We need to rethink national interests

On this blog I talk a lot about how Australian and other governments have allowed the fossil fuel lobby to systematically sabotage their climate policies, and give voters a highly misleading impression as to what those policies will achieve. The blame for the lack of action ultimately lies with the fossil fuel industry. But this leads to another question: why have governments allowed the fossil fuel industry to control them in this way?

In this post I will argue part of the reason is an outdated view of national interests. And what better time to challenge nationalism than on Australia Day?

Governments are motivated by national interests

Note that in this post I am talking about liberal democracies like Australia, because I don’t have experience of other political systems.

Most voters believe the main motivation for politicians to lie is to win election campaigns, and there is certainly much truth in that. However, in my experience the biggest political lies are told between elections, during the process of governing, and are motivated by what the politicians see as a noble cause: the supposed “national interest”. Governments seem to see the national interest as an end which justifies almost any means. Consequently, they will take any action they think contributes to it, and lie to the public about it in order to get reelected so they can continue to serve the all-important national interest. In other words, their deceptive behavior is a form of pious fraud.

Australia’s political elites (politicians, bureaucrats, corporate executives, and political journalists) believe they know what is in Australia’s national interest. However it might appear from political reporting, there is a virtual bipartisan consensus on this. Both major parties have shown time and time again that they have no qualms about lying through their teeth to voters if they think it will protect Australia’s national security or economic competitiveness. When the people governments are supposed to represent demand a different course of action, those demands are dismissed as irrational “populism”, because the elites presume to know what is best for the country (or as the new Government likes to say, the adults are in charge).

But the concept of a “national interest” is nowhere near as clear-cut as one might think at first sight, and I question whether it has much relevance in the 21st century.

The 20th century view of national interests

Governments are stuck in a very 20th-century view of the world. Their worldview has two sets of components, dating back to the late 1940s and early 1980s respectively.

In the aftermath of World War II, Western governments instituted their present priorities of growing their economies to raise living standards, defending liberal democracy against ideological enemies, and starting wars to defend citizens against real or perceived military threats from those ideological enemies. Indeed, I seem to remember reading somewhere that growth was seen as a way to keep voters happy and avert the rise of totalitarian ideologies like state socialism. This post-war ideology was economically centrist (pro-nation-building and pro-welfare-state) and socially authoritarian; and represented a consensus of paternalistic conservatives, social liberals, and social democrats.

The post-war period ushered in the so-called “realist” theory of international relations. This theory sees states as the main actors, and sees their actions as aimed at advancing their national interests, understood in a very narrow way. “Realists” believe the primary foreign policy concern of each state is its military power, followed by its economic wealth. Maximizing the total military and economic strength of the nation is seen as more important than addressing issues that directly impact on people’s lives, and preserving the environment that sustains us all is a very low priority indeed. “Realists” are pessimistic about international cooperation, because they believe states are only interested in getting ahead of one another. In the Australian context, the 1940s was also the time when Australia formed a close military alliance with the US (the ANZUS treaty), which persists to this day despite how much the world has changed since World War II. Thus Australia has inherited an extra piece of ideological baggage – sucking up to the Americans to keep the powerful on our side.

In the 1960s, the status quo was shaken by the New Left protest movements (including environmentalism). These movements were partially successful in creating a less authoritarian society but were quickly countered (and in the case of the economic left, defeated) by the mobilization of the New Right. The New Right consisted of a coalition between neoliberals who revived pre-1930s classical liberal free market ideology, and neoconservatives (particularly the Christian right in the US) who defended the traditional authoritarian cultural values of the 1950s. The New Right gained political power with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.

Neoliberalism replaced the centrist post-war economic policies with deregulation in the name of economic freedom. Neoliberals believe states can cooperate to an extent for economic mutual gain, but still view national interests in the same narrow terms. In Australia, oddly, the neoliberal program was implemented by Labor governments with the support of trade unions. Neoliberalism has ostensibly driven economic growth, but has also increased economic inequality, accelerated the destruction of the environment, and may not be making us happier. Neoliberalism remains in power and its program of deregulation continues to this day, despite much evidence that citizens are dissatisfied with its results.

I rambled a bit above, but the point is that these 1940s and 1980s ideological strands form the present beliefs of governments about what is in their “national interest”: endless growth through economic freedom, deregulation, and some level of international cooperation; and protecting the state from ideological enemies through military and socially authoritarian means.

Despite the fact that climate action is necessary to prevent massive global losses for everyone, it is clear that most countries have taken a short-sighted “realist” approach to human-caused global warming. Governments seem to go into climate talks more concerned about their country’s economic competitiveness than the future of humanity. Indeed they are getting worse, with the formerly progressive European Union now backing off its climate policies and refusing to ramp up action before 2020.

National interests as social constructions

However, a third theory of international relations which emerged after the fall of the Berlin Wall may offer a glimmer of hope. Constructivism argues that countries’ foreign policies are shaped by socially constructed ideologies defining their interests, and those ideas can change through interaction with other state and non-state actors. Non-state actors include corporations, NGOs, and international institutions. If the environment we live in is seen as another “actor” which interacts with states, constructivism suggests it is possible for governments to be persuaded to see their national interests in a way that acknowledges human civilization is part of the natural world.

A constructivist explanation of the global deadlock on climate might be that fossil fuel companies have persuaded governments to see their national interests from a “realist” perspective, to equate those interests with those of the fossil fuel industry, and to perceive a conflict between rich and poor countries which further encourages “realism” and leads to deadlock. Constructivism suggests the best hope of getting global climate action is for citizens to persuade their governments to stop seeing their interests from a “realist” perspective which emphasizes comparative economic strength, and instead take an activist approach to solve the global problem of human-caused global warming.

Once you understand that governments (and particularly the Australian government) see protecting the fossil fuel industry as a national security imperative, a lot of things begin to make sense. It helps to explain why global climate talks are so confrontational, and why Australia insists on weaseling its way out of any meaningful commitments – like so many other government lies, the deception is seen as being in the national interest, and politicians believe the end justifies the means. It explains why politicians have covered their actions with a veneer of greenwash – to maintain public support without endangering the supposed national interest. And it explains why the Australian political establishment is so insistent on preventing any Greens influence on economic and foreign policies.

I also suspect Australia’s military alliance with the US has contributed to our governments’ choice to ally with the US on climate change. The alliance has also arguably led to bad military decisions, such as reckless participation in wars which cost lives on all sides and led to infringements of civil liberties, alleged war crimes, and lies about why Australia was involved. Both major parties supported the invasion of Iraq because Bush told them to, and Bush decided to invade Iraq because God told him to. This is not a rational basis on which to decide Australian policy. As for the supposed protection provided by the ANZUS treaty, even in the remote possibility of a military attack on Australia it’s not clear if the US would really come to our defence. I think there is a good case for withdrawing from ANZUS, and we should certainly stop supporting the US in its refusal to address climate change.

Towards a 21st century view

We live in an increasingly globalized world. And although the way in which globalization has occurred has been more in the interests of corporations than in the interests of the world’s citizens, I think it is a good thing that the world is now more interconnected because we now feel more empathy with citizens in other parts of the world. After all, national borders are just arbitrary lines drawn on a map; it seems to me that what is really important is the wellbeing of all people and each person on the planet. We should be focusing on the global interest and individual interests, yet governments are doing neither because they are preoccupied with national and corporate interests.

The biggest threats to the security of people living today (at least in rich countries) aren’t wars between nations. There’s no military enemy you can mobilize against (and personally I tend to oppose violence anyway). The greatest threat is what our society is doing to the climate, and the environment generally, as the rapid economic growth that began after World War II reaches its limits. In other words, the threat comes not from an external enemy but from within our own political, economic, and social system – the system our governments are intent on defending at all costs.

We urgently need governments to rethink their outdated model of “national interests”, and work together to solve the real problems of the 21st century, beginning with the greatest security threat the world is facing – human-caused global warming.

1 comment

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    • Angus2100 on 27 January 2014 at 06:23
    • Reply

    I do not agree with all of the argument. The popular perception of implementing CC policy is that it would involve high costs and that it would involve a change of lifestyle, amongst a number of other issues.
    Neither the media nor the common voice of the public provides sufficient support for politicians to make difficult choices. In a highly individualised society, the public largely feels disconnected from politics and unable to influence political decisions.
    If the public wants to remain quiet on the issues, then they will need to accept the government’s inaction on climate change.

    We all have voice, and collectively our politicians will hear us.

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