Issue 103

STONE the crows! Global trade and climate change deals are off the agenda, with the great powers acting in their own interests. That the nation state will always act in its own interest is far from surprising (except to the left) but it still is bad for Australia, just not in ways the believers in global government expect.

Ever since capitalism won the Cold War, the left has looked for another issue to whack the west. The comrades hit on the idea of globalisation, not as a way of expanding national economies through free trade, but as a way to establish supra-state control through the United Nations.

Thus, they argue that rule by the General Assembly makes the world a safer place, that the sovereignty of the nation state is an excuse American imperialists use to impose on everybody else.

And they go to great interpretive lengths to prove the historical pedigree of subordinating states to international agreement. Thus, Stephanie Beulac claims the Peace of Westphalia at the end of the 30 Years War did not assert the authority of the nation state (which is bad), as is generally assumed, but reinforced trans-national regulation (which is good).[i]

Academics also suggest a link between demonstrative love of country and racism. Professor Farida Fozdar claims Western Australians who fly the flag on their cars “tend[ii] to express more racist attitudes than others without flags.”

And, for advocates of the universality of refugee rights, the nation state is morally irrelevant. As Paul James puts it:

A thorough-going alternative to the current practice of empty rights talk—with each nation-state around the world regulating its own ‘queue’ and taking in more or less asylum seekers depending upon the fluctuations of national interest, national guilt and national negotiating skills—thus requires a complete rethinking of the global governance of the movement of people. It requires the institution of a global body, a forum for negotiating and adjudicating on decisions about refugee support and intake. Dislocated peoples are a local-national-global problem and can only be handled across those realms within the auspices of a global forum where debates about support are conducted openly. [iii]

But the problem is global, as in the UN and even continental rules (and isn’t the European Union going strong) aren’t all that effective at enforcing international agreements over national interest.

The failure of the Doha round of trade talks makes the point. Trade Minister Craig Emerson argues that “instead of waiting for some grand bargain, magically, like a bolt from the blue, to strike us from the sky” nations should do deals on component parts of the world trade system. [iv]

Judith Sloan suggests that, in trade, self-interest always gets in the way of global agreements and that, “the future course of world trade governance is, in the main, likely to involve further bilateral and regional trade agreements. These arrangements will add to the already complex and overlapping set of existing trade agreements — the so-called ‘bowl of spaghetti’.’’ [v]

And, even when it comes to great moral issues, it’s a waste to wait for the world to act in unity. As Condoleezza Rice puts it:

The UN is in the final analysis a collection of independent states. … When the time came to do hard things, it was exceedingly difficult to align the interests of its members. I therefore came to value more the ad hoc arrangements, sometimes called “coalitions of the willing”, that could actually get things done.

Thus I always bristled when the press or experts accused us of unilateralism. Yes, sometimes it would have been better to bring the international community along. But experiences such as Burma and Zimbabwe exposed just how hard it was to get others to do difficult things. The United States was sometimes accused of “moralism”, but at least there was real concern for the plight of those living under tyranny. [vi]

Like it or not, the rule of UN officialdom is not going to replace the nation state – which is bad news for Australia because it takes us back to what Westphalia was actually about – coming up with rules to govern international relations between great, not small powers.

Great like China and the US, small as in Australia.

This means we have a choice, which is no choice – pick a protector or switch to a Swiss strategy and either spend up on defence or hope nobody notices we cannot defend our immensely productive continent.

The options were recently argued out on the oped page of The Australian, in the form of a debate over whether we should buy or build replacements for the Collins class submarines.[vii]

The argument was essentially between advocates of an Australian built boat – because having learned the lesson of the Collins we can and because it provides us with strategic independence and a product purpose-built for our needs. (But certainly not because it will give people in Adelaide something to do.) Their opponents replied the Collins was a sea-going version of the Leyland dud P76 car, which makes the case for buying boats offshore, or even leasing US Virginia class nuclear submarines, which we know will work and which we can afford.

The Crows know sod-all about submarines but do wonder why none of the supporters of building boats here are not using the same argument in favour of developing our own fighter, instead of buying the F-35 JSF from the Yanks – the Boomerang specs must be somewhere in Defence.

However, the essence of the buy or build argument is – on the one hand – whether we can trust our great and powerful pal because, whatever the war, we will help the Yanks, and they us, or – on the other – whether they won’t and we need an independent capacity.

Thus Paul Dibb and Richard Brabin-Smith argue for self-reliance: “Even US generosity has its limits. And as those of us who have negotiated with the Pentagon can testify, sometimes those limits are reached very quickly. … in all but extreme circumstances the combat capacity of the Australian Defence Force should be sufficient for Australia’s own defence” [viii]

Which is going to take more than the 12 submarines, 100 JSFs and all the other expensive kit specified in the present plan, more than the electorate will willingly pay for and more, hopefully than we will ever need.[ix]

Because a full blown Asia Pacific crisis would confront us with the question that all small powers dare not debate, what to do when our ally demands we act in its, not our, interest – for example if the US and China come to blows over Taiwan.

With luck it will never happen but what would we do if it did- appeal to the UN?

The lesson of the Westpahlian settlement is that when push comes to shove great powers respect each other and leave the others to make the best bargains they can – which are often less average than awful.

As the invading Athenians told the leaders of Melos in 416 BC:

We recommend that you should try to get what it is possible for you to get, taking into consideration what we both really do think; since you know as well as we do that, when these matters are discussed by practical people, the standard of justice depends on the equality of power to compel and that in fact the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept. [x]


[i] Stephane Beaulac, “The Westphalian Model in Defining International law: Challenging the Myth,” Australian Journal of Legal History, 9 (2004) @ recovered on January 27

[ii] “Study shows racist views link to car flags,” University of Western Australia News, January 23 @ recovered on January 27

[iii] Paul James, “Reframing the Nation State: Reframing the Australian Dream from the Local to Global,” Globalism Institute: RMIT University, November 2005 @

[iv] Craig Emerson, “Address to the Plenary Session of the 8th Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organisation,” December 15 2011 @ recovered on January 27

[v] Judith Sloan, “Doha is dead and there’s no case for reviving it,” The Australian, January 27

[vi] Condoleezza Rice, No Higher Honour (2011) 586

[vii] Henry Ergas, “Collins sham points to enemy within,” The Australian, January 13, Ross Babbage, “We’ll be sunk if we don’t choose the best submarine,” The Australian, January 17, Paul Dibb and Richard Brabin-Smith, “We need submarines not subservience to the US,” The Australian, January 19, Henry Ergas, “Sub self-reliance’ a blank cheque to protectionists,” The Australian, January 24 and Steve Ludlam, “We should build on our 30-year submarine expertise,” The Australian, January 26

[viii] Dibb and Brabin-Smith ibid

[ix] Australian Government, Department of Defence, Defending Australia in the Asia Pacific Century, Force 2030 (Commonwealth of Australia, 2009) 64,78 @

[x] Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War (translated by Rex Warner) (1972 ) 401-402