The Guardian • Issue #2037

Book Review

Sub-Imperial Power: Australia in the International Arena

By Clinton Fernandes

Fernandes explains Australia’s transference of subservience from the United Kingdom to the United States of America since World War II. His lucid explanation reveals that the nonsense that is Australia’s foreign policy is clearly all about money and power, and that the term “rules-based international order” is, in fact, a euphemism for a US-led imperial system (p.31).

In his section “Sovereignty curtailed by the rules-based imperial order” he describes how the weak foreign investment regulations governed by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and the Office of International Law in the Attorney-General’s Department, fail in their regulation of foreign investment in Australia. The international trade obligations are in fact obfuscated, making it difficult to understand quite how a particular foreign investment is actually of benefit to Australia.

He states that Australia “has entered into trade agreements that give a higher priority to the interests of private investors than to its own sovereignty. And on the Australian Stock Exchange, as we have seen, the dominant private investors are US-based. This is the essence of an imperial order: state sovereignty is subordinated to the interests of private investors, who can count on the support of their own powerful home states to create and preserve that order.” (p.24)

Hence his reference to Australia as a “sub-imperial power,” which explains the squeeze exerted by the US – and the UK – in getting Australia to sign up to AUKUS, with its eight nuclear powered submarines, and the subsequent invasion of US personnel and weaponry in the event of our “interoperability” in a contrived future conflict with China. A conflict not in our interest and which elucidates precisely how the “rules-based international order” really works.

He sees this as evidence of “a conscious application of principles of imperial planning that long pre-date the current period.” As he points out it’s not there for the “benefit of humanity.” Despite its benign-sounding name, he describes how these rules “entrench the power of powerful states and help them exclude and subdue their rivals.” A good example is the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), set up after World War II to defend a European order with the sole aim of isolating the Soviet Union. The current conflict in Ukraine shows where that can lead.

Fernandes ends his chapter on AUKUS, describing it as “the military, intelligence and cyber equivalent of Australia’s trade and investment agreements with the United States and United Kingdom. Taken as a whole, the agreements uphold the rules-based international order as it actually operates – the rights of private investors take precedence over the sovereignty of (most) states.” (p.74)

He also speaks of the Global South’s reluctance to follow blindly Western demands to support Ukraine in order to uphold American “exceptionalism.” He suggests that a “democratic equitable international order would be an alternative to an imperial order whether led by the United States or a China-based alliance system.” (p.124) He also comments on China’s obvious “outreach to the developing world” whilst the US is currently finding itself in a position of polarisation politically and the erosion of its democracy at home.

If you want to understand Australia’s place in the world and its limited foreign policy, this is a must read.

Sub-Imperial Power: Australia in the International Arena, Published by Melbourne University Press, paper back, 176 pages.

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