Subimperial power: Australia in the international arena by Clinton Fernandes

Book Review by Branko Milanović

Are there states that are a part of the hierarchical global “imperial” order and fulfill “pro-consular” duties, but have non-negligible power of their own? I do not know if such a category exists in the field of international relations: Clinton Fernandes introduces it in a short and incisive book “Subimperial power: Australia in the international arena“, As the title says, the books deals with Australia only. Fernandes is a professor at University of New South Wales and has previously been involved in various governmental advisory functions.

Fernandes defines a subimperial power as follows: “A subimperial power is both subimperial and powerful. It is not a client state. It subordinates important aspects of its sovereignty, defence and foreign policy in service of the imperial system while exerting significant power in its own area of influence”. Australia seems to fit that definition almost to perfection. It has not assumed that role with the Pax Americana after the World War II. It simply accepted and followed the replacement of the power at the apex of the imperial system from the United Kingdom to the United States. In fact, it is not very hard to see Australia, officially the protectorate until the Statute of Westminster reforms of 1931, play that role under the British system. It was an outpost of British empire, settled by the British citizens who obviously felt strong affinity to their mother country and thus to the Empire. The benevolence of the empire was taken for granted, as several rather fulsome praises (cited by Fernandes) of an empire that “ruled others only for their own sake”, show. Australia was even unwilling to accept greater freedoms given to it by the reform of the British imperial system. Thus the Westminster reforms were ratified only in 1942. When the change at the imperial top happened after 1945, Australia naturally kept the same role, but now it became an outpost of the United States in Asia. It is, as an Israeli ambassador to Australia not very delicately puts it, an “outsider” to Asia: it is a European country, like Israel (as the ambassador said), accidentally inhabiting Asia (p. 54).

The subimperial status comes with duties and privileges. The duty is to follow the foreign policy of the imperial state in its key aspects. The subimperial power does not follow US policy in all details but must do so in the areas where it matters. Australia provided unquestioning support in the Pacific as a member of ANZUS and now in the new formal alliance between US, UK and Australia; it did so by sending soldiers and helping with logistics during the Korean and Vietnam wars and by exchanging intelligence (Fernandes brings up the little known but influential role that Australian intelligence played in the overthrow of the Allende government in Chile).

The subimperial power enjoys some privileges. It can play a quasi-imperial role in its own “theater of operations” which in the case of Australia includes Timor Leste and a score of Pacific island countries. This may not seem much, but, Fernandes reminds us, could at time become quite important, as for example in the case of Australia’s unwavering support of Suharto (“perhaps the world’s greatest figure in the second half of the twentieth century” according to the Tim Fischer, Australian Deputy Prime Minister in the Howard government, p. 119), or when policies of strategically important, but small and poor neighbors, begin to matter (see the outcry regarding the recent military agreement between China and the Solomon Islands).

The economic aspects of being a subimperial power are not, according to Fernandes, an obvious net gain. Australia gains, in some areas, thanks to WTO policies that tend to be written by the developed countries, but Fernandes believes that it provides too many incentives to American investors (treating them more favorably than the domestic) and loses through the US-dictated policies of strong protection of intellectual property rights. Regarding the latter, Fernandes has in mind principally the protection of pharmaceuticals, and very expansively defined inventions that thus become the object of intellectual property rights and extraction of money.

Perhaps more controversially, Fernandes sees the doctrine of comparative advantage to have kept Australia in a subaltern role of mineral and natural resource exporter. It is I think rather obvious that the UK had “predestined” Australia to that role, but one is less sure that it holds for the period after the Second World War. Yet there are some striking statistics given by Fernandes: for example, almost 2/3 of Australia’s exports consists of raw materials, with the top five exports (by value) iron ore, coal, petroleum, gold, and wheat. Australia has the lowest level of export complexity among OECD countries. It appears, like Russia, to be a country benefitting from a very high land-to-labor ratio and using whatever is produced on the land, or mined from it, to export it. Even the companies that are often thought of as Australian are, Fernandes shows, majority-owned by foreigners.

There are three constituent parts of the “imperial” order. First, it holds without the hegemon needing to directly appoint the leaders or control the politics of the subimperial and lower-level (vassal) states although at times economic coercion or brute force can be used. Economic dependence is assured through, according to Fernandes, the false doctrine of comparative advantage which, indeed, was not believed by the United States in the period of its rise. (“Had the Americans followed the principle of comparative advantage they would be exporting furs and bison meat”, p. 38). Second, the public opinion has to be fashioned in a way that the most important and tricky issues are never raised, but the host of other topics can be debated at will. The third component is a political and ideological justification of the hierarchical system “embodied” in the vague notion of the “rules-based global order”. The rules are flexibly defined to fit the dominant power’s interest at any point in time. Thus, the “rules” can be the ones of self-determination as they can be also against self-determination; they can be in favor of interference in domestic affairs or non-interference. They differ from the UN-based rules of international order which Fernandes prefers and which are not as “flexible”.

Fernandes has written a book about Australia, But one can very easily replace Australia with countries such as the UK, France, Germany and even Japan to see that they occupy positions similar to that of Australia. UK is, thanks to its still far-flung empire, a “senior” subimperial power, while France and Germany are given the “proconsular” rights in respectively Françafrique and Eastern Europe. One can even see the current conflict between Russia and “the collective West” as a conflict explained by American unwillingness to grant Russia similar “proconsular” rights over the former Soviet republics. And one can wonder how the current hierarchical system could accommodate China that certainly shows a strong desire to be an independent pole of influence and to dominate East Asia. Finally, the current system has trouble including the rising non-European powers (India, Brazil, Nigeria, South Africa, Indonesia) that for historical and cultural reasons do not enjoy the level of affinity with the US equal to that of the present subimperial powers.

Fernandes’ book thus, while entirely dedicated to Australia, has a much greater resonance. It addresses the key issues regarding the current arrangement of the world: a unipolar “imperial” system; or a multipolar system, each hierarchically organized within; or perhaps unlikely, but most desirably, a system of approximately equal rights of big and small states as defined by the UN charter.

Subimperial power: Australia in the international arena by Clinton Fernandes

Publisher: Melbourne University Press

ISBN: 9780522879261

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