ALISON BROINOWSKI. Whose rules? What order?

As baby diplomats we learned always to vote in good company. Countries, we understood, were judged by the company they kept. Not any more. The countries Australia rubs shoulders with now, and the hips we are joined at, make people who used to represent Australia overseas wonder how much worse it can get. Other Australians who come back after a decade abroad say they can’t believe what we have become. 

The downward trend started in 1996 when the American neo-cons began planning for the US hegemony that would follow the collapse of the Soviet Union. The times suited John Howard, who was aware of their plans long before we joined the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq and who wanted Australia to be part of the action. He would have known the US had plans to ‘reform’ Middle Eastern countries – all with oil and gas capacity – in its own interests, which invariably matched the interests of Israel. The only one now left on the US list of seven is Iran. In 2014 Howard told a public meeting in Sydney Iran would be next. Don’t say we weren’t warned.

For more than 15 years Australia has been fighting illegal wars, in shrinking coalitions of Anglo-allies, with precious little to show for them except deaths, disabilities, destruction, and debts. We have voted with a handful of other satrapies against the aspirations of Palestinians. We have received damning reports from the UN Human Rights Council for our treatment of Indigenous people and refugees, and for that we have been admired by far-right Europeans. We are backsliding rapidly from our Paris commitments on climate change and from our responsibility for the Great Barrier Reef. We excluded ourselves from the maritime boundary jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice and the International Law of the Sea Tribunal in order to pressure fledgling Timor Leste to sign a treaty that favoured Australia and, in particular, Woodside Petroleum. We refuse to sign the Treaty banning nuclear weapons for which Australians won a Nobel Prize.

Now Australia proposes to move our Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and to withdraw our support of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran.

At least some of the other policies that marked Australia’s descent into bad company were carefully considered by one major party or the other, and debated in Parliament. Not this time. All the Liberal candidate for Wentworth had to do, it seems, was come out with these two radical proposals, to have Prime Minister Morrison adopt them, literally overnight. Suddenly, decisions that had nothing to do with advancing Australia’s interests were taken, and were no longer radical. So whose company are we in? On Jerusalem: the US and Israel of course, and Guatemala. On Iran: the US and Israel. No parties other than the US, not even Britain, have abandoned the JCPOA. War could follow.

Australia is called – in a new, scorching critique of what passes for our foreign and defence policies – an ‘Island off the Coast of Asia’. Professor Clinton Fernandes shows that time and again, for 230 years, Australia’s dealings with our region have been driven by territorial ambition and trade, and by security, siding with powerful distant allies to keep regional countries at a disadvantage for as long as possible. Fernandes argues that in our desire always to be on the winning side, we have ingratiated ourselves to the US even when it was to our disadvantage. We have repeatedly fought in illegal wars that were none of Australia’s business.

We are still doing it, and isolating Australia from the very region to which the global centre of economic gravity is moving. If our leaders could see beyond the next election – or the next by-election – they would be taking advantage of our proximity to China’s dynamism and India’s potential, not by trying to build a Quad to contain or confront China, or provoking China with ‘freedom of navigation operations’, but by shedding the ball and chain that the US alliance imposes on our self-interest and independence.

There’s no time to lose. The symbolic move of our Embassy in Israel for the Government’s short-term political advantage in Wentworth is one thing. Much more urgent is the need to change the war powers. We must ensure that Australia enters no new war, particularly not with Iran, without a debate and a vote in both houses of Parliament, followed by regular reviews, and by a full independent inquiry afterwards. To the surprise of many Australians, this is not how we do wars. The Prime Minister can decide, virtually alone, and the troops are dispatched. There may be a debate in the House, but no vote. In successive conflicts since Vietnam, prime ministers have even by-passed the Governor-General who is commander in chief. Australia and three other democracies – Canada, France, and New Zealand – preserve this undemocratic practice. It has led us into to disastrous wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Iran would be no different, and it could be worse. The US always needs a coalition to justify a war to Congress: what would happen if they held a war and no allies came?

Australian leaders repeat the ‘international rules-based order’ mantra as if we uphold it. Unfortunately, whenever it suits us, Australia doesn’t. An invasion of Iran would not have a resolution of the UN Security Council behind it, and we are not threatened by Iran: hence Australian forces would be committing the war crime of aggression. So would the Prime Minister. Perhaps former diplomat Dave Sharma will remind him of that.

Dr Alison Broinowski is an Australian former diplomat and is Vice-President of Australians for War Powers Reform ( (


Dr Alison Broinowski AM is Vice-President of Australians for War Powers Reform. She joined the Australian Foreign Service in 1963, lived in Japan for a total of six years, and for shorter periods in Burma, Iran, the Philippines, Jordan, South Korea, the United States of America and Mexico, working alternately as an author and Australian diplomat.

Since leaving the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, she has received a PhD in Asian Studies from ANU, and has continued to lecture, write, and broadcast in Australia and abroad on Asian affairs and cultural and political issues.

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6 Responses to ALISON BROINOWSKI. Whose rules? What order?

  1. Avatar Jim Anthony says:

    Australia’s ‘rules based order” — who makes the rules and who enforces them? People who live in glass houses ought not to throw stones. Australia’s glass house is coming apart as it faces problems that it has never faced before. Muddling through does not quite work any more.
    Australia does not have ‘clean hands’ when it comes to a fair and comprehensive review of its record behavior post WWII. Take the Pacific islands–just the Melanesia/Polynesia sector: strategic denial (the Monroe doctrine papered over) and now the ‘arc instability’ and more: Australia describes the Pacific as its “patch”, its “back yard”. Australia sees itself as the pre-eminent regional policeman (RAMSI, for example), the fine print in the Biketawa Declaration. Australia’s shameful attempt to invade Fiji in November/ December 2006. Australia’s thinly disguised ‘containment’ of China in the Pacific. (Good luck, Australia). Australia’s domestic racist policies with respect, particularly, to the First People of the land are not much to write home about. The white Australia policy may no longer be on the books, but its odor lingers. There’s more; a lot more. For starters, more Australians across the board, ought to read contributions like that of Peter Varghese’s (Chancellor of the University of Queensland) recent address to the 2018 National Conference on University governance, 4 October, 2018, Adelaide. Allan Gyngell’s recent Fear of Abandonment, like a lot else that has come from him, ought to be read with an open mind. Coming from an Australian, his wisdom is rare although as the debate about Australia’s foreign policies and defense grows there are other worthy voices. The Lowy Institute ought NOT to be taken as Australia’s sole source of enlightenment.

    As far as the islands are concerned there is a much neglected flip side to this discussion.
    By and large no small part of the problems facing the islands of
    Melanesia and Polynesia are of their own making: poverty, widespread, festering, institutionalized corruption, a miserable record of failing to develop foreign policy and defence policy in their own interests, the failure of the islands’ leadership to recognize the importance of information/intelligence asymmetry. Much roughage here for at least a monograph that might be called: While The Islands Slept.

  2. Avatar Michael Flynn says:

    My dream is that the new member for Wentworth will meet with the other independents in the House and suggest they work on some common issues and offer support t0 Bill Shorten if he agrees to work with them in the national interest now. For example, refugees off Nauru to NZ and Australia, policy certainty on renewable energy, pokies reform, ban killer drones and the nuclear weapons ban of Penny Wong at the AIIA national meeting in Canberra recently that includes China and the US.

  3. Avatar Jo vallentine says:

    Excellent article – thank you Alison. Now is the perfect time to re-calibrate Australia’s foreign policies and defence ties. We must not blindly follow the U.S. any longer. Going to war against Iran would produce more displaced people, for whom we would take no responsibility, more deaths, disabilities, debt & destruction.

  4. Avatar Nigel Drake says:

    Our politicians appeal to ‘international rules-based order’ is in the same philosophical categary as the infamous ‘terra nullius’ claim in reference to Australia.
    Unadulterated falsehoods.

  5. Avatar Kerry Faithfull says:

    Excellent article thank you for exposing the “rules based order” for exactly what it is: rules for the 1% who also happen to be the war mongers.
    It puzzles me how many otherwise intelligent journalists use this phrase seemingly unaware that GW Bush outed it for its true meaning in his famous 9/11 speech all those years ago.

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