Articles by " Peter Jennings"

Time for a grown-up discussion about national strategy

Bee2I’m grateful to Andrew Carr, Rod Lyon and John Blaxland for taking up the debate about Australia’s role as a ‘top 20′ global power. It’s obvious we disagree on some fundamental points about designing the best strategy to keep Australia secure in a more risky and competitive world. There are echoes of this discussion around Julia Gillard’s optimistic Asian Century White Paper; Kevin Rudd’s apparently increasingly pessimistic view of regional security; the ‘China choice’ confection; and Tony Abbott’s instinctive globalism—notwithstanding his pre-election ‘more Jakarta and less Geneva’ slogan. Discomforting and novel as it may be, Australia urgently needs to have a grown-up discussion about strategy.

As my first blog post made clear, I take the view that Australia should reshape its defence and foreign policy around promoting a set of broadly-defined global interests. This would force a break with a regional policy priority that has shaped strategic thinking since the end of the Vietnam War. That focus started quite narrowly—in the 1980s defining Australian interests around the ‘inner arc’ of the Indonesian archipelago. Driven outward by crises, our definition of what constitutes our essential region has progressively widened to include Timor and the Pacific, a wider swathe of Southeast Asia and now—for some at least—the Indian Ocean and North Asia. Read more

Even while Australia’s default definition of ‘the region’ has widened, the debate naturally invites the tag of ‘Globalists versus Regionalists’. Readers should, however, demand more than labels. Here I set out some key elements that distinguish my (and Rod Lyon’s) ‘globalist’ view from a more strongly ‘regionalist’ Andrew Carr and John Blaxland.

Australia’s ‘top 20′ position draws on our G20 membership, itself a product of the size of the economy. Our economic and defence spending weight is a reality of where we stand relative to around 180 sovereign countries in the world. Calling Australia a top 20 country is a statement of fact, not policy intent. We don’t have a choice to opt out of this club. Andrew Carr argues that my view of Australia’s relative economic and strategic weight made us seem more like a globally-minded US than other G20 countries which, he contends, have more regionally-focused strategic policies.

That simply doesn’t ring true. The UK, France, and Germany—or any of the top 20 European states—certainly don’t argue that their strategic interests stop at the Atlantic. And it’s clear that Russia, China and Japan pursue strategic interests that keep them deeply invested in Africa, Latin America and the Middle East. Australia is distinctively the only one of the G20 countries that invests so much time in debating how it should narrow its interests. This is the geopolitical version of Australia’s much-derided cultural cringe. It’s high time we got over that self-limiting hurdle.

Part of the geopolitical cringe perspective insists that Australia can’t possibly have real strategic interests in regions beyond its immediate neighbourhood. According to this view if we deploy forces in the Middle East it must be because of the US alliance. But Australia has as much stake as any top 20 nation in preventing the spread of terrorism and in halting a sectarian descent into chaos in the Middle East. That could end in nuclear proliferation and major conventional wars. Far from being dragged into the current Iraq crisis by the US, it’s clear that Australia and a number of like-minded countries have seen it in their interests to encourage a reluctant President Obama to engage.

On this scale, the Middle East isn’t a second- or third-order priority as John Blaxland suggests. If only it were. But no amount of street violence in Dili has the potential to ruin Australia’s day as thoroughly as any of half a dozen trouble spots brewing in the Middle East. John’s quite right to worry that the international community has yet to develop a workable strategy to deal with ISIL, or Iraq, or Syria. But that’s a result of the enormity of the problem—and the likely scale of the solution.

A similar ‘regionalist’ argument holds that it’s somehow possible for Australia to be economically dependent on North Asia while having no interest or role in North Asian security. Such a view may have been sustainable in the 1970s when Japan was our biggest market and China had yet to begin economic reform. But strategic interest follows money as surely as bees follow pollen. Having global interests doesn’t mean that our regional interests are less important. Geography still matters—but it’s the connections rather than the barriers between regions that drive strategic change.

The hard reality is that Australia doesn’t have an option to opt out from the world’s biggest security concerns. Our engagement is driven by the weight of our direct interests. There’s no exit strategy from being a responsible global power. Being a good international citizen entails more than just being a casually benevolent player. Smaller countries (shall we say the smallest 150 of the 180) may claim that incapacity or disinterest makes them optional players in some strategic situations. But for the top 20 countries, including Australia, size confers an obligation to make meaningful contributions to the global order.

Peter Jennings is executive director of ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user TexasEagle.

Being a top 20 defence player

Time for Australia to flex its muscles!The Australian Institute of International Affairs ran a high-quality conference in Canberra yesterday around the theme of ‘Foreign Policy for a Top 20 Nation’. It’s an intriguing theme, obviously informed by the G20 leaders’ meeting commencing soon in Brisbane. I participated in a panel on strengthening Australia’s security. My starting point was to suggest that there’s a surprising gap between the reality of our top 20 status and how we think of Australia’s security role in the world.

In terms of defence spending Australia is well up the top 20 ladder. The Economist rated Australia as the world’s 12th biggest defence spending in US dollars in 2012. At US$25.1 bn we ranked ahead of Iran on US$23.9 bn and behind a more immediately threatened South Korea on US$29 bn. In per-capita terms, Australia is 8th on The Economist’s list on US$1,140, ahead of the UK on $1,016.

The dollars show that Australia is indeed a global player on defence and security, but psychologically we tend to undersell the capability and shaping capacity of the Australian Defence Force and other contributing elements of national security. Read more

Since the time of the 1999 East Timor operation, Australia has played a consequential role in regional and global security. In some respects we’re the victims of our operational success. A slightly uncomfortable realisation is dawning, which is that other countries expect us to play a larger security role. We’re expected to lead in maintaining stability in our nearer region. We’re expected to make a significantly better than symbolic contribution to Coalition operations in the Middle East. We’re expected to have views that matter in the United Nations Security Council, North Asia, the Indian Ocean Region, and as a NATO ‘enhanced partner’.

Several times this year foreign colleagues I’ve spoken to observe that Australia needs to stand up and acknowledge that reality. We may be a top 20 nation, but quite a few of us don’t think we are—or don’t want us to be that—and consequences flow for how we act on the international stage.

If we accept that our top 20 status reflects how Australia should behave internationally, then we’ll need every cent of the 2%of Gross National Product to be spent on Defence by the early 2020s. There’s currently bipartisan support for that level of spending. Being a consequential power means we’ll need forces able to project military power; we’ll need to develop deeper defence relations with key friends; we’ll need to step up our involvement in peacekeeping; and we’ll need to accept the risks of deploying combat forces in Coalition operations.

If we choose not to live the reality of being a top 20 power, there are consequences too— including that we’ll lose credibility as an ally of the US and as a partner of strategic choice for defence cooperation by others in the region. We’ll lose the capacity to underpin our diplomatic position with effective military capability. We’ll become much less effective in promoting our strategic interests in the Asia-Pacific, where strategic competition is heating up and risk levels are rising.

There are a few areas where—as a credible top 20 nation—we’d need to invest more thinking, attention and resources if we hope to strengthen Australia’s security.

First, we need to take new, big steps to build a real strategic relationship with Indonesia. That means going beyond the comfortable and confined defence relationship we currently have to look at much deeper engagement that strengthens Indonesian defence capabilities. We need to think more in joint terms about what our defence forces should and could do together.

Second, we need to get serious about the extent of our interests beyond our immediate region. Defence-of-Australia thinking has effectively expanded in its scope. Think of it now as ‘Defence of Australia Plus’, the plus reflecting a need to engage in the broader security concerns of the Indo-Pacific.

Third, we’ll have to address Australia’s capacity to protect our strategic interests in a much more competitive and risky region. In a military sense, that goes to the requirement to sustain force-projection capabilities that deliver meaningful military capacity. More often than not, that’ll be in an alliance or coalition context.

Finally we need to make sure we’re investing in the level of intelligence gathering and analytical capabilities needed to help us understand our region. We can’t afford to take a part-time interest in places like Africa and the Middle East, devoting effort there only when operations require us to do so.

In other words, in defence as in foreign policy, a top 20 nation needs to think of Australian interests as they really are—shaped by global events and not just regional ones. That will require some significant adjustments of attitude and thinking in coming years.

Peter Jennings is executive director of ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user istolethetv.

Should ministerial arrangements for domestic security be changed?

Straw menRecent media debate around the increased terrorism alert and concern for national security begs the question of whether the current Australian ministerial framework for domestic security would benefit from reform. Nobody seriously suggests that a US-style Department of Homeland Security is the right move for Australia: that’s a straw man. But we think it’s worth considering whether ministerial arrangements for domestic security should change: even if only to affirm the status quo.

In an effort to promote such a discussion, we’ve teamed up to produce an ASPI Insight (PDF) that presents the case for and against rearranging ministerial responsibilities in the domestic security space. Read more

In opening the case for change, David identifies anomalies in the current division of responsibilities among Commonwealth ministers, and five major reasons why change is needed. The first of those is that we’ll get a new law-enforcement agency in 2015 when Australian Border Force is established. That change will result in Cabinet gaining a second cabinet-level minister responsible for law enforcement.

Another important aspect is the absence of clear lines of authority and direct representation in Cabinet for some domestic security agencies. Specifically, the Minister for Justice currently reports to the Attorney-General, but is responsible for the Australian Federal Police and the Australian Crime Commission’s activities, which introduces some ambiguity in the lines of authority for those agencies. Also, the Justice Minister currently doesn’t have a seat in Cabinet or on the National Security Committee. Therefore, he doesn’t routinely contribute when his agencies are discussed, and must implement policy he doesn’t have a direct say in.

Further, sustained ministerial focus will be needed to address emerging Australian security challenges, such as organised crime and people smuggling. And lastly, there’s also an inherent challenge in the one minister being responsible for freedom and security.

David proposes a change, whereby the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection gets some new responsibilities and a new title: Minister for Security and Resilience. The aim is to unify the efforts of domestically-focused security agencies. That would result in the Attorney-General focusing on developing and administering the law, and the newly-appointed Minister for Security and Resilience becoming responsible for enforcing the law and building community resilience. The benefits of that change would include clearer responsibilities, increased accountability and increased coherence in an area with some anomalies.

The split would also introduce resilience, a critical element of policy-making, into Cabinet. As well as responding to immediate national security issues, the new minister could lead national efforts on disaster mitigation, adaptation and response efforts, while promoting social harmony through programs assisting law-enforcement agencies working with vulnerable communities.

On the other hand, Peter disagrees about the need for large-scale change of ministerial portfolios. He supports smaller changes that should be made cautiously. He argues that ministerial workloads are necessarily substantive, and governments would be better off keeping capable ministers busy rather than having more ministers with fewer tasks.

Further, national security is complex, and responses come from many portfolios; it’s therefore impossible for one minister to single-handedly make decisions. Policymaking should instead come from numerous critical minds making key decisions at a ministerial level. Not to mention that the current Australian national security machinery is competent, well-funded and closely managed. While all systems can be improved, a large overhaul wouldn’t be a good idea at a time of high alert.

While the Border Force will mean some ministers have overlapping roles, those should be addressed by clear legal drafting instead of a new minister. There’s also nothing unusual in having portfolio responsibilities divided between senior and junior ministers, and potential overlaps are common and inevitable. As senior portfolio manager, the Attorney-General currently represents the Justice Minister both in Cabinet and on the NSC, and other ministers can be co-opted to attend the NSC when needed.

While we certainly need sustained ministerial focus to address emerging national security challenges, the NSC should remain the focal point of attention, not individual ministers. Having the same minister advocating freedoms and security doesn’t necessarily present a challenge, given that ministers overseeing and resolving potentially conflicting priorities in portfolios is an inevitability of government.

Peter contends that while the argument for a new minister is a good one, that doesn’t make it necessary. He also disagrees with the proposed connection between disaster resilience and community harmony, believing the latter concept to be a cultural aspiration rather than the basis of a decision-making ministerial position.

We think the conversation’s worth having, and it’s a pity that a focus on personalities and straw man arguments have dampened it. ASPI welcomes your contributions to this discussion.

Peter Jennings is executive director of ASPI. David Connery is a senior analyst at ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user Robin Ellis.

Obama’s ‘Sloth and Pause’ campaign

President Barack Obama and Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, listen to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel deliver remarks during the September 11th Observance Ceremony at the Pentagon Memorial in Arlington, Va., Sept. 11, 2014.

President Obama’s ‘targeted, relentless counterterrorism campaign against ISIL’ looks more like ‘sloth and pause’ compared to the 2003 ‘shock and awe’ attack on Iraq. Since the President’s 10 September statement, four air strikes (as of time of publication) have destroyed three ISIL ‘armed vehicles’ and a mortar emplacement (here and here). That’s bad news for the occupants of a few HiLuxes but hardly a decisive blow against ISIL.

In a hapless media briefing last Friday the Pentagon’s Press Secretary, Rear Admiral John Kirby, said degrading and destroying ISIL could not be done militarily. ISIL’s ideology is the thing that needs to be destroyed, he said, ‘that’s not going to be defeated through military means alone. It’s going to take time and it’s going to take good governance, responsive politics, both in Iraq and in Syria.’ Meantime, Kirby admitted that a deployment of 125 US personnel to Erbil—part of the 475 extra US forces pledged by Obama—had been delayed: ‘We are still working through some of the sourcing solutions with that 125 personnel presence that will go to Erbil.’ Read more

Sourcing solutions? Seriously? The wheels have fallen off America’s ‘relentless’ campaign before it even starts. It’s positive that Obama finally decided to build an international coalition, and sooner or later air strikes will be launched against the ISIL leadership. But there’s no clear strategy yet, no thinking about the right way to sequence military and political elements and far too much willingness to curb a sensible strategic response to the demands of American politics.

For a campaign against ISIL to work the Obama administration needs to clarify its thinking. Failure to do so risks swinging between disinterest and unfocused engagement. Obama famously dictated his military strategy for Afghanistan in late 2009 after becoming frustrated with advice from officials. His ‘term sheet’ memo set the boundaries for American involvement in Afghanistan for the next half decade. An anti-ISIL ‘term sheet’ should contain five key points:

1) The focus is destroying ISIL, not rebuilding Iraq and Syria.

The combination of ISIL’s unyielding ideology and propaganda skills makes the group a direct threat to US and broader Western interests. The risk of ISIL exporting terror attacks to the West and consolidating its hold in Iraq and Syria requires an immediate response, regardless of how inclusive the government is in Baghdad. Only after ISIL has been reduced to a fragmentary force does it make sense to worry about Middle Eastern governance.

2) Air strikes must happen soon.

To make any military sense the US must begin air strikes soon. ISIL will be copying Hamas and surrounding its leaders with civilians to complicate targeting while preparing propaganda for release after air strikes that will play to regional sympathies. The longer the US waits to strike the less effective the campaign will be.

3) Accept the need for some ground forces.

Around 1600 US military personnel will be in Iraq after the announced 475 troops deploy. In all likelihood there will be a need for a few thousand additional personnel, which Washington will have to send if they want to consolidate the gains from air strikes. Rhetoric about ‘no boots on the ground’ just disguises what needs to be done to give effect to Obama’s announced strategy.

4) Assad is not our friend.

President Obama is right not to throw his lot in with Syria’s loathsome Bashar al-Assad, whose human-rights violations make ISIL look like amateurs. But Obama’s strategy is hostage to receiving Congressional approval to fund so-called moderate opposition forces and the Pentagon (in Admiral Kirby’s brief) has hinted that it would take a year or more to train a capable Syrian militia. In the meantime air strikes against ISIL in Syria will be essential to avoid creating a safe-haven for terrorists who slip across the border.

5) Don’t over invest in coalition building.

The British are mainly worried about their own separatist insurgency in Scotland and won’t commit to air strikes until after the independence referendum on 18 September. The French are positive but will want help in return in North Africa. The Australians are enthusiastic but won’t move until the US does. The Turks won’t do anything to enhance Kurdish authority. The Saudis and Gulf States are conflicted. The Iranians have a tactical interest in backing Baghdad but primarily with the intent of keeping it dependent on Tehran. An international coalition, in other words, gives Washington the right look, but it isn’t worth slowing down US action to build such a high-maintenance group.

Peter Jennings is executive director of ASPI. Image courtesy of The White House.

Scotland: crazy brave hearts

Coming Soon IIScotland’s referendum on 18 September is a choice between union and significance or independence and irrelevance.  Voters will decide whether to stay in the United Kingdom or to opt for full independence. The result will be unpleasant for Britain regardless of the vote. An opinion poll on 4 September put the pro-Union ‘No’ vote at 39% and the pro-independence ‘Yes’ vote at 38%, with 23% undecided.  Over the last six weeks all the political momentum has been towards the independence camp. The large undecided vote reportedly reflects Scots Labour voters mulling their options while an increasingly panicked ‘No’ campaign makes concessions to hand tax and spending powers to the Scottish Government if they stay in the Union.

The referendum asks for a simple ‘yes/no’ answer to the question ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’ A ‘yes’ vote, no matter how small the margin, puts Scotland irrevocably on track to full independence by March 2016. A narrow ‘no’ vote to stay with the Union is likely to be used by pro-independence campaigners to justify a continued push for full independence, as the Scottish National Party (SNP) has done through prior devolution votes in 1979 and 1997. A large ‘no’ vote, say more than 55%, is not likely given polling trends. So the best pro-Unionists might hope for is grumpy Scots, like the Canadian Québécois, hankering for independence and with expanded powers to block London’s attempts to run a ‘United’ Kingdom. However Scotland votes, a British general election, to be held no later than 7 May 2015 will give the departing or reluctantly-staying Scots one more chance to thumb their nose at Westminster. Read more

Should the Scots vote for independence, Alex Salmond, the First Minister of Scotland and leader of the SNP, would negotiate the terms of separation with the UK. That will include deciding how to apportion ownership of the UK’s national debt and tax revenues. The British armed forces would be split, with the SNP arguing that Scots Regiments in the Army, along with a number of ships and aircraft would become the basis of a Scottish Defence Force. An independent Scotland would be anti-nuclear so the Trident submarines based at Faslane would need to relocate, presumably south. Scotland would establish its own intelligence apparatus, and seek membership of NATO and the European Union.

None of those outcomes will be easy for Salmond to deliver, notwithstanding the slick media campaign the SNP has put into describing the future of an independent Scotland. The UK Ministry of Defence has made it clear that London is unlikely to agree to a simple transfer of regiments, ships and aircraft as set out in the SNP White Paper on Scotland after independence. That document claimed that Scottish defence spending would amount to 2.5 billion pounds to sustain a military of around 15,000 regulars and 5,000 reserves. But that’s well above what London will willingly transfer to an independent Scottish military.

It also seems unlikely that NATO and the EU will welcome yet another bit-player member. The Spanish, for one, don’t want to give comfort to separatist groups that propose to split from existing national structures.  And Scotland’s determination to pursue an anti-nuclear path will give pause to the United States, which won’t be comfortable seeing NATO’s security guarantees extended to more countries unwilling to pull their weight by supporting extended nuclear deterrence. One can also forget the idea that an anti-nuclear Scotland will be inducted into an expanded Five Eyes intelligence community. After Edward Snowden? No chance. At best an independent Scottish military will be like a feisty small peacekeeper: helpful around the edges of European security, wonderful on parade, pointless in most other scenarios.

The key strategic point about an independent Scotland is not about what the Scots will do but how it will weaken the UK. London will sustain something less than a 10 % reduction of its own military capability—but that’s a serious decrement in a force already on the edge of viability. The future of the British nuclear deterrent will come under serious question. At precisely the moment the world needs a coherent Western response to the Islamic State, London will become reticent and introspective.

None of that’s good news for the handful of countries, Australia first among them, who put their soldiers into harm’s way for the good of global order. If the UK fades even further on the international stage, Australia will stand out more prominently as a country prepared to use military force for international good. Australia will rise a few more places on Washington’s check-list of indispensable allies. The Scots’ fantasy of playing dress-up—like extras in Brave Heart (thanks, Mel Gibson)—will translate into more serious international security tasks for Australia. Is it really Scotland’s fate to be a kilted Euro-peacekeeper? Time to get serious, Jocks!

Peter Jennings is executive director of ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user Lawrence OP.

Choosing not to choose


Hugh White writes ‘I don’t believe that Australia must make a choice between America and China’ and adds another perilous twist to his ‘China-Choice’ journey. Well, you could have fooled me! Hugh and I agree that the future great-power balance in the Asia-Pacific is critical to Australia’s interests, but it’s dismaying that there seems so little else about which we might find ourselves on the same bus. While this debate is enjoyable there’s surely a need at some point to quit the word-play and aim for a common understanding about what the correct policy settings should be for Australia and the great powers. In that spirit, I appreciate Hugh setting out as clearly as he can the differences between his thinking and mine. Here are my thoughts about the limitations of Hugh’s argument.

First, I can’t find an empirical basis for Hugh’s claim that a US–China clash is inevitable unless we accommodate Chinese aspirations for more power and influence. In The China Choice the closest Hugh comes to demonstrating the inevitability of a US–China confrontation is to refer to Thucydides: ‘the growth of the power of Athens and the alarm which this inspired in Sparta, made war inevitable.’ Hugh says ‘we may wonder at the power of these beliefs and motives but we cannot dismiss them.’ True, but the remarkable thing about ‘inevitability’ is that it’s impervious to fact. The reality of US–China relations is that they are overwhelmingly positive. Hugh’s answer to that is simply to reassert that the logic of great power competition means that sooner or later hostility will break out unless America starts accommodating China. But when will that happen, 2015, 2020? There’s no compelling analogy between Athens–Sparta and Washington–Beijing. Read more

My second disagreement with Hugh is over his handling of the idea of US ‘accommodation’ with China. What exactly does that mean? Should the US abandon its alliance with Japan or explicitly say that the Senkaku Islands are not covered by treaty commitments? Should the US concede that every claim within the nine-dashed line is China’s? If Laos is conceded to be in China’s orbit, is Thailand still behind some US red-line? The US has accommodated many core aspects of Chinese power, including supporting the one-China policy over Taiwan and tacitly accepting Beijing’s strategic influence over North Korea. So what, precisely, is the next accommodation the US should make? We never get to specifics on this point.

Viewed through a ‘China-Choice’ lens, any US or Australian activity in the region can be interpreted as a failure to accommodate China. US Marines in Darwin? Australia–Japan defence cooperation? According to Hugh those impinge on Chinese breathing space and shouldn’t happen. My view is that it’s dangerous to give Beijing the impression that its disapproval is reason enough for other countries to stop cooperating with each other. The Asia-Pacific is crowded territory; even a powerful China must allow breathing space for its neighbours. A further concern with Hugh’s approach is that it is frankly not up to Washington or Beijing to bargain away the interests of other countries in the region.

Third, on Japan Hugh’s view is clear and consistent and, from my perspective, wrong. He says:

… it’d be easier to negotiate an accommodation with China and create a stable new order in Asia if Japan becomes less strategically dependent on America. So I agree Japan needs to overhaul its strategic posture. But it will be harder to negotiate an accommodation with China if Japan’s new strategic posture involves building a coalition of allies designed specifically to resist any such accommodation.

Let’s be clear: a more independent Japan operating outside of an alliance with the US and not cooperating with others is, ultimately, a nuclear-armed Japan. Hugh can’t bring himself to quite say that in The China Choice, but is there any other possibility? If Thucydides is your guide, it’s just possible to conceive of a concert of Asia in which an isolated and nuclear-armed Japan is a good idea because that may be the basis for a robust deterrent relationship between Tokyo and Beijing. But that would be a much higher-stakes gamble than the current order. Doesn’t the same iron logic of competition apply to Japan–China relations as it does to US–China relations? At a minimum, Hugh’s concert would do much to dismantle the regional order that’s brought great-power peace to Asia for seventy years.

Finally, there’s the question of Australia and Japan. Hugh says: ‘Our support for Abe escalates regional rivalry’, but that’s the China-Choice lens once again distorting the perspective. There hasn’t been a squeak of serious Chinese concern to the announcement of closer Australia–Japan ties. On the contrary, Canberra–Beijing relations are pragmatic and positive. Sooner or later that troublesome fact must disturb the theoretical foundation of Hugh’s argument. It turns out that there’s a viable alternative to the dark world of the China Choice. It’s an alternative where the countries of the Asia-Pacific build their own broad web of security enhancing cooperative ties. Every country in the region benefits from that pragmatic and realisable approach.

Peter Jennings is executive director of ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user Craig Sunter

Response to ‘The road to Tokyo, via Washington DC’

If I understand Iain Henry correctly, he says that it’s okay for Australia to have a ‘limited’ defence relationship with Japan, which includes buying submarines, but nothing more should be done out of a concern that this would buy us into a conflict with China over the Senkakus. However, a ‘military alliance’ with Japan ‘might be wise’ ‘if America fully commits to using diplomatic and military means to coerce China into accepting an international society governed by rules and laws.’ He isn’t sure though that the US is as committed to the defence of Japan as all that, and on those grounds Australia has to sit on its hands.

It takes a little while to sort through this argument. What I understand is that Canberra and Tokyo have signed an agreement on defence industrial cooperation similar to agreements Japan has with the US and the UK. Submarine cooperation may emerge from that, but it’s some way off. Other defence engagement will continue much along the lines it has for years. The only people talking about alliances—a formal treaty commitment to act in each other’s defence—are those who apparently don’t want them.

Australia’s positive engagement with Japan over the last half century helps to provide some context for understanding why and how it’s possible for the two countries to decide to work more closely on defence. That bilateral relationship isn’t a football to be kicked between Beijing and Washington or amended to take account of every change of tone in Chinese editorials or John Kerry’s commentary. Read more

It’s equally important to see this development in the context of Australia’s broadening relations with China and South Korea. Too much ‘China-choice’ thinking may incline some to treat every Australian policy move as a move on the China-choice chessboard. It’s not that black and white. Australia has good relations with China and will continue to build defence and strategic cooperation with Beijing. Iain’s tweet is blunt: ‘It’s not even that they’re trying to quiet debate—they’re implying dissenters secretly want Chinese rule of Asia’. I’ll pass over who the ‘they’ refers to and simply note that policy debate in Australia is robust and all the better for it. That doesn’t involve disparaging anyone. The grown-ups can handle it.

Peter Jennings is executive director of ASPI. 

Wrong turn on the White road

Wrong way?

A journey even more remarkable than the Chinese Ming Dynasty fleets’ discovery of Australia in the 1420s (at least according to Hu Jintao in 2003) is Hugh White’s journey of discovery on the China Choice road. Readers will be familiar with the bleak landscape of this voyage: confronted with a growing China determined to dominate its region, Australia must choose between its biggest market or its American ally. The choice is either to give China breathing space to manifest its destiny or ultimately go to war to stifle Beijing’s ambition. The prospect of war is so terrible that Australia’s only sensible option is not to cooperate with Japan or, most likely, any other partner in the region, because to engage with others is to encroach on Chinese breathing space. And that will take us to war.

The latest staging post on the China Choice road, is an article in the Fairfax broadsheets lamenting Tony Abbott’s commitment to closer defence and economic cooperation with Japan. This is a bad thing, Hugh argues, because Japan’s interest is to gather around it countries that will fight alongside it against China. In the White world of international security, where countries behave like the planets set on their immutable orbits, there’s no other outcome than that China and Japan will go to war over rocks in the sea while the US, Australia and any other country silly enough to limit China’s breathing space will be drawn into the conflict. So obvious is this desolate outcome, Hugh concludes, that either Tony Abbott just doesn’t understand the celestial movements of countries in White’s world, or:

A second possibility is that Mr Abbott is just pretending not to understand. He does understand what is going on in Asia, and has decided that, as regional strategic rivalries escalate, Australia’s best move is to spur them on—not just by strengthening our alliance with America, but by becoming Japan’s ally against China.

Read more

That’s such a remarkable quote you really should read it twice. There you have it, dear reader, an Australian conspiracy to take the world to war, to spur on China’s rivalry with flagrant, provocative, breathing-space-encroaching behaviour of strengthening our 70-year-old alliance with the US and cooperating, as we have since the 1950s, with Japan.

There are many twists and turns on the White road. For example, Hugh says that ‘Japan has a perfect right to do what is needed to protect its own security’—just not, it seems over the Senkakus or by cooperating with friends. That raises an obvious question: is the Asia-Pacific more stable by having a Japan closely allied to the US and with a network of friends, or with a Japan that’s isolated? History gives a precedent to consider.

To disprove the massive Australian conspiracy theory spurring the region to war, I offer the following modest insights. First, China–Australia relations remain good. Beijing isn’t asking us to choose. Australia continues to put a top priority on building closer relations with China. When Shinzo Abe was in Canberra, John Howard was in Beijing, meeting Xi Jinping. Xi pointed to the ‘extensive common interests’ between the two countries and looked to a future of close cooperation and a speedy conclusion to free trade negotiations. As I predicted in the Financial Review, there were a few negative comments in the Chinese media about Abe’s visit. But reading those as though they reflect Chinese government thinking makes no more sense than imagining Age editorials channel Tony Abbott’s opinions.

Second, no two countries are more invested in each other’s success than China and Japan. Like Australia, China is by far Japan’s largest market for imports and exports and Japanese investment in China is valued at over US$58 billion. A conflict between the two countries would sink them both. That’s not to say nationalism and miscalculation couldn’t trump economic self-interest, but it’s wrong to imply the current momentum is all in the direction of conflict. China’s primary interest is still to sustain growth. Peaceful relations with Japan are a key component of that strategy.

Third, with the exception of some Australian media outlets, Malcolm Fraser and the ANU redoubt, nowhere in the civilised world is the China Choice logic gaining traction. Countries in the Asia-Pacific stickily persist in cooperating with each other; in wanting the US to remain engaged; in building defence capabilities and otherwise refusing to sacrifice their own interests to give China more breathing space. At the same time the region vigorously trades with China even as they worry about Beijing’s intentions. The Asia-Pacific isn’t a blank canvass for China to redraw the map. Every country is looking for breathing space and most are forming the view that closer cooperation with friends and allies builds a stronger foundation for stability. That’s why Australia and Japan are cooperating more closely, and why both countries want closer relations with China.

In the Asia-Pacific the White Road is the road not taken, and just as well if the choice we face upon it is subordination or incineration. The smart thing to do is to follow a different path. U-turn, anyone?

Peter Jennings is executive director of ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user Koppenbadger.

Australia’s best post war strategic policy decisions

Prime Minister Gough Whitlam at the Echo/Whispering Wall at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, China, during his visit in October/November 1973.  Prime Minister Whitlam's decision to open diplomatic relations with China defined a 40-year path to stability and prosperity.Following the interest in recent Strategist posts on top five fighter aircraft and battleships, I offer another top five list (actually top six) of Australia’s best post-war strategic policy decisions.  Three selection criteria were applied: first, the decision must reflect a real choice open to governments and the possibility that outcomes could’ve been different.  Second, the decision must have had a lasting positive outcome for Australia. Finally, strategic policy decisions must relate to Australia’s national security interests.  On that third measure many economic decisions—say, the foundation of APEC—don’t make the cut.

In the 1950s, the best strategic policy decision was surely the Menzies Government’s pursuit of the ANZUS Treaty with the United States.  America emerged from the Second World War disinclined to buy into collective security arrangements outside of NATO.  Britain no longer offered Australia a credible security guarantee. Menzies felt vulnerable to the political changes of decolonisation and to the rise of communism.  The ANZUS Treaty, signed in September 1950, was the result of adroit diplomacy by External Affairs Minister Percy Spender. He played on the US’ desire for Australian support in Korea in return for a treaty commitment to act together to meet a common danger if US, Australian or New Zealand forces in the Pacific were attacked.

More than 60 years later ANZUS continues to shape Australian strategic thinking.  It’s doubtful that any US administration after Harry Truman’s would’ve been prepared to sign it. Without it, Australian defence policy would’ve been much more costly and our international role less effective.  The only other strategic policy decision in the 1950s that comes close in value was the 1957 trade agreement with Japan, on which much of Australia’s post war prosperity was built and which helped cement Japan’s position as a stable, trade-oriented democracy. Read more

The decision in 1963 to buy the F-111 strike bomber aircraft is my choice for best strategic policy decision in the 1960s. Plagued with cost overruns and delays, the F-111 nonetheless set Australia’s aspiration to be a consequential middle power, bolstered by operating a bomber aircraft of unparalleled range and unmatched by any Asia-Pacific country.  The F-111 defined the ADF’s self-image as a first-rank military, its swept-back wings and coiled menace telling the world what kind of defence force Australia wanted.  The aircraft’s deterrent effect lasted for almost a half century. Runner-up choice for the best strategic decision in the 1960s: the Colombo Plan.

In the 1970s, Gough Whitlam’s decision to open diplomatic relations with China defined a 40-year path to stability and prosperity.  It might be argued that any Australian government would’ve followed Richard Nixon’s recognition in the 1970s, but Whitlam’s initiative paralleled, not followed, Nixon’s. Australia’s early-mover advantage was parent to the booming economic relationship of the last 20 years and to defence ties with Beijing closer than those between the US and China.  Runner-up decision: the 1976 Defence White Paper’s early articulation of defence self-reliance.

The 1980s presented a serious challenge to Australian strategic policy after New Zealand’s anti-nuclear defection from ANZUS and the rise of similar sentiment in Australia. The best strategic policy decision of the decade was Bob Hawke and Kim Beazley’s repositioning of Labor policy on the US alliance, which kept ANZUS bipartisan and created support on the left for the Joint Facilities (by articulating the Full Knowledge and Concurrence policy) and for a defence policy built around a ‘defence of Australia’ doctrine. Labor might have chosen the New Zealand path of equivocation over the alliance, but a largely bipartisan policy approach was maintained. Anyone who doubts the value of that should compare the defence policy gyrations of the UK, New Zealand and Canada.  A good policy runner-up: Malcolm Fraser’s 1982 decision not to replace the aircraft carrier, HMAS Melbourne—an expensive indulgence.

John Howard’s 1998 proposal to President B J Habbie for a referendum in East Timor over independence or incorporation with Indonesia is the stand-out strategic policy decision of the 1990s, because of its audacity and (happily) its positive outcome.  No-one could’ve anticipated Habbie’s quixotic reaction to hold a vote in August 1999. The Australian-led intervention redefined what the ADF could do in a leadership role.  More importantly, it freed Indonesia from a costly and unwinnable counterinsurgency and opened the way to a better Canberra-Jakarta relationship.   

I can’t separate two strategic decisions as the best of the first decade of 2000.  John Howard’s invoking the ANZUS treaty after 9/11 bought, and continues to buy Australia huge credit with the United States. Standing by the US in its most dire moment since Pearl Harbour defined a modern alliance relationship that’ll sustain ties with Washington for decades.  Howard’s second defining moment was to offer a billion-dollar aid package to Indonesia after the December 2004 tsunami.  Australia might have opted for sympathy and a business-as-usual relationship.  That Howard did more reset the relationship after the unhappiness of Timor and paved the way to highly effective counter-terrorism cooperation with its large neighbour. An honourable mention for good policy should go to Howard’s decision in 2005 to sign ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity, (much to the region’s surprise) which opened Australia’s way to membership of the East Asia Summit.  

An early candidate for this decade’s best strategic policy decision may be Julia Gillard’s visit to Japan’s Fukushima Prefecture after the devastating earthquake, tsunami and nuclear reactor breach in March 2011.  The visit opened the door to closer Australia-Japan cooperation.

All the decisions discussed here involved departures from the policy norms of the day, called on the personal effort of senior politicians, and involved taking risks. Strikingly absent are decisions to deploy forces, although in the case of the ANZUS treaty, Timor and 9/11 those decisions closely followed.  Decisions to go to war are seldom good, although occasionally unavoidable.

Peter Jennings is executive director of ASPI. Image courtesy of the National Archives of Australia.

America: big fires grow from small ones

Dean Acheson

President Barack Obama’s recent downcast West Point speech and inadequate response to Iraq’s collapse bring to mind an earlier time when, exhausted by conflict, America cut its overseas military commitments only to be drawn into the Korean War. In the 1950s, Asia’s security outlook was grim. China hadnt long ‘fallen’ to the communists; Indonesia had just secured independence from the Dutch. The region was in massive political transition, it was poor and facing numerous insurgency conflicts. America’s priority in the region was managing occupied Japan. Its biggest strategic concern was the developing axis between Moscow and Beijing. US military forces largely quit South Korea in 1949.

In January 1950, US Secretary of State Dean Acheson delivered a speech to the New York National Press Club that appeared to limit American strategic interests in Asia to a ‘defensive perimeter.’ This ran from the Aleutian Islands through Japan, to the southern Ryukyu island chain including Okinawa, and from there to the Philippines.  Absent from Acheson’s perimeter was South Korea and Taiwan. In fact, the speech quite explicitly stated that the rest of Asia was outside the boundaries of American security thinking: Read more

So far as the military security of other areas in the Pacific is concerned, it must be clear that no person can guarantee these areas against military attack. But it must also be clear that such a guarantee is hardly sensible or necessary within the realm of practical relationship.

Should such an attack occur—one hesitates to say where such an armed attack could come from—the initial reliance must be on the people attacked to resist it and then upon the commitments of the entire civilized world under the Charter of the United Nations. … But it is a mistake, I think, in considering Pacific and Far Eastern problems to become obsessed with military considerations. Important as they are, there are other problems that press, and these other problems are not capable of solution through military means.

On 25 June 1950, North Korean forces, well-armed and supported by the Soviets, crossed the 38th parallel and invaded the South. ROK forces lacked armour and heavy artillery and, contrary to US expectations, collapsed in short order. Seoul fell on 28 June. Acheson’s speech is cited by South Koreans and by historians of the war as giving Stalin and Kim Il Sung the confidence that they could attack without American retaliation. While the opening of Soviet records in the 1990s raises doubts that the speech was decisive in Stalin’s thinking,there’s no question that Acheson’s comments reflected widespread American distaste for military commitments in 1950. Indeed, Acheson’s emphasis on the UN, collective action, the desirability of focusing on economic growth and the limits of American military power echo precisely Obama’s West Point speech.

Obama’s speech defines a modern-day American defence perimeter based not on geographic terms, rather on US interests.

The United States will use military force, unilaterally if necessary, when our core interests demand it—when our people are threatened, when our livelihoods are at stake, when the security of our allies is in danger. … On the other hand, when issues of global concern do not pose a direct threat to the United States … then the threshold for military action must be higher.

Beyond the protection of Obama’s defensive perimeter appear such global concerns as Ukraine, Syria, Iraq and the South China Sea. And in place of US military power, Obama offers international coalitions, allies, the peace-promoting value of economic growth and ‘respecting international law.’ Dean Acheson could only approve.

We might never know if the leaders of the extremist group ISIS watched the West Point speech, but it’s clear that their rapid takeover of cities and routing of the Iraqi Army has happened in the absence of practical American military assistance to Iraq. If this is a demonstration of President Obama’s desire to place a higher threshold on American military action, one can only wonder what international crisis would incline the President to use force? Around the world, America’s frenemies now know that they have a free hand to push the limits of their own aggressive intensions against neighbours. All they have to do is avoid harming American ‘core interests’, itself a flexible concept.

Obama’s West Point speech repeats in all fundamental respects the same disastrous errors of Dean Acheson’s 1950 oration. Emphasising what America will not do in international affairs only emboldens the world’s zealots, nationalists and chauvinists to fill the vacuum created by absent US power. Small crises then have a way of growing into bigger ones, and sooner or later those will infringe core interests. The message for Barack Obama should be if you aren’t prepared to fight small fires, you’d better get ready to fight bigger ones.

Peter Jennings is executive director of ASPI. Image courtesy of Truman Library photographs.

The ADF’s quiet leaders

Commander INTERFET, MAJ GEN Cosgrove joins hands with the new East Timor leadership during a celebration to mark the official handover from INTERFET to UNTAETHere’s a curious fact: for the better part of two decades the ADF has been led by quiet, at times understated leaders, who put a premium on calmness and seldom raise their voices in anger. Of course that’s a generalisation, but it’s made on the basis of working closely with the last five Chiefs of Defence Force as well as the new CDF designate. More broadly—generalising again—the current ADF leadership team continues that trend. In important respects the ADF leadership model runs counter to popular views of what military leadership is supposed to be like.

Hollywood, rather than West Point or Duntroon, has shaped an image of military leaders as a band of hyper-aggressive, purple-faced screamers. Think of George C. Scott’s Patton, or Lee Ermey’s ferocious portrayal of the drill instructor Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Full Metal Jacket. For those who don’t know the modern military, Jack Nicholson’s iconic Colonel Nathan R. Jessup in A Few Good Men exemplifies what tough leaders are supposed to be like. Perhaps that’s why Senator Stephen Conroy parsed Jessup’s ‘you can’t handle the truth’ speech in recent Estimates Committee hearings. Ironically Conroy’s target, Lieutenant General Angus Campbell, is supremely calm under fire and the least Colonel Jessup-like figure imaginable. Read more

It wasn’t always like this. A retired Major General colleague once told me that when he was a junior officer, star-ranked seniors were fearsome and unapproachable. An evolving ADF leadership style has essentially done away with the worst aspects of old-fashioned generalship. I would argue that’s come about as a result of conscious design, organisational culture, the demands of operational experience and what might be called ‘methods to achieve success in the Canberra policy world’.

On leadership design, the ADF is something of a self-replicating system. An organisation that generates a quiet and thoughtful general like John Baker (CDF 1995–98) is likely to produce more leaders of the same style—the CDF has a significant capacity to shape the behaviour of his successors. In any organisation, modelling the approved leadership behaviours is likely to assist being promoted. The creation of the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA) in the mid-1980s was based on a conscious decision to build a leadership model that favoured collaboration. Subsequent efforts to reshape ADFA’s culture to minimise bullying again reflect what the ADF’s senior leaders want (but don’t always get) from young officers.

In terms of organisational culture, ADF members stress that they’re less formal in their approach to hierarchy than their British peers. The ADF is, in some respects, even less formal than a few parts of the public service, where Yes Minister-style hierarchies still prevail. At least since Vietnam, high military value has been put on a willingness to engage with locals wherever the ADF is deployed. That quality is often presented as contrasting with the American approach, which is highly mechanised and less focused on hearts and minds. Self-perception is what matters here. The ADF’s view of itself encourages a type of leadership which is low-key and approachable.

Defence’s operational experience of the last twenty years has also stressed the importance of building coalitions and working effectively with other military and civilian organisations. Peter Cosgrove’s command of INTEFET was most notable for his ability to work with his Indonesian counterparts as well as for holding together a disparate military group involving 22 countries. Cosgrove’s personality was a key factor in INTERFET’s success. In operations before and since the Timor experience, the ADF claims that one of its strengths is the capacity to interact with partners in a friendly and engaging way. The fact that Defence is widely perceived in this light made it possible for DFAT to draw on this quality as a key part of Australia’s bid for a temporary seat on the UN Security Council. Imagery of friendly ADF personnel was prominent during the UNSC bid.

Do nice generals weaken Defence’s ability to prosecute hard military operations? Insurgents in southern Afghanistan who came up against the Special Forces wouldn’t agree. There is an essential distinction between the agreession needed on combat operations and the mindset needed to set strategy. Calmness in crisis situations is an asset not an impediment.

Finally, in the Canberra policy world, success usually goes to those able to build consensus-supporting specific outcomes. Qualities that help include a capacity to negotiate, patience, listening skills and a certain amount of empathy, if only to help understand and counter the views of potential opponents. Read or, better still, watch any Estimates Committee hearings and you’ll see that most of the senior leadership of the ADF have those qualities in spades. While Defence has its share of policy challenges, it tends to win many rounds in Canberra’s policy-making game, often to the chagrin of central agencies.

Of course, there’ll always be exceptions to the general rule, but it isn’t by accident that the ADF’s top brass tend to exemplify the quiet qualities of leadership I’ve described. Is there perhaps a more generally applicable leadership lesson here?

Peter Jennings is executive director of ASPI. Image courtesy Flickr user Australian Civil-Military Centre.

The significance of D-Day

Landing ships putting cargo ashore on one of the invasion beaches, at low tide during the first days of the Normandy invasion, June 1944. Among identifiable ships present are USS LST 532 (in the centre of the view); USS LST 262 (third LST from right); USS LST 310 (second LST from right); USS LST 533 (partially visible at far right); and USS LST 524. Note the barrage balloons overhead and the Army "half-track" convoy forming up on the beach.To commemorate the 70th anniversary, ASPI invited a range of contributors to reflect, briefly, on why D-Day was significant. Their contributions are posted here.

D-Day: A bright and shining moment for liberal democracy

Seventy years ago on 6 June 1944, the Western allies launched the Great Crusade across the English Channel on to the beaches of Normandy to free Europe from what Churchill called the ‘new Dark Age’ of Nazism. Code-named Overlord, the assault was, and remains, the greatest amphibious operation in the history of modern arms. As the US-led Allies stormed Hitler’s Festung Europa to free all those under the shadow of the swastika, the day became a bright and shining moment for all that’s noble in modern liberal democracy. Indeed, there has seldom been a date with greater moral clarity in the history of humanity at war than 6 June 1944. Read more

Yet the Allied liberation was always in the balance. The Germans had built a formidable Atlantic Wall of concrete, wire, machine guns, mines, and artillery. SS panzer divisions lurked in the wings and Erwin Rommel, the legendary ‘Desert Fox’ was on hand to hurl the Allies back into the sea. As Rommel famously remarked, ‘the first twenty-four hours of the invasion will be decisive, the fate of Germany depends on the outcome … for the Allies as well as Germany it will be the longest day’.

And so it was for all those who fought on 6 June. The battle for Normandy turned on a combination of luck, surprise, chaos, elation and terror as the fog of war descended on its participants. General Dwight Eisenhower gambled on clear weather and succeeded; the Germans, expecting an invasion through the Pas de Calais, were taken by surprise; and in a twist of fate, the Wehrmacht’s martial talisman, Rommel, was away on leave in Germany. Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt was unable to unleash his panzer divisions to repulse the invasion because Hitler was asleep and no one dared wake the Führer to obtain authority.

Despite bitter German resistance, especially at Omaha Beach, the Americans, British and Canadians carried the day on 6 June and established a precious beachhead for the onward march of freedom. As Rommel had predicted, the longest day sealed Germany’s fate. It inaugurated the shortest year of the Nazi Reich, which eleven months later crumbled onto the scrap heap of history.

Michael Evans is the General Sir Francis Hassett Chair of Military Studies at the Australian Defence College and a professor in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Deakin University.

The historical significance of D-Day
We look at D-Day rather differently now than was the case even 30 or 40 years ago. The end of the Cold War and several decades of research in the former Soviet archives have rectified the tendency in the 1950s and 1960s to accord battles like Alamein and Normandy a primacy and pivotal status that they didn’t and don’t deserve. We now recognise, and can admit, what was always true: the German Army was destroyed on the Eastern Front by the Soviets who incurred unimaginable casualties in the process. The bulk of the German Army fought in the east and the bulk of German casualties were incurred there.

That correction shouldn’t diminish the importance of the return of the Western allies to the European continent even as it contextualises it. It was vital that the Allies take a full part in the defeat of the Nazis on land, and the ensuing 12 months would involve much hard and sometimes desperate fighting and relatively heavy casualties in their turn. Films like Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers have reduced the scale on which we imagine D-Day and have tended to focus on it as an individual or small-group experience. It was both of those things, but it was also an enormous, complex and high-risk operation where the outcome was by no means certain. Its importance symbolically, strategically and operationally shouldn’t be underestimated.

Jeffrey Grey is a professor in the history program, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, at the University of New South Wales.

D-Day 70 years on
If any single day can credibly be presented as the defining moment of a century, it’s 6 June 1944, the day of the allied landings at Normandy. In a strategic sense Germany was well on the way to defeat at this stage of the war. The Wehrmacht had been broken in the east and was retreating, overwhelmed by Russian numbers and weather; German cities had been smashed by constant allied bombing and the Luftwaffe reduced to tiny pockets of resistance. What remained of German military power in France was significant but not of a scale that defeat could be resisted for long. But Normandy wasn’t a side show. Had the invasion been blunted the Soviet Union might well have been able to extend its control over much of Western Europe. As it was the successful allied landings announced America’s arrival as the world’s leading power, created the basis for Europe’s future wealth and stability, and established the claim that democracy and international collaboration would ultimately overcome totalitarianism.

On the 70th anniversary of the landings we’re sure to mark those strategic achievements as the founding moment of all that came after in terms of the global balance of power and the western model of organising societies. But even the largest wars are no more than the sum of individual experiences. My father, Ron Jennings, was one of thousands of British soldiers that went across the beaches of Normandy, in his case as a driver with the Royal Army Service Corps. His unit saw tough fighting through France and into Germany where, in 1946 as part of the British Army of the Rhine, he married my mother, Mary Strachan, a staff car driver in the Auxiliary Territorial Service. D-Day was the defining event in my parents’ lives. The British Army lifted them from the poorest parts of London and Glasgow and gave them the skills that ultimately propelled them to Africa and later Australia. The war also left a darkness in them that was impossible to bridge for those who hadn’t been through the same experience. In this they were no different to millions of individuals who survived the war scarred but stronger. The world is a poorer place for the passing of this tough-minded, softly-spoken generation.

Peter Jennings is executive director of ASPI.

A tale of two narratives
Post-war generations in the Anglosphere learned to feel that while the world could be a harsh place, good guys eventually win and live happily ever after. In that broad narrative, D-Day was the moment when good began to triumph decisively over evil. Then the Keynesian revolution opened seemingly endless vistas of prosperity.

There were shadows of course: Cold War crises, Vietnam, the stagflation of the 1970s all clouded the Manichean paradigm. But the narrative was resuscitated by the amazingly painless end of the Cold War. Wars continued in less fortunate parts of the world, even close to the heart of Europe in the former Yugoslavia, but in the Global West—expanding inexorably—tranquility and prosperity held sway.

D-Day and the successful campaign in Western Europe that it set in motion were epic achievements. But from the outset there were downsides. While Stalin’s view was that D-Day came too late, in retrospect he must have been grateful for the chance to reach Berlin and set up puppet regimes in central-east Europe. And the Yalta settlement enshrined his triumph, ensuring that Europe was still far from whole and free.

Twenty years on from Gorbachev’s democratising revolution, Moscow has invaded and seized territory from a second country on its borders. Military exercises menace its neighbours, and aggressive overflights extend to NATO members, neutrals and Japan. Moscow has embarked on a $750 billion rearmament program to be realised inside a decade.

Simultaneously Putin’s domestic crack-down threatens to make Russia a police state. Moscow’s spying activities equal or exceed Soviet levels. In its external relations, Russia seemingly aspires to become Beijing’s junior partner in a new Holy Alliance to safeguard tyranny. An essentially Stalinist version of WWII has become holy writ in Russia. Some are proclaiming a new cold war.

The state of the Western alliance is just as depressing. The noughties brought sharp reverses for the West, resulting in its current introspection and loss of confidence. The Eurozone economic crisis drags on, and Snowden’s Verey pistol disclosed a diplomatic battlefield of transatlantic tension. The disunity and weakness of the European Union before an adversary with an economy one eighth its size leaves new members feeling exposed to Russian aggression.

D-Day was a formative moment in the Western narrative. But while it led to the fall of Hitler, it led too to Yalta, the imperfect legacy of which lives on.

John Besemeres is a visiting fellow in the ANU Centre for European Studies. He previously taught politics at Monash University and served some 30 years in several Australian government agencies, including PM&C and DFAT.

The critical decision
The single most important decision of WWII was announced on 29 March 1941, almost eight months before the United States actually entered the war. Secret discussions had been proceeding between American and British staff officers since January. Although the imminent invasion threat to the United Kingdom had passed, London was suffering nightly bombing raids, Rommel had just begun his offensive in North Africa, and Yugoslavia and Greece would fall within a month. Adolf Hitler was everywhere triumphant.

Winston Churchill’s policy of resolute defiance was appearing increasingly pointless. Facing political attack at home and military defeat in the field, pressure for a political settlement mounted. The British leader needed a reason to believe he might be eventually victorious. The outcome of the staff talks gave the PM a reason to hold on.

What made D-Day important wasn’t what happened on 6 June—far more crucial was the decision that it would, eventually, occur. That was the only action that held any hope of an Allied return to the continent and, in turn, the eventual prospect of victory.

It was the prospect of D-Day that convinced Churchill he would, eventually, win and thus kept the Empire in the war. And later, although the possibility that Hitler and Joseph Stalin could ever have brokered a separate peace was always remote, the pledge of eventual invasion helped bolster Russian resolve, ensuring it would keep fighting.

D-Day was vital. Not simply because of what it meant militarily but something far more important— a promise to keep the grand alliance together.

Nic Stuart is a columnist with the Canberra Times.

The strategic meaning of D-Day
Seventy years on, we tend to think of 6 June as the anniversary of an especially important event in WWII. For those of us who weren’t there on the actual day in 1944, the opening minutes of Saving Private Ryan give some sense of what it might’ve been like. But I’d like to paint its strategic importance on a broader canvas, by making three points: about Eurasia, WWII, and history.

First, by early 1944 two authoritarian great powers—Germany and the Soviet Union—were locked in a titanic struggle on the Eurasian continent. Democracy had been largely eradicated from western Europe, and so from the continent that Halford Mackinder had described as the World Island. D-Day was about more than defeating fascism; it was about the reseeding of democratic regimes on the Eurasian landmass.

Second, in terms of the war itself, D-Day should be seen as a roll of the dice on a global scale. Given the allies’ strategy was to win the war in Europe before turning their attention to Japan, the future course of the war in two theatres rested on its outcome. A setback at Normandy would’ve had echoes in Australia’s own region.

And third, we should see D-Day in its broader historical setting. True, if the D-Day landings had failed, the allies could’ve regrouped and tried again. The continental United States was still largely free of war’s damage. But a D-Day that failed in 1944 might’ve seen nuclear weapons used in a second attempt. And Eurasia in the meantime might’ve fallen more extensively under the control of the other authoritarian great power—an Iron Curtain that came down rather closer to the English Channel than the inner-German border.

Few days in any century can match the strategic significance of 6 June 1944.

Rod Lyon is a fellow at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist. 

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.