Articles by " Peter Jennings"

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.

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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.

On the beach: Tony Abbott at Normandy

Australia meets France in this picture of Flight-Sergeant Fred Wood of Adelaide, with the Chief Gendarme in a Normandy village in 1945. PM Abbott’s visit to France is an opportunity to test the waters on the possibility of a French solution to Australia’s future submarine requirement, which could provide a solid basis for defence cooperation into the future.As memories are lost it becomes the role of commemorations to shape our view of history.  The 40th anniversary commemorations of the Normandy landings in 1984 brought Ronald Reagan to Pointe du Hoc, where US Army Rangers had scaled a 130-foot cliff to capture German positions.  Reagan’s speech, regarded as one of the best of his presidency, turned American popular opinion in favour of the ageing actor, reversed a slide in support since the disastrous bombing of a Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983 and positioned Reagan for the fight of his political life to bring down the Soviet Union. The 50th anniversary commemorations in 1994 were heavily focussed on the old soldiers who attended in large numbers in their 70s along with Queen Elizabeth, Bill Clinton and Francois Mitterrand. The French declined to invite Germany’s Helmut Kohl that year, but Chancellor Gerhard Schroder attended the 60th anniversary, invited by Jacques Chirac. Time heals most things.

The political theatre of this year’s 70th anniversary commemorations will be somewhat lower-key than Reagan’s triumph.  Barack Obama will attend, fresh from the maudlin capitulations of his West Point speech on American foreign policy.  Vladimir Putin will be there, showing that populist militarism isn’t dead yet on Europe’s periphery.  Queen Elizabeth will be the only head of state to have attended the 40th, 50th, 60th and 70th anniversary commemorations.  In another mark of continuity, the British press are happily attacking French President François Hollande, for charging media outlets to broadcast the event. Regrettably few veterans are left to participate.

Australia’s direct role in the D Day landings was, on the scale of the operation, quite limited.  Around 3000 Australians were serving in RAAF squadrons and as individuals in British units.  In our own region, the last remaining Imperial Japanese Army and Navy Service combat aircraft were destroyed in dogfights in June 1944 over Papua New Guinea. Australia was gearing for the costly amphibious operations in Borneo.  Tony Abbott’s participation at the 70th commemoration is important though, to recognise the service of a generation who won’t be with us for the 80th anniversary.  As always happens at gatherings of international leaders, Abbott will also have the opportunity to build contacts and pursue current Australian interests.  What should be on the PM’s check-list of things to do at Normandy?

Abbott should promote the message that Australia is a consequential power with the GNP, large defence budget and activist foreign policy that well merits our temporary seat on the UN Security Council, membership of the G-20, and membership of the East Asia Summit, APEC and the rest.  Our military efforts in Afghanistan, Iraq and East Timor show we’re prepared to do heavy lifting on international security tasks.  The PM should dispel the notion that our strategic interests are limited to Asia and emphasise that we’re looking for substantive engagement with European countries as like-minded partners.

Second, Abbott should stress to his French hosts that this particular bilateral relationship has been underdone in recent years.  We should use the forthcoming hundredth anniversary commemorations of the First World War not just to remember our history but also to develop a modern Franco-Australian strategic relationship.  I argued for closer Australia-French defence relations back in February; the essence of the case is here:

In many respects French defence policy showcases what Australia would like more of: highly capable deployable forces and a willingness to use them; a shrinking but sustainable industry base; growing credibility and respect in Washington and bipartisan popular support for a strong military. France has more than its share of economic woes, but in terms of strategic policy settings it has a good hand. That’s a good basis to think about closer cooperation with Australia.

If he has the opportunity, Mr Abbott should pull François Hollande and Barack Obama into a huddle to ask if it’s really the case—or just a self-serving myth—that the US wouldn’t contemplate allowing its weapons systems to be fitted into a French-designed submarine hull.  France is currently the most effective of the major European defence powers; is a NATO ally in good standing; backed the US to the hilt in Libya; and is doing strategic heavy-lifting in Africa.  France and the UK can jointly operate aircraft off a carrier, but we’re supposed to believe that the ultimate no-go zone in alliance cooperation is to provide Australia with an effective submarine capability.  Come off it!  It’s time for the political leaders of the three countries to offer some adult supervision.

A French solution to Australia’s future submarine requirement is one of a limited number of possible ways forward for the Collins-replacement program. Given the money and risk involved, it’s in Australia’s interests to at least test the waters of that possibility.  Progress here could transform the Australia-France industrial relationship and provide a solid basis for defence cooperation into the future.  Seek and you may find, Prime Minister.

Peter Jennings is executive director of ASPI. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.

Abbott in Washington: pep talk time

President Barack Obama boards Marine One at the United States Military Academy at West Point landing zone for departure from West Point, N.Y., May 28, 2014.Barack Obama’s West Point speech shows a man tired of the presidency, weighed down by the war in Afghanistan and unsure of America’s role in the world. Obama is having his LBJ moment. Johnson fought an unpopular war, losing domestic support and ultimately the support of his party. The plain-talking Texan lamented:

I knew from the start that I was bound to be crucified either way I moved. If I left the woman I really loved—the Great Society—in order to get involved in that bitch of a war on the other side of the world, then I would lose everything at home. All my programs…. But if I left that war and let the Communists take over South Vietnam, then I would be seen as a coward and my nation would be seen as an appeaser and we would both find it impossible to accomplish anything for anybody anywhere on the entire globe.

Substitute Afghanistan for South Vietnam and you have Obama’s dilemma. But Afghanistan is a sideshow compared to the Vietnam War and Obama is no LBJ. Read more

The West Point speech is a model of Obama’s foreign policy style: all equivocation-by-analysis. The President points to the different traditions of isolationism and internationalism in US strategic thinking, ‘but I believe neither view fully speaks to the demands of this moment’. He then caveats America’s commitment to world security:

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, when such issues are at stake—when crises arise that stir our conscience or push the world in a more dangerous direction but do not directly threaten us—then the threshold for military action must be higher. In such circumstances, we should not go it alone. Instead, we must mobilize allies and partners to take collective action.

America’s enemies will read this as an invitation to meddle at the margins—Ukraine, the Senkakus, the South China Sea, Syria—the places where there’s no direct threat to the US but where global interests are on the line. America’s friends will read the same speech as meaning they must do more to protect their own interests to be treated as a serious ally.

Tony Abbott will shortly make his first visit to Washington as Prime Minister. He needs to deliver a pep talk to the despondent Obama. Abbott diagnosed the problem 18 months ago on his last visit to DC as opposition leader. Then, he addressed the conservative Heritage Foundation:

What’s remarkable right now is that, perhaps for the first time, the world appears to have more confidence in America than America does in itself. … These are new and testing circumstances, perhaps more testing than any since the end of the Cold War, but that just makes despondency, let alone defeatism, more corrosive than usual.

Spot on, Prime Minister. Abbott and Obama might not be the most obvious pairing: the feisty, instinctive Oxford boxing Blue and the cool, analytical Harvard Law School grad don’t share many connections. So what should the Prime Minister and the President say to each other about the bilateral relationship?

Abbott should say to Obama that Asia is fretting about Washington’s malaise; that China has moved to a new level of on-the-ground pushing to achieve its aims; that America needs to square its shoulders and present a harder-edged presence in the region. Abbott should point to his recent increases in defence spending; remind the President about our willingness to take the fight to the enemy in Afghanistan and the enhanced cooperation agenda with the Marines and USAF in northern Australia; and say that Australia is ready to look at opportunities for expanding military cooperation with the US on space, cyber, BMD, Special Forces and ASW (among other things).

For his part, Barack Obama may want reassurance that Australia is genuine about enhancing defence cooperation. Why should Washington take anything we say for granted when it’s clear from Bob Carr’s diary that he wasn’t signed up to closer cooperation and more concerned about Beijing’s view? Obama should ask why hasn’t Australia done a better job of demolishing the ‘China choice’ red herring.

In short, both leaders need to size each other up and decide how genuine they are about defence cooperation. A tough conversation like this would best be done away from the cameras, with sleeves rolled up, shooting hoops in the presidential gym. That could build a personal connection between PM and President, and a platform for necessary innovation in defence ties over the next few years.

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

Hard power: ‘That’s a knife!’

Chinese surveillance ships sail in formation in waters near the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea.2014 is the year hard power re-emerged as the driving force in international affairs. Hard power is the actual or threatened use of military force to achieve national objectives. It’s an ugly thing, supposedly a relic of an uglier past abandoned by modern states in favour of diplomacy. But after Ukraine, Syria, the Senkakus and the South China Sea, can anyone doubt that the supposed rise of the post-modern peaceful state is an illusion? Hard power is back—indeed, it never really went away. So how should we deal with that reality?

Russia’s open military annexation of Crimea and barely-disguised subversion of Kiev’s authority in Ukraine’s eastern provinces constitute a show of hard power as naked as Hitler’s march into the Sudetenland. On the pretext of protecting ethnic Germans in Czechoslovakia’s northern and western regions, the Wehrmacht occupied the Sudetenland in 1938. Hitler’s domestic status grew; Chamberlain and Europe appeased; America avoided entanglement; hard power won. The comparison with Putin’s behaviour in 2014 is irresistible. Russia will pursue its strategic objectives unconcerned about how badly that pursuit plays in the New York Times, or the Hague. Thus far, Putin must be amazed at the low price imposed on his achievements. Token sanctions amount to nothing when Western slaps-on-the-wrist are countered by massive energy deals with China. Read more

In the Middle East there’s no more fearsome demonstration of hard power than the Syrian regime’s use of all possible measures to stay in control. Assad is a man who knows that losing power condemns him to a personal fate like Libya’s Gaddafi’s—dragged from hiding in a drainage pipe to be beaten to death. Until that moment, Assad’s regime will use helicopters to drop barrels packed with high explosives onto civilian targets. Hard power doesn’t need sophisticated weapons, just determination. In the face of such behaviour, American policy shows the ineptitude of soft power when confronted by sheer ruthlessness. Poised for a military strike in September last year after Assad’s chemical-weapons attack on his own people, America hesitated, then opted for a Russian-inspired plan for Syria to surrender chemical weapons. What seemed likely then is embarrassingly stark now: while Assad handed over some weapons it’s impossible to verify full disarmament. In the interim he’s pandered to the West’s cherished norms of soft-power arms control and consolidated his grip by using simpler ways to slaughter his enemies.

There’s nothing Russia or Syria can teach China about the centrality of hard power to political control. Mao wrote in his Little Red Book: ‘Every Communist must grasp the truth: Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun’. Putin’s actions in Ukraine, though, must reinforce the value of the Great Helmsman’s message in current thinking. From the Senkakus in the north down to the very farthest reaches of the nine-dashed-line, China’s actions in 2014 point to a country determined to assert its maritime sovereignty claims by exercising hard power. Beijing has moved from the passivity of ‘peaceful rise’ rhetoric, through the more assertive diplomacy of 2010 to now, where hard-power behavior at sea and in the air simply asserts China’s control. Weaker neighbours will protest, the international community may object to unilateral announcements of Air Defence Identification Zones, but those count for nothing against the reality of extending practical control over contested areas. Hard power wins.

Around the world, from Harare to Pyongyang, from Tehran to Timbuktu, nasty tin-pot dictatorships and aspirant insurgents will draw comfort from the resurgence of hard power. A clear lesson from the last few years is that getting and using power is the best guarantee against foreign interference. That can’t be a welcome development for President Barack Obama, a former editor of the Harvard Law Review, whose cool intellect seems pained by the increasingly thuggish nature of global politics. Nor are the times fruitful for Secretary of State John Kerry when, despite several months of personal effort, it appears Israel and the Palestinian Authority are no closer to a peace settlement. America’s challenge is immense: it must reconstitute a tired military and shake off its aversion to being dragged into conflicts at precisely the moment the rest of the rest of the world rediscovers the blunt-edged value of force.

What does the re-emergence of hard power mean for Australia? First, there’s no post-Afghanistan peace dividend to be harvested. Second, the Asia-Pacific is a rough neighbourhood. Third, military strength is a prerequisite for being taken seriously in that neighbourhood. Fourth, regional security cooperation is a noble aspiration, and we should pursue it with serious intent, but we shouldn’t imagine it’s the only possible future. Finally, maintaining hard power capabilities shouldn’t be a cause of embarrassment. Military strength may seem old-fashioned, but it underpins the internationalist niceness Australia also brings to the table. Remember Mick Dundee: ‘That’s a knife!’

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

Australia and Canada: a tale of two Tories

PM Tony Abbott and Canadian PM Stephen Harper at APEC 2013.Tony Abbott’s early June visit to Ottawa, Washington, and New York and then to France for the 70th anniversary of the D-day landings, offers a platform for the Prime Minister to set directions in one essential relationship—the US—and two under-rated ones, France and Canada. Each leg of his visit deserves a blog post outlining the strategic opportunities and risks in those relationships. After the PM’s North Asia visit it’s clear the government wants to reshape Australia’s key international partnerships. In addition to the Free Trade Agreements, promoting closer strategic ties with Japan and more open investment relations with China shows the government aims for more than just continuity. In Canberra, where success in officialdom is measured more by delivering stability than change, that reshaping may come as a surprise.

Tony Abbott’s meeting with fellow conservative Canadian PM Stephen Harper will inevitably be overshadowed by his later meeting with President Obama, but we shouldn’t underestimate Abbott’s interest in the Canadian relationship. In February this year he told the Australia-Canada Economic Leadership Dialogue in Melbourne that ‘the relationship is strong but under-developed even though we are as like-minded as any two countries can be. So, I want to make more of this friendship: for our own good and for the good of the wider world’. As Abbott’s speech makes clear, he values the link for its historical foundations in military cooperation during WWI. The PM was too savvy to use the term ‘Anglosphere’, because that would have been reviled by the usual glassy-eyed suspects, but it’s clear the government sees the intelligence relationship between the five-eyes countries as bedrock national security. The question is: what more could or should be done in defence and security cooperation between Canberra and Ottawa? Read more

One thing Abbott and Harper desperately need to do is provide a more positive focus for bilateral cooperation than the one currently dominating discussions of officials and think-tankers. This increasingly negative dialogue focuses on Canada’s security engagement with Asian countries. At the 2013 Shangri La Dialogue, then Canadian Defence Minister Peter MacKay made a pitch for his country’s membership of the ASEAN Defence Ministers Plus grouping. The advance was politely rebuffed on the day by Singapore Defence Minister Ng En Hen. (I wrote about this here.) Since then, joining ADMM+ as well as the East Asia Summit has emerged as a key objective and Ottawa has expectations of Australian assistance to deliver that outcome.

Here we come to the problem: Canberra isn’t disposed to support Ottawa’s membership bids. The Australian perspective is that it has been difficult enough to assure our own membership as an intrinsic part of the region. We back the Singaporean view put by Minister Ng in 2012 that, at this stage, the priority should be put on the effectiveness of regional institutions rather than their inclusiveness. But that Australian perspective has been put with over-zealous bluntness to our Canadian colleagues and risks being misread as a sign we’ve lost interest in a close relationship with Ottawa.

The Canadian view has its own set of blinkers, which in their case goes to the amount of defence contact needed to sustain a credible level of Asia-Pacific engagement. Canadians don’t accept the point that the price of entry to regional security cooperation is a lot higher than token military involvement in multilateral meetings. The two countries have been circling around this buoy for 18 months with Canada growing frustrated at perceived Australian unhelpfulness, and Australia nonplussed about Canada’s expectation in relation to low-cost regional engagement. It’s time for some Prime Ministerial adult supervision to start a more practically-focussed conversation.

What should Tony Abbott put on the table as a start point for a new discussion with Stephen Harper to (as he said in Melbourne) ‘broaden and deepen the relationship between our two kindred countries’? In the defence and national security space I’d focus on bilateral cooperation and suggest four fruitful areas:

  • Agree to review the existing framework of bilateral defence cooperation. A surprising amount is taking place, much of it the product of long standing Service-to-Service cooperation. Some modernisation would free savings and allow a re-focus on newer areas of defence activity.
  • Agree to a mechanism for sharing the lessons of defence equipment procurement, and which looks for synergies in ship-building, combat vehicles and sustainment as three areas where early benefits of closer cooperation might be found.
  • Find ways to make Defence frugality a virtue. The two Defence organisations are similar in scale and design. A more consciously-managed sharing of defence reform lessons could produce savings for both countries.
  • Finally, agree to jointly identify some small scale Defence Cooperation Program activities that can be double-flagged in the Asia-Pacific.

To support those moves both governments will have to get serious about funding activities that bring the two militaries together, but the real commitments will be of time and intellectual energy. We’ll soon see if the two Prime Ministers want real progress or if they’re content with the warm memories of past battlefield experiences to sustain the relationship.

Peter Jennings is executive director of ASPI. Image courtesy of the Office of the Prime Minister of Canada.

Strategy: beware the four horsemen of policy eclipse

Viktor Vasnetsov's Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, painted in 1887.The debate over what constitutes strategy has been enjoyable but, inevitably, failed to reach a shared agreement over the proper shape of the beast. That’s all to the good because strategy is a big concept and should be broad enough to encompass different approaches. I remain puzzled by Rob Ayson’s view (here and here), with its Wagnerian picture of strategy—all purposeful interaction. And Brendan Taylor’s hard-line view, that strategy must be tied exclusively to the use of military force, although admirably Clausewitzian, also strikes me as just too narrow for modern-day needs.

But let’s put those differences to one side. All our debaters hopefully share one view, which is that whatever it is, however it’s done, more strategy is needed to improve government policy making. Yet—and here I go back to my original post about policy making in DFAT—strategy struggles for air right now as a viable policy tool. Make no mistake, dear readers, the enemies of strategy walk amongst us, not just in Canberra, but in the capitals of most countries we count as allies and friends. Think of the policy-making world as a market: some goods sell, others linger on the shelves. Over the last decade or so, two of the biggest selling items in this market have been risk-reduction and crisis management. Those are qualities attractive to many governments. Strategy conceived of as complex, multi-faceted, long term planning (as opposed to Rob’s purposeful Norse God wrestling matches) hasn’t been such a seller. As in any market, if there’s no demand for a good, sooner or later it will go out of production. Read more

Strategy’s future depends on our capacity to vanquish its policy-making enemies: short-termism; risk aversion; groupthink; and failures of imagination. Think of these as the four horsemen of policy eclipse. (I must be warming to the strategy-as-Wagner theme.)

Policy short-termism is driven in Australia by three-year terms for the federal government and by the impact of 24/7 news media coverage. Those two cycles constrain government behaviour, often forcing quicker reactions and outcomes than policymakers can deliver. To take a practical example, the Government’s National Commission of Audit was given a remit no less than to review the quality of all federal government expenditure. Announced in late October 2013 the commission finalised its massive report in mid-February 2014. Government was criticised for not releasing the report until 1 May. Media coverage of the report lasted no more than a couple of days before attention turned to the budget. The whole exercise was hatched and dispatched in barely seven months. The speed of modern politics played out in the media overwhelms strategy.

Risk-aversion undermines the ability of strategic planning to look for new or unexpected solutions to policy problems. Public servants are rewarded for managing risks away, but risk-taking is often an essential part of producing better policy: think of John Howard proposing an East Timor referendum on independence or of Gough Whitlam opening ties with China. Risk-free policy usually means strategy-free also.

Group-think isn’t a new concept, but Canberra is susceptible to it for a number of reasons. First, it’s just a reality that much of the policy-making community is cut from the same cloth—a noble fabric to be sure, but one that’s lacking in diversity. The community tends to school like fish. There are well defined channels for political and public service career success—you only climb a greasy pole one way and that tends to produce widely-shared assumptions and behaviours. Second, Canberra doesn’t have easy access to the business community or other sectors that can bring different perspectives to bear. For strategy-makers, the problem is how to challenge assumptions and unseat old approaches to problems. Are we really being innovative or are we just doing another turn around the fish-bowl?

Finally, there’s lack of imagination. Show me an imaginative bureaucrat and I’ll show you someone who wants to redesign their job. The reward system isn’t really geared to undisciplined creative types. Bow-ties are barely tolerated. But strategy does require imagination and a willingness to question why current policy settings are as they are. Bureaucracies need to find room to allow red-teams and internal-challenge processes. Governments need to find ways to call on this type of policy innovation. Indeed a number of recent Prime Ministers have said they want more imagination applied to policy development.

The four horsemen of policy eclipse are certainly out riding on the Molonglo plain. Those who value strategy need to take account of the challenges they present. Notwithstanding the challenges, good strategy is still the key to shaping good policy. It’s an essential skill for any organisation to nurture and one that ultimately rewards with lasting policy outcomes.

Peter Jennings is executive director of ASPI. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Planning? Bah! Sensible chaps just do strategy

It’s great Robert Ayson took the time to post a rejoinder to my article about why DFAT doesn’t do strategy. Any debate about the purpose and content of strategy is a useful debate to have. But that said, I find Rob’s definition of strategy incomprehensible—a form of strategic mysticism based on ‘more of a state of mind than a formal process’, ‘the encouragement of a specific intellectual climate’ where a ‘small unseen adjustment to one of Australia’s external relationships’ can be as strategic in its effect as a white paper.

Well, how elegant! I’ll have to mention that to our special forces in Afghanistan some time. But I must concede the charge that, in my haste to diagnose DFAT’s condition, I failed to define exactly what this strategy ‘thing’ is that diplomats don’t do and Defence does diligently.

In the defence world, strategy is the planning (that word again) that drives how we use military force to promote Australia’s interests, the pointy end of which is military operations. But defence strategy has a long tail, stretching back to defining the capabilities the armed forces need to run their operations, buying and sustaining that equipment, budgeting to pay for it and training people to use it. That is indeed complex, requiring a quite deliberative effort, rather than just the right state of mind. The business of strategy might well end in combat and that produces the sense of instability that Rob refers to in quoting Lawrence Freedman. In my experience, though, strategy is seldom improved by a ‘dire crisis’—by then it’s usually too late to be making cool appreciations of the national interest. To manage a crisis well, you need a pre-developed strategy, something that informs all those artful ‘small unseen adjustments’ DFAT officials reportedly make. Read more

Of course most strategy isn’t directed to the design and use of military force. The type of strategy DFAT might apply in writing a white paper is more about how we should shape foreign policy to achieve long-term objectives. I can partly agree with Rob here, this type of strategy shouldn’t be about announcing desired end points, so much as it’s shaping the journey to help us get better outcomes. On this measure the Asian Century White Paper is one example of how not to do strategy. Readers might remember that document set a series of targets—Australia will be one of the world’s top ten economies per capita by 2025; our schools will be in the world’s top five by 2025, etc, etc. But how, dear Dr Henry, but how?

Rob and I would probably agree that good strategy isn’t about setting delusional targets for economic and social change. In the DFAT context, strategy is exactly as Rob puts it in his last paragraph: ‘a sharp appreciation of Australia’s interests, [that]…is kept in mind as both big choices and the smallest of adjustments are being made.’ Australia, being a consequential country, perhaps makes more big adjustments than Dr Ayson’s New Zealand, where smaller adjustments may be the norm. But the question I would put to Rob is: how, precisely, do you develop that sharp appreciation of interests? That’s strategy. One can be systematic and deliberative—and that’s what’s known as ‘planning’. Or one can dismiss that approach and pretend that sensible chaps (I use the term advisedly) just know how to do this stuff. Oops, we are back at crisis management.

Peter Jennings is executive director of ASPI.