Socialist Equality Party (Australia)
The Historical and International Foundations of the Socialist Equality Party (Australia)

Imperialist war and neo-colonialism

280. The eruption of imperialist war and reaction in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union underscored the analysis of Lenin that capitalism had “grown into a world system of colonial oppression and of the financial strangulation of the overwhelming majority of the population of the world by a handful of ‘advanced’ countries.” With the launching of the Gulf War against Iraq in 1990—the first of a series of military interventions by US imperialism to seize control of lucrative natural resources and counter its economic decline—the Hawke Labor government was the first in the world to sign up, indicating Labor’s readiness to march lockstep with Washington in order to maintain the US alliance. In 1999, the war against Serbia over Kosovo marked an escalation of imperialist military intervention. In a statement published in June 1999, “After the slaughter: political lessons of the Balkan War”, North wrote: “The United States was anxious to exploit the power vacuum created by the Soviet collapse to rapidly project its power eastward and assert control over the vast untapped reserves of oil and natural gas in the newly-independent Central Asian republics of the old USSR. Within this new geopolitical environment, the Balkans assumed exceptional strategic importance as a vital logistical staging ground for the projection of imperialist power, particularly that of the United States, toward Central Asia. Herein lay the ultimate source of the conflict between the United States and the regime of Milosevic.” The justification for the war was articulated by British Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair who, in his new doctrine of “ethical imperialism”, insisted that in the post Cold War world of globalisation it was necessary to jettison the doctrine of national sovereignty and establish a new framework guided by a “subtle blend of mutual self interests and moral purpose in defending the values we cherish.”[1]

281. At its conference against Imperialist War and Colonialism held in Berlin in November 1991, the ICFI had anticipated the turn to neo-colonialism. The Gulf War signified the start of a “new division of the world by the imperialists” in which the “colonies of yesterday are again to be subjugated.” Underlying the broad participation in the US-led attack was “the unstated understanding that the war against Iraq would legitimize a revival of colonial policy by all the imperialist powers.” While a minor imperialist power, Australia was part of this process and in 1999, following the collapse of the Suharto regime in Indonesia, organised a military intervention into East Timor in order to maintain its control over the region’s oil and gas resources and to prevent the intervention of other powers, notably China and Portugal.

282. The most politically significant feature of the East Timor intervention was the role played by the middle class “left” tendencies in agitating for Australian troop intervention on the grounds that this was necessary to protect the East Timorese people from the attacks of Indonesian militias. The crucial significance of this agitation for Australian imperialism was acknowledged by the Australian Financial Review in an editorial: “[A]s a result of Vietnam it became politically impossible for governments to propose military action abroad … and Australia’s diplomatic engagement with the region reinforced the domestic taboo on discussion of military intervention in the region. … The calls for action in Timor are ironic because many of those who fostered the political climate in which the army was run down were the loudest in demanding Australia intervene there. This call to arms has, for the first time in decades, given broad legitimacy to the proposition that Australia should be able to intervene militarily outside its territory. This raises the possibility of building a domestic consensus, not just in favour of increased defence spending, but of changing the structure of the defence force.”[2] Not for the first or last time, the middle class “left” groups functioned as a vital political prop for Australian imperialism.

283. The necessity of the perspective advanced by the SEP for the unification of the working class and oppressed masses through the archipelago has been fully confirmed in the decade since the East Timor intervention began. Far from securing independence, East Timor is a virtual semi-colony of Australia, subject to regime change at any time, at the behest of Canberra.

284. The East Timor intervention, supported by the entire political establishment, marked the reassertion of Australian imperialist interests and the bolstering of its military might. According to former defence chief Major-General Peter Cosgrove, who led the operation: “In more recent military history, we had been a nation of followers. East Timor created the need for us to lead—we had not only to give the orders but provide the bulk of the force, the energy and the logistics.” Its appetite whetted in East Timor, Australian imperialism is extending its ambitions. Declaring Australia to be in a position of “immense strength” former foreign minister Alexander Downer insisted it “should be doing things in the world” and that the Timor operation showed “Australia is a player in the region worthy of respect.” In reality, Australian ambitions in the Pacific depend on Washington’s backing. In exchange for being accorded the status of US “deputy sheriff” in the region, Canberra provides unconditional support for US military adventures around the globe. After the East Timor intervention came the deployment of Australian troops to the US interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, followed by the Australian government’s virtual takeover of the Solomon Islands in 2003.

285. The end of the Cold War has brought not peace but a new era of wars and militarism as each of the imperialist powers fights to advance its own interests against those of its rivals. Under the banner of the “war on terror” US imperialism is seeking to combat its loss of global economic dominance by seizing control of the resources of Central Asia, especially oil and gas. That is the agenda behind the invasion of Afghanistan, the war against Iraq, the threats against Iran, military activity in Pakistan and the moves to intervene in Yemen. So far a clash between the major powers has been averted but, as the history of the 20th century demonstrates, such a collision will, at a certain point, become inevitable, creating the danger of a third world war. The only means of ending war and the threat it poses to human civilisation is to overthrow the capitalist system that gives rise to it. Thus the struggle against war can go forward only to the extent that it is directed towards the independent mobilisation of the working class on the basis of a revolutionary perspective. That is the primary lesson of the immense protest movement that erupted against the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Millions of people the world over voiced their opposition to the war in a series of globally coordinated demonstrations—the largest such mobilisation in history. The anti-war sentiment that motivated these millions remains. But the 2003 movement failed because it remained dominated by a fatal political illusion—that war could be prevented if only enough pressure were brought to bear on the official political apparatus—above all, the United Nations. The lesson that must be drawn is that only on the basis of an international socialist perspective aimed at overthrowing the existing political order—not pressuring it—can the struggle against war go forward.


David North, ‘After the Slaughter: Political Lessons of the Balkan War’, World Socialist Web Site, June 14, 1999, viewed February 17, 2010.


‘Spending More Makes Sense’, Australian Financial Review, September 15, 1999.