interests to drive the development process.
To put this in some perspective, the maximum number of Europeans (mostly Australians) living and working in PNG reached around 50,000. This is similar to the population today of a regional Australian rural centre like Warrnambool in Victoria, Bathurst in New South Wales or Mount Gambier in South Australia.
In short, the Australian presence was very small compared to the overall population. This reflected the knowledge that PNG was never going to be allowed to become a genuine colonial possession to be economically exploited in the sense that, say, India had been for the British or Vietnam was for the French.
As most readers will know, PNG achieved independence in 1975. As a nation, it was born into a world in which the cold war between two great competing ideologies, liberal democratic capitalism and Marxist Leninist communism, was at its peak. Which one would prevail was still unknown at that time.
The forces of Marxist Leninism had seemingly triumphed in China when, in 1949, Mao Zedong established the People’s Republic of China. On the other hand, the Russian and Chinese backed North Koreans had suffered a serious defeat in their attempt to seize control of the entire Korean Peninsula in a war that lasted from 1950-53.
Later, at about the time PNG became independent, the USA (and Australia), suffered a severe military reverse in Vietnam, which left the USA politically weakened and caused huge internal divisions.
In the bi-polar world of the Cold War, PNG had a relatively simple choice to make. It could align itself with one of the two competing ideologies or choose to be unaligned.
The unaligned countries were a decidedly eclectic bunch, including many distasteful authoritarian regimes that were entirely opportunistic in their dealings with other nations. Many were widely if secretly despised by other ideologically aligned powers.
In the event, PNG chose to stick with the powers that it knew and understood and so was seen as part of the broader western bloc. This turned out to be a wise decision because, on Christmas Day 1991, the USSR was formerly dissolved and replaced with the Russian Federation. Marxist Leninist communism was dead.
By then, China had abandoned any pretence at being a genuinely communist country. Under the leadership of President Deng Xiaoping (1978–89) it had embarked upon the ‘Four Modernisations’ during which many capitalist and free enterprise principles and ideas were incorporated into China’s economy. Deng’s successors continued this process with the explicit aim of China becoming a great power in every sense of that term.
The bi-polar world order had effectively collapsed by 1991 and it seemed that liberal democratic capitalism had emerged as the only viable ideological, socio-political and economic system. It was supposedly, as historian Francis Fukuyama famously stated, “the end of history”, by which he meant the end of ideological conflict.
Today, Francis Fukuyama has long since recanted from his statement that history has ended. Indeed, he is now one of many voices expressing serious concern about whether liberal democracy can even survive its “victory” over communism.
Far from being over, ideological conflict has reverted to its more traditional form, being conflict between nations over status, resources, influence and power. In particular, the age old conflict between authoritarianism in its various forms and liberal democracy has once again arisen to bedevil human affairs.
The internecine squabbling that is so much a feature of modern democracies, combined with the apparent success of illiberal regimes like China, has caused confidence in the utility and effectiveness of liberal democracy to begin to waver.
Several illiberal and quasi-authoritarian political movements have arisen in Europe and some have been elected to office.
The USA, the world’s largest and most successful democracy is currently riven with conflict between those who yearn for the imagined certainties and stability of the past and those who are striving to create a new and very different America. The likely outcome of this struggle is by no means clear.
In Turkey, the people have even voted to surrender most of their political power to a President who has acquired the capacity to maintain himself in office more or less indefinitely. Where this leads to for Turkey remains unknown but the early signs are not promising.
The world has thus become a vastly more complex place, with many of the certainties of the past now being openly contested. Special interest groups of all types now abound across the world, all striving to achieve “rights” that have hitherto not existed.
Through the new technologies of what is now called the social media, we are collectively beset by the raging conflicts between tribal, regional or ethnic separatists, ultra-nationalists, feminists, misogynists, climate change activists and denialists, animal rights activists, gender rights activists, radical vegans, religious fanatics and the ever present racists amongst us.
A symptom of the new world disorder has been the loss of many of the geo-political sign posts that once enabled small and largely powerless countries like PNG to successfully orient themselves towards maximizing their long term safety and economic prospects.
In the Pacific, we now have an emergent great power in China, using its newly acquired wealth to curry favour with those who govern Pacific countries and, not coincidentally, position itself to derive economic and, maybe, military advantages in doing so.
Australia, New Zealand and the USA, which have traditionally been the most influential powers in the region, are struggling to respond effectively to the Chinese initiatives.
The leaders of PNG and other countries are now placed in a real dilemma: how to strike a sensible balance between their traditional friends and allies and their new friend.
For Papua New Guinea, this dilemma raises the larger issue of just what sort of country it wants to be. Does it wish to pursue a path whereby it progressively falls further under the influence of a power which, at bottom, is both authoritarian and ambitious to grow its power and influence?
Or does it prefer to remain aligned with liberal democratic powers that, while not without faults, are fundamentally governed through democratic institutions and laws?
History suggests that, in the long term, the answers to these questions may be of existential importance to PNG.
For make no mistake, we are at what will prove to be a pivotal moment in human history, where the world either lurches once more into catastrophic warfare or, somehow, steps back from the abyss and finds mostly peaceful ways to reconcile seemingly irreconcilable differences.
What seems certain is that there is going to be a new world order, dominated by a handful of competitive, self-interested and ambitious great powers (as distinct from super powers) and small powers like PNG (or Australia for that matter) will need to tread a very careful path if they are to survive and flourish in such a world.