So, too, with America. Presidents Bush and Clinton found that when a moral imperative to assist famine and gangster-ridden Somalia resulted in American casualties, voters' interest in doing good evaporated overnight.
And President Clinton is now discovering that the humanitarian instincts that led him to commit forces in Kosovo - if a strategy that aims at zero casualties can accurately be called ``a commitment'' - are not applicable in Chechnya. Why? Because Russia has nuclear weapons and Serbia does not.
Now Australia must decide whether to base its foreign policy on some notion of a moral imperative or on a clear eyed understanding of the national interest. In making that choice it must keep three things in mind: one, that what is often dressed up as morality is really emotionalism; two, the fact that American attitudes towards Europe do not extend to this region of the world; and three, the fact that pursuit of a foreign policy based purely on moralism can lead to a massive loss of sovereignty.
Let me address each of those issues in turn.
First, a moral foreign policy is often in reality a policy based on emotionalism. It is a variety of religious enthusiasm. But such enthusiasms are fickle and frequently short-term. They often fail to take realistic, hard-headed account of the consequences of intervention. They generally involve unrealistic assumptions about the staying power of domestic opinion and the likely reactions of international actors. A morality which doesn't take account of all of the consequences of its actions is an emotional self indulgence and a false morality. A democratic nation acting in the lawful, reasonable pursuit of its national interest is much less likely to miscalculate on a grand scale, to everyone's cost, than is a nation bent on a moral crusade.
Second, American attitudes. America has told us in no uncertain terms that any moral imperative it feels about events in Europe does not extend to this part of the world. Whatever led America to extend help to beleaguered Kosovo, did not apply to East Timor. Australia was doomed to disappointment when it attempted to convert its historic loyalty to America into reciprocal behaviour by the Americans. When East Timor blew up, and the human tragedy there unfolded, Australians assumed - yes assumed - that Americans would help it to pacify East Timor. No such luck.
President Clinton dithered. His national security adviser said that we in this part of the world shouldn't look to America for help in solving our problems. Finally, America decided to contribute a derisory 200 troops, but only for logistical support and to be kept out of harm's way.
Let me turn to the question of sovereignty and its relation to a morality-based foreign policy. Any nation seeking to do good in the world by intervening in the affairs of other nations must face the fact that the dominant view is that going-it-alone just isn't on.
For Australia, the limitation of our resources makes this an unrealistic option anyway.
Some international organisation, generally the United Nations, insists on being a player whenever an international peace-keeping or similar operation is involved. In East Timor, Australia found that it needed the blessing of other nations and, now, is seeking to pass some of its burdens over to the UN. Needless to say, my friend Kofi Annan is more than willing to assume the role as intervenor-in-chief - the person whose blessing is required before a sovereign nation can intervene in the affairs of another. But who will set the rules governing that intervention?