Rainbow Gunboat: Progressivism in the service of Western geopolitics

There’s no doubt that after paying over $360 billion for eight nuclear submarines, AUKUS remains in dire need of legitimation. The shifting rationalisations from the Albanese government around this staggeringly expensive purchase have done little to convince. Are the submarines and their attendant infrastructure part of a nation-building exercise, a sadly needed injection of funds for the manufacturing and R & D sector, as was first suggested? Are they crucial for defending the region against future threat, or in fact suggestive of a more aggressive projection of Anglo-Western power? No matter how these cards are shuffled, it has become clear that the submarine purchase, along with the creation of naval bases, technological partnerships and the like, means that Australia has paid a costly admission fee to openly ally itself to the United States and the United Kingdom—two increasingly politically and economically unstable nations.

Certainly, any rationale based upon ‘security via AUKUS’ is thwarted by its own circular logic, something evident even in the arguments of those well-disposed to the alliance. In the (widely criticised) Age and Sydney Morning Herald ‘Red Alert’ series, one thing Peter Hartcher and Matthew Knott inadvertently revealed is how the need for greater security through AUKUS is primarily because of AUKUS. In other words, it is the submarines, naval bases, weapons and technological infrastructure that will make Australia a target—that necessitate the AUKUS alliance. In an interview with retired Army major-general Mick Ryan, Hartcher and Knott ask:

But why would China use its limited resources to attack Australia instead of focusing solely on seizing Taiwan? Because of the strategically crucial role Australia is expected to play for the United States in the conflict.

Ryan makes the connection explicit:

Our geography means we are a southern base for the Americans for what comes next … That’s how they’re seeing us. They want our geography. They want us to build bases for several hundred thousand Americans in due course like in World War II.

According to this logic, China may attack Australia because of our US bases, but we need those bases to protect us from China. Is this circular reasoning enough to cement the alliance in the long term?

The maintenance of strategic and military dominance by empires has always required an ideological supplement. From the ‘civilising’ missions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in which advocates for empire configured the other, the native, the Indigenous as ‘backward’ or ‘barbaric’, to the current use of economic sanctions and drones in the service of human rights, the projection of imperial power has always relied on some sort of moral and cultural ethos, no matter how contradictory, to function. Given the inherent contradictions in embracing AUKUS and the likelihood of Australia becoming a nuclear state in order to run its newly acquired submarines, weapons and attendant bases, something else may be needed to justify the ‘necessity’ of such an arrangement. Could the ‘something else’ be found in a seemingly unlikely source—the shifting dynamics and allegiances that constitute progressive politics in its current form?

Progressive politics has become increasingly accommodating of state power in the last two decades, reversing positions that have historically underpinned left-liberal politics such as a commitment to press and communicative freedom, a distrust of Western governments and institutions—particularly those connected with intelligence or the military—and a general anti-war ethos. As the United States now attempts to increase its global dominance and head off the possibility of a multipolar world in which China, greater Europe and the global South would increase economic power and political influence, this new alignment between progressive politics and state power may enable the pursuit of more hawkish geopolitical strategy. To suggest this is not to reject progressive politics and the pursuit of rights and justice. It is not inevitable that the ‘weaponisation’ of social justice politics will unfold geopolitically in this way. However, for those who wish to question the global hegemonic aims of the United States and its allies, of which AUKUS forms a significant component, it is worth asking how progressive politics might be used, and what it might legitimise at a larger scale.

The expanding range of social justice politics loosely identified as progressive already willingly harnesses state and institutional power to achieve its goals, and could be further leveraged to legitimise the military and strategic objectives of the United States and its allies. Under the Biden administration, we can see evidence of a weaponised morality that condemns ‘backward’ or ‘illiberal’ states (the reinvented tropes of old empires) as a key component of current US foreign policy. For example, Samantha Power, former US ambassador to the United Nations and foreign policy and human rights adviser to Barack Obama, now head administrator of the US Agency for International Development (USAID), recently visited Hungary, where she told reporters that the United States will ‘continue to stand as an ally with LGBTQI+ people and all marginalised groups in their struggle for equality’. This sudden desire of the United States to foster LGBTQI+ rights in European countries such as Hungary is highly targeted. It ignores equally dismal records in Poland (witness recent efforts there to establish ‘LGBTQ free zones’) and the rise of conservative forces in Italy, and only the most naive of idealists would assume that such efforts were not equally aimed at destabilising a government critical of NATO. USAID’s role in Europe, combined with similar efforts in Africa, can be seen as part of a larger project in which the United States maintains global dominance through selectively demanding open, cosmopolitan, diverse societies, fusing cultural politics with geopolitical aims.

During the Cold War, security concerns anchored geopolitical strategy for the West; there was little reference to human rights or to social justice issues. Indeed, how could there be in the wake of the West’s colonial past and off the back of the Vietnam War? After the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, the situation reversed, and the United States began to explicitly draw on justice and human rights issues alongside security concerns as a means of justifying military intervention. The 1990s under the Clinton administration first saw the notion of ‘humanitarian intervention’, with human rights invoked to justify the bombing of Serbia via NATO. This began a series of evolving projections of morality onto the world stage, in which the US military, largely surplus to requirements in a then unipolar world, found renewed purpose. As Madeleine Albright remarked to Colin Powell, ‘What is the point of having this superb military you are always talking about if we can’t use it?’ After the initial debacle in Iraq, given the total absence of WMDs—the pretext for the war—the United States and its allies repurposed the war and subsequent interventions in the region as one of ‘nation-building’ and ‘democracy promotion’. When these efforts failed in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, the justification for military intervention became more explicitly tied to social justice issues.

One only needs to recall the way in which the US invasion of Afghanistan transformed into a ‘feminist war’ that supplanted the hunt for Al Qaeda. As Rafia Zakaria observed,

That was probably one of the first times in modern history that the Western feminist movement, instead of serving as a check on state power—as it had in previous wars like Vietnam—allied itself with a war project. Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright, Laura Bush and Gloria Steinem supported this action, even though at that time there were indigenous Afghan feminists on the ground who were very much opposed to it and were arguing for peace.

The spectre of this militarised feminism returned during the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2020–21, with media and policy makers deploring the regression towards an illiberal culture while often overlooking the legacy of deaths via drone and missile strikes, and the torture and murder of civilians by Special Forces troops. This performative concern, oblivious to the wider effects of military intervention in the region, was evident in much of the media coverage of the withdrawal, but possibly peaked in a Guardian article titled ‘The Soul of Kabul’ that lamented the deterioration of newly installed progressive values that would accompany the withdrawal of US troops, highlighting the painting-over of progressively themed murals in Kabul, including Black Lives Matter (BLM) icon George Floyd.

More recently, the Ukraine conflict has been reported through stories of the ‘unicorn’ regiment constituted of LGBTQI+ soldiers and the ‘KyivPride’ group (funded by USAID) which aims ‘to make Donbas queer’. A Vanity Fair feature entitled ‘The Fight for Ukraine Is Also a Fight for LGBTQ Rights’ encapsulates a whole dimension of media coverage that has positioned the Ukraine war as part of a struggle for an expanded category of human rights. Inconvenient facts such as attempts within Zelensky’s own party to restrict LGBTQI+ rights via a law outlawing ‘homosexual and transgenderism propaganda’, or a recent poll showing less than 25 per cent of Ukrainians support same-sex marriage, largely go unreported—or to the extent that they are acknowledged (for instance by think-tanks such as the Atlantic Council), they are folded back into a good vs evil binary so that Ukraine’s legacy of homophobia and transphobia becomes a consequence of ‘Kremlin propaganda’ still circulating among more credulous Ukraine citizens. The words of US congressman Jamie Raskin indicate the shift in framing in which security concerns have been swapped out for social justice ones via a reworked version of ‘fascism’. In a press statement, Raskin claims ‘Moscow … is a world-centre of antifeminist, antigay, anti-trans hatred, as well as the homeland of replacement theory for export. In supporting Ukraine, we are opposing these fascist views’.

This reframing of geopolitics along social justice lines has dovetailed with the rebadging of the key intuitions of the military-industrial complex. Since the inauguration of President Biden, the United States has ordered foreign embassies to fly BLM and rainbow flags, while the State Department and CIA openly project themselves as ‘inclusive’. From recruiting campaigns that highlight gender and racial inclusivity within the military, intelligence and defence sectors to the celebration of ‘international pronouns day’ by the State Department, the military-industrial complex has reinvented itself as a key driver of social justice.

The point here is that the underlying strategic assumptions and actions of its military have gone unchanged. Indeed, this projection of open and tolerant cultural values globally is entirely suited to contemporary technologies of war. These various frames that work to legitimise US military hegemony—from humanitarian intervention to nation-building, and now culture-forming—have coincided with the idea of a more ‘humane’ kind of war, conducted via new technologies, at a distance, with drone strikes and smart bombs replacing cruder forms of slaughter. However, as Samuel Moyn notes, this has allowed twenty-first-century wars and conflicts involving the United States to continue much longer than anyone imagined. The supposed ‘light touch’ of high-tech war in fact tends towards perpetual war, as seen in the continual military campaigns in the Middle East and Africa, and the pursuit of proxy wars, as in the case of Ukraine.

Do such transformations connect with AUKUS and the pursuit of social justice in Australia? Will progressive policy-makers, activists and the media simply accept the actions of the United States as it expands NATO membership and reasserts itself in our region? Will arguments based around security and defence require a similar moral supplement to paper over any nagging anxieties?

Two early attempts to justify AUKUS to the public occurred in March—one geostrategic and overt, the other less direct and related to human rights and justice, but nonetheless culturally pugilistic. The first, the Age and Sydney Morning Herald Red Scare series, was rightly criticised for its unbalanced fearmongering about China’s intentions, including criticism from a former prime minister and a range of International Relations analysts. A week later there was a second series aimed at China, this time with LGBTQI+ rights abuses at the core of its moral condemnation. Published in Crikey, which only a week before had been scathing of the Red Scare series, this series by freelance journalist Tom Canetti reported that:

Members of China’s LGBTQI+ community claim they have been sent to government-sanctioned reeducation camps. Some say they spent years in the camps and experienced forced conversion therapy … Some say they were kidnapped and brought to the camps; others escaped, only to be shunned by their families to live in fear and solitude. Survivors provided testimonials to Crikey that when matched with satellite images and government websites linked the camps to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). [sic]

It turned out that Canetti had relied on a sole source, ‘an analyst from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’ (ASPI)—the same institute closely connected to the Red Scare series, and one that receives generous funding from weapons manufacturing corporations. After a little over a week, and a series of complaints and a debunking of the claims of abuse, Crikey ‘unpublished’ the ‘Queer Purge’ series. Ample evidence was supplied indicating the overt presence of LGBTQI+ people in China, the success of Chinese gay dating apps, and the status of trans woman Jin Xing as one of China’s biggest television stars.

While the ‘unpublishing’ was welcome, the incident revealed several things. Firstly, that ASPI is using the same playbook as the US State Department in tying social justice issues to geopolitical strategy. Here, the containment of China, while ostensibly being about geopolitical dominance, is transformed into a moral scenario in which the ‘enlightened’ Anglo-Western alliance is working to undermine a regime that punishes minorities. Secondly, that Crikey published these articles without adequate scrutiny, after criticising anti-China propaganda in the Age and Sydney Morning Herald only a week before, suggests the hold that social justice issues, in particular LGBTQI+ rights, have in the realm of progressive culture and politics (ironically, Canetti was employed by the ABC as producer of The World just as his widely debunked and short-lived series in Crikey was going to press, suggesting that while his claims were erroneous his geopolitical inclinations suit the times).

If both of these efforts failed in the short term, it is likely that the progressive embrace of a universalised moralism will become a more successful strategy than fear in future attempts to embed AUKUS. The prosecution of contemporary culture wars, particularly, as we have seen, around gender, carries an affective charge that diminishes the possibilities for debate and discussion. This privileging of affect over reason, which creates absolute division between friend and enemy, provides an interpretative framework eminently suited to the reinforcement of a US-centred global hegemony whose (cynical) idealism constructs a world divided into authoritarians and progressives. Within such heightened dualisms, current culture wars fold readily into geopolitical ones. In places such as Afghanistan, Ukraine, the Sudan and Hungary, a free-floating ‘moralism’ has increasingly framed the actions of the United States abroad—whether military intervention or efforts at regime change. Instead of an ‘axis of evil’ we now have an axis of ‘intolerance’ that ideologically anchors the military and strategic power of the United States. This weaponisation of internal social justice struggles in the West is now also being projected towards larger nuclear powers such as China and Russia, where the stakes for humanity as a whole become larger.

One might suppose that this focus on social justice as a post-Cold War strategy, where older solidarities based in empire and/or race can no longer be relied upon, would be limited by the complicity of Anglo-Western powers in past atrocities. Historically the United States, and indeed the West as a whole, can hardly be said to have clean hands in terms of its treatment of racial and gender minorities, so its capacity to lecture others about social justice requires some dexterity to avoid charges of hypocrisy. Yet even here, progressive politics provides a solution. To project a contemporary morality requires a reckoning with the past. While this work is essential, there is also a danger that the acknowledgement of past horrors by Western colonisers might be prematurely folded into the militarised moral framework that has been outlined here, so that a newly ‘aware’ Nation, on the way to atoning for past crimes, has the capacity to condemn others who are less ‘enlightened’.

Could Australia, now beginning to face up to its own ‘founding narrative’ via the Voice and other steps towards reconciliation, be similarly positioned to assert itself as a ‘moral force’ in the region? If it was to be pursued more widely, such a narrative would provide an excellent supplement to the strategic imperatives of the AUKUS alliance.

The Albanese government may be committed to reconciliation, though without material reparation and treaty, significant law reform and so on, it is hard to gauge how deep the commitment is. However, at a symbolic level, reconciliation could, in theory, be aligned with AUKUS. Guy Rundle has written about how the government’s First Nations-led culture policy, the Voice, and the changes to Australia’s National War Memorial—acknowledging the Frontier Wars and also recognising Indigenous Australians’ contributions to European wars—both represents a major step towards reconciliation and also grants Australia a different identify with which to pursue geopolitical strategy in the region. No longer just a white settler nation. Not merely a multicultural one. A new situation, where, as Rundle suggests, Australia ‘defends a First Nations nation, a place in the process of redefining itself by genuinely engaging with its oppressive history’. As with social justice politics extended globally and militarily, reconciliation here could made to fit with the AUKUS alliance insofar as we identify as a nation undergoing a process of atonement, and are in a suitable position via our moral regeneration to enforce the rights of minorities in the region by containing their Nation’s military and strategic power.

The degree to which this may happen remains an open question, but it is clear that the underpinning features of progressive politics are well suited to the projection of military and strategic power in a global setting. Progressives are increasingly aligning with the state to pursue their objectives, reversing the historical positions of the new Left in being opposed to the state or the excesses of state power. If progressives have reconciled themselves to, or even taken over elements of state (and corporate) power domestically, it is easy enough to see the wider application of this process. Indeed, the ever-expanding concept of human rights and their application geopolitically, from democracy in Iraq to feminism in Afghanistan to LGBTQI+ rights in Ukraine, reveals how the ‘scope creep’ of progressive politics as it moves away from class to identity is mirrored in the shifting rationales for military intervention by the United States. Furthermore, the heightened affective landscape in which cultural politics is pursued not only closes off (or criminalises) dissent, but produces a friend/enemy distinction that legitimates the prosecution of wars abroad. Finally, even the process of ‘atonement’ for historical injustices might be rerouted towards a weaponised morality, as struggling empires and their allies acknowledge the atrocities of history while preparing via new alliances to commit new ones. Is it too late for Australia to choose another future, and if not, what kinds of politics would inform a different choice?

Illusory Imperatives: AUKUS commits us to futile wars; an independent defence is possible

Clinton Fernandes, Jun 2023

AUKUS is an investment in US shipyards rather than the Australian economy. We are not buying submarines so much as subsidising the US Navy’s submarine budget.

About the author

Simon Cooper

Simon Cooper is an Arena Publications editor.

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