The situation in Syria is tragic, and it’s not surprising that people who see these tragedies on their television (or more likely, these days, YouTube) want to Do Something. Maybe there’s a point to American, or British, or French, or Russian, or Iranian, or Israeli breast-beating over what is going on. I’m not so sure. I was in Belgrade a few weeks ago and saw the site of the NATO bombing in 1993. Did it really change anything on the ground?
Here in Australia, though, there’s no point. We have no strategic interest in Syria, and even if we did, for good or bad we can have no impact on what is going on. Australia is a modest country, with much to be modest about – and thank goodness for that. I doubt if there are many Australians who want to join the Great Powers, especially on yet another expedition of gunboat diplomacy to the Middle East.
Unfortunately, one of them is Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. In the middle of an election campaign he is highly likely to lose, the ex-diplomat, ex-foreign minister, takes time out from cooking or campaigning to speak in sober, measured and above all pompous terms about his consultations with Barack Obama and David Cameron and – who knows? Ban Ki-moon?
The excuse for this self-importance is that Australia is currently one of the non-permanent members of the Security Council and this weekend takes over the rotating presidency. The real reason is that Rudd loves this sort of stuff.
It all feels to me a bit like ‘We warn the Tsar!’
The story goes that at some unspecified time, perhaps during the Crimean War, an obscure colonial newspaper published an editorial trumpeting the stirring headline ‘We Warn the Tsar!’ Accounts differ as to whether this paper was in Tasmania or New Zealand, but wherever it was, the Tsar didn’t read the paper and remained unwarned.
Thanks to the wonders of digitization, it’s now possible to look for the origins of the story – or at least to track it back with some certainty – so rather than think about the horrors in Syria, about which I can do nothing, I wasted a couple of hours this morning trying to find its source.
I first looked for the phrase (with both spellings, Tsar and Czar) in Australian newspapers through Trove. There’s no earlier reference than 1917, when The Bookman in Sydney puts the phrase in quotes and attributes it to an unnamed New Zealand editor. It’s beginning to look a bit like an Australian joke against New Zealanders.
So over the Tasman to Papers Past. Under the spelling ‘tsar’, the earliest reference is in the Observer to a parody that refers to the Nelson Colonist, which ‘on one occasion started their leading article with the words, “We warn the Tsar of Russia”! However the alternate spelling ‘czar’ brings up more references from the 1890s, mostly from the Otago Times, and mostly blaming the phrase on an unnamed west coast newspaper (which could, with a bit of geographical re-arrangement, be the Nelson Colonist). However the earliest reference, in the North Otago Times in 1894, goes for an Irish joke instead:
Was it not a Cork newspaper that commenced a leading article thusly: “We warn the Czar of Russia,” and the Czar of Russia, notwithstanding the warning, gets along very well for a despot.
Clearly by the 1890s, the phrase was common, and commonly used in mockery.
Unfortunately, although a number of Irish newspapers are digitized, I don’t have access to them, so I went instead to the 19th Century British Newspapers database (on subscription), which takes the phrase back to Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, which in January 1873 wrote an editorial about the Russian diplomat Count Schouvaloff, and Russian involvement in Khiva (now part of Uzbekistan).
The Central Asian question is at present a black spot on the horizon – a spot on which it seems our financiers are steadily fixing their eyes….
We warn the Czar that we shall adopt a certain line of conduct if he pursues a certain line of conduct; but what the lines of conduct may be are matters on which her Majesty’s lieges are as ignorant as the troops, whose lives are about to be jeopardised in Khiva.
I find it profoundly depressing that 140 years later, ‘the Central Asian question’ is still a black spot on the horizon. Financiers still fix their eyes on these black spots, and citizens remain ignorant while the lives of troops are jeopardised in our 21st century version of the Great Game.
Meanwhile, the current Tsar, Vladimir Putin, is highly likely to veto any UN Security Council decision on intervention in Syria, which might in any case do as much harm as good. Kevin, pull your head in.
The Bookman, 17 November 1917
‘Political Paroxysms’ in Observer, 26 October 1907.
North Otago Times, 17 February 1894
Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 26 January 1873