Review: Analysing Australian imperialism

by Sam Pietsch • Published 27 March 2023

Clinton Fernandes, Sub-Imperial Power: Australia in the International Arena, Melbourne University Press, 2022.

The central issue in world politics today is geopolitical competition between the United States and China in the Asia-Pacific region. The Australian state is one of the US’s strongest supporters in this contest, a stance publicly justified by the supposed threat posed by China to democracy and human rights.

Challenging this narrative and understanding why Australia acts in concert with its superpower ally is a priority for anyone opposed to imperialism. Clinton Fernandes’ book Sub-Imperial Power is a welcome contribution to these efforts. Fernandes has a background in military intelligence and as an academic at the Australian Defence Force Academy. But in this book he dismantles many of the foundational myths of Australia’s security establishment and opposes the imperialist logic which is making the prospect of war between the US and China ever more likely.

Short and accessibly written, this is a book aimed at influencing public discussion rather than academia. But nor is it really a work of the political left. Fernandes doesn’t engage with theoretical debates about imperialism and his lack of a clear political framework reduces the book’s usefulness for socialists.

Fernandes’ central contention is that Australia is a “sub-imperial” power. “[I]t is subordinate to the imperial centre [that is the United States], defends the imperial order known as a rules-based international order, and projects considerable power and influence in its own region” (p.21). As a first approximation, this analysis has a lot of merit. Clearly Australia and the US are not equals. The United States is the world’s sole superpower and when it comes to conflicts in the Middle East or confronting China, Australia supports the US rather than going it alone.

But Fernandes does not slide into a simplistic anti-Americanism, which sees the Australian state as betraying its own “national interest” in the service of the US. In short, “Australia is not a victim of this imperial order but a junior partner and enthusiastic – if anxious – supporter” (p.16). He argues that Australia has generally benefitted from the US-centred international order. Although not really a focus of this book, Fernandes also touches on Australia’s own dominance of small regional nations such as Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and East Timor. This is a step forward from left nationalist analyses which have long been prevalent on the Australian left.[1] But nor does Fernandes completely avoid the problems associated with these positions.

The strongest part of the book is its critique of the so-called “rules-based international order”, which is the constantly repeated rallying cry of the US and allies like Australia in their confrontation of China. They claim to be defending a neutral set of rules which benefit all countries, in accordance with established international legal norms.

Fernandes rightly exposes how these claims serve to legitimate the US and Australia’s own interests. The international order established after World War II was constructed around US economic and financial supremacy, with a banking system centred in New York and the US dollar serving as the global reserve currency. International bodies like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund are constructed along lines dictated by the US. The rules establish the rights of private business to invest capital wherever it chooses, with free trade agreements favouring the more developed economies.

Of course, liberal economic principles can be abandoned when necessary. A prime example is the current US attempt to limit Chinese access to computer microchips. These are crucial components if China is to develop high end manufacturing capabilities, including of advanced weaponry.

The US has also established a string of military bases and alliances which surround China and threaten its vital trade routes. It’s not a threat China can ignore, given the US has repeatedly toppled governments which oppose its interests, either by invasion or by fomenting internal coups. On the other hand, rhetorical commitments to democracy and human rights have never stopped the US forming alliances with friendly dictators.

Fernandes rightly argues that the status quo international order has benefitted Australia’s economy, enabling the export of efficiently produced primary commodities like coal and iron ore. So having “coasted in the slipstream of US supremacy since the end of World War II” (p.41), Australian policy makers are anxious to see the existing order maintained. Nor can Australia claim any moral high ground in terms of respect for human rights or the right to self-determination, having supported, for example, the Suharto dictatorship in Indonesia and the ongoing occupation of West Papua.

Fernandes is, however, too dismissive when he describes the rules-based order as “a euphemism for imperial practice” (p.58), implying it is a rhetorical nicety which merely disguises a more brutal reality. This obscures how the legal order positively structures international affairs and does so in ways which are not exclusively to the benefit of US capital. The global economy today really does operate for the most part according to liberal norms; trade patterns are determined by nations’ comparative advantages in production; capitalists from all countries are generally free to invest where they expect to reap the greatest profits; international shipping firms enjoy freedom of navigation.

Interactions between capitalist nations states will always be structured around some form of legal order, mirroring civil society inside national borders. In both cases, legal norms govern the actions of formally equal and independent juridical agents (individual citizens, nation states), providing the structure in which substantive inequalities (class position of citizens, national economic development) are given free rein. But in the absence of an international supra-state, disputes between legally equal sovereign nations always have the potential to be resolved through the use of force. As Marxist theorist of international law China Mieville argues, “[t]he chaotic and bloody world around us is the rule of law.[2]

So Fernandes is right to stress how the rules currently favour the US and its allies, which is why countries like China and Russia seek to restructure them. But to counterpose the “rules-based international order” with “the United Nations-centred international system…underpinned by international law” (p.57) wrongly suggests that international law could ever be an alternative to great power rivalries.

This points to a general shallowness in Fernandes’ understanding of imperialism, which is focused on the overwhelming strength of the US in world affairs and how it treats poorer countries. Quoting historian Michael Doyle, he defines imperialism as “a relationship, formal or informal, in which one state controls the effective political sovereignty of others” (p.10). This is a trans-historical definition, supposedly applicable from ancient Rome through to today.

It is of limited usefulness in understanding the international system under capitalism, which consists of a political sphere of independent territorial nation states co-existing with capitalist economic development which transcends all borders. No nation is an autarchy, “independent” of international market forces. This doesn’t imply a loss of sovereignty; it is the historically unique form that sovereignty takes under capitalism.[3] But equally, the need for each state to defend its particular economic and strategic interests against competitors generates imperialist rivalry.

Anti-imperialist theorists have debated how to understand the evolution of the international system since the end of the Cold War. Has inter-imperial competition involving multiple great powers, of the sort which resulted in the two world wars, now been replaced by a single US empire which serves the interests of all capitalists, or which at least effectively suppresses the rivalries of the various national capitals? Or will US dominance, which was never complete, eventually be challenged by new rivals?[4]

Fernandes doesn’t engage with this debate, which means he never clarifies how the interplay of sovereignty, capitalism and imperialism generate what we know as the world order. This results in two important ambiguities running through the book.

First, Fernandes does not clearly state whether or not Australia has suffered a loss of sovereignty to the US. This is a crucial issue, since he goes so far as to argue that a nation’s sovereignty can be diminished due to “collaboration between both countries’ elites” (p.3), an extremely broad conception. Whether Australian interests are subordinated to those of the US, and if so, why the Australian state and capitalist class would pursue such a policy, is never resolved.

At times, Fernandes stresses the benefits of the US alliance for Australian businesses. But he also implies that substantial US investment in Australia, particularly in the mining industry, has altered Australia’s stance towards China in ways which are detrimental to Australian capital. He also critiques the Australian economy as being “wealthy but dependent” due to its lack of complexity (focusing on the export of raw materials with little manufacturing) with “vital sectors…integrated into the value chains of US corporations” (p.22). But if Australian capitalists have pursued economic integration with the US, this needn’t imply an infringement on Australian independence. It has simply been the most profitable alternative available to them in the global economy.

Fernandes acknowledges that Australian governments have provided the US with military support because of strategic calculations, not “for sentimental reasons or because they were duped” (p.35). Yet he also bemoans a lack of Australian strategic independence, claiming that “[t]he aim is to uphold US military dominance, hence the deliberate choice not to develop a separate Australian military strategy” (p.29). This should not be a concern for anti-imperialists. Instead, we should focus on how the US alliance serves to enhance Australia’s own power. It secures the backing of the world’s strongest military and offers access to advanced weapons like the latest aircraft, missiles and now submarines. Without the alliance, the Australian ruling class would probably develop its own nuclear weapons and would certainly be forced to spend far more than the current 2 percent of gross domestic product on the military.[5]

An “independent” Australia would also continue dominating smaller regional countries. Fernandes rightly denounces how Australia has meddled in the affairs of post-independence East Timor, spying on its government and seeking to deprive it of revenues from oil deposits in the Timor Sea. But he fails to mention how Australia’s military intervention in East Timor in 1999 laid the basis for all of this. Fernandes has argued previously that popular pressure forced a “reluctant” Australian government to save the new nation from Indonesia.[6] In reality, Australia deliberately used its military power to control the transition from Indonesian rule, defending its own strategic and economic interests. Australian intervention was certainly an “independent” action, towards which the US was initially ambivalent. It was also a prime example of Australian imperialism.

Ultimately, Fernandes’ use of the term “sub-imperial” doesn’t clarify the analysis of US-Australian relations. Whatever the particular term employed, it is important to understand that the Australian state is an imperialist power in its own right, seeking to defend as best it can the Australian capitalist class’s own specific interests against rival powers. In this context the US alliance has proven immensely beneficial for the past eight decades, offering a security guarantee while enabling Australia to carve out a profitable position within the circuits of international capitalism. The alliance no doubt involves unwelcome trade-offs at times and it might cease to be beneficial in future if US hegemony is undermined by Chinese competition. But it has been rationally chosen by those who exercise power in Australian society.

The second ambiguity is whether Fernandes sees China as a new imperialist competitor to the US or a potential leader of anti-imperialist challenge from the Third World. At one point he refers to the “global confrontation between developed and developing countries, between North and South, between imperialism and anti-colonialism” (p.106). It isn’t clear how China’s economic rise and challenge to US geopolitical hegemony in the Asia-Pacific fits into this picture.

Fernandes certainly does not join the ranks of those who for whom anti-imperialism simply means opposition to the US, even to the extent of supporting the expansionism of China or Russia. But nor does he clearly oppose the authoritarian capitalism championed by the Chinese Communist Party. Although acknowledging repressive aspects of the Chinese state, particularly in Xinjiang, Fernandes presents a generally benign view of China’s international role. Its economic growth has been “achieved without resorting to slavery, war or colonialism” (p.76). And although China does not seek to impose its domestic order on other countries (except Taiwan), poor nations could see its development model as an attractive alternative to failed neoliberalism.

With tensions between the US and China rising, we should unambiguously reject supporting one side or the other. Perhaps Fernandes would agree. His concluding chapter is tantalisingly titled “Neither their war nor their peace”. But he can’t point to any real alternatives, merely suggesting that Third World countries might be attracted to a policy of non-alignment, advanced through motions passed at the UN: “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.” (pp.125–26) This is utopian liberalism. It fails to see that since imperialism is the necessary outgrowth of capitalism, great power rivalry is inevitable unless its economic basis is overthrown.

In relation to Australian domestic politics, Fernandes adopts a vaguely populist position, in which the interests of “the elites” are at odds with those of “the public”. It’s hard to disagree that for those who want to challenge Australian foreign policy “the task is to change the domestic structure of power” (p.121). But who might have the motivation and power to effect this change remains a mystery, let alone what alternatives they should be seeking.

It is to Fernandes’ credit that he has written a book which challenges the anti-China consensus of mainstream commentary on international affairs. He offers a stinging critique of how the US and Australia deploy the rhetoric of the rules-based order to justify their own imperial manoeuvres. But an effective anti-imperialist politics needs to be grounded in a clearer understanding of how Australian capitalism generates distinctive imperialist interests for the Australian ruling class.


Callinicos, Alex 2009, Imperialism and Global Political Economy, Polity.

Fernandes, Clinton 2004, Reluctant Saviour: Australia, Indonesia and the independence of East Timor, Scribe Publications.

Kuhn, Rick 1997, “The Australian left, nationalism and the Vietnam War”, Labour History, 72, May.

Mieville, China 2005, Between Equal Rights: A Marxist Theory of International Law, Brill.

O’Lincoln, Tom 2021 [2014], The Neighbour From Hell: Two Centuries of Australian Imperialism, Interventions.

Pietsch, Sam 2010, “Australian imperialism and East Timor”, Marxist Interventions, 2.

Rosenberg, Justin 1994, The Empire of Civil Society, Verso.

Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) 2022, SIPRI Military Expenditure Database.

[1] O’Lincoln 2021, pp.3–6; Kuhn 1997.

[2] Mieville 2005, p.319.

[3] Rosenberg 1994, chapter five.

[4] Callinicos 2009, pp.15–17 summarises this debate.

[5] Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) 2022. The US itself spends 3.5 percent of GDP.

[6] Fernandes 2004. For a critique see Pietsch 2010.

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