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BOOKS: Geoanalyst Clinton Fernandes sees complicit “sub-empires” not simply “vassal states”

A new book challenges the view that Australia, the UK, etc. are just America's vassals.

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Urval av de böcker som har vunnit Nordiska rådets litteraturpris under de 50 år som priset funnits

Subimperial Power: Australia in the International Arena

Reviewed by Arnaud Bertrand

Arnaud Bertrand

But does it matter what we call it?

I just finished reading “Sub-Imperial Power” by Clinton Fernandes, a former Australian intelligence officer and now professor of international and political studies at the University of New South Wales.

Full disclosure, Clinton sent me the book and wrote a nice dedication on it, calling me a “public educator”, which is a nice way of saying I tweet too much.  But I wouldn’t write this if I didn’t really like the book, which I actually believe is essential reading if you want to understand Australian geopolitics, or are interested in geopolitics generally.

The book makes one of the best descriptions of the “rules-based international order” that I’ve read, describing in details how Australia isn’t a vassal or a client state of the U.S., like many believe, but rather a “sub-imperial power”. What this means is that Australia, as well as other “sub-imperial powers” like Israel or the UK, are essentially the henchmen of the US’s current “imperial” rule, tasked with preserving it in their respective regions. Which means that as henchmen they aren’t so much victims of an hegemonic US rule but instead feel that they derive such disproportionate benefits from it that they’re willing to go to great length to help the US preserve this rule against the actual victims, those who disproportionately lose out from the order.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is how it departs from the theories of realism, championed by the likes of John Mearsheimer or Stephen Walt, who assert that all states - regardless of culture, religion, social hierarchy or political system - will act in the same way because they all prioritize survival and security above all else. They assert that given that maximizing power is the best way to survive in the international system, if they had the opportunity all states would seek to become hegemons like the US is today, or imperial Britain was yesterday.
Fernandes makes a very different case, which I actually think is a far better explanation of how the world actually works, and of the historical behavior of various states. His point is that there’s something unique about US geopolitics, and that of Western colonial states before it, in that they have these extremely aggressive characteristics - the impulse to subjugate and pillage others - that actually often harm their security rather than safeguard it. And he explains this with the undue power the moneyed class has over the state in those systems of government. Which is hard to deny if one looks at things historically: for instance it is the East India Company that initiated the colonization and pillage of India, not the British state that only came afterwards to essentially pacify growing rebellion in India so as to perpetuate the ongoing pillage. Or take a more recent example: the war in Iraq. It makes very little sense from an American security or survival perspective but it makes eminently good sense from a US oil company or economic hegemony perspective. Or again the current conflict in Gaza, which is extremely negative for American security as it generates busloads of hatred throughout the Muslim world against America and diverts American attention from more consequential geopolitical challenges. But it makes sense if you look at it from the standpoint of perpetrating a hegemonic system.
In other words, Fernandes’ point is that the key characteristic of the “rules-based international order” relates to the actual structure of the American (or British, French, Australian, etc) social and economic system, which seeks to enforce an order where the whole world is open to the penetration and control of their respective national moneyed classes. Which is why the order is about hegemony, and not about security, and why the former so often comes at the expense of the latter.
It’s interestingly something that John Mearsheimer often laments about if you listen to him: “why would the U.S. act in such foolish ways that go against what my realist theories recommend?”. He was adamantly opposed to the war in Iraq, warned for many years about the risk of a clash with Russia in Ukraine if we expanded NATO, and keeps speaking out against the U.S.’s unequivocal support of Israel. And by doing so Mearsheimer actually admits that realism doesn’t quite explain the behavior of states and that his theories are therefore not quite right. Fernandes here offers an explanation that better predicts the actual behavior of the US and its “sub-imperial powers”: you cannot understand states’ behavior if you limit yourself to a state-centric view, you also need to look at the unique characteristics of their political, social and economic system.
A last interesting point is that, given the fact he argues that states’ political and economic systems play a key role in defining their geopolitics, Fernandes’s book implies a prediction that as China’s power rises, it will behave in vastly different ways than the U.S. and its imperial henchmen.

A rare illustration of Admiral Zheng He's "treasure fleet". Commissioned by the Yongle Emperor and later the Xuande Emperor, Zheng commanded seven expeditionary treasure voyages to Southeast Asia, South Asia, West Asia, and East Africa from 1405 to 1433. According to legend, his larger ships carried hundreds of sailors on four decks and were almost twice as long as any wooden ship ever recorded. Even at its summit in naval power, China did not seek to conquer other nations but to primarily set up mutually beneficial trade relations.


Admiral Zheng He's wax statue.

Given the Chinese system, it will undoubtedly seek to maximize its power but this time it will actually be for its own security and survival, and not to serve the interests of its moneyed class, and as such will behave in much less aggressive ways than the US. Again, interestingly Mearsheimer kind of admits this too because he repeatedly says “when I am in China, I’m amongst my people”: as in they follow his realist theories much more faithfully than the US. We can already see the contours of this: it’s absolutely obvious that the Chinese state isn’t at the mercy of its moneyed class, quite the contrary, China is not exactly a country where billionaires have an easy life  Same thing with respect to hegemony: China just doesn’t do military alliances (it doesn’t have any), foreign interference or coups d’états. In fact they haven’t as much as fired a single bullet abroad in over 4 decades. On the contrary, it seeks to create an order with indivisible security and mutual respect embedded in the system, where it’d ideally be the most powerful state - sure - but not for the purpose of pillaging or subjugating others but because this guarantees its security and stability. Which is exactly how it behaved for 1,800 years when it was the most powerful state on the planet before the industrial revolution: it never went around trying to colonize and pillage the world as it believed this would eventually come at the expense of its own security, much like it comes at the expense of American security and interests today. Instead it sought relationships of trade and mutual respect that maximize security and stability over the long term.
Anyhow you should really read the book, it’s all too rare that such a book gets written by Western academics. You typically get the usual utter bullshit about the inherent superiority of Western values and various ill founded theories as to why we should rule the world. This gives you a peak outside the matrix.

ABOUT THE BOOK AUTHOR: Professor Clinton Fernandes is in the Future Operations Research Group at the University of New South Wales, Canberra. He has published on the relationship between science, diplomacy, and international law, intelligence operations in foreign policy, the political and regulatory implications of new technology, and Australia’s external relations more generally. He is a former Australian Army officer who served in the Australian Intelligence Corps. His research focus is on “Securing Australia’s place in a changing world.” --This text refers to the paperback edition.

The views expressed herein are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of  The Greanville Post. However, we do think they are important enough to be transmitted to a wider audience. 

Screen Shot 2016-01-23 at 2.38.28 PMReviewer Bio: Arnaud Bertrand is an entrepreneur. Previously HouseTrip (sold to TripAdvisor), now MeAndQi.com.

All image captions, pull quotes, appendices, etc. by the editors not the authors. 
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License


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