The Oz PM’s 10 points for meeting Jokowi

Australia Indonesia PartnershipIn the next few months, Australia’s leader will have four opportunities to spend quality time with Indonesia’s new president.

Prime Minister Abbott can (will/should/must) attend Jokowi’s inauguration in Jakarta in October, following the precedent John Howard established with SBY. Then in November, the new President and the Oz PM can meet at three summits: APEC in Beijing, the East Asia Summit in Burma, and the G20 in Brisbane.

Disregard the jest that the only change from summit to summit is the fancy shirts in the leaders’ photo op—although I admit to describing one APEC mountaintop moment as high diplomacy and low fashion.

In a region short on trust that is groping desperately—gasping even—for a bit of law and order those summits are gold.

Using even the narrowest of bilateral Indonesia-Australia calculations, the succession of summits is a chance for a meeting of minds and a rolling dialogue. The two leaders can start anew after recent ructions. That alone vindicates all Australia’s work on creating and growing APEC, the decade of push and persuasion (and pleading) to get a seat at ASEAN’s version of Asia’s top table, and the work by the Howard and Rudd governments to see the G20 knock off the G7.

Ever eager to help, The Strategist offers a 10-point brief Tony Abbott can use going into those meetings with Jokowi. These verities loom above big policy issues like ‘stop the boats’ or ‘stop the spying’. The points draw on the two previous columns (here and here) and on decades listening to Jamie Mackie.

In particular, the brief reflects a report Jamie wrote in 2007, packing into 150 pages the essence of a lifetime. If you have to think about Australia and Indonesia, download the Mackie magic here.

Any smarts in the following brief, credit Mackie; the dumb stuff is mine.

1. Indonesia and Australia are the two most dissimilar neighbours in the world. We have little in common, except…..

2. We now share something vital and defining—democracy. Democracy is a major change in what we can imagine about each other—or what Australia can understand about Indonesia.

3. The asymmetric or appendix rule: we worry about them a lot more than they worry about us. For Jakarta, Australia is like your appendix—you only think about it when it hurts.

4. Indonesia and Australia agree on the regional and strategic importance of a unified and strong Indonesia. Any military threat to Australia will come ‘from or through’ Indonesia. Our ideal is a strong, prosperous and peaceful Indonesia that serves as our ‘strategic shield.’ We have reworked that language in the deal to end the Edward Snowden blizzard, resuming intelligence and military cooperation and creating a new code of conduct on Australian spying on Indonesia (whereby we tell the President we promise not to tap his phone).

5. You may achieve a strong personal relationship with Jokowi, Prime Minister, but national interest always beats personal chemistry. Our two nations see the world in completely different ways (see Point 1). Of course, trust and some understanding between leaders always helps, especially in a crunch moment when you want to phone the President.

6. Indonesia frames Australia’s view of Southeast Asia and sets the temperature for the ASEAN relationship. Sayeth Mackie: ‘We should endeavour to ensure at all costs that our broader regional and global policies diverge from Indonesia’s as little as possible—and ideally should follow essentially convergent trajectories.’

7. Tone matters—no shouting, no lectures and no domestic politics.

8. The people of these two most dissimilar countries are alike in having a robust and creative sense of humour. Coming from a ‘she’ll-be-right’ culture, an Australian has to love a country that can operate on ‘jam karet’—rubber time. Herewith an old Jakarta joke with the new leader added: Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, was crazy about sex; Suharto was crazy about money; Habibie was just crazy; Gus Dur drove everybody crazy; Megawati was crazy about shopping; SBY’s problem was he never got crazy about anything; now Jokowi will have to work like crazy.

9. Vital as it is, it’s not ‘a special relationship’—the differences are too great at too many levels. But, sayeth the wise Mackie: ‘Conversely, don’t let an excessive stress on deep-seated cultural differences between us mislead us into thinking that mutual understanding of each other is impossible. It is merely hopelessly difficult at times.’

10. Liked that last sentence from the master so much, it goes into the final point. We have done important things with Indonesia and we have to do more in the future, ‘it’s merely hopelessly difficult at times.’ Loved that ‘merely’. Good luck, Prime Minister.​

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of Flickr user Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Security vs civil liberties: does the balance model do us justice?

Privacy or security?

In light of the Government’s recent announcement of new measures for countering terrorism, there has been much discussion about the apparent ‘trade-off’ between security and civil liberties. These are typically characterised as located at opposite ends of a spectrum. That ‘trade-off’—normally expressed as security versus civil liberties—has been consistently reinforced since 9/11 in the debate over controversial counter-terrorism measures such as control orders, stop-and-search and surveillance powers. But this model can be highly inadequate for analysing counter-terrorism measures. It leads to the establishment of rigid political positions which tend to overlook external perspectives—especially those of the public.

In fact, the trade-off model detracts from the kind of serious debate that counter-terrorism legislation requires. Constructing security and civil liberties as opposite ends of a linear spectrum, means that an increase in one necessarily brings about a decrease in the other. The concepts of ‘trade-off’ and ‘balance’ have contributed to the widespread assumption that the relationship between the two can be considered as a ‘zero-sum’, in which increases and decreases of security are precisely equated with parallel increases and decreases in our civil liberties. Despite its popularity, that balance model misunderstands the complexity of the relationship between security and civil liberties.

In the first place, the model fails to account for the difference between risk and threat. Threats, by their nature, are multifarious and multitudinous; but the probability of threats taking place—their risk—involves an element of uncertainty. That failure presents substantial problems for the trade-off model. Wolfendale puts it provocatively, asking ‘whether the existence of a possible threat—the likelihood of which is unclear—justifies the actual infringement of civil liberties’.

Second is the model’s inherent assumption that controversial new measures, which allegedly constrain the rights of the individual, provide absolutely successful security. The situation is different in practice: such measures increase our ability to prevent attacks, but they don’t eradicate the threat.

It could, and has, been argued that intrusive measures represent a substantial blow to the message which Australia seeks to disseminate abroad: military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan have been supported by statements outlining the benefits of liberal democracy as a regime for local populations. The efficacy of that message is diluted when we fail to adhere to the principles which we advocate for others—an argument which terrorist organisations frequently make to gain local and international support.

The rationale that underpins these controversial measures is particularly problematic. Such measures are reasonable, the argument goes, because of the severity of the threat and its capacity to disrupt, even damage, the freedoms and opportunities which we enjoy in our liberal democracy. In short, we’re in a state of crisis, which justifies measures widely perceived to constrain our civil liberties. This status, described by one academic as the ‘siege mode’ of democracy, carries with it further claims that lend further weight to the justification. The state of crisis is temporary, we’re told. Controversial measures are for exceptional circumstances and rarely, if ever, deployed, and then only to maintain the security of the state. Indeed, the rhetoric which has permeated the security debate post-9/11, has pivoted on a range of military metaphors, most infamous among them ’the Global War on Terror’, which reinforce the justification for such measures. Seeing this type of militaristic language resurface is of great concern and could be counterproductive in the long term to solving domestic terrorism issues.

The variables that governments have to consider when communicating threats to the public are multiple and considerable. In the wake of the London bombings of 2005, Lawrence Freedman noted some of the difficulties involved, suggesting that communication:

is not simply a question of finding the right language to pass on intelligence information about possible attacks. The inherent uncertainty in the information, the ability of the attackers to adjust their behaviour on the basis of what the defenders have revealed about their state of preparedness, and the fact that warnings have political, economic and social effects when no attack materializes, must affect the calculations which lead to warning events.

Government communications about the threat to the public always carries a risk of misunderstanding and misinterpretation. Frequently, public speeches and statements by politicians and terrorism experts have created an opaque understanding of the true nature of the threat and the consequent risk posed to the Australian population. When combined with a lack of clarity and detail as to the requirement for particular elements of the counter terrorist legislation being introduced, that leads to public confusion and, ultimately, apathy to terrorism.

These measures, it’s argued, are acceptable because of the enormity of the threat to Australian security: where the threat is severe enough to threaten not just the populace, but the very system of liberal democracy, such measures are obviously acceptable. However, the key problem is that the nature of the threat has been poorly communicated to a public which has little involvement in the debate about the more controversial elements of the counter-terrorism legislation. If we’re to produce appropriate legislation—befitting the current terrorist situation—while maintaining key freedoms enjoyed in a liberal democracy, it’s essential that the debate be depoliticised, and that the risk of terrorism rather than the threat of terrorism is clearly, authoritatively and coherently disseminated to a population in order that they can knowledgeably participate in the debate.

Tobias Feakin is a senior analyst at ASPI and director of ASPI’s International Cyber Policy CentreImage courtesy of Flickr user Rae Allen.

Cyber wrap

As tensions rise on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri over the shooting of Michael Brown, activists have taken their protests to the cyber sphere in a variety of ways. News reports have linked ‘hacktivist’ group Anonymous with a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack on the websites and email servers of the town’s administrators which also took down the IP phone system and left most of the city’s government officials working via text message. The attack was executed following a video post by the group on YouTube that threatened to take down ‘every web-based asset of your departments and governments offline’. The group also released personal information of members of the Ferguson Police Department.

In his recent speech at the University of Canberra, Major General Stephen Day expressed concerns that state governments’ safeguards against computed-based attacks were ‘patchy and variable’, an issue he associated with a lack of depth in the understanding of the threat at the upper echelons of the state government system. MAJGEN Day, who heads up the Cyber Security Operations Centre in the Australian Signals Directorate, noted that at this level, a change of minister or senior bureaucrat ‘can have an extraordinary impact on the understanding in a state government in terms of the cyber threat.’ Read more

Scientists at the Technische Universitat Munchen (TUM) have released software that thwarts port-scanning reconnaissance hacks by the Hacienda program used by the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence coalition. Researchers responsible for the software claim that their program provides a higher degree of protection than the existing token technology upon which it is based.

US hospital operator Community Health Systems (CHS) believes that Chinese hackers successfully accessed the personal—but not medical—data of 4.5 million patients from the past five years. The stolen data included all the information necessary for identity theft and resulted in CHS activating its liability insurance to assist the affected patients protect themselves from this possibility. In April 2014, the FBI warned that ‘the healthcare industry is not as resilient to cyber intrusions compared to the financial and retail sectors’. The latest hack follows on from attacks targeting the three largest medical device manufacturers in the US, reported earlier in 2014.

Israeli experts have identified Iran as well as state-sponsored and affiliated groups as being behind a number of cyberattacks on Israel, including some which were clumsily disguised as having been executed by Palestinian hackers. Though all attempted hacks by Iranian groups during Israel’s recent military campaign in Gaza were successfully prevented by Israel’s cyber defence capabilities, the IDF noted that the scale and ambition of the recent activity was greater than previous encountered.

Sticking with state-based cyber intrusion, Germany’s foreign intelligence agency (BND) has been reported to have intercepted phone calls of both current US Secretary of State John Kerry, and his predecessor Hillary Clinton. While the German government claims that both intercepts were ‘bycatch’ and were immediately deleted, Der Spiegel reports that Clinton’s conversation with former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in 2012 regarding negotiations with Syria was not. These revelations come after German objections to the targeting of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s telecommunications by the NSA and reports of German nationals spying for the US. To complicate matters further, German media carried news of government documentation purportedly ordering the agency to snoop on a NATO partner, later identified as Turkey.

Playing the long game: the demise of China’s ‘strategic ambiguity’ in the South China Sea

U.S. 7th Fleet flagship USS Blue Ridge (LCC 19), right, and the Royal Australian Navy frigate HMAS Ballarat (FF 155) transit the South China Sea

China continues to play a long game in asserting its territorial claims and hegemonic ambitions in the South China Sea (SCS). After its confrontation with Vietnam over the Haiyang Shiyou 981 oil rig in May this year, Beijing has recently announced that it intends to build lighthouses on five islands in the SCS, two of which appear to be in waters also claimed by Vietnam. Indeed, China’s traditional position of ‘strategic ambiguity’ regarding its willingness to compromise on its territorial claims within what it calls the ‘nine-dash line’ looks increasingly obsolete.

Its assertiveness in the SCS needs to be seen as part of a new framework of Chinese foreign policy emerging under President Xi Xinping. China watchers point out that the new leadership appears to have conducted a reassessment of China’s security environment, its relative position and policy responses. Predecessor Hu Jintao’s description of the international environment as a ‘harmonious world’ has disappeared. So too has Deng Xiaoping’s guideline to ‘hide our capabilities and bide our time, be good at maintaining a low profile and never claim leadership.’ Instead, the security environment is assessed to be ‘under a new situation’ and according to Xi, China ‘needs to protect and make the best use of the strategic opportunity period to safeguard China’s national sovereignty, security and development interests.’ Read more

From a Chinese perspective, the ‘new situation’, characterised by the US strategic shift to Asia and growing tensions over maritime territorial disputes, requires ‘proactive assertiveness’ in the SCS. And the leadership is optimistic about winning a decade-long game for hegemony there. Bonnie Glaser and Deep Pal succinctly outline the thinking behind that approach:

Beijing’s proactive economic diplomacy [in Southeast Asia] is part of a larger strategy aimed at binding its neighbors in a web of incentives that increase their reliance on China and raise the cost to them of adopting a confrontational policy towards Beijing on territorial disputes. At the same time, China continues to engage in a steady progression of small steps, none of which by itself is a casus belli, to gradually change the status quo in its favor. In the near term, China’s leaders anticipate some resistance. Over time, however, they calculate that their growing leverage will be sufficient to persuade weaker and vulnerable neighbors to accede to Chinese territorial demands.

Can this strategy succeed? If regional and external players display a lack of political will and coordination to raise the costs for China, it well may. It’s difficult, for instance, to counter Beijing’s tactic of using swarms of fishing vessels backed by heavily-armed coast guard vessels to intimidate weaker neighbours.

But that outcome isn’t inevitable. So far, China hasn’t attempted to use military force to occupy disputed islands which would be a dramatic escalation. It’s reasonable to assume that Beijing is aware of the significant reputational damage it would incur through such a move. There’s also the risk of unwanted escalation. Contrary to conventional wisdom, states do go to war over territorial disputes which seems devoid of strategic value. The end of strategic ambiguity in the SCS provides China’s neighbours with a clear understanding about its intentions and the need to respond strategically. That response should include both investments in military capabilities (such as maritime domain awareness and asymmetric denial assets), as well as paramilitary, civilian and political tools to raise China’s reputational costs in the event of a major crisis.

It has also encouraged Southeast Asian countries to develop (or revitalise) stronger defence ties with external actors. More than ever, the region looks to the US for strategic support. Sensing the broader challenge to its leadership in the Asia-Pacific, the US has stepped up its rhetoric against China’s ‘nine dash line’ and has intensified its Southeast Asian defence engagement as part of its ‘rebalance’. China can’t exclude the possibility that attempts to settle the territorial disputes by military force could well draw in the US. Moreover, major external Asian powers such as Japan and South Korea now engage in regional defence capacity building, aware that what happens in the South China Sea will matter for maritime Northeast Asia.

Thus, China’s strategic success in the SCS is far from a done deal. Somewhat paradoxically, the end of China’s strategic ambiguity might increase regional stability by forcing all players to signal their intentions more clearly. Greater strategic competition isn’t necessarily a bad thing if it helps to define the parameters of mutual restraint in conflict situations.

What does that all mean for Australia? The Abbott government is on the same page as the US and Southeast Asian nations about the need to manage maritime disputes peacefully. Australia also has a major interest in strengthening Southeast Asia’s strategic resilience against coercion by outside powers. Whilst that doesn’t mean sending warships or fighter aircraft into the region, the ADF should, for instance, offer its expertise in maritime-domain awareness to countries such as the Philippines. Moreover, it should seek to utilise the US alliance more actively as a vehicle for multilateral regional defence engagement. Careful playing of the long game in Southeast Asia must become a priority for Australian strategic and defence policy.

Benjamin Schreer is a senior analyst at ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user US Navy.

Afghanistan’s elections: Ghani vs Abdullah

Afghanistan's elections

The Afghan elections are now over, yet the recount of 8.1 million votes due to allegations of mass fraud is progressing slowly, with no clear winner yet in sight. Once a winner is declared, the losing candidate will be appointed to the role of ‘chief executive‘ and share power with the president. Ian Dudgeon’s recent AIIA piece underscored the challenges faced in securing a ‘credible’ recount and discussed the presidential candidates, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah.

On the positive side, the international coalition will be well served by whichever candidate is successful. Both Ghani and Abdullah are competent leaders and viable partners for the international community.

But there are significant differences between the two, beyond ethnicity. So I’d like to explore briefly how the backgrounds of both candidates may impact the credibility of the election outcome and what that would mean for Afghanistan’s future. Read more

Let’s start with Ghani. Born in Kabul, he left in his early 20s to study at the American University in Beirut and later pursued a master’s degree at Columbia University. When war broke out with the Soviets in Afghanistan, Ghani remained in exile. During that time, he adopted American citizenship and developed a reputation as a professor and skilled technocrat. On 11 September 2001, Ghani led the development of country strategies and policies for the World Bank from Bethesda, just miles from Washington DC. Following the fall of the Taliban, Ghani moved back to Afghanistan.

Since returning, Ghani has certainly done his part to put Afghanistan back on the rails. He worked as the Afghan finance minister from 2002 to 2004, and then took over as chancellor of Kabul University. He also served as Karzai’s Transition Coordinator, working with the Afghans and the international community to transition security for the country back under the leadership of the Afghan National Security Forces.

Still, Ghani’s more of an international figure than most like to acknowledge. In the earliest days of the intervention in Afghanistan, he was a special advisor to the UN’s Special Envoy to Afghanistan, where he was influential in shaping the Bonn Agreement that led to democratic government in Afghanistan. Ghani was also a US citizen until 2009, when he renounced his citizenship in order to run for president, garnering just 3% of the vote. By his own admission, Ghani was ‘unelectable’ then—a professorial former World Bank official, who seemed more Western than Afghan. Although he has since become more accustomed to traditional dress and acclimated to playing Afghan politics, his Western training is still evident, if better disguised.

The other candidate, Dr Abdullah Abdullah, is generally identified with the minority Tajik ethnic group. Abdullah has a long, continuous history within Afghanistan. While Ghani was in the US, Abdullah became a medic with the Northern Alliance, fighting against the Soviet occupation. He then became a close adviser to and spokesman for its leader, Ahmed Shah Massoud, who later led the resistance to the Taliban regime and is widely viewed as a hero of Afghanistan’s struggle. Abdullah acted as caretaker of the Foreign Ministry for Afghanistan’s government-in-exile from 1999 until the collapse of the Taliban, when he then became Afghanistan’s foreign minister. He came in second in the 2009 presidential elections, where he bowed out of the run-off elections, under international pressure, after alleging massive fraud on the part of President Karzai.

Given their different backgrounds, is the current election just a contest between two Afghans from rival ethnic groups, as commonly portrayed? Both candidates are smart, proven leaders supportive of the international community’s long-term goals for Afghanistan. Both have worked extensively with the international community in the past decade. But only Ghani has worked for the international community. He was nominated for the role of UN Secretary General and endorsed by the Wall Street Journal. In 2007, the New York Times endorsed him as President of the World Bank. Ghani is Afghan, but also an international technocrat, with more of his adult life lived outside of Afghanistan then within it.

Although Ghani understands what the international community cares about, and what Afghanistan needs to be do to retain its support, his background may prove to be problematic. For one, if he chose the path of a reformist, he could easily be labelled a puppet of the West. He’s already aware that his professorial persona has been cultivated in the West.

Ghani may prove more difficult for Western leaders to work with in the long run, à la Karzai, if he feels the need to prove his Afghan heritage to the population. Abdullah has little to prove in that regard, and has shown himself to be an effective interlocutor with and supporter of the international effort. While Abdullah may not understand the international community’s concerns quite as readily as Ghani, his sense of personal vulnerability is less likely to colour the debate.

A credible, widely-accepted win by either candidate will be good for Afghanistan, the international community, and Australia. But history and personal relationships matter greatly in this part of the world. Those will shape the conduct of Afghanistan’s future leader, whoever it may be.

Brieana Marticorena is a visiting fellow at ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user ISAFmedia.

Hamas’ failed strategy

The IDF's paratroopers brigade operate within the Gaza Strip to find and disable Hamas' network of tunnels .

This morning, Israel and Hamas agreed to a 24-hour extension of a five-day truce to negotiate a longer-lasting ceasefire, following weeks of conflict. Israel wants the Gaza Strip to be demilitarised, while Hamas wants unrestricted movement in and out of Gaza, no restrictions on goods coming into the Strip and new construction of sea and airports.

In a recent Strategist post, Simon Longstaff argues that Hamas were, to a degree, effective in their provocation of Israel, while I argue that Hamas’ strategy succeeded in degrading its own moral and political authority and undermining its objectives. Hamas’ objectives pre-dated the recent conflict. Hamas’ strategy included rocket attacks not targeting Israeli military installations, but aimed at civilian centres. Hamas deliberately placed its artillery in populated areas and employed a ‘human shield’ of civilians and civilian infrastructure in Gaza to protect both its forces and their weapons. Read more

Hamas’ tactics have brought international attention to its deliberate disdain for civilians in warfare and undermined its calls for lifting security restrictions. Sreenivasan Jain, a journalist reporting from Gaza, recently went public about his fear of ‘possible reprisal by Hamas’, asking ‘how long do we self-censor because of the fear of personal safety in return for not telling a story that exposes how those launching rockets are putting so many more lives at risk’. Hamas’ charter explicitly calls for the destruction of Israel and demands that Muslims ‘fight the Jews… until the Jews hide behind rocks and trees’.

It’s widely acknowledged that Hamas, which is listed as a terrorist organisation in many countries, can’t act with impunity in endangering the lives of civilians in both Gaza and Israel; hence the widespread support for the Strip being demilitarised.

In 2007, following Hamas’ violent seizure of power in Gaza, Israel imposed restriction on goods to the territory in order to prevent weapons and materials used in warfare being smuggled in. Among the goods let through by Israel was aid provided by the international community in the form of cement, an estimated 800,000 tonnes of which has been used by Hamas to construct dozens of far-reaching tunnels.

Many of those tunnels uncovered during the recent conflict were used by terrorists to conduct cross-border attacks to target Israeli civilians. Resources provided by the international community, including UN buildings, have been used to store rockets, and have even covered entrances to the tunnels.

The use of civilian infrastructure and resources by Hamas before and during this conflict has meant that any demand for easing restrictions need take into account the prospect of future abuse by Hamas. The abolition of security procedures in place, in addition to the unrestricted use of a seaport or airport by Hamas, would likely result in the organisation re-arming itself and threatening pursuit of its stated goal—the violent destruction of Israel.

By committing to goals which aren’t practical in light of its track record, Hamas made a strategic error that has undermined its legitimacy in Gaza and the West Bank. The Palestinian leadership, including Mahmoud Abbas, has publicly condemned Hamas, which broke multiple ceasefires during the conflict by firing rockets into Israel after truces were arranged.

It has been speculated that the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) will play a role in monitoring the Rafah border crossing with Egypt. There’s no doubt the PNA and Fatah, both of which are viewed more favourably in the eyes of the international community, will seek to expand their influence in Gaza following Hamas’ strategic failures.

It’s not beyond the PNA, nor the UN or Australia to play a constructive role in easing restrictions currently in place and bettering the welfare of the people of Gaza. Those efforts must be accompanied by a genuine commitment to ensure Hamas cannot re-arm, nor endanger the lives of innocent civilians in Israel and Gaza.

Glen Falkenstein is a policy analyst at the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council. Image courtesy of Flickr user Israel Defense Forces.

Is major war obsolete?


August has seen a wave of reflection on major war. It’s a question we seem to revisit every time the key anniversaries of WWI and WWII roll around, but given special significance this year by the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of WWI. Some pundits are keen to draw parallels between 1914 and 2014—though on its face it’s not apparent to me why 2014 should be more like 1914 than 2013.

Academic strategists familiar with their disciplinary history will know that the issue of whether major war’s obsolete received a detailed coverage back in Survival magazine in the late 1990s. To save readers the trouble of digging through their archives, one contributor, John Mueller, argued that it was obsolete—gone the way of slavery and duelling—while others wrestled partly over how to define obsolescence and even more over how to define major war. Was the Vietnam War ‘major’? Was the Cold War a ‘war’? Michael Mandelbaum argued that perhaps major war was just a poor policy option nowadays—because of the steep rise in the costs and the thin rewards for success. Read more

It’s intriguing that the question about the obsolescence of war is typically qualified by the adjective ‘major’. No-one seems particularly keen to claim that nasty little wars—in particular, nasty little wars in faraway places—are obsolete, perhaps because they patently aren’t. From memory, Mueller didn’t want to call those conflicts ‘wars’, though; he saw those more as ‘opportunistic predation’. (That’s the reason the cover of his book, The Remnants of War, features an image—from the Balkan conflict in 1991—of a thug swigging from a bottle.)

9/11 came along and sideswiped that whole debate. The nasty little wars of the 1990s didn’t stay in faraway places. A superpower got up and marched off to war—albeit a war against al Qaeda, its supporters, and all its works. Somewhere along the line the mission became conflated with a host of other problems, and Washington ended up obsessing about the Global War on Terror for longer than it probably should have done. But Washington’s behaviour at least answered one question related to the Big One: did great powers still go to war? Yes. Now, the question still unanswered—unanswered since 1945 if you think major war has to be hot; unanswered since 1991, if you think major war can be cold—is whether or not major powers still go to war with each other.

Psychologist Steven Pinker has recently argued that the better angels of our nature are making us turn away from violence. I’m not wholly convinced by his argument—the better angels of our nature seem pretty militant to me, and always have been. (See Ephesians, 6:12.) But academic research from a few decades back suggests that great-power wars against each other aren’t common. Jack Levy in his research on war in the international system between 1495 and 1975 found only nine of what he would call ‘world wars’—wars where almost all great powers were involved. Much more commonly, he found ‘interstate wars’—113 of which engaged a great power. I cite those figures to underline two points. First, if world wars are rare, maybe we don’t need special explanations to say why there hasn’t been one since 1945 (hot) or 1991 (cold). Second, that definition of major war is still a problem.

Let’s put aside the academic arguments and look straight at the case that most worries. Is a great-power war between US and China possible? I think we could answer that question directly: possible, yes; likely, no. Great powers, especially nuclear-armed ones, don’t go to war with each other lightly. But sometimes wars happen. And they aren’t accidents. They’re about international order. They’re about, as Raymond Aron said, the life and death of states. And the principal reason for fighting them is that not doing so looks like a worse alternative.

Moreover, the paths to war—including rare major-power war—are not reserved solely for conventionally-armed states. Where both powers are nuclear-armed we should expect a conflict, even one at the lower rungs of the escalation ladder, to be fought with a high degree of political control, and an understanding that the objectives of the conflict are limited. Naturally, it would help if both sides shared a common understanding of where the firebreaks were between conventional and nuclear conflict, and already had in place a set of crisis-management procedures, but it’s possible that neither of those conditions might exist. (Neither would prevent a war, but both would provide a better sense of the likely escalation dynamics of a particular conflict.) Indeed, it’s because major war is possible that we retain such a keen interest in war termination. Unconstrained escalation doesn’t lead to a happy place.

Rod Lyon is a fellow at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist. Image courtesy of Flickr user Jenny Downing.

Sir Arthur turns 100

Arthur TangeMost readers of The Strategist will be aware that 18 August is Vietnam Veterans’ Day, formerly known as Long Tan Day, marking the anniversary of the most famous battle fought by the Australian Task Force in Vietnam, in 1966. This year it also marks the centenary of the birth of perhaps the country’s most famous—or notorious—defence mandarin, Sir Arthur Tange (18 August 1914–10 May 2001). Some reflections on his legacy are timely.

First, he had an enormous impact on the two departments of which he was head for 11 and ten years respectively, External Affairs (as Foreign Affairs was then known) and Defence. When he became Secretary of External Affairs in 1954, aged 40, it was a collection of individuals, many of them highly talented, but not well organised for policy advice and implementation. When he left, it was a far more efficient and effective body. Its role in the Indonesian Confrontation of 1963–66 has been described as world’s best practice. After ten years, he was finally eased out by a new minister, Paul Hasluck, at the direction of the long-serving Prime Minister Robert Menzies, but was allowed to remain in office, albeit with minimal influence, for a whole year. That, unfortunately, was the year in which crucial decisions were made leading to the commitment of combat forces to Vietnam. The frosty relationship between Tange and Hasluck, two formidably able individuals, prevented them from forming an effective working relationship, which might have greatly improved Australia’s Vietnam policy. Read more

On and around Russell Hill, Tange is still revered by some and reviled by others as the principal author of ‘the Tange report’ which led to ‘the Tange reforms’ of Defence in the mid-1970s. In a massive upheaval five departments (Defence, Army, Navy, Air and Supply) were merged into one and three services were brought into one Australian Defence Force. One outcome, still challenged by some, was the ‘diarchy’ under which the Secretary and the Chief of Defence Force are jointly responsible to the Minister. Tange’s vigorous deprecation of the capacity of many military officers, especially the ‘Tange harangue’ to an Army gathering, became legendary but the argument behind it was less well understood. When Duncan Lewis became in 2011 the first former military officer to be appointed Secretary of Defence, journalists said that Tange would have been turning in his grave. That’s unlikely: he wanted senior ADF officers to become good public servants, willing and able to contribute to policy on strategic and what he called ‘higher defence policy’, not merely military matters. Lewis’s last major speech at Defence referred extensively to Tange’s dictum that talking strategy means talking dollars.

Tange supported ‘jointery’ and especially the Australian Defence Force Academy, where officer cadets from all three services could receive a ‘broad and liberal’ tertiary education. He insisted that the curriculum should include humanities and social sciences. He would almost certainly have been delighted that a PhD graduate in social sciences from ADFA, David Kilcullen, has become a world authority on the sociology, politics and anthropology of terrorism and counter-insurgency.

Tange’s role in reforming strategic policy, as well as the structures by which it is made, is less well known but no less important. He strongly endorsed, and possibly coined, ‘self reliance’ as the concept to replace ‘forward defence’, and he supported the idea of defence focused on the continent and its approaches. But that didn’t mean a wholesale rejection of the US alliance—an issue on which he sparred in his later years with his friend and admirer Malcolm Fraser. Tange’s subtle balance between robust independence and alliance confused many. His defence of the joint facilities in 1975 led some left-wing journalists to portray him, wrongly, as the evil genius behind the sacking of the Whitlam government; while some military and political conservatives thought his support for ‘self-reliance’ was foolish anti-Americanism.

My biography of Tange is sub-titled ‘last of the mandarins’ because the supposed influence of Tange and others who lunched at the Commonwealth Club led the Hawke government and its successors to introduce reforms to place ministers firmly in charge of public servants, not the other way round. Many of those reforms were appropriate. Nevertheless, those interested in public policy would do well to look again at the era of Tange, the ‘seven dwarfs’ and other great public servants. There have been losses as well as gains in the transition from government by mandarins to government by managers. And while the strategic challenges facing Australia are different from those of the 1960s and 1970s, we have no less need for the intellectual rigour that he applied to strategic policy-making.

Peter Edwards is the author of ‘Arthur Tange: Last of the Mandarins’ (2006). Image courtesy of National Archives of Australia.

Reader response: what Indonesia and Australia share

Last week, Graeme Dobell wrote that ‘Australia has had no influence on the course of events since Suharto fell’. Not so. Although the decision to hold a referendum in East Timor in 1999 was made by Indonesia, the widespread—and I fear, unshakeable—view then and now is that President Habibie was pushed by Australia and the vote was hugely influenced by Australia. Right or wrong, those perceptions are powerful and reinforced by our prominent role in supporting the new nation. The TNI has been greatly influenced by those events.

We are undoubtedly better off with Jokowi as President, if only because he isn’t Prabowo. However we know next to nothing about Jokowi’s foreign affairs policy—and at this stage he probably doesn’t either as domestic issues are more pressing. Much will depend on who he appoints as Foreign Minister. We could end up with someone who’s indifferent or even hostile to us. Consider the impact if former intelligence head A.M. Hendropriyono (an advisor on multinational issues) gets the job. His position on Jokowi’s team has already been attacked by human rights groups worried by his alleged links to the assassination of activist Munir in 2004.

Having a democratic neighbour is important indeed, but we do democracy differently. So far, the Indonesian version depends heavily on what Indonesians call ‘money politics’ and patronage.

Duncan Graham is currently a blogger on Indonesian affairs. 

Oz and Indonesia

Australia and Indonesia

When Australia thinks strategy, it quickly comes to Indonesia.

So it was when the Howard Government was mulling the 2000 Defence White Paper. The National Security Committee of Cabinet was grilling the defenceniks: ‘If Indonesia can’t invade us, why should we buy all these military toys?’

One official produced a map, pointed to the archipelago and island chain arcing across Australia’s north, and asked: ‘What do you see?’

‘That’s Indonesia.’

‘Yes, sir, today it’s Indonesia. Just think what it’d mean if Indonesia broke up and instead this map showed three new Bangladeshes and a couple of new oil-rich Bruneis.’ Read more

I’ve heard various versions of this yarn, but having asked some who should have been there when it supposedly happened, I get no confirmation. It’s a tale yet to achieve the truth it deserves, illustrating how Indonesia directs Australia’s regional dreams or dominates its nightmares.

The vision of a splintering Indonesia goes to the nightmare side of current Australian imaginings. On Suharto’s fall, the horror was of Indonesia succumbing to centrifugal forces as Yugoslavia did after Tito. Instead of that nightmare, Indonesia conjured up a dream experiment—one of the world’s most ambitious efforts at political devolution and regional autonomy.

The doomsayers in Jakarta see little more than a devolution of corruption, setting a course to splinter the Republic. Joko Widodo’s arrival is an extraordinarily positive answer to that lament. Devolution meant an engineer who created a furniture business could become mayor of Solo in 2005, then step up to be elected Jakarta’s governor in 2012, and next month will be sworn in as Indonesia’s seventh president. Indonesians have elected ‘one of us’ as their leader; that democratic expression of the idea of ‘us’ is a powerful unifying force.

As the previous column noted, add a great caveat to the statement that Indonesia and Australia are neighbours with absolutely nothing in common. We now share something vital and defining—democracy. Add to that a further fundamental point—both agree on the regional and strategic importance of a unified and strong Indonesia. Indeed, the fact of a democratic Indonesia should help Australia accept its relative decline—stress relative—compared to the growing wealth and power of its giant neighbour.

Stressing Australia’s belief in a unified Indonesia is a point worth making. It ain’t always been so. Through the 1950s and 1960s, Canberra would have been happy with bits of Indonesia splitting away: because of fears about Indonesia turning to communism; when the CIA was shipping arms to support regional rebellions in Sumatra and Sulawesi; during Konfrontasi when British and Australian soldiers were fighting Indonesian troops; and when the Dutch were trying to hang on to West Papua.

Australia’s leading role in the one successful bit of splitism—the creation of East Timor— doesn’t fit with the mindset of the 1950s and 60s. Right up to the moment that East Timor voted for independence, Australia was sincere—in statement and belief—in calling for East Timor to remain within the Republic. The great irony is that Jakarta’s elite is convinced Australia was always plotting against it in Timor; that conviction misreads the clash between popular sentiment in Oz and Canberra’s judgement of national interest.

Australia’s commitment to a coherent rather than a fractured Indonesia is expressed in one phrase that is pregnant with meaning for Canberra strategists. That’s the statement that any military threat to Australia will come ‘from or through’ Indonesia. The idea has a long history in Australian thinking, dating from that moment of existential fright delivered by Japan in WWII. It’s a powerful idea that can shift in shape and colour. Thus, the 1947 Strategic Appreciation noted:

Having established herself in Indonesia, Russia could attack the mainland of Australia under cover of land based aircraft. Hence, it follows that Australia is vitally interested in this line of approach.

The most famous expression of ‘from or through’ was Paul Dibb’s 1986 Review of Australian Defence:

In defence terms, Indonesia is our most important neighbour. The Indonesian archipelago forms a protective barrier to Australia’s northern approaches. We have a common interest in regional stability, free from interference by potentially hostile external powers. At the same time, we must recognise that, because of its proximity, the archipelago to our north is the area from or through which a military threat to Australia could most easily be posed.

Australia wants an Indonesia strong enough not to be porous or splitable​, but uninterested in using its strength for ​anything nasty.

The Oz dream is to go beyond ‘from or through’ to find ‘a shield to Australia’s north.’ Australia will stand with ASEAN in the fervent wish for Jokowi’s huge success.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of Flickr user Juan Manuel Garcia.

ASPI suggests

I’m kicking off today’s list with a piece by ANU’s Dr Mathew Davies who cogently argues that the anti-IS and pro-Iraq strategy of the US needs to consider a post-Iraq Middle East. Systematically outlining the history of the Iraqi state as a construct with external backing and authoritarian government, he notes, ‘Central government, in the absence of open authoritarian repression and at least the benign neglect of Western powers, has never exerted political authority across Iraq organically. Yet the US strategy rests entirely on the vain hope that this time will be different.’ Instead, the US is sowing the seeds of more violence and trauma to come. Keep reading here.

‘Ukraine raises at least two issues that may inspire new thinking on strategic theory. One is the problem of recognizing success when it involves something less than victory.’ This observation comes from Joshua Rovner, writing on the Washington Post blog, Monkey Cage, on what Ukraine means for how we study war. It’s worth reading for its ideas on identifying success, and how the relationship between strategy and grand strategy means the Asia pivot has constrained US action over Ukraine. Sticking with Ukraine, here’s a new Loopcast podcast on the latest events with Dr Andrew Michta.

The latest issue of Security Challenges contains several articles of interest to our readers, particularly one by David Schaefer on the impact of the information revolution on Australia’s foreign intelligence assessment process, and another by Shandon Harris-Hogan on the influence of family on the recruitment and retention of Australian jihadists. Read more

Also on Australian jihadists, Andrew Zammit examines why not all proposed new changes to national security legislation are necessary or justified. While many of the reforms stemmed from separate inquiries highlighting legislative shortcomings, he notes that the proposed reversal of the burden of proof—requiring Australians returning to Iraq and Syria to provide they weren’t involved in terrorism—departs from our legal traditions, is unlikely to address the threat effectively, and risks delegitimising necessary counter-terrorism efforts.

Turning now to one of Australia’s key security partners in Northeast Asia, Tsjeng Zhizaho Henrick has an RSIS Commentary on the limits of Prime Minister Abe’s ambitions in reinterpreting Japan’s constitution. He challenges the idea of Japan’s ‘right-wing drift’ and argues that public protests against ‘remilitarisation’ and a drop in Abe’s popularity may well constrain passage of further legislation.

For this week’s technology pick, here’s a self-assembling, walking robot designed by a team of Harvard engineers. Inspired by origami and the folding of insects’ wings, the robot can build itself in four minutes. But it’s not a true transformer: once the robot folds into its desired shape via internal heating elements, the joints cool and harden. The long-term goal is for the durable origami-bot to be used on the battlefield or in space.


For alliance wonks, CSIS recently hosted Dr Park Jin who delivered a Korean perspective on US–South Korea–Japan cooperation. Audio available here (duration: 1 hour 24mins).


Canberra: Professor Andrei Lankov will tackle the myth that North Korea is the world’s ‘last Stalinist economy’. He’ll discuss the DPRK’s private economy and its impact, Hedley Bull Centre ANU, Thursday 21 August at 3pm.

AIIA ACT will host Dr Marcus Mietzner who’ll present on Indonesia’s recent presidential elections and how democracy survived, Thursday 21 August at 6pm.

Melbourne: What’s the future of the US–Australian alliance? Hosted by AIIA VIC, ASPI Chair Stephen Loosley will discuss the changing strategic environment and its consequences for ANZUS, Wednesday 20 August at 6pm.

Natalie Sambhi is an analyst at ASPI and editor of The Strategist. Image courtesy of Flickr user Kristian Bjornard.

Fragilities in the French Pacific: New Caledonia broaches its future

Noumea awaits its future

New Caledonia, our French neighbour, sits just off the Queensland coast, but well off our strategic radar screen. Our Defence White Paper 2013 doesn’t mention it, nor even France’s role in the South Pacific. However, France’s 2013 Defence White Paper refers to its political and maritime power deriving from its Pacific ‘collectivities’ (New Caledonia, French Polynesia, Wallis and Futuna, Clipperton) and to strategic collaboration with Australia. It’s worth evaluating how, and to what degree, France’s Pacific role intersects with Australia’s strategic interests.

France has kept its Pacific collectivities out of the news for decades, implementing measures to improve its regional image after stopping nuclear testing in French Polynesia and negotiating an end to bloodshed over New Caledonian independence demands.

In New Caledonia, the 1988 Matignon and 1998 Noumea Accords deferred a long-promised independence referendum, and scheduled transfers of some responsibilities, underpinned bybetter sharing of economic (mainly nickel) revenues. France hoped to buy time and economic prosperity, increasing local stakes in, and support for, its continued sovereignty. Read more

Well, time’s up. In May 2014, the last local elections were held under the Accords. The resultant Congress will decide whether to initiate an independence referendum process by 2018—if three-fifths of members can agree. If not, France must do so. Agreement isn’t a foregone conclusion. New Caledonia’s politics centre on staying with France or independence. Although the local government is collegial, the pro-France groups have held the notional majority since the 1970s when France deliberately imported French citizens to outnumber the generally pro-independence Kanaks. But neither group holds three-fifths of the seats. Indeed, the 2014 election saw the pro-France majority narrow (to 29 of the 54 seats) as the pro-independence group increased support (to 25). So some collaboration has to occur.

The path isn’t at all clear for early agreement on the timing and subject of a referendum process. The process raises sensitive identity and constitutional considerations.

Two papers have been developed to focus discussion on the post-Accord future. Two senior French lawyers wrote the October 2013 Institutional Future of New Caledonia which, unsurprisingly, favours staying with France, but sets out fairly dispassionately the legalities under each of four options (full sovereignty, partnership, extended autonomy and continued autonomy). In April 2014, the Customary Senate, a Noumea Accord institution of Kanak chiefs who advise on matters touching Kanak custom, published the Charter of the Kanak People, describing Kanak identity and victimisation under colonisation, and identifying minimal requirements for the future, mainly respect and equality. Interestingly, few pro-independence players (either the chiefs, or the key Kanak political leaders) use the ‘i’ word in broad public messages: they speak of ‘sovereignty’, ‘emancipation’, and ‘self-determination’ rather than ‘independence’, suggesting scope for compromise. The Charter refers to ‘shared sovereignty’ with ‘no effect on the territorial integrity of the State’.

But that doesn’t mean independence aspirations don’t remain. In June, a Kanak protest against environmental degradation from nickel development resulted in the shooting of two policemen. Pro-independence groups can’t agree on allocating the lucrative nickel portfolio in local government. One group came to blows over a boozy lunch in June, when a political adviser was murdered.

The pro-France side has its problems too. France’s most senior representative in Noumea, High Commissioner Jean-Jacques Brot, resigned on 19 July in the middle of a visit by the ‘Overseas France’ Minister, when the Minister announced a mission to prepare for post-Accord discussions. The resignation followed months of controversy, including suggestions that Brot was too close to a conservative pro-France group.

Australia has tended to stand apart from internal developments in the French Pacific collectivities, tacitly supporting the French state. After all, it’s useful having a now constructive, well-resourced partner in the region that’s a G20 Member, a Permanent Member of the Security Council and NATO, leader of the EU’s useful regional presence, and host to the Secretariat for the Pacific Community headquarters (in Noumea). France also participates in defence exercises and the FRANZ arrangement of fisheries surveillance and emergency assistance, and is beginning to share its maritime and environmental expertise. Moreover, France generously bankrolls its collectivities, to the tune of at least US$ 2 billion each for New Caledonia and French Polynesia each year. If France’s hold were to be shaken substantially, Australia would have to meet some of the shortfall.

Regionally, pro-independence groups draw on the UN Declaration of Indigenous Rights for inspiration and support—the Kanak Charter specifically calls for regional country support for the Kanak people in asserting their right to sovereignty on this basis. The timing of outcomes for the future of New Caledonia will have implications for French Polynesia on past form, but also for Papua New Guinea, when the Bougainville Agreement, itself partly based on the Noumea Accord, reaches a turning point around 2016; for Solomon Islands now operating without RAMSI; for a fragile Fiji; and for neighbouring Vanuatu.

Those interconnections mean we should be more aware of what’s happening in our French neighbourhood, particularly in New Caledonia.

Denise Fisher, author of France in the South Pacific: power and politics (ANU Press 2013), is a former senior DFAT officer who has served as Australian’s Consul General in Noumea. She is a visiting fellow at the Australian National University Centre for European Studies. Image courtesy of Flickr user Jason Meaden.