The Great Barrier Reef and rethinking national interest

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James Wight says we urgently need governments to rethink their outmoded concepts of “national interest” to combat easily the world’s greatest security threat — human-caused global warming.

(Image via greenpeace.org)

LAST FRIDAY, the Australian Government approved the dumping of three million cubic metres of dredged seabed in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, to make way for the world’s largest coal export port at Abbot Point. This decision is indicative of a worldwide trend of governments disregarding the environment in favour of business interests.

Why are governments making such bad decisions concerning the environment?

It’s tempting to dismiss politicians as cartoonish incompetent villains. But I think Australia’s political elites ‒ major party politicians, bureaucrats, and corporate lobbyists ‒ are largely motivated by what they see as a noble cause — the “national interest”. They see it as an end which justifies almost any means and will take almost any action they think protects it, including lying to the public about it to get re-elected.

When voters demand alternative action, they are dismissed as irrational “populists”, because the elites presume they know what is best for the country — or, as the new Government likes to say, the “adults are running the show”.

The very concept of a “national interest”, and its status as top priority, demonstrates that governments are stuck in a 20th-century worldview, with just two narrow sets of objectives. This view dates 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 and defending liberal democracy against ideological enemies through military and socially authoritarian means.

The post-war period ushered in the quasi-Machiavellian so-called “realist” theory of international relations, which argues state actions are aimed at advancing their “national interests”, as understood in a particular narrow way. “Realists” believe the primary foreign policy concern of each state is its military power, followed by its economic wealth. Maximising the nation’s total military and economic strength 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 co-operation, because they believe states are only interested in getting ahead of one another. The world is ordered, under the realist method, by competitive self-interest.

Neoliberalism, a revival of pre-1930s classical liberal free market ideology, which gained power in the early 1980s, replaced the post-war centrist economic policies with deregulation in the name of economic freedom. Neoliberals believe states can co-operate to an extent for economic mutual gain, but still view national interests in the same narrow terms. Neoliberal policies have ostensibly driven economic growth, but are also increasing economic inequality, accelerating the destruction of the environment, and frequently diminishing societal happiness. Neoliberalism remains in power and its program of deregulation continues, despite much evidence that a great many citizens are dissatisfied with its results.

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; military might; and protecting the system from ideological enemies.

It is clear that most countries have taken a short-sighted “realist” approach to anthropogenic global warming, despite the fact that climate action is necessary to prevent massive global losses for everyone. Governments still go into climate talks more concerned about their country’s short-term economic competitiveness than the future of the human species.

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 states and non-state actors, such as corporations. If we see the environment we live in 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 civilisation is part of the natural world.

A constructivist explanation for the global deadlock on climate change action might be that fossil fuel industries have persuaded governments to see their national interests from a “realist” perspective ‒ to equate their interests with the industries’ ‒ and to perceive a conflict between rich and poor countries, which further encourages “realism” and leads to deadlock.

Constructivism suggests the best hope of gaining global climate action is for citizens to persuade governments to stop seeing their interests from a “realist” perspective, which emphasises comparative economic strength, to instead take an activist approach to solving 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 always insists on weaselling out of any meaningful commitments — like so many other government lies, the deception is seen as in the national interest. It explains why governments have covered their actions with a veneer of greenwash — to maintain public support without endangering the supposed national interest.

We live in an increasingly globalised world. Although the way globalisation has occurred has benefited corporations more than the world’s citizens, it is a good thing 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 — what is really important is the wellbeing of 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 greatest threat to the security of people living in developed countries today isn’t war between nations. The greatest threat is what our society is doing to the environment, particularly the climate, 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.

Read more by James Wight at precariousclimate.com or follow James on Twitter @350ppmJames.

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The originals of John Graham's art, featured above as well as elsewhere on IA, are available for purchase by contacting the editor at editor@independentaustralia.net.

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