Sub-Imperial Power: Australia in the International Arena, by Clinton Fernandes (Melbourne University Press, 2022).
Of all the recent failures of the Australian mainstream media, the failure to properly report and analyse the trilateral security partnership known as AUKUS must surely qualify as the most pitiable. Just two weeks after US forces pulled out of Afghanistan, abandoning the country to the very movement it had identified twenty years earlier as an existential threat to global security, and less than one year after the United States itself had almost delivered a second term to an erratic man-baby with a wrecking-ball ego, the Coalition government pinned Australia’s colours more decisively than ever to the US mast, while also flagging de facto changes to its anti-nuclear settlement in the shape of an agreement to acquire eight nuclear-powered submarines equipped with long-range land-attack missiles. Australia’s pundit caste, however, came to focus almost entirely on the diplomatic and reputational fallout—if that word may be used in the circumstances—arising from the decision to welch on the contract for twelve conventionally powered submarines from the French defence contractor Naval Group. Having elicited a candid dig at Scott Morrison from the French President Emmanuel Macron, the ABC’s Andrew Probyn looked more than usually pleased with himself, and the Insiders couch declared itself shocked, shocked, by the political optics. In The Sydney Morning Herald, Peter Hartcher published a ‘deep dive’ into l’affaire AUKUS which resembled nothing so much as one of those post-reality-show panels that pick apart the events of the day (So what really happened between Scotty and Emmanuel? We’re joined on the couch by Michael Tomnoddy, life-coach and former diplomat…). In the end, the lede was buried so deep it would have taken a Tomahawk missile to unearth it.
True, there were some exceptions to this trend. John Menadue’s Pearls and Irritations website ran a number of important pieces, as indeed did Arenas Online and Quarterly, while the Australian National University’s defence expert Professor Hugh White tried his best to school the commentariat in a Quarterly Essay that described Australia’s alliance with the US as a ‘sleepwalk to war’. But even that analysis seemed insufficiently ‘awake’ to the reality underlying the AUKUS agreement and the media’s failure to respond to it with the seriousness and intelligence it deserved. The subtitle of White’s essay was Australia’s Unthinking Alliance with America. But the problem with the AUKUS agreement is not that it represents a failure to think about military and strategic matters; it is that it reproduces a way of thinking about them that has a basis in material history and culture—what we might call ‘an imperial common sense’.
In his indispensable book Sub-Imperial Power: Australia in the International Arena, former intelligence officer Clinton Fernandes gives a clearheaded account of this imperial mindset, placing the AUKUS agreement and its analogues in the context of a centuries-long projection of power by the global North into the global South. With admirable directness and lucidity, he rejects the quasi-official framework as possessing no ‘explanatory power’ and replaces it with the framework of imperialism, broadly defined to mean the ability of states to control other countries’ sovereignty through collaboration between elites, economic dependence, social or cultural influence, intelligence operations and the threat/use of force. Just as the nuclear-powered subs at the centre of the AUKUS agreement can only be understood militarily as part of a larger oceangoing force, so Australia’s overall defence posture can only be properly understood in the context of US imperialism. Australia is not, as Hartcher might aver, a ‘middle power’ but a ‘sub-imperial’ one.
For Fernandes, indeed, the phrase ‘middle power’ (which originates in the defence establishment and is lazily reproduced in the media) is an ideological mystification—just one of a number of stock formulations that obscure the realities of geopolitics. Similarly, euphemisms such as ‘global security’ and ‘rules-based international order’ serve to obscure the fact that the United States, as the world’s preeminent military power, pursues its interests ruthlessly and responds to the challenge of a resurgent China with a strategy that amounts to encirclement, which is invariably constructed as a policy of defence against a totalitarian power with expansionist ambitions. In keeping with the ‘orders’ of the past, the rules-based international order is ‘power politics by procedural means’—an ‘order of exclusion’ the aim of which is to entrench the advantage of a powerful state and ostracise and outcompete its rivals. Its institutional avatar is not the UN but NATO, which not only ensures US dominance in Europe but also allows it to project its power against the Eurasian land mass from the west, just as its alliances with Japan and South Korea allow it to project power against Eurasia from the east. Taiwan, which sits at the centre of a chain of islands off China’s coast, is likewise a strategic node through which the US seeks to channel its unrivalled military capabilities. In short, the ‘rules-based international order’ is not a set of rules at all, and still less a set of principles. It is a set of material military arrangements that seek to ensure and enshrine US dominance, and that are reproduced through the institutions of global economic management, technological innovation and development, and cultural/ideological production. As Fernandes puts it in his forthright style:
As the crisis in Ukraine shows, the United States possesses overwhelming power in multiple domains. Its infrastructural power is unrivalled: it can order its near-monopoly tech giants to remove any information and expel undesirable entities from their platforms. If it chooses, it can order them to stop supplying, maintaining or updating their software in targeted countries. No other country can influence the international narrative like it, since US news agencies and wire services and its film industry set the agenda and shape perceptions. Its power over the dollar–Wall Street–IMF regime allows it to apply unilateral sanctions to weaken countries and lock them out of the dollar-denominated global financial system. The Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) is based in Brussels but with a data centre in Virginia. It allows the United States to surveil cross-border fund flows and then police them in New York, where 95 per cent of the world’s dollar payments are irrevocably settled.
Thus the rules-based international order is revealed to be an imperial order that runs through the machinery of globalisation like letters through a stick of Brighton rock.
‘Within this framework’, Fernandes writes, ‘Australia is a sub-imperial power: it is subordinate to the imperial centre, defends the imperial order known as a rules-based international order, and projects considerable power and influence in its own region’. The organising principle of Australian foreign policy is thus remaining on ‘the winning side’ in an increasingly likely confrontation between the empire and the lands it dominates. This is not to say, however, that Australia is America’s ‘poodle’, as is often asserted in progressive circles or implied via the notion that Australia only ever fights ‘other people’s wars’. On the contrary, the Australia–US relationship not only has a solid basis in history but also affords advantages to our sunburnt country girt by sea. In the decades after the Second World War, Australia played its part in the ‘anti-communist’ interventions aimed at keeping former colonies within the sphere of US influence—a role that meant it could continue to assert its own influence over local neighbours such as Papua New Guinea and East Timor. It follows that Australia is neither a ‘poodle’ nor the loyal but independently minded ‘wolverine’ imaged by the pro-US hawks in Canberra (a group of parliamentarians, notes Fernandes, who display wolverine-style claw-marks on their office doors, in a reference to the anti-communist movie Red Dawn). It is more like one of those fancy crossbreeds that became suddenly popular with the middle classes in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic: a pooverine, perhaps, or a wolvadoodle.
For Fernandes, the AUKUS agreement represents a clear extension of this sub-imperial relationship—one that presses the principle of ‘interoperability’ to the point where any perception of autonomy has now been comprehensively torpedoed. This principle, which commits the Australian military to serving in a niche capacity within a larger force (and which informed, for example, its decision to adopt the British-made Lee-Enfield rifle towards the end of an older ‘order’), has always been an organising one in Australia’s strategic and military posture. But with AUKUS it has come to the very centre of the US–Australia partnership, wrapped up in an Anglospheric package that won’t inspire feelings of reassurance in the poorer regions of the global South. The change is revealed by the fact that its centrepiece—the eight nuclear-powered submarines—will not arrive till the 2040s, meaning that for the next two decades Western Australia’s HMAS Stirling will be playing host to US subs: as clear an abandonment of military autonomy as any four-star US general could concoct. Indeed, one could go even further and suggest that the technological objectives cited in the AUKUS agreement—objectives that cover the development and integration of cyber and AI capabilities—amount to a wholesale material rejection of national sovereignty in the military space. Certainly one would have to be fantastically naive to think that command-and-control autonomy could survive such a technoscientific push.
Driving this process of integration forward is economic globalisation, and it follows that the principle of interoperability has its analogue in the economic sphere. AUKUS, argues Fernandes, is the military equivalent of the trade agreements Australia signed with the United States (in 2004) and the United Kingdom (in 2021)—agreements that, in giving high priority to patents and intellectual property, reproduce the historical prioritisation of the rights of private investors over the sovereignty of conquered regions. Moreover, Australia’s own economy only makes sense within an imperial framework, characterised as it is by a commitment to growth but not to development or diversification, in a way that speaks to its embeddedness in US-dominated global value chains. ‘You cannot have an independent foreign policy when you have a dependent economy’, writes Fernandes. ‘Australia advances its economic interests—more precisely, the interests of its dominant business sectors—by working under the auspices of the United States to create an integrated global economy that offers a benign environment for international investors as well as the specific needs of key Australian corporations.’
Having demonstrated the ‘explanatory power’ of the imperial/sub-imperial framework, Fernandes turns in his final chapter to the strategists and commentators whose explanatory power is found to be lacking. These ‘experts’, he suggests, are not experts at all, except perhaps in the sense set out by the strategists’ strategist Henry Kissinger, viz., someone skilled in ‘elaborating and defining’ the consensus of the powerful. Indeed, the whole notion of expertise is just another mystification—a sort of rhetorical air support for empty phrases such as ‘global security’ (that is, US interests) and ‘the international community’ (that is, those countries allied to the United States). The analysts’ dismal failure to predict the chaos in Afghanistan and the shamelessness with which they ‘pivoted smoothly’ to the next geopolitical issue are adduced as evidence of this want of insight, but really it is their determination to reproduce the official line, especially with regard to China, that gives the lie to their independence. As for the media’s easy consensus regarding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, here again we see the strategists and their fanboys in the commentariat borrowing each other’s lines, while also characterising any attempt to dig down into (quite recent) history in search of nuance and complexity as a trahison des clercs and too clever by half. Indeed, this phenomenon appears to be taking on a decidedly affective aspect of late, with the emergence of a pronounced progressive emphasis in much of the language now in play—one that reduces questions of hard power to fables of rights and bullying, as if Putin’s aggression could be implicitly equated to a misogynistic middle manager. Thus does the common sense of imperialism adapt to encompass the changing character of global Northern liberalism.
It is the easy jump from Ukraine to Taiwan—the trending analogy between the two, and by extension between Russia and China—that should concern Australia most, and this is also where the failure of the pundit caste to identify and critique the ‘meaning’ of AUKUS as a de facto extension of NATO’s power is itself exposed as a variety of treason, against journalism and the life of the mind, and against the future generations that will suffer as a consequence of any future conflict to which Australia is a willing party. That Fernandes has called this failure out, and called it out for what it is—an imperial ideology masquerading as objective analysis—is a cause for celebration. As things stand, Australia’s wolvadoodles have everything pretty much their own way; with control of the air, they can more or less guarantee that Australia will continue to fall in behind Biden or whichever gun-slinging Republican replaces him in 2024. But in an equal fight, Sub-Imperial Power would blow those mongrels out of the water. While fully aware that an equal fight is not what history tends to offer, my feeling is that this candid polemic is a blow for truth and sanity.
Clinton Fernandes, Dec 2022
Even before the invasion, extreme weather and the pandemic had resulted in higher shipping costs, energy price inflation, labour shortages, and rising food prices.