Australia's Gulf War Commitment 1990-91

In the pursuit of national interests?

Seminar Paper, 2002

17 Pages, Grade: 1


Australia’s Gulf War Commitment 1990-91 In the pursuit of national interests?

When the Australian Labor government announced the deployment of a naval contingent to the Persian Gulf on the 10th August 1990, Prime Minister Bob Hawke described the commitment as being ”proportionate to the interests we have at stake”1. What Hawke refers to in his statement is the importance of national interests in the formulation of foreign policy and a country’s reaction to world events such as Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.

This paper will analyse to which extent the Prime Minister’s claim to have acted in and proportionate to the national interest is true. In order to be in a position to answer this question, one has to agree on a definition of the term ”national interest”.

The national interest is a widely used concept in the field of international relations, yet the term is difficult to define and is surrounded by controversy. While it is an essential ingredient of realist theories, political scientists such as Raymond Aron and James Rosenau are inclined not to believe in the existence of such a concept2. Considering, however, it is used by the majority of governments to justify and formulate foreign policy objectives, it is a concept that, despite being contested, cannot be dismissed. Gareth Evans, Australian Foreign Minister from 1988 until 1996, stresses its importance to Australia when he states that ”all foreign policy is, or should be, directed at the protection and advancement of the national interest”3.

Although the existence of so called universal interests such as the protection of a country’s national sovereignty and territory cannot be denied, claims that national interests are an objective datum4, are incorrect. Rather, national interests have to be seen as a ”constantly changing pluralistic set of subjective preferences”5. This is due to the fact that national interests and the degree of their importance are derived from national values and defined by the government of the day, the ideology of the party in power, and often influenced by the personalities of major political figures and ministers and sometimes even interest groups.

In general, national interests can be defined as those foreign policy objectives aiming at advancing a country’s well-being and that of its citizens. With regard to Australia’s involvement in the Gulf War, the relevant set of national interests according to which foreign policy was conducted, were defined by the Labor government of the day, under Bob Hawke. By reviewing governmental publications, records, papers and speeches, Australia’s national interests of the 1990-91 period can be grouped into three major categories. Namely, strategic interests, economic and trade interests, and, to use Gareth Evans’ term, the interest in being and being seen as a good international citizen.6

This definition also leads to the question of the prevailing political ideology or theory by which Australian foreign policy making was guided at that time. As the concept of national interests is closely linked to realism, it would be logical to assume that Australian foreign policy during the 1990-91 period was driven by this theory. However, the national interest of good international citizenship indicates that there was also a profound influence by rationalism which proclaims that ”it is wrong to promote the national interest without any regard for international morality and international law”.7 At the same time there were also signs of liberal internationalism in, for example, Australia’s support of global free trade arrangements. The influence of this combination of theories on Australia’s definition of its national interests gives rise to Gareth Evans’ statement that ”idealism and realism need not be competing objectives in foreign policy”8. It is also a sign of existing confusion and uncertainty regarding Australia’s political orientation in an attempt to come to terms with a newly emerged post-Cold War world.

Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait took place on the 2nd August 1990, at a time when the Cold War had just come to an end, the dissolution of the Soviet Union was well on its way and the United States was emerging as the world’s sole superpower. To many the ceasing of the immediate threat of a nuclear holocaust and the end of bipolarity in international relations seemed to ring in, what American Secretary of State James Baker called, an ”era of full promise”9. The vision was that in this new world order the United Nations, which had been paralysed by the superpower rivalry for more than forty years, should finally play the primary role in ensuring the upholding of international law and order.

The invasion of Kuwait, on the grounds of Iraq’s economic and territorial claims, initially looked like a promising opportunity to display the functioning and existence of the new world order and the pristine unity with which former arch-enemies would work together in an attempt to come to the rescue of a small country invaded and annexed by its much larger neighbour. It was, however, obvious from the very beginning that this involvement, initiated by the United States and made under the umbrella of the United Nations, was primarily driven by self-interest more than altruism. What was first and foremost at stake was the access to Middle Eastern oil whose production accounted for 26.3 per cent of the total world market.10 Despite this, the 40 country’s involved in the economic sanctions against Iraq and the six week war in January / February 1991, tried hard to convince the world community that ”wars (…) are always fought for the most noble of motives, especially by democracies”.11

What then were the motives for Australia to become involved in the Gulf Conflict which, in the end, resulted in war? Was it in the pursuit of national interests as defined by the Labor government under Hawke and which is, according to Hans Morgenthau, one of the most significant realist thinkers, ”a normal, unavoidable and desirable activity”12 ? What exactly were these interests and were there really vital ones at stake, as claimed by Bob Hawke13 ? That is that Australia was ”unwilling to make concessions on (them) and that it is prepared, if necessary, to go to war over (them)”14 ? This paper will answer these questions and those arising from them, by looking at three main aspects.

Firstly, it will look at the Australian strategic, as well as economic and trade interests at stake in Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and the Gulf Crisis resulting from it. This will be followed by an analysis of the Australian interest of good international citizenship which rose to new prominence in the post-Cold War era. It will also explain how these interests were balanced or assessed against the risks at stake. Here it becomes apparent that in general and in particular with regard to the involvement in the Gulf War, these categories of national interests are not of equal importance.

Due to a variety of reasons, such as Australia’s prompt commitment of forces, the country’s foreign policy history and the fact that the multinational force in the Gulf was led by the US, many observers viewed the Australian involvement as ”an Australian Prime Minister once again jump(ing) enthusiastically to the tune of the US military march”15. Consequently, the second part of this paper will analyse to which extent this claim that the commitment was made in the interest of the United States rather than in that of Australia is true.

Considering that Hawke initially only consulted Evans and Defence Minister Kim Beazley before deciding to commit the naval contingent to the Persian Gulf16, the question also arises just how much one has to distinguish between personal and national interests. Hence, the third aspect to be examined is to which degree the personal interests of Prime Minister Bob Hawke influenced the decision to become involved in the Gulf War.

Redefining Australia’s security interests

In the majority of existing literature on Australia’s involvement in the Gulf War strong emphasis is given to the strategic dimension. In 1990 Australian defence policy was that of continental defence also known as self-reliance. One wanted to avoid fighting in wars overseas and wanted to restrict military action and involvement to the defence of the own continent should it be threatened. When Iraq invaded Kuwait, Australia’s domestic security regarding possible military aggression was, at no stage of the conflict, directly threatened. As a result, the question has to be asked why the Hawke government decided to commit troops to the Gulf War, despite not being threatened militarily. It was clear that the suggestion that ”the commitment was a return to past practices of ‘forward defence’”17 was not far fetched. This statement is exaggerated, but Hawke’s defence policy at this stage surely was, as we will see, a mixture of old and new.

The White Paper The Defence of Australia 1987 spoke of an area of direct military interest which, apart from the Australian mainland, comprised ”its territories and proximate ocean areas, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand and other nearby countries of the South-West Pacific”18. According to this definition Australia had no interest in an involvement in the Middle East. Following extensive research it becomes, however, apparent that Australia did have one important strategic interest in the region. The Gulf was extremely important to civil aviation links with Europe19. As a geographical isolated country it was feared that Iraq’s control of this region could cause restriction which would be further detrimental to Australia.

Regarding strategic interests, the Gulf War together with the end of the Cold War brought a new uncertainty regarding the defence policies of countries. Suddenly, one no longer had to choose between siding with one of the two superpowers and protectors but instead it became apparent that Australia’s ”defence interest (…) are global”20. Affected by this new uncertainty in world politics, Hawke’s decision to commit forces to the Gulf Crisis was an indication of this. The Labor government, carrying with it a traditional support for international organisations with regard to foreign policy making, seemed to be torn between the United Nations as additional new supplier of security and the old insurance policy of the alliance with the United States.

The Australian government seemed to favour the former, which became apparent in Hawke’s statement that ”if we (…) are subject to aggression in the future, we would want, and we may need the support of the UN21 ”. It also shows the sense of self-interest rather than altruism regarding Australia’s Gulf War commitment. The will to contribute to global security in order to insure oneself against possible future threats was the decisive factor when it comes to the strategic interests at stake for Australia.

Consequently, the decision to commit was in the strategic national interest of Australia in so far as it attempted to find Australia’s new position in a changed international landscape and secure itself against future threats by aligning itself with the United Nations. Hence, suggestions that the Australian government had returned to the policy of forward defence22, as was the case during the Vietnam War, should be dismissed. The reason for this is that the strategic and military component was in the case of the Gulf War clearly of subordinate importance, as the next section will show.

‘So that no other bastard takes over the trade’

With regard to the Gulf Crisis, strategic interest should be ranked second to the economic and trade interests of Australia. The latter emerged as the main game in the foreign policy making of every country during the 20th century, remaining unchallenged in ”a world obsessed with economic growth23 ”.

Australian exports to the Middle East in 1990-91 stood at a mere 3.2 per cent of overall exports and at only 3% of imports. Nevertheless, the region was, and remains to be, of significant importance. The Gulf States injected an estimated $1.841 billion24 into the Australian economy yearly and were crucial in so far as they purchased primarily agricultural goods. This included half of Australia’s livestock and wheat exports25. In 1989 alone Iraq purchased $340 million worth of goods26, in particular wheat, and had established itself as Australia’s most important trading partner in the Middle East. In an age of globalisation and growing competition from subsidised American and European agricultural commodities to the region, losing this market seemed like a luxury Australia could not afford. Consequently, based on such an economic situation, one is at the outset puzzled why Australia would then decide to support sanctions followed by a war against Iraq.


1 Bob Hawke ‘The Gulf Crisis: Government policies in response to developments’ in Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, The Monthly Record, Vol. 61, No. 12 (December 1990), p.853

2 Joseph Frankel, National Interest (London, Pall Mall, 1970), pp.16-17

3 Gareth Evans ”Australia’s Foreign Policy: responding to change” in Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, The Monthly Record, Vol. 61, No. 9 (September 1990), p.585

4 Scott Burchill, Theories of IR (New York, Palgrave, 2001), p.81

5 Joseph Frankel, National Interest (London, Pall Mall, 1970), p. 17

6 Gareth Evans and Bruce Grant, Australia’s Foreign Relations (Carlton, Melbourne University Press, 1995), p.33

7 Andrew Linklater, Key Concepts in International Relations: Competing Perspectives on the State, the National Interests and Internationalism (Melbourne, Australian Institute of International Affairs and Faculty of Social Sciences Deakin University, 1991), p. 20

8 Gareth Evans and Bruce Grant, Australia’s Foreign Relations (Carlton, Melbourne University Press, 1995), p.35

9 James Baker in Noam Chomsky, ”The US in the Gulf Crisis” in Haim Bresheeth and Nira Yuval-Davis (eds.), The Gulf War and the New World Order (Zed Books Ltd., London, 1991), p.14

10 Alan Freeman, ”The Economic Background and Consequences of the Gulf War”, in Haim Bresheeth and Nira Yuval-Davis (eds.), The Gulf War and the New World Order (Zed Books Ltd., London, 1991), p.161

11 Cristopher Huhne quoted in Alan Freeman, ”The Economic Background and Consequences of the Gulf War”, in Haim Bresheeth and Nira Yuval-Davis (eds.), The Gulf War and the New World Order (Zed Books Ltd., London, 1991), p.153

12 Hans Morgenthau quoted in Scott Burchill et al, Theories of International Relations (New York, Palgrave, 2001), p.82

13 Bob Hawke ”Transition in international relations key to our role in 1990s” in Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, The Monthly Record, Vol. 61, No. 12, (December 1990), p.835

14 Joseph Frankel, National Interest (London, Pall Mall, 1970), p.73

15 Jim George ”Framing the defence and security debate” in Graeme Cheeseman and Bruce Robert (eds.) Discourses of Danger and Dread Frontiers (St. Leonards, Allen and Unwin, 996), p.40

16 John Ravenhill ”Foreign Affairs and Trade” in Judit Brett, James Gillespie and Murray Goot (eds.) Developments in Australian Politics (South Melbourne, Macmillan Education Australia, 1994), p.304

17 Keith Scott, Gareth Evans, (St.Leonards, Allen and Unwin, 1999), p.311

18 Department of Defence, The Defence of Australia 1987 (Canberra, Australian Government Publishing Service, 1987), p.2

19 I.M Cumpston, History of Australian Foreign Policy 1901-1991 (Canberra, I.M. Cumpston, 1995), p.80

20 John Hewson cited in Graeme Cheeseman ”The Gulf War and Australian defence: Abberation or ‘Defining Event?” in Michael McKinley (ed.) The Gulf War: Critical Perspectives (St. Leonards, Allen and Unwin, 1994) p.126

21 Bob Hawke ”The Gulf Crisis: Government policies in response to developments”, in Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, The Monthly Record, Vol. 61, No. 12, (December 1990), p.852

22 see James Richardson, Graeme Cheeseman, Michael McKinley in Michael McKinley (ed.) The Gulf War: Critical Perspectives (St.Leonards, Allen and Unwin, 1994)

23 David Goldsworthy ”An Overview” in James Cotton and John Ravenhill (eds.) Seeking Asian Engagement: Australia in World Affairs, 1991-1995, (Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1997), p.24

24 William Haley ”Australia and the Indian Ocean” in F.A. Mediansky (ed.), Australia in a changing world: New foreign policy directions (Sydney, Maxwell Macmillan, 1992), p.292

25 Mark Kestigian ”The Gulf war: Counting the Costs” in Australian Accountant, Vol. 61, Iss. 3, 1991, p.18

26 Andrew Cooper et al, Relocating Middle Powers (Carlton South, Vic, Melbourne University Press, 1993), p.122

Excerpt out of 17 pages


Australia's Gulf War Commitment 1990-91
In the pursuit of national interests?
Macquarie University
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ISBN (Book)
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Australia, Australien, Gulf War, Iraq, Irak, National interest, armed conflict, Krieg
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Dr. Belinda Helmke (Author), 2002, Australia's Gulf War Commitment 1990-91, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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