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In defence of Australian sovereignty

It is readily acknowledged, even assumed, that safeguarding national sovereignty is imperative to national security and Defence. The 2016 Defence White Paper states that, “our most basic Strategic Defence Interest” is a “secure, resilient” nation, “where Australia exercises full sovereignty over its territories and borders.” Yet, what does the government mean when they say “full sovereignty”? Is it merely about territorial integrity? Or is it about autonomy and the projection of regional and international power? Or is it about something else altogether?

While references to sovereignty are not uncommon in Australia’s national security and Defence discourse, the term is typically employed without qualification or elucidation, even as the stakes could not be higher. There appears to be a lack of meaningful engagement among policymakers, analysts, and commentators with the contours of Australia’s national sovereignty, and with the importance of articulating those parameters for Defence strategy. The sovereignty concept recurs in debates concerning, for example, external interference in political institutions, the need for a sovereign Defence Industry, and the protection of national borders; yet some of the most fundamental definitional questions are left unanswered. What is it for Australia to be sovereign? Why is it something that must be safeguarded? What does it mean, in real terms, to defend, maintain, or project Australian sovereignty? And what does it mean for a state to lose its sovereignty? The assumption, broadly made, is that while national sovereignty is essential, it needs little explanation. In Australia, it is simply taken as read.

Certainly, sovereignty is difficult to define. It is an abstract and contingent concept, linked to varied structures of legal and political authority, the unique narratives and interests of nations, and subject to the warp and weft of history. But even as sovereignty seems impossibly complex, it remains the pre-eminent protocol for national integrity, and the foundational unit for a system that supports the independence, interconnection, and security of diverse polities and peoples. Indeed, the enduring importance of the sovereignty concept largely comes from that complexity, and particularly, its capacity to embody the vernacular and the normative simultaneously. It is anchored to eccentricities of circumstance and localised discourse, while also speaking to recognised international norms. Sovereignty expresses the relationship of the Australian people to the state, to territory, and to a varied suite of traditions, institutions, and beliefs, while also articulating the terms by which the polity functions in the international system and defends its borders. Thus, to define and understand sovereignty is to create a shield against interference in the most vital and essential features of Australian life, and to project strength and power amongst the nations. 

This idea is important for the future of security and Defence policy, especially as Australia has not had to fight for its independence or its survival and has enjoyed a long experience of relative peace and security. Australians have had the luxury of taking the sovereignty of the nation for granted, and as a result, are not well-versed in its contours. Under these conditions, there is a real risk of sleepwalking into a situation where Australian sovereignty becomes fundamentally compromised. Moreover, without a clear understanding of its nature and bounds, we cannot know whether that may already be the case. As the international system is becoming more volatile, those who are interested in the protection of the nation would do well to reacquaint themselves with both the figurative and physical features that underwrite Australia’s sovereign existence. 

To do so, is to develop greater clarity around what the national security apparatus is entrusted to protect, but also fuller strategic engagement with the nature and capacities of our distinctive national power. Australian sovereignty becomes a compass for appraising a Defence strategy that assumes the United States as protector even as trends suggest it is in decline, and for calculating the international and domestic impacts of engagements in the near neighbourhood if there is a shift in regional power dynamics. It is a standard by which to assess risks to national autonomy and integrity if international conciliation is repeatedly prioritised over national security, and a language for articulating what is being compromised when accepted norms are flouted against international or Australian interests. It is also a means by which to evaluate the projection of soft and hard power in an environment where competition is increasingly operating just below the threshold of war, and where there is a blurring of friend and foe.

Australian sovereignty is not a given, and with the rapid pace of change in the international order, the heightened prospect of conflict, and the broad strategic significance of the sovereignty concept, there needs to be more thorough and focused engagement with its contours. In the national security and Defence space, complacency on this issue is not only remiss, it is a wasted opportunity. To know and understand the parameters of Australian sovereignty is to lay the foundations for a serious argument about what is to be protected and why, and the means by which to secure and project Australian power in an increasingly hostile, and uncertain world.

Written By: Dr Marigold Black

About the author: Dr Marigold Black is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow with the Australian Army Research Centre and the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University. Dr Black has completed a Research Fellowship with the Laureate Research Program in International History looking at the relationship between world economy and the doctrine of freedom of the seas in the late 19th Century, and has completed a PhD on understandings of sovereignty in the era of the American Declaration of Independence with the History Department at the University of Sydney. Dr Black has expertise in theories of sovereignty in historical perspective, the history of international law, and the history and practices of international diplomacy.

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government. Further information.

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