17th Annual Hawke Lecture

By / 5th of August, 2014

The annual Bob Hawke Lecture takes on a special meaning this year as it falls on the anniversary of the beginning of World War I.

To commemorate the anniversary, this year’s speaker, Professor Hugh White AO of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University, questioned the traditional view of why Australia entered the Great War to highlight the theory that the situation today in Asia is similar to Europe in 1914.

You can listen to a recorded podcast of the lecture by clicking this link.

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Professor Hugh White

Prof White says that today popular opinion sees “Australia as innocent of the folly that caused the war, and this innocence is part of the very special image we have of Australia’s experience of the war – the image of ANZAC.”

He challenges this perspective by exploring the circumstances in which Australia decided to take part in a major European war.

“I’m not going to argue that Australians were especially culpable in the decisions they made, or even that their decisions were necessarily wrong,” Prof White states. “But I will argue that Australia made a clear choice to go to war, and that the reasons for those choices need to be understood, if we are to understand all the other things that we will be commemorating over the next four years.”

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In the lead up to the declaration of war, Europe and world had undergone a tremendous shift in the balance power – a balance that Australia relied on to stay safe.

Prof White says that rapid industrialization also meant that “the war which they imagined in the first days of August, and which they chose as the lesser of the evils, was nothing like the war that actually engulfed them. In a very real sense the European statesman of 1914 didn’t know what they were doing.”

“They did not want war, but they feared backing down would have disastrous consequences for their place in the new European pecking order. So they simply assumed that their opponents would back down instead, and they were all wrong. Europe went to war on a wave of wishful thinking.”

Prof White argues that a similar shift in the balance of power and the rapid expansion of the economies of Asia means that Australians must be aware that they live in a time comparable to Europe in 1914.

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“Over the last year or two a minor industry has sprung up drawing analogies between 1914 in Europe and the world – especially Asia today. It is tempting to dismiss this as just another example of the strange hold that anniversaries, and especially centenaries, have on our imaginations. But there are similarities between Europe in 1914 and Asia today which do bear serious examination. Nothing in 1914 made a major European war inevitable, and nothing makes major Asian war inevitable today. But many of the factors which created the conditions in which war could break out in 1914 have their analogues in Asia today.”

He warns that if the balance of power in Asia is not addressed properly – which he acknowledges is “very difficult, but clearly possible” – then it is possible that 21st century Asia may go the way of 20th century Europe.

Read the full lecture here.


The Bob Hawke Prime Ministerial Centre is a dynamic University of South Australia initiative to establish an internationally recognised public learning entity serving local and global audiences.

Named after Bob Hawke, a third generation South Australian, one of the 20th century’s most notable Prime Ministers (1983?1991) and a great conciliator nationally and abroad, the Hawke Centre was established by Memorandum of Understanding in 1997. UniSA has developed the Centre believing that Bob Hawke’s contribution should be properly recognised through a national facility, not as a memorial, but in a way that helps new generations and furthers his legacy of valuing a cohesive, sustainable and fair Australia.

Broadly, the Hawke Centre aims to challenge Australians to consider ideas and develop solutions for Australia and the world, leading towards more sustainable societies, within a democratic framework. It is supported by a fine group of national patrons.

The Annual Hawke Lecture is the premier national event on the public calendar of the University of South Australia, delivered under the auspices of the Bob Hawke Prime Ministerial Centre. There are relatively few moments when we have the time to consider the larger issues of life, including the future of our nation and our world and how we can shape it. The University of South Australia offers the Annual Hawke Lecture in this spirit, as an opportunity to listen to the views of someone whose experience of human affairs is notable, and whose concerns are truly worthy of consideration. The lecture is recorded for the Hawke Centre website and broadcast by Radio Adelaide. It is published in print form at a later date.