The New York Times


I.H.T. Op-Ed Contributor

Misguided Emotions


HONG KONG — It must count as one of the more bizarre bits of diplomacy in recent times. Last week, on the eve of a visit by Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd of Australia threatened to take Japan to the International Court of Justice if it did not stop whaling in the Southern Ocean, the part of the Indian Ocean south of Australia.

One may dismiss this as a politician's gesture aimed at a domestic audience that has taken to emotional “save the whales” campaigns. Though whale oil and bone had once been Australia's biggest export, the nation had no tradition of eating whale meat, and a shortage of whales caused the closure of its last whaling station in 1978.

But such outbursts in favor of one member of the mammal kingdom by a major exporter of red meat is likely to do more damage to Australia's image than to Japan's. Most of Australia's Asian neighbors — other than Japan — may not care much one way or the other about whaling. But the tone of moral superiority adopted by Australia — its apparent belief that it is the guardian of the Southern Ocean from Asian depredation — grates on many Asians who also resent environment lessons from a top carbon polluter.

From an Australian perspective it may seem reasonable that the largest, most advanced country in the Southern Ocean should assume some responsibility for it. But such assumptions of its rights and duties in international waters can easily keep alive lingering Asian resentments of Western colonialism — European expansionism that gave a small new nation with a population only a little bigger than Shanghai control over a vast, mineral rich landmass. Does Australia want to control the ocean too, some ask?

There may be scientific arguments about whether Japan's harvesting of several hundred whales per year is endangering the stock in the Southern Ocean. But Australia's “crusade” seems more couched in emotional than scientific terms. We see this also in the heroic status accorded the Australian and New Zealand campaigners who have harassed Japan's whaling vessels.

Japan may be pushing the limits of the “scientific research” allowed by the International Whaling Commission in the “whale sanctuary” it declared in the Southern Ocean. But at least Japan still belongs to that body. Norway always refused to accept I.W.C. restrictions. Iceland walked out of the I.W.C. in 1992 (it returned in 2002 but largely on its own terms). Canada left earlier and has not returned.

Meanwhile, other countries with whaling traditions turn a blind eye to the organization. For example, whale hunting is illegal in South Korea but the meat of whales caught in nets or killed accidentally is sold freely. There is pressure to make hunting legal again. Other countries, including Russia and Denmark, allow it for “traditional” communities, which take hundreds of whales a year.

Even making allowances for all the unofficial catch it is still small compared with the numbers killed by ship collisions and nets.

In short, though the world needs properly regulated management of the oceans, Mr. Rudd's antics discourage whaling countries from cooperating with the I.W.C. and make others reluctant to accept controls on fishing in international waters to stabilize rapidly depleting fish stocks.

Harpooning whales may be cruel and does excite emotions even among those who regularly eat red meat. But Australia is in scant position to complain when it shoots upward of 3 million wild kangaroos a year to protect crops and grazing for sheep and cattle. It recently announced a mass shooting of troublesome wild camels.

The kangaroo and camel culls may be justified. But local emotions are confused. Shooting kangaroos by licensed hunters has long been common in Australia's outback. But a plan for a culling of the national symbol near the national capital raised a storm of protest to “save Skippy” (the pet kangaroo in a famous children's TV program).

There is of course nothing unusual in battles between the heart and the head when it comes to attitudes to animals. For example, there is emotion, not reason, behind those in the West who are horrified with the consumption of dog in the East. In fact, there is no reason to treat whales differently from horses, which are still a table meat in some European countries.

Australia's elevation of its selective emotion into a diplomatic feud with its major Asian ally is nothing short of ridiculous.