In April 2022, a proposed military treaty between China and Solomon Islands sparked panic in Australia. Resulting from a failure by Australian-trained Solomons police to contain anti-Chinese riots in 2019, the treaty spurred the then Labor opposition to condemn the Liberal government for failing to secure the national interest. It was even enough for one Australian commentator to suggest that Australia prepare a military intervention.
This incident demonstrates well a key argument of Clinton Fernandes’s important new book, Sub-Imperial Power: Australia in the International Arena. The book is a distillation of a 2019 work titled Island Off the Coast of Asia, a title that summarizes why Australia has allied first with Britain and then the United States to secure regional hegemony.
In Sub-Imperial Power, Fernandes looks beneath the language of a “rules based international order” in which Australia claims to operate as a “middle power.” These terms in fact naturalize a hierarchical world system in which Australia performs a sub-imperial role.
Fernandes is well placed to speak to this dimension of Australian foreign policy, as he served with the Australian Army Intelligence Corps during the intervention into East Timor in 1999. Following leaks that revealed the John Howard government’s knowledge of Indonesia’s genocidal campaign, the Australian Federal Police raided Fernandes’s house.
Since leaving the army, Fernandes has worked diligently to expose the underside of Australian diplomacy, most recently by winning the release of files that proved Canberra’s involvement in the 1973 Chilean coup.
In part the result of this experience, Fernandes wants to upend taken-for-granted assumptions that characterize typically stultified discussions of national security in the media and elsewhere. Like with David Brophy’s 2021 book, China Panic, this makes Sub-Imperial Power a breath of fresh air.
Critiques like the one presented in Sub-Imperial Power have long circulated on the progressive side of Australian politics. Given this, Fernandes’s contribution is also an intervention into a debate on the Left about how we should perceive Australia’s global position. Historically, there have been two views. One sees Australia as a colony of larger imperial forces, while the other sees the nation as an active colonizer and regional imperialist power.
Fernandes’s book criticizes the knee-jerk left-nationalism that often occasions this debate. In his view, Australia is not a victim of US power but an active agent of imperialism, and it always has been. In making this case, Fernandes sides with a tradition of twentieth-century anti-imperialist writers — and, regrettably, reproduces a number of their characteristic blind spots.
In the early 2000s, US president George W. Bush committed to finishing his father’s work by terminating the rule of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. His broader objective was to secure US hegemony in the Middle East — and both Britain and Australia joined his “coalition of the willing.”
As a massive, worldwide anti-war movement argued, this was an illegal war, fought under demonstrably false pretenses by powers with a long history of interventions into the affairs of other sovereign states. At the same time, at the Australian rallies, placards depicted PM John Howard as having subordinated himself and the nation to the US president. The upshot was that by going to war in the Middle East, Australia was serving someone else’s interests.
Fernandes has no time for such critiques. Far from a submissive lapdog, Australia’s interests are in fact served by its position as a “deputy sheriff,” to quote one of Bush’s many memorable phrases. Those who see Australia as a US client state have pointed to the presence of US spy bases, the interoperability of both militaries, and Australia’s capacity to host nuclear-capable B-52 bombers. As Fernandes argues, however, this does not make Australia subordinate — it has long relied on protection from powerful friends to pursue regional imperial designs.
This is where the “sub” prefix becomes important. Fernandes draws the term “sub-imperialist” from a chapter of Humphrey McQueen’s provocative book A New Britannia. In it, McQueen argued that Australia has relied on what today might be called a “security umbrella” offered by Britain and, later, the United States to facilitate our own imperialistic domination of the region.
Indeed, at times, Australia’s regional designs have conflicted with the aims of our protectors. For example, at the time of federation, Britain opposed the so-called White Australia Policy, fearing it would aggravate Japan, which was then a rising power.
Australian socialist poet Henry Lawson best captured the nature of Australia’s relationship with its imperial protector in verse that McQueen quotes in A New Britannia: “Let Britannia rule for ever / O’er the wave; but never, never / Rule a land great oceans sever / Fifteen thousand miles away.”
In sum, Britain can rule the waves provided that Australia is left alone to preside over its now-informal Pacific empire, colloquially known as our “Pacific Family.”
As the British Empire declined, Australia sought the protection of the United States. But the basic structure of the former relationship remained in place. In exchange for its privileged regional position, Australia aligns its foreign policy — and much domestic policy — with America’s.
Something of Vladimir Lenin’s idea of a labor aristocracy is apparent here. To explain right-wing social democracy, he claimed that the upper echelons of the Western working classes had been bought off with the spoils of imperial plunder. By a similar token, it’s possible to view Australia as a nation of labor aristocrats that proactively subordinates its neighbors in exchange for a slice of the global pie. Viewed from the perspective of dependency theory, Australia is an economically peripheral nation that, perplexingly, enjoys the political and social standards of one in the core.
As Fernandes contends, Australia pays a tribute in return for its privileged place in the world order by accepting the doctrine of “comparative advantage.” This restricts the Australian economy to the role of primary producer, largely dependent on mineral and agriculture exports. Fernandes does note a bright spark of hope in the mid-1940s, when postwar industrialization created a diversified manufacturing economy, protected by high tariff walls. However, the United States always opposed this and subsequently used free-trade agreements and lawfare to effectively deindustrialize Australia during the neoliberal era.
Fernandes’s framework also helps us understand why Australia lines up so militantly with the US against China, even though the latter remains our largest trading partner. Furthermore, he cautions against blaming a “pro-US or Israel lobby” for Australia’s enthrallment to US interests. Rather, Australia’s leaders — left and right — do not need convincing. They see quite clearly why our “national interest” is served by US empire.
Retro–United Nations Futurism
Insights like these are grounded in a firmly materialist conception of history that sees economic and foreign policy as not merely entwined but as mutually reinforcing. For Fernandes, if Australia wants to pursue a foreign policy that aims for neutrality, we must first pursue economic independence through industrial diversification and ending harmful free-trade treaties. This would mean recommitting to the principles of the United Nations, which are framed by inviolable state sovereignty, the peaceful settling of disputes, and an acceptance of ideological and geostrategic multipolarity.
We have, however, been here before. In the 1970s, nonaligned nations proposed a New International Economic Order (NIEO) that would be achieved via structural and policy changes to key UN agencies, such as the World Bank. Drawing on dependency theory, advocates for this path argued that development in the Third World would be achieved by transferring technology, protecting economic sovereignty, and removing trade barriers. This, they claimed, would allow less developed nations to achieve real independence.
Perhaps counterintuitively, Australian foreign policymakers have echoed this perspective. Since the 1960s, Canberra has dispatched diplomats with the hope of convincing the world that Australia is not a developed nation but is somewhere “midway” between a developed and developing economy. These arguments rarely proved convincing. Then as well as now, Australia is one of the world’s richest nations per capita.
While Fernandes acknowledges that Australia is not an “exploited neo-colony,” the perspective he advocates bears many similarities with those described above. This resemblance raises doubts about Fernandes’s argument that breaking with resource nationalism and diversifying the economy are crucial to Australia adopting a neutralist foreign-policy position.
Part of the problem stems from some of the ideas that inform Sub-Imperial Power. Dependency theory more or less attempts to transpose Karl Marx’s analysis of class relations into global politics by arguing that bourgeois nations (the core) have grown rich on the surplus value of proletarianized nations in the periphery, which need to awaken and seize their means of national production. The doctrine of comparative advantage enforces this by limiting developing nations’ economies to their “specialization” — namely, primary products. The problem with the theory, however, is that it leaves little space for nations that have broken with this specialization model. South Korea is an example, as is Norway’s resource-sovereignty model. Both continue to rely on the US/NATO security umbrella.
Furthermore, critics have long contended that by focusing on differences between states, those who advocate for an NIEO-style development model ignore differences within those states. What good is global economic equality between nations if that wealth continues to be centralized in the hands of national bourgeoisies and multinational capitalist firms?
Indeed, as Samuel Moyn points out, the last several decades have seen a fall in inequalities between nations, helped in no small part by resource cartels like the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and the rise of China. At the same time, inequalities between people have dramatically widened. To address this, we need a broader analysis of capitalism that can grasp its numerous forms of production, division, and dispossession. These issues, however, are not adequately addressed in Fernandes’s book.
Israel of the South Pacific?
Sub-Imperial Power notes striking similarities between Australia and one other US ally, Israel. According to Fernandes, both have a “capable, technologically advanced military and a number of intelligence agencies that operate in the region and far afield to uphold the US-led order” and share a “subimperial race consciousness.” This similarity is explained by the fact that both are white nations on the periphery of Asia, as Israel’s ambassador to Australia remarked in 2006. Despite noting this similarity, questions of race — and particularly settler-colonialism — remain relatively unexplored in Fernandes’s book.
This is not a mere academic quibble. Prior critiques of Australian foreign policy have noted the strongly racial nature of Australia’s regional diplomacy. In his 1945 pamphlet, “Immigration and the White Australia Policy,” Communist Party member Richard Dixon described this element of Australian foreign policy as our own “Monroe Doctrine.”
Indeed, in the 1980s, indigenous activists and their allies challenged calls for just the sort of neutralist foreign-policy demands Fernandes articulates, such returning US-run military installations to Australian control. For example, at a national meetup in 1986, Brian Doolan, leader of the Alice Springs Peace Group, declared that “we will never achieve our own decolonization while we continue to colonize this country.”
This raises an important question. Can the imperial order that Fernandes analyzes instead be conceptualized as a racial order, born of the “global color line” drawn by white settler states at the turn of the twentieth century and justified via racialized international relations theory?
The final substantial chapter of Sub-Imperial Power criticizes the foreign-policy establishment of think tankers, policy wonks, and other “chinstrokers.” This foreign-policy world silences dissent and debate around key strategic concerns via rhetoric about “national security” and “bipartisanship.” It also fosters a culture of secrecy and places decision-making far outside of the democratic process. The rigors of international politics are, we are led to believe, outside the understanding of the untrained.
Against this, Fernandes insists that “nothing about these matters is beyond the intellectual capabilities of the average person,” who could “understand Australia’s role in the international arena [if these] institutions [did] not actively work to exclude them.”
And indeed, history is replete with examples of Australian workers taking foreign policy into their own hands. Trade unions banned pig-iron shipments to Japan in 1938, bombs to Vietnam in 1966, and trade with South Africa in the 1980s. More broadly, Australians have long publicly debated and opposed involvement in imperialist conflicts, from the campaign against conscription during World War I to the movement against war in Iraq.
Regardless of whatever criticisms might be made of Sub-Imperial Power, Fernandes’s conclusion can only be welcomed. Ordinary Australians can and should reclaim foreign policy from self-interested elites.