An imperialist outpost in Asia

Clinton Fernandes spoke to Solidarity about his new book on the history of Australian foreign policy, Island off the coast of Asia

Your book covers a broad sweep of Australian history from the beginning of European invasion. Can you briefly explain the aim of the book?

I wanted to investigate the elements of continuity and change across the 230-year span of modern Australian history.

Existing studies of Australia’s external relations have focused on certain topics (ANZUS, Australia-Indonesia relations) or certain periods of time (the first three decades after Federation, the Vietnam era). I couldn’t find an overall study of the field. Furthermore, there was a lot of unexplored material in the National Archives.

And since foreign policy is conducted with all the instruments of statecraft—economic, financial, military, espionage, science, law and others—I wanted to take a look at the way the system worked as a whole.

Studies that focus only on the Defence or Foreign Affairs sections of the cabinet papers often miss the underlying rationale for strategic policy. Histories written within policy silos are able to criticize government policies and expose blunders, but they cannot provide an overarching explanatory framework within which the policies are quite rational.

You talk about the pursuit of security as an aim of Australian foreign policy, what does this involve?

“Security” means much more than protection from invasion. It is an elastic concept that gives priority to economic interests, and to a political order that secures them. These economic interests expand to accommodate what a nation or a dominant group within it possesses or thinks it ought to possess.

Australia’s security fears were once confined to Sydney Harbor. They expanded in line with the frontier. Later, Australian businesses sought security for new markets in Papua New Guinea and the Southwest Pacific.

Security fears would be assuaged by the creation of a political order that secures a permissive environment for their investments. This logic cannot be stated in such stark terms even to, or especially to, oneself. It is recast in terms of threats requiring “defensive” actions—which conveniently conform to the underlying economic interest.

Why is there a “bipartisan consensus” over a long period about Australia’s foreign policy?

There are different ways to explain this. The most important, or first-order explanation, has to do with the economic considerations that set the parameters for policy choice.

The most important decisions in Australia are taken in the private sector: what is to be produced, where investment is to occur, and how the profits are to be shared. Foreign policy is designed to facilitate this decision-making pattern.

So is domestic policy, although that is slightly more contested because sections of the public have more visibility of it and feel they should have a say. By contrast, foreign policy is guided primarily by the objective of improving the climate for business operations.

In Australia, moreover, we are a first world country that nevertheless retains some of the economic structure of a third world country: our biggest exports are minerals, beef, wheat, and tourism (although tertiary education is an exception). And our biggest corporations have a high degree of foreign ownership. We are integrated quite closely into US investors’ global investment portfolios.

The US Government speaks with a very loud voice here, and our policymakers take notice. They go along almost reflexively when the US government dials up the level of international tension to create a mood of crisis. That was a constant theme during the Cold War and it remains a theme today.

The second level of explanation involves considerations of a less material nature—cognitive factors having to do with Australia’s sense of its underlying norms and priorities; in short, its sense of identity. Although (for example) Howard and Rudd disagreed on a wide range of specific policy issues, they shared the same attitudes about what Australia is, how it is distinctive compared with other states, how its security interests rest with a strong alliance with the United States, and so on.

These cognitive factors motivated their policy choices towards ANZUS, “free” trade agreements, and other matters, even though the ideas and social conventions were not explicitly articulated. They are almost fully internalized, existing as no more than hidden, unquestioned assumptions.

Imperial history and settler-colonial history combine to ensure we see Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the USA as “family” despite the last few decades of diverse immigration. This is reinforced by what you see in the cultural and ideological institutions: what kinds of people appear on TV and in what contexts. This is based on “historical memories”—shared experiences of the past like Anzac Day that help to shape the way Australian policymakers and Australian media organizations interpret our present and future.

The explanation found most frequently in the media goes to the personal and professional histories of individual policymakers. And here there is indeed policy space—practical opportunity for choice. Exactly what any foreign minister will do about a particular initiative is not likely to be limited to a single policy option, and so human agency comes in here. There is intense debate about policies at this level—but within narrow parameters that have been set by the first two levels of explanation.

But the first-order explanations are the most important. And here we see that the foreign policy is virtually the expression of the objectives of Australia’s dominant economic groups. This is what the “national interest” means in practice.

How did being part of the British Empire shape early Australian foreign policy? Did Australia simply follow the wishes of Britain?

It gave us a sub-imperial geostrategic reflex—the default policy was to support imperial involvement in the affairs of the region. This wasn’t Australian foreign policy, however. It was British policy carried out in Australia.

For at least the first 150 years, Australia lacked the diverse European populations that entered North America or other New World lands. There were no French, as in Canada, no Spanish, as in South America, no Portuguese, as in Brazil, no Dutch, as in South Africa. Western Europe’s remoteness from Australia meant that it was cheaper to emigrate to North America than to Australia.

The Australian population was almost exclusively of British stock—understandably, since the high cost of travel meant that immigration had to be fully subsidized, and the British government naturally preferred to pay for British migrants only. This settlement pattern made Australia the second most English country in the world—a demographic fact that holds true even in the early years of the 21st century.

Britons who settled in Australia understood that they benefited from the strength of the Empire. They knew that the threat or use of British military force underpinned the international economic order.

Australia did follow Britain’s wishes in most cases. The exception was the Southwest Pacific, where Australian investors had their own economic interests and ensured that Australian foreign policy displayed a striking independence.

Elsewhere, however, the conformity with British geostrategy remained. To take a little-known example—one that ought to be much better known—after Japan bombed Hawaii on December 7, 1941, the British Government requested the Australian Government to send troops to Portuguese Timor, saying that Portugal had agreed to the plan. The Australian Government had very limited resources at the time but agreed to Britain’s request.

Today the myth persists that Australia sent troops to Portuguese Timor in order to expel Japanese forces. In fact Japan had no forces in Portuguese Timor, as Australian policymakers knew at the time. What is more, Japan had no intention of deploying forces to Portuguese Timor, which was a colony of Portugal—a neutral power during World War II. Japan had refrained from violating this neutrality in the other Portuguese colony of Macau. It was only after Australian, Dutch and British troops had deployed that Japan decided to send its own forces there. The war resulted in the deaths of as many as 60,000 East Timorese.

It’s often said that Australia doesn’t have an independent foreign policy, how does its relationship with the US after the end of Second World War show a problem with this view?

Australia has a very strong interest in ensuring a permissive international environment for commerce. That requires the global dominance of states which uphold this international environment. Therefore, even when Australian investments are small or non-existent, Australian foreign policy supports the overall interests of states that uphold this system, known as the rules-based international order.

Unlike in the Southwest Pacific, where Australia enjoys enormous clout, in the Asian region it lacks significant political and military influence. It therefore enters into alliances with greater powers such as Britain and the United States.

Why do you argue international maritime boundary negotiations were a key foreign policy area for the Australian government?

It’s the area into which the Department of Foreign Affairs put the most effort in the 1970s and 1980s. The principal beneficiaries were the shareholders of the corporations which received invaluable geoscientific intelligence for a pittance. Policy options that were not pursued then: (1) insist on the Commonwealth Government obtaining equity in the firms that benefited from the vital geoscience studies; (2) insist on the Commonwealth Government receiving royalty payments and other revenues contingent on the corporations’ own revenues, similar to the way Australians who receive study loans from the government have to repay them based on their post-university incomes.

You also discuss the Australian state’s use of what you call the economic instrument in foreign policy over trade negotiations. Why has this been particularly important since the 1980s?

In the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s, the military instrument had been wielded successfully in Southeast Asia to overcome the threat of revolutionary social transformation there. It had suppressed Asian nationalism and channeled it into acceptable models of economic development.

The conditions had been created for a permissive environment for international financial institutions and business corporations. By the 1980s, the time was ripe for the economic instrument.


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