This column was meant to be about the Quad - the pretend construct that Australia, India, Japan and the US are networking to form some sort of heavy-duty counterweight to China - but you can't write a thousand words about nothing.
Enough time has now gone past since the idea was first floated to see, no matter how desirable such a concept may be, nothing substantial will or can ever bring it to fruition. The differences between the four are just too substantial; their interests too discrete. No American soldier will ever be sent to die defending India's remote Ladakh region, just as no Indian destroyers will be dispatched to protect Japan's claim over the barren Senkaku rocks.
No matter how much a few, excitable, blowhards hyperventilate with excitement that such divergent democracies with such discrete interests might one day form some sort of alliance, all the noise is emanating from the hollow chamber of an empty drum.
There's no move to create a joint-military command; no sharing of intelligence; not even any agreement as to where the supposed front line might be. It's a chimera, a fictional creature that explodes into nothingness as soon as you take it down from the shelf to examine it. So how do you prove something doesn't exist?
As a diligent reporter I began by asking an expert, the ANU's Dr Sue Thompson. She's done exhaustive work on the evolution of security issues in south-east Asia, is experienced, and has thought deeply about these issues, so I asked her why, specifically, no enduring alliance network similar to NATO had ever evolved in response to China, as it had to combat the Soviet Union.
An hour-and-a-half later we'd finally reached the 1970s: my problem was it had all been so interesting (and even, occasionally, fascinating) that I realised there'd be no easy way to simplify her vigorous, compelling analysis into a simple column.
Each thread of Thompson's argument was carefully woven together to create a reasonable and recognisable representation of the drivers that propel our world.
She'd created a working model that explained the past and offered a way of deconstructing the present and, putatively, predicting the future.
And that was when I realised that this column wasn't really about the Quad at all: it was about the way we think.
The way we communicate ideas has changed. This is neither good nor bad; simply different. The dynamics of social media, in particular, lead us down a path towards simplicity and binary division. Bold assertions are vibrant and exciting so we increasingly use them to convey ideas.
There simply isn't enough room or space to qualify broad assertions, or suggest that some claims might actually be more detailed and complex than can be effectively compressed into 120 characters, or an image, or whatever happens to be your media of choice.
The point is that every story has its own structure and each medium - print, radio, television, and social media - has its own way of forcing the narrative into a structure that works.
Unfortunately, because stories are the key tool we use to interpret our world works, this compression forces us to leave too much discarded along the way. Instead of a properly detailed picture we get a two-dimensional cartoon that's about as realistic as a children's story. They're easy to recognise.
They begin with a sharp distinction between good and evil and extend this simplistic binary divide to every situation; through every page. Every character takes on a role as hero or villain; wise or dull; smart or stupid.
It shouldn't be necessary to say it, but life isn't like this and reality demands more than a tweet to explain its complexity. Every assertion requires qualifications and caveats, but these have to be discarded as ideas struggle for attention.
The reality is there's nothing there, not even a foundation document that can be pointed to as if it's a thing.
The problem is that fantastical creatures; concepts and imagery that really belong in the realm of imagination and fiction, cut through. They succeed in grabbing headlines and gaining attention: that's why they're increasingly being used by politicians attempting to put their own spin on what's happening to interpret and explain whats occurring.
Journalists don't have time to look beyond the bullet points of the one-page executive summary on the front before they're being expected to file stories. We certainly don't have the opportunity to probe more deeply into the issues or explore the detail behind the headlines. As a result, magical thinking is flourishes.
This is the idea that there's (always) a simple answer to a complex problem and it can be reduced to a couple of sentences or, in the case of the Quad, a single word. The reality is there's nothing there, not even a foundation document that can be pointed to as if it's a thing.
So that's why this really is a column about nothing, because nothing lies beyond this concept other than the vague idea that it would be nice to have a nice, warm security blanket to wrap ourselves in to balance the bellicose rhetoric coming from Beijing.
Unfortunately, no matter how tightly anyone shuts their eyes, hold their breath, or wants something to happen, imagination alone will never bring the impossible into existence.
What makes the Quad quite worthwhile as a concept though, is that it offers us a guide to the way other people think. Listen carefully to the way others speak about it.
Do they treat the idea as if it's something tangible and an actual thing? If they do, you'll know to treat everything they say with suspicion: they probably believe in Santa Claus, too.
The problem you'll have is that it will take too long to explain to them why they're wrong. There's also the danger that they may become violent as you offer the detail that explodes their comfortable bubble.
Use the new media. Say "tl;dr" (too long; didn't read). There is no Quad.
Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer.
Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer.
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