Australia is not just a settler-colonial state — for much of the twentieth century, it was also a direct colonial power in the Pacific. And today, while Australia does not directly govern formerly colonized nations like Papua New Guinea or Nauru, it still dominates the South Pacific, in large part thanks to the geopolitical order established by the United States.
At the same time, however, the United States interferes in Australian politics and demands Australia’s adherence to an economic system that privileges American corporations. This can raise difficult questions: is Australia best understood as an imperialist nation in its own right or merely as an outpost of US power? In his new book, Subimperial Power: Australia in the International Arena, Clinton Fernandes argues that the truth lies somewhere in the middle: Australia is a subordinate beneficiary of the US empire.
Fernandes is professor of international and political studies at the University of New South Wales, Canberra. He began his academic career in the mid-2000s after serving as an intelligence officer in the Australian Army. In his first book, Reluctant Saviour: Australia, Indonesia and the Independence of East Timor, Fernandes demonstrated the Australian government’s complicity with the genocidal occupation of East Timor by Indonesia.
Since then, Fernandes’s research and writing has examined Australian foreign policy from the British invasion up to the present. He has also analyzed Australia’s role in the US-led imperial order and has waged several legal battles to declassify official documents. Most recently, Fernandes managed to confirm that Australia’s spy agency, ASIS, was involved in the 1973 coup against Chile’s democratically elected socialist president, Salvador Allende.
Joe McLaren and Zacharias Szumer recently sat down with Fernandes to discuss his analysis of Australia’s role in the US-led global order.
Mainstream commentators typically describe Australia as a “middle power.” Instead, you refer to it a “subimperial power.” Similarly, while they describe the current world system as a “rules-based order,” you call it a “US-led imperial order.” Could you explain why you prefer this terminology?
Wittgenstein once said his aim was “to show the flies the way out of the fly-bottle.” The flies he was referring to were philosophers buzzing around in helpless confusion, arguing about nonissues. I think that resembles much of what passes for Australian foreign-policy scholarship and international relations (IR) theory. Instead of buzzing around inside doctrinal cocoons, my aim is to show foreign policy and IR academics the way out, if they choose to leave.
Something I’ve pointed out is that few terms have been debated and discussed more than “middle power” and what it means in Australian foreign policy. But it’s all nonsense.
When we think of empires, we often think of direct physical occupation. But the real point of an empire is to control another country’s sovereignty — physically occupying that country is just one way of doing it. An imperial power is a power that can exert control over other countries’ sovereignty. If you understand an empire as controlling sovereignty rather than controlling territory, then you can see how Australia has long been an imperial power to countries in our region. These include Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Nauru, and East Timor. However, “empire” is an unutterable taboo, so the preferred term is “our Pacific family.” What is “our Pacific family,” if not a euphemism for our vassal states?
Subordinating another country’s sovereignty to private investors is part of the rules-based order, which should be understood correctly as an imperial system. In this sense, Australia is a subimperial power, because we ensure that the sovereignty of Papua New Guinea is contingent on the protection of Australian interests there. But we also ensure that our own sovereignty is curtailed in the interests of American or European Union investors. To ensure that their multinationals are unchallenged, we have refused to set up a national oil and gas company or a national critical minerals company. And we have tried to design our defense force so that its primary role isn’t to defend Australia, but to be interoperable with imperial power. Basically, we subordinate our own sovereignty in the interests of the imperial system. And then we go on to subordinate other countries’ sovereignties in the interests of the imperial system, in which we play a privileged role. That’s the rules-based order.
The fact that those who urge a rules-based order seldom refer to international law and the UN Charter should tell you that there’s something very interesting going on. International law essentially bars US foreign policy. As a consequence, it also bars important aspects of Australian foreign policy. International law would have barred the invasion of Iraq. The rules-based order, by contrast, didn’t. International law says that if two countries share a maritime border, then any undersea oil fields ought to be divided along the median line. That’s international law. That’s not what we did with East Timor. We insisted on taking its oil almost all the way up to its coastline. That’s the rules-based order.
There is an economic component as well, known as the doctrine of comparative advantage. In plain English, comparative advantage means “stay in your place, produce the things that you are currently more efficient at producing, and don’t try to be efficient at producing anything else.” If the United States had followed the principle of comparative advantage, it would be exporting fur and bison meat. It wouldn’t have a steel industry. It wouldn’t have an automobile industry. It wouldn’t have the internet. This reveals the point: comparative advantage is an imperial doctrine that other countries have to accept.
A rules-based order is very different to an international-law based order centered around the UN Charter. And it consists of rules that subordinate state sovereignty to the interests of private investors, ensuring that comparative advantage is followed by nations in a subordinate position. It also has an ideological pillar: Australia presents its intentions as benign and its actions as defensive.
You mentioned that Australia’s economy should be understood as subimperial. Could you explain how foreign investment shapes Australia’s role in the imperial system?
You can’t have an independent foreign policy when you don’t have an independent economy — and the commanding heights of Australia’s economic system are not controlled by Australians.
The majority of the top twenty companies in the Australian Stock Exchange — which account for 50 percent of the capital of the entire stock exchange — are in large part owned by US-based investors. The Commonwealth Bank is heavily US-owned. Woodside Energy is heavily US-owned, and so are mining giants BHP and Rio Tinto, among many others.
These companies and their shareholders don’t have an interest in developing Australia, but in making a profit. That’s not something that should raise eyebrows — it’s the way the system is supposed to work.
Australia is rich in critical minerals, which are going to be absolutely essential for a high-tech world, for the renewable energy transition, for batteries, for smartphones, and for manufacturing semiconductors. We could tell foreign companies that they are welcome to come and use Australian raw materials, provided they also build their products here. We could make it a requirement that after, say, five years, they transfer their technology to us, so we can climb the technology ladder.
Instead, we allow European and American investors to come in, dig up our raw materials, and manufacture them somewhere else before selling the finished products back to us and taking the profits elsewhere. That’s an example of subordinating our sovereignty to the interests of foreign private investors, and we do it because our resources are not actually under national control.
The imperial nature of foreign investment into Australia is further illustrated by the way we’ve insisted on investor state dispute settlement provisions (ISDSs). ISDSs allow companies to sue governments in private tribunals. If I want to sue the Australian government for confiscating my property and building a highway through it or something like that, I’ve got to go to the Federal Court. I can’t tell the government, “you come to my private tribunal, and we’ll then come up with a judgement.” But if you’re a foreign company, that’s effectively what you can do. In fact, we have worked with the United States to try and make ISDSs attain the status of customary international law.
Could you explain the difference between an exploited neo-colony and a subimperial power like Australia? And what’s an example of an Australian policy that has displeased the United States and demonstrated the limits of our independence?
After World War II, the United States wanted Australia to keep producing beef, wheat, and other primary products. The United States was highly critical of what it called “poorly conceived programs of industrial expansion” whose “principal aim has been to create protected high-cost industries rather than to expand industrial production.” Instead of this, the United States wanted Australia to focus on agricultural and mineral exports.
Despite this, the government of Prime Minister Ben Chifley embarked on industrialization, and the successor government of Robert Menzies continued these efforts. Given this context, the 1945 White Paper on Full Employment was clearly an assertion of Australian sovereignty. So was developing a car industry, expanding the population, and the Snowy Mountains Scheme for hydroelectricity and irrigation. In fact, much of what became the golden era of Australian capitalism in the ’50s and ’60s should be seen as an assertion of Australian sovereignty.
Yet while Australia rejected becoming an exploited neo-colony, we still insisted that other former colonies would remain neo-colonies after they became independent. That’s what defines Australian military history after World War II. Australia fought alongside Britain to ensure that Malaya remained a neo-colony even after it became independent. We ensured that Malaysian rubber and tin — which were absolutely essential for the postwar economy — would be sold to fund Britain’s reconstruction instead of going to the Malaysian people. We fought wars to impose comparative advantage and a neocolonial system in Malaysia and Vietnam. We worked with reactionary elements in Southeast Asia to destroy the prospect of social transformation. We ensured that other countries in the region remained neo-colonies, whilst developing our own industry and society.
In the decades after Bob Hawke was prime minister in the ’80s, it’s hard to find any examples where we’ve done things that displeased the United States. Hawke was basically the best Australian prime minister that the United States has ever had. I mean that quite honestly. Just look at the combination of things that the Hawke government did. Firstly, he depoliticized the US alliance after Vietnam and came up with a spurious reason for the jointly-run Pine Gap satellite surveillance base. Then, he ensured that the Chemical Weapons Convention would be written in such a way that favored the United States. He also made sure that the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone would protect US interests and not the interests of the people of the South Pacific. This allowed the United States to transport chemical and nuclear weapons through the area and store them there and on Johnston Atoll.
Liberal prime minister John Howard continued Hawke’s tradition by ensuring that the US-Australia Free Trade Agreement protects intellectual property for twenty years. It’s among the longest periods of protection for intellectual property in the world.
To what degree is the United States willing to intervene into Australian politics to ensure its strategic goals are met?
We know from the WikiLeaks cables that the United States keeps itself very well-informed about developments in Australia. It know what’s going on inside the Liberal Party or the Labor Party to a better extent than many MPs in those parties.
But more importantly, the Unites States creates conditions that make it unnecessary for it to intervene. For example, this means organizing official and informal visits and think-tank exchanges in order to create habits and thought patterns. Those who say the right things are then elevated in the system. The result is that the United States promotes very pro-American politicians, helping them rise to dominant positions in Australia.
Nobody is telling defense correspondents or foreign editors working for the Fairfax-Nine press what to say. Nobody needs to tell them because the right people are already in those jobs, and they genuinely believe what they say. Sometimes the US embassy vets candidates for important positions. Alternatively, the embassy arranges for them to be given private briefings by US political officers and visiting US experts. They also sponsor programs like the Australian-American Leadership Dialogue.
To give you an example, in the late 1960s, the US embassy identified Bob Hawke as somebody who would be worth supporting as president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions. As time went on, the United States became convinced he was extremely valuable to their interests. After he became prime minister, Hawke then put in place a series of policies that protected US interests. So yes, there is interference. But it’s not as though there is direct day-to-day manipulation. But rather, strategically, a little finger is placed on the scales to ensure that things work out in a certain way.
Today, the United States and Australia see China as the most serious threat to the US imperial order. Could you explain why?
Firstly, China is able to deter threats to itself in its own region. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, no country in the world has been able to deter threats to itself in the face of US-led coercion. But China can. If you have an imperial or subimperial mentality, a country that doesn’t follow orders looks very threatening.
Secondly, China poses a far more serious threat than the USSR because it offers the Global South a better deal economically. The United States’ offer is that developing nations subordinate themselves to the imperial order, adhere to the doctrine of comparative advantage, and allow their resources to be exploited. By contrast, China offers poorer nations the chance to develop their own economies and to control the pace and the depth of their integration with the global economy. It offers developing countries training and technology and allows them to improve the lives of their citizens. It’s a very sharp contrast to the neoliberal model and the United States has no answer to it.
And more than this, China has managed to develop without war, without colonization, and without slavery. That’s a major attraction for third world countries.
The real fear now is that China is leading a process of Eurasian integration. Its Belt and Road Initiative is connecting a whole range of countries. This will allow them to climb the technology ladder and to improve the lives of their citizens, albeit with Chinese technological standards and Chinese businesses playing a dominant role. If your aim is to subordinate everyone else’s sovereignty to the interests of private investors who are located mainly in North Atlantic countries, that’s a big problem.
How does the AUKUS security pact lock Australia into the US side of a potential conflict with China?
AUKUS is primarily a technology sharing agreement. It’s not a military treaty. Everybody knows that the submarines Australia is supposed to receive from the United States are going to start arriving from the 2040s onward — that’s twenty years away.
What people don’t understand is that as a treaty AUKUS has the intention of tying the hands of every future Australian government, to prevent them from developing an independent defense policy. AUKUS makes Australia effectively undefendable, except in the context of a US-UK military strategy.
We are basically paying for the United States fleet to set up a few submarines here, which will be operated, serviced, repaired and maintained in the interests of the United States. Under AUKUS, it’s impossible for us to have a credible defense policy, except by closer and closer alignment with the United States.