What Is the ‘National Interest’ When it Comes to Foreign Policy?

For a university assessment, we had 48 hours to write two ~1000 word essays responding to questions from a list of 12. This first piece was in response to a question asking what the term “national interest” meant with regards to foreign policy. It briefly outlines Australia’s history with Timor-Leste, concluding that national interest has more to do with with the political and commercial interests of Canberra. This is in contrast to the public interest, international human rights interests, and the interests of the Timorese people.

The national interest, like many phrases used by political, economic, academic, or other institutions, is an inherently vague concept. Determining what it is would require defining what is meant by “national” and “interest”, both equally as vague given the wide range of potential candidates for each. This then raises the question of who has the authority to determine what they mean, as well as, if somehow a clear definition is supplied, whether it is acceptable or worthwhile in the context of foreign policy debates and interests (Camilleri, 2003). Similar questions can be asked of an almost synonymous phrase, “national security”, which has in a number of areas (such as asylum seeker policy or a militaristic and defensive approach to Chinese influence) become the rallying call of policy rhetoric.

The simplest and most idealistic view would be to say that the national interest is merely any policy aim or goal that benefits the people who constitute the nation, but in practice this often isn’t the case. A more practical stance would be Clinton Fernandes’ definition of security, “an elastic concept that gives priority to economic interests, and to a political order that secures them.” (Fernandes, 2018: 2). He follows that the national interest that informs this “therefore cannot ignore the domestic concentrations of wealth and power,” with successive governments following a generally “bipartisan consensus” of foreign policy issues (Fernandes, 2018: 2-3). On security matters specifically, Chomsky (2015: 122) takes a more accurate (if cynical) view, stating national security is often “security of government officials from the prying eyes of the public to whom they are answerable.” Lim and Ferguson (2018) argue that favourable foreign policy outcomes are a matter of power, the ability for one nation-state to influence the actions of another in a manner they normally wouldn’t act.

One of Australia’s more disparaging foreign policy trends has been its treatment of East Timor, now the (relatively) new country of Timor-Leste. Here, there are questions around the “national interest”, “national security”, the domestic public interest, and the interests of the Timorese people. With the reluctant exception of the UN peacekeeping mission in the years before independence from Indonesia, successive Australian governments have generally taken a more antagonistic stance towards their tiny neighbour. (Daley, 2019). The reason for this is the rich oil and gas resources in the Timor Sea, and (until 2018) the lack of a maritime boundary between Australia and East Timor. Australia’s national interest during the Suharto regime in Indonesia was to build a healthy relationship with the anti-communist dictator who, having murdered at least 500,000 (up to a couple million) people in 1965-66, also moved to take East Timor, Aceh, and West Papua. (Robinson, 2018).

In 1974-5, the Whitlam Labor government was keen for Indonesia to incorporate Portuguese Timor, preferably by diplomatic means with popular support that did not exist, and did not even consider that the Timorese would object to such a takeover. The rationale for this was the ability to properly close the maritime boundary by merely connecting and officially recognising the temporary boundary, which highly favoured Australia despite numerous concerns, with Indonesia rather than Portugal. (McGrath, 2017). By the year’s end, Whitlam had been deposed and Indonesia had invaded East Timor, a genocidal war that killed about a third of the East Timorese population, about 200,000 people.

In 1979, the Coalition government began seabed negotiations with Indonesia, despite their being an illegal occupying power. These talks failed, and Indonesia began to get the upper hand when the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea was finalised, favouring a median line rather than Australia’s hotly contested (and false) continent shelf claims. (McGrath, 2017; Phan et. al., 2019). Despite Labor’s opposition in Opposition, Hawke shifted policy to support Indonesia’s occupation, again to leave Timorese people out of negotiations, and Keating had a close personal relationship with Suharto during his term as Prime Minister, signing a security agreement and gaining support for APEC. (McGrath, 2017; Dobell, 2015).

Once Timor-Leste gained independence from Indonesia, in 2004 the Howard government had the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) bug Timorese offices during negotiations for a maritime border and a split of the resources in the Timor Sea – an act of espionage. (Collaery, 2020). This was revealed in 2013, after Witness K and his lawyer, Bernard Collaery, came forward with the information. Rather than Howard or Downer, it was they who were prosecuted in the name of “national security” for having blown the whistle. Timor-Leste demanded new negotiations with the UN, through the Convention of the Law of the Sea’s conciliation proceedings, with a successful Treaty being signed in 2018 with a more just border and resource split. (Phan et. al., 2019).

In this instance, it is easy to see what Australia’s “national interest” was – the exploitation of the Timor Sea for private economic gain. Coincidentally, Alexander Downer, Foreign Affairs Minister during the bugging, picked up a position at Woodside, a company that profited from this. However, none of it actually helped the national interest in a meaningful way, and the interests of others were intentionally disregarded. Global human rights interests and the interests of the Timorese were ignored, and the public was horrified by Indonesian violence following the independence referendum, mobilising and protesting in support of East Timor. (UNSW, 2015).

There is also the question of the domestic public interest in knowing what our intelligence agencies and elected representatives are doing ostensibly in “our” interests, and the desire for legal protections for whistleblowers like Witness K and Collaery who inform us of illegal and unethical activities. (Collaery, 2020; Brown, 2019). Timor-Leste is just one major blight on Australia’s foreign policy record, with the “national interest” governing our approach to policy. Similar concerns can, and have, been raised about numerous other areas on foreign policy, including our involvement in the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq (where war crimes have been committed by Australian forces and where ASIS fed false information on WMDs respectively). (Oakes & Clark, 2017; The Age, 2003).

Perhaps referring to it as “Canberra’s [my emphasis] national interests, policies and relationships” is the most accurate way of defining “Australia’s” national interest. (Strating & Westendorf, 2020).


Brown, A. J. (2019, August 3). From Richard Boyle and Witness K to media raids: it’s time whistleblowers had better protection. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/from-richard-boyle-and-witness-k-to-media-raids-its-time-whistleblowers-had-better-protection-121555.

Camilleri, J. A. (2003). A leap into the past—in the name of the ‘national interest’. Australian Journal of International Affairs, 57(3), 431-453.

Chomsky, N. (2015). Because We Say So. Penguin Books.

Collaery, B. (2020). Oil Under Trouble Water: Australia’s Timor Sea Intrigue. Melbourne University Press.

Daley, P. (2019, November 13). Australia’s history with East Timor isn’t pretty but it must be told truthfully. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/postcolonial-blog/2019/nov/13/australias-history-with-east-timor-isnt-pretty-but-it-must-be-told-truthfully.

Dobell, G. (2018, January 1). The National Archives releases (part 1): the Keating–Suharto security treaty. Australian Strategic Policy Institute. https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/keating-suharto-security-treaty/.

Fernandes, C. (2018). Island Off the Coast of Asia: Instruments of Statecraft in Australian Foreign Policy. Monash University Publishing.

Lim, D. J. & Feguson, V. A. (2018). Power in Australian foreign policy. Australian Journal of International Affairs, 72(4), 306-313.

McGrath, K. (2017). Crossing the Line: Australia’s Secret History in the Timor Sea. Black Inc.

Oakes, D. & Clark, S. (2017, July 11). The Afghan Files: Defence leak exposes deadly secrets of Australia’s special forces. ABC News. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-07-11/killings-of-unarmed-afghans-by-australian-special-forces/8466642.

Phan, H. D., Davenport, T., & Beckman, R. (2019). The Timor-Leste/Australia Conciliation: A Victory for UNCLOS and Peaceful Settlement of Disputes. World Scientific Publishing Co.

Robinson, G. (2018). The Killing Season: A History of the Indonesian Massacres, 1965-66. Princeton University Press.

Strating, R. & Westendorf, J. (2020). Introduction: a critical analysis of Australian foreign, defence and strategic policy. Australian Journal of International Affairs, 74(3), 208-212.

The Age. (2003, October 28). ASIS had role in Iraq war claims. https://www.theage.com.au/national/asis-had-role-in-iraq-war-claims-20031028-gdwmma.html.

UNSW. (2015, September 4). Companion to East Timor – Public outrage. https://web.archive.org/web/20161030204145/https://www.unsw.adfa.edu.au/school-of-humanities-and-social-sciences/timor-companion/public-outrage.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s