Articles by " Rod Lyon"

Australia and Indonesia: minimising maximum possible losses

Prisoner's Dilemma

Peter Jennings and Peter McCawley have both produced thoughtful and insightful posts on why Australia and Indonesia seem to be trapped in a classic ‘prisoner’s dilemma’ game. In this post, I’d like to further unpack why that’s so, and why the outcome of the game seems to almost never vary.

Just to bring readers up to speed, the ‘prisoner’s dilemma’ is a classic part of game theory. A sheriff separately interrogates two prisoners. He has sufficient evidence to charge each with a minor crime, but requires their testimony against each other to pursue convictions for a major crime. He tells each that if they testify against the other prisoner, they can receive a reward while the other goes to jail for five years. If both testify against each other, they’ll both go to jail for three years. If neither testifies against the other, they’ll both simply be convicted on minor charges and go to jail for a year. Read more

The prisoner’s choice is whether to testify or not. If he testifies and the other prisoner doesn’t, he’s rewarded. If he testifies and the other prisoner does too, he gets three years in the slammer. On the other hand, if he doesn’t testify, and the other prisoner does, he’s in for five years. If he doesn’t talk, and his fellow prisoner doesn’t either, they’ll both serve relatively little jail time.

In game theory, the prisoner’s dilemma provides an example of why players ‘rationally’ pursue non-cooperative strategies. They do so because—with each player unable to trust his fellow player—the rational course is to minimise the maximum possible loss. With the game played only once, the optimal strategy for each prisoner is to testify—the maximum possible loss from testifying is three years in jail; from not testifying, it’s five. While the two prisoners remain focused on minimising their maximum possible losses the outcome won’t change.

But something happens in prisoner dilemma games when the game’s played over and over. It doesn’t take the players long to devise strategies of cooperation and keep their mouths shut. Patterns begin to emerge as the games take on a politics of their own, typically coloured by cooperation though punctuated with occasional bursts of non-cooperation and retaliation.

So, let’s turn to the Australia–Indonesia relationship. How is it that after sixty-odd years since the Dutch recognition of Indonesian independence in 1949, we’re still playing individual games of prisoner’s dilemma and ending up with conflict strategies?

In one sense, the answer to that question’s relatively straight-forward: we’re both still insisting on minimising our maximum possible losses. While the players are loss-focused, they tend to overlook the benefits of cooperation. There’s also a second theoretical explanation: the benefits of cooperation just might not seem sufficiently attractive to the players to drive a change of strategy.

But with the game played over and over between states, other variables also enter the game, in particular the rotating political leaderships of each country. Sometimes rotations are fast— Australia’s had five prime ministers since New Year’s Day in 2007. Sometimes they’re slow: President Suharto ruled Indonesia between 1965 and 1998, while a string of Australian leaders succeeded to prime ministerial office. In short, the players keep changing.

Then there are politics and history; they also get in the way. It was always going to be hard work for Australia to develop close patterns of cooperation with a non-democratic Indonesia. Yes, we much preferred Suharto’s New Order to Sukarno’s Konfrontasi. But in truth, opportunities for a genuinely close cooperation between Jakarta and Canberra have only really existed since 1998.

Actually, I think a close look at the past fifteen years does suggests that a pattern of cooperation is growing. But, as with the repetitive prisoner’s dilemma games, we’re still in the early phases of a transition towards cooperation. And the simple truth is that neither prioritises the relationship when considering policy options for deeply-felt problems. In both countries, domestic politics trump the bilateral relationship. Building a pattern of cooperation is going to take time, effort, and sustained political leadership.

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

Re-envisioning the second nuclear age

Banksy's 'Bomb Hugger'

Concepts are long-lived in the world of strategy—so long-lived that we need to revisit them periodically to confirm that their meaning hasn’t shifted. Lately, I’ve started thinking that the notion of a ‘second nuclear age’ has matured a lot during the last twenty years. Indeed, the concept has evolved through three distinct variations, each a little more worrying than its predecessor.

In its first formulation, the concept warned of the potential failure of deterrence doctrine when nuclear weapons spread to ‘rogue states’ such as North Korea. That’s because strategists in the 1990s found it difficult to imagine the circumstances in which nuclear weapons would once more have the prominence in great-power relationships that they had during the Cold War years. In consequence, there was an emphasis placed on the new, the weak and the poor—‘underdogs’ Robert O’Neill once called them—as the future problems of the nuclear world.

In that vein, Keith Payne’s Deterrence in the Second Nuclear Age (1995) and Paul Bracken’s Fire in the East (1999) both signalled the difficulties that deterrence encountered from proliferation. Bracken wrote of a second nuclear age characterised by nationalism rather than ideology; a willingness to use other kinds of weapons of mass destruction, like chemical weapons; impoverished nuclear weapon states; shaky command and control systems; difficulties in communicating and bargaining with the West; deliberate reductions in conventional capabilities to permit greater nuclear capacities; and less willingness to model deterrence policies upon the strict logic of game theory. Read more

Then, in 2004, almost a decade after writers initially began to contemplate the strategic significance of rogue nuclear powers, a small group of strategists—Kurt Campbell, Robert Einhorn and Mitchell Reiss—wrote of the emergence of a potential nuclear tipping point. Regional proliferators risked exciting small proliferation chains—and among status quo powers, not merely rogues. That book contained a set of case studies outlining possible proliferation by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, Germany, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. The broader message about the second nuclear age became more complicated. Rogues were bad enough, but proliferation chains might, indeed, undo the broader global nuclear order, set at its core by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). The NPT had obliged most states to choose their future nuclear identity at the end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s, and thirty-odd years down the track, there was the chance that some had repented of their choice.

In 2015, I think we’re beginning to see the second nuclear age in its third variation. Paul Bracken warned in his 2012 work The Second Nuclear Age that nuclear weapons were returning to relevance among the traditional great-power members of the nuclear club, but tensions between those players have increased noticeably since then. The possibility that seemed remote in the 1990s now seems less remote. The P5 are modernising their weapons—and it’s strategy and not mere technological obsolescence that’s driving those modernisation programs. In short, the strategic significance of nuclear weapons is going up in relation to the ‘top dogs’, and not merely in relation to the underdogs and their status-quo regional neighbours.

This third variation of the second nuclear age (an ungainly expression) carries us into even more difficult terrain. Tensions between Russia and the West have increased, bringing with them both Russian behaviour—like long-range bomber patrols—reminiscent of the Cold War years and echoes of the nuclear debates in Europe during that period. In Asia, uncertainties resulting from the growth of Chinese conventional power are driving a brisker discussion about US extended nuclear assurance. In the Middle East, Iran’s nuclear future—and thus the region’s—is murky.

Nuclear weapons are making a comeback, but we’re sorely lacking in a good understanding of where they’re going to fit in both national and international strategies. If we can’t get rid of them—and we can’t—how can they be leveraged in the current international environment to provide the greatest contribution to international security? Since the end of the Cold War, the generation of nuclear strategic thinkers who concentrated upon such questions has largely passed. A new generation needs to address the topic.

Meanwhile, the topic itself has become harder. Future nuclear strategists aren’t just dealing with the Cold War problem of how to ensure deterrence and stability in a bipolar relationship of risk-averse and economically-decoupled superpowers. Great-power strategic relationships are more multipolar. There are larger worries about the possible leakage of nuclear weapons to non-state actors. And those two earlier waves of the second nuclear age did reflect genuine concerns: rogues and potential proliferation chains now haunt the order in a way they haven’t since the end of the 1960s. A major challenge lies ahead in a field in which we’ve been shedding expertise rather than nurturing it.

Rod Lyon is a fellow at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist. Edited image courtesy of Flickr user Miquel C

Iran and the future of the nuclear order

Ali KhameneiWe’re rapidly getting down to the endgame in the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1. The end of March looms as a real deadline—at least for a political agreement which would subsequently have to be turned into final text. In the US, President Obama has said that he sees no need for a further extension, and that if Iran wants a political solution to the issue, now’s the time to cut a deal. The US Congress has agreed to hold off on new sanctions until the end of March, but if that deadline passes, like previous ones, without an agreement, the administration will find it difficult to keep its domestic opponents of the negotiations in check. So, is an agreement likely? And, if so, what would it mean for other potential proliferators?

Let’s start with the first question: is there the will for an agreement? Frankly, it’s going to be touch and go. Obama himself recently put the likelihood of an agreement at only 50%. And the position of the Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is ambiguous. Recent media reports say the Iranian leader’s in favour of a deal that’s ‘transparent, single-stage and good’, but that he would prefer no deal at all to a bad one. President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif, the smiling, public faces of the negotiating team, don’t have carte blanche to give away the Iranian nuclear program. Read more

But nor are they being asked to. Media leaks suggest the US would be happy with a position from which Iran could not quickly sprint to a bomb. They seem to define that acceptable ‘breakout’ period as one year—meaning they’re unwilling to accept a level of Iranian nuclear latency which would allow Iran to build a nuclear weapon within a year. That doesn’t mean, of course, that they’ve accepted eventual Iranian proliferation. The breakout period just has to be long enough for other options to come in to play. Still, some of Iran’s neighbours, must be wondering whether that breakout period will become the new regional standard and therefore whether they should be thinking about moving consciously towards a matching level of latency.

So far the negotiations have stranded on a set of specific concerns: about the number of enrichment centrifuges that Iran will be allowed to maintain, how long the agreement might last, and what comes after. But the latency question, of which the enrichment question is but a subset, is the big one. And it’s sharpened by previous Iranian behaviour, where Tehran doesn’t have a perfect record of transparency about its nuclear activities.

As American scholar Robert Litwak once observed, the problem is that for the key players involved the negotiations are actually about something bigger than the nuclear program. For Obama, this is his chance to show that the path of negotiation can succeed where the path of military force might fail. And for Khamenei, this is a choice that defines Iran’s future—as either a revolutionary or normal state. It’s not clear he thinks those alternatives are equally balanced: he’s said before that he doesn’t trust the US to lift sanctions even after a deal’s been struck, and thinks Iran should base its future upon a strategy of self-reliance.

But for the rest of the world, too, the negotiations are about something bigger than just the Iranian program. The constraints that the P5+1 (US, Russia, China, UK, France and Germany) define here risk becoming a new standard in the international nuclear order. The emphasis upon limiting Iranian breakout to a one-year timeframe, rather than preventing Iranian proliferation altogether, carries its own longer-term dangers: it might well be, as Henry Kissinger recently observed, a recipe for a future nuclear-armed Middle East.

That’s because what comes after an agreement—regardless of whether that agreement’s for ten years or fifteen—is an issue of great import. Any agreement that essentially legitimises a future Iranian nuclear program rich in the potential for rapid weaponisation risks being seen as deeply damaging, both to regional security in the Middle East and to the broader nuclear order. In short, there’s a lot riding on these negotiations. Both here in Asia and elsewhere, a range of countries will be watching to see what international constraints are imposed upon Iran and for how long. Ten (or so) years at a one-year breakout level might become the new definition of nuclear-weapon-state apprenticeship.

Rod Lyon is a fellow at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist. Edited image courtesy of Flickr user thierry ehrmann.

Japan and the hostage crisis

It isn't all beer and skittles ...Japan’s discovering that being a ‘normal’ state in international relations isn’t all beer and skittles. The brutal death of two Japanese hostages at the hands of Islamic State is, in an ugly back-handed way, confirmation of Abe’s success in growing Japan’s international role. Other players are increasingly seeing Japan as an international actor and have begun feeling out what sort of actor it is. Is it susceptible to coercive pressure against its citizens? Against its territorial claims? Will its international role be primarily that of a follower or a leader? When and how might it resort to use of force? Do remnants of the old ‘Yoshida doctrine’—named after post-WWII prime minister, Yoshida Shigeru—still remain and, if so, in relation to which issues?

Most of those questions don’t have neat answers. Japan’s confronting a problem of strategic identity. Since WWII it’s lived principally on a strategic diet of an alliance relationship with the US coupled—under the Yoshida doctrine—with a low-profile role in international affairs. That doctrine didn’t say Japan would be a recluse, but emphasised its international role as a merchant state and not a samurai one. That role could still have important strategic effects, including by helping other regional countries—like Australia—to grow their economies. But in the harder security realm, the Yoshida doctrine pulled Japan towards non-involvement; in particular, use of force was off the table. In the international response to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, for example, Japan contributed a substantial sum of money towards the liberation effort—but no troops. Read more

Now that the pace of change has begun to quicken in Asia, Japan seems to be heading towards a different identity: an alliance relationship with the US coupled with a higher-profile role for itself in international affairs. Japan’s looking for a new strategic saddle-point where it can be less dependent on the US and—simultaneously—less vulnerable to the growth of Chinese power. With Australia now often touted as Japan’s second strategic partner (after the US) and with a new strategic relationship blossoming between Tokyo and Delhi (possibly also including submarines), plus a new level of engagement in collective security tasks, Japan’s strategic identity is changing. Recent events in the Middle East, though, are stretching an already fraught consensus in a new and unexpected direction, requiring Japanese policymakers to contemplate a more proactive role against terrorist groups like IS, and not merely a more muscular regional presence.

Part of Japan’s strategic evolution seems to be an implicit understanding that use of force is no longer off the table. True, it’s not clear whereabouts on the table it is—probably not in response to the beheading of hostages, despite Abe’s vow to retaliate against their killers—but it now seems to be there, somewhere, amongst the other options. Still, that’s an exceptionally delicate topic for most Japanese; and Tokyo isn’t rushing to deploy its soldiers into conflict situations.

Will the deaths of the hostages prompt a renewed—and possibly intensified—debate about Japan’s strategic identity? Probably. But, as Richard Samuels argued back in 2007, that debate never really stopped in the 20th century. In recent decades it’s swirled between what Samuels identifies as pacifists, Asianists, mercantilists, globalists, realists, neo-revisionists, and new autonomists. Each of those groups will probably have its own views about the hostage crisis, and about how Japan can best address the challenges that lie before it. While there’s already a debate within Japan about the extent to which Abe’s policies—and recent funding decisions—might have incited IS’s demands and actions, that’s only the surface eddy of a much more important set of changes unfolding in the deep ocean currents of Japanese strategy. It’s how those currents change that matters in the long run.

The task for Shinzo Abe—and his successors—will be to guide his country through this transition in a moderate and non-alarming way. Over time, we might reasonably expect a new mainstream to coalesce around an evolved foreign and strategic policy doctrine. I expect that doctrine still to turn upon a liberal internationalist world-view, and don’t believe that Japan, even after the hostage crisis, is about to slide backwards into a new period of ‘small Japanism’. The forces pulling Japan out into the world are stronger than those pushing it towards cocooning.

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

An Australian view of nuclear deterrence

No Australian minister has made a full-blooded speech on nuclear deterrence for many a long year—not since the early 1990s, I suspect. In truth, that’s not surprising: it’s been proliferation that’s grabbed all the attention since then. Moreover, talking about nuclear weapons requires the speaker to perform a delicate balancing act between upholding the current reliance upon nuclear weapons and endorsing a longer-term post-nuclear vision. Because nuclear weapons are—by their nature—scary, the speech has to contain core elements of reassurance and moderation. And there are no votes in it.

True, a succession of governments over the last couple of decades have nailed their colours to the mast on deterrence as part of formal declaratory defence policy. Those wanting to trace the issue through a succession of Defence White Papers (DWPs) since the end of the Cold War should have a look at paragraph 9.7 in the 1994 DWP, paragraph 5.15 in the 2000 DWP, paragraph 6.34 in the 2009 DWP, and paragraph 3.41 in the 2013 DWP. Echoes from those DWPs can subsequently be heard in other ministerial comments—in Stephen Smith’s response to the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament report of late 2009, for example. Read more

But none of the White Papers unpacks government thinking about nuclear deterrence and, in particular, extended nuclear deterrence, in detail. Indeed, most governments seem to have convinced themselves that—on that topic at least—the less said the better. The Rudd government went so far as to say that if extended nuclear deterrence ceased to be effective, ‘significant and expensive defence options’ would come onto the Australian strategic policy agenda—a statement which implies that nuclear deterrence isn’t merely long-lived, but important for Australian security. The Gillard government thought that a bridge too far. Its DWP endorsed extended nuclear deterrence in much the same manner as its predecessors, but the comment about significant and expensive options disappeared.

So what should a more long-winded statement actually say? First, that the government retains its commitment to a Menzian vision of nuclear weapons. Menzians—as opposed to Gortonians and disarmers—are ‘middle-of-the-road’ thinkers. They believe that nuclear weapons can play a stabilising role in international order, so long as they’re held by great powers sensible enough to be self-deterred in their use. They believe that nuclear deterrence works, and that arms control has a distinct role to play both in moderating the tensions between the nuclear powers and in preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons to a less exclusive set of owners. Finally, they believe that US extended nuclear deterrence to its allies, including Australia, works well enough that Australia has no need of its own arsenal (though in just about every protégé state there’s a debate over what ‘well enough’ means).

Second, a statement would say that the government believes a post-nuclear world is possible but not close—indeed, it might be drifting further away. What’s close is strategic transformation in Asia, and nuclear weapons’ role as an order-stabiliser might well have a part to play before that transformation’s complete. Because of that, Australia accepts that its ally, the US, will soon embark upon a wave of nuclear-weapon modernisation, and that nuclear weapons might come to have a more important role in US alliances in Asia than hitherto. Such developments are likely because nuclear deterrence will retain its role as an important gravitational shaper of international relations, and a cap on major-power war.

Third—following on from the second point—that Australia supports the US deploying a nuclear arsenal of the size and shape needed to support nuclear deterrence in general and to extend nuclear deterrence to allies and partners. The Australian government believes that a failure of US extended nuclear deterrence—currently offered as an assurance to nearly forty countries—would not simply be a serious problem for Australia but would likely precipitate a wave of nuclear proliferation that would be destabilising for global and regional order.

Fourth, that the idea of sole purpose that’s underpinned most official Australian commentary about nuclear weapons should be read merely as an empirical statement about Australian strategic conditions in a non-transformational Asia—not as an ideological position denying the utility of nuclear weapons in countering large-scale conventional force. Geography and distance, plus US conventional force superiority, have previously provided Australia with the luxury of thinking about nuclear deterrence only within specific scenarios—such as a nuclear attack upon the Australian continent—but it’s uncertain whether that luxury will endure.

Fifth, that Australia remains a strong advocate of nuclear non-proliferation, arms control and eventual disarmament. A world in which many fingers rest on many triggers would be an unhealthy and dangerous one. But nuclear disarmament can’t be sensibly discussed except in the context of other moves to stabilise and enhance international security.

Between them, those points say the following: Australian policymakers have a sensible, ‘centrist’ approach to nuclear weapons; they believe that nuclear weapons still have a positive role to play in global and regional security; they accept that the US has to field an arsenal that supports its doctrine and obligations; they don’t accept the doctrinal shibboleth of sole purpose; and they favour non-proliferation, arms control and disarmament. And that’s a position we should be willing to put on record.

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

Assessing the US rebalance to the Asia–Pacific

CSIS’s release of its recent report Pivot 2.0—intended to help nurture a bipartisan consensus in Washington in favour of the policy—shows the topic of the ‘rebalance’ is still a live one in US foreign and strategic policy circles. The report succinctly covers a range of issues, starting with the prospects for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and working its way through China, defence, Korea, India and Southeast Asia. Australia’s clearly not seen as a problem—it barely rates a mention.

The US rebalance (née ‘pivot’) dates from the first term of the Obama administration. So at the start of 2015 it seems quaint still to be writing a blog post on the policy. But around the region, and even within the US, it’s a policy about which people remain uncertain. Some critics describe it as merely the name for Obama’s Asia policy, but in private conversations I’ve heard harsher judgments.

So let me put down here a set of assessments about the rebalance. The policy itself emerged from an early policy review undertaken by the Obama administration to identify where the US was overweight and underweight in its international commitments. The answer was that it was overweight in Europe and the Middle East, and underweight in Asia—underweight across a range of dimensions including the diplomatic, military, economic and institutional. Read more

For those who want to see what is—and isn’t—occurring under the rebalance, I’d recommend doing more than reading the CSIS report. Have a look at two other US sources. The first is the presentation that US Deputy Secretary of Defense, Bob Work, gave to the Council on Foreign Relations at the end of September 2014. In that presentation, Work provided a robust defence of the efforts being made to enhance US military capacities across the region. The four largest defence construction projects since the Cold War are all located in Asia. By 2020, 60% of US air and naval forces will be based in the region. And that’ll include the newest equipment, like the F-35s, the P-8s, and the Zumwalt-class destroyers.

In Work’s view, the rebalance is occurring but its effects are somewhat diluted by an even larger global shift within the US defence force—after Afghanistan and Iraq, a smaller emphasis on forward-deployed forces and a larger one on reconstitution of US surge-force capabilities.

The second source is the majority staff report prepared for the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee back in April 2014. That report looked in greater detail at the non-military side of the rebalance—including diplomacy and aid—and in general found a set of policy instruments that were even less well-resourced than the military effort. The East Asia and Pacific Bureau in the State Department, for example, had 12% less funding in 2014 than it had back in 2011.

So yes, the rebalance exists. But it struggles for oxygen, in part because of the broader strategic baggage carried by the president. Moreover, substantial parts of the rebalance will take time to unfold—it’s not designed to address allies’ and partners’ demands for instant gratification and constant assurance. And, even when it’s run its course, the rebalance isn’t going to restore the regional status quo ante China’s rise.

It’s that last point that highlights the extent to which the rebalance faces what we might call a crisis of expectations. Since different people believe it was meant to do different things, they judge it by different standards. Some of those metrics strike me as unrealistic. For example, it’s perfectly true that even after the rebalance is completed, the US’ position in the region won’t be restored to what it was in the glory days of the 1990s. But the rebalance was never intended to do that. It wasn’t meant to reverse the rise of the Asian great powers, nor to roll back the tides of history.

Similarly, the rebalance was never intended to suggest that the US was happy to ignore what went on in Europe and the Middle East. Washington might have thought it was overweight in those areas, but it certainly didn’t think they were irrelevant. So have events in Ukraine, Syria and Iraq distracted the US from Asia? Of course. But the US is a global player, not just a regional one.

The rebalance, even if successful, is merely one variable in a shifting strategic landscape. By itself, it won’t return the US to the position of the ‘indispensable player’ in Asia. Still, its principal value lies in the fact that the policy strengthens Washington’s ties to Asia. And that’s why Australia should want the rebalance to succeed: because its various components—including a comprehensive TPP agreement, a military reorientation into the region, and US membership of key regional institutions—will mean a US more closely engaged with both our and the region’s strategic future.

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

The cluttered security agenda

Swan PathwaysI’m grateful to Kym Bergmann for his recent post on the Prime Minister’s surprise visit to Iraq during bushfire season here in Australia. For one thing, Kym puts on the agenda the whole issue of how we weigh different sorts of security threats and why some get more attention and others less. I take Kym’s post as a plea for greater attention—and resources—to be devoted to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. And he’s likely correct that if it was my family’s lives and home in danger from approaching bushfires I might well think saving them a greater priority than combatting a radical extremist group in Syria and Iraq.

Still, I find myself in broad disagreement with his argument. And that’s because I think challenges from actors who are deliberately trying to change the strategic order are different to those from events (or ‘actors’) who are indifferent to change in the order. I think that judgment remains true even when the indifferent actors kill more people. For example, compare World War I with the 1918-19 Spanish flu. The flu killed more people than WWI, indeed, roughly twice as many, though statistics vary wildly. And its effects were felt across broad swathes of the globe, including Asia, largely untouched by the war. But students in school today are still much more inclined to learn about the war than about the flu. Why? Because one is a geopolitical event and the other a health issue. Putting it in more Clausewitzian terminology, one’s about violence that has political meaning and the other’s about sickness and death. Read more

Death, even in large numbers, isn’t by itself sufficient to get strategists excited. Strategy isn’t about putting a stopper in death. People die every day. It’s politics that gets strategists excited and, in particular, the prospect that orders might change as an outcome of the deliberate and calculated use of force. Why that fixation on order? Because, from an Australian point of view, a stable, liberal prosperous security order is a good thing in and of itself. In the long run, it improves—and saves—lives. And it gives us the time and resources to respond to other issues.

That doesn’t mean strategists are negligent as to whether their country has a robust health system, or good fire-fighting capabilities, especially during bushfire season. Nor does it mean they believe sensible preparations to minimise loss of life and property are wasted. But a bushfire is what it is. A flu virus is what it is. Neither ‘actor’ intends to impose a new strategic order—whether on a country, a region, or the world.

Still, Kym is surely correct that a wider range of issues are now making their presence felt on national and international security agendas. Indeed, since the 1980s two trends have become steadily more prevalent in academia: a ‘broadening’ of the definition of security to include non-military threats alongside military ones, and a ‘deepening’ of the security referents to include a focus on individual security, group security, regional security, and global security alongside the more traditional interest in the security of nation-states. The argument in favour of broadening and deepening is that security should be about more than military threats to states. The argument against it is that it makes for a cluttered, unwieldy agenda.

Australia has to take an interest in the strategic transformation under way in Asia: new great powers are rising, shifting intra-regional balances and prospectively the regional security order. Moreover, it can’t be indifferent to developments beyond its region, particularly in relation to the rise of revisionist great powers or the spread of weapons of mass destruction. And it has to react to the rise—courtesy of power diffusion—of a new strategic player: the militant non-state actor, empowered by globalisation and technology, able to reach out through social media to inspire other individuals and groups half a world away. Now add to that list the worries that typically make it on to the expanded security agenda, including transnational crime, unregulated people movements, natural disasters, and epidemics. Globalisation typically makes those problems worse too—as we’ve recently seen in relation to the Ebola epidemic in west Africa.

So, the agenda’s cluttered. What’s to be done? I’d recommend approaching the problem via Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety. Briefly, the law states, ‘the larger the variety of actions available to a control system, the larger the variety of perturbations it is able to compensate’. In short, the answer to every problem can’t be ‘let’s use the ADF’. As security challenges mount, we’ll need to have in place the variety of institutions and responses that let us cope with them. Thankfully, we don’t need to start from scratch. Australia already has in place a range of emergency services and institutions that help to spread the load, as it were. But there’s no such thing as perfect security. And disengaging from distant problems the better to fight bushfires at home might not be a recipe for a more secure Australia.

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

Escalation scenarios in a changing Asia

BalanceNothing so clearly signals Australia’s involvement in a more strategically competitive Asia as the writings of Australia’s leading strategic academics. In quieter times, our academics focused on the meaning of self-reliance, or the durability of American power in the Asia–Pacific. Gradually, China’s rise made its way onto the agenda. And by late last year academics were busily writing papers about whether intra-Asian conflict scenarios in North Asia might see Australia drawn in.

In a paper published by the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at ANU, Rob Ayson and Des Ball outlined their concerns about possible escalation scenarios in North Asia. Their scenarios turn essentially upon a set of judgments that a minor armed clash between China and Japan could readily escalate; that the Americans would be drawn in quite quickly; and that China might be attracted towards early options for nuclear weapons use. Because of that possible progression, Rob and Des set out some guidance for Australian policy-makers that emphasises the need to encourage both Japanese and Chinese counterparts to believe that they share common interests, and not merely competitive ones. Moreover, they caution that ‘any ideas of supporting Japan and/or the United States in a small North Asian conflict could involve Canberra in a catastrophically escalating war’. Read more

The authors portray the US-Japan security alliance as reassuring in one context, but worrying in another. During peacetime, the alliance is ‘a barrier to war in Asia’; but during wartime it’s ‘fuel for [a Japan–China] conflict’s further intensification’. In particular they worry that US entry into the conflict would increase the possibility of that escalation having a nuclear dimension, even if the US itself remains committed to a conventional exchange.

I buy a limited version of this argument. Yes, a minor armed clash between the two regional powers is possible: not likely, I think, but possible. And yes, that clash might escalate—albeit not in an open-ended way. Yes, the Americans probably would be drawn in, because President Obama has said that the Senkakus are covered by the US-Japan alliance, and that’s the most likely trigger point. So far, so good. But that final judgment is especially alarming. It’s hard to see how a Chinese strategic planner might convince Xi Jinping that it’d be a good idea to cross the nuclear threshold in such a case.

Crossing that threshold early in any conflict is not typical P5 behaviour. Part of the claim the P5 make about their responsible stewardship of nuclear weapons is that those weapons are solely ones of last resort. Would a minor clash—or even a medium-sized clash—in the East China Sea really constitute ‘last resort’? Rob and Des argue that the Chinese would be worried about the vulnerability of their arsenal and want to ‘use it rather than lose it’. In an abstract sense, the reasoning is true—if Beijing really believed it was about to lose its nuclear arsenal. But it’s a wild throw of the dice: would Chinese leaders so readily risk everything they’ve struggled so hard for during the past 30-40 years?

Rob and Des don’t actually suggest that the Americans would launch a first-strike against the Chinese nuclear force; nor even a substantial conventional attack against the force. But they do believe that the degradation of China’s command and control assets might tempt the Chinese to conclude that their own nuclear force was slipping out of their reach. That’s true; it might make them believe that. But believing that should give them a powerful incentive for war termination.

This morbid fascination with the potential consequences of China–Japan strategic frictions also found echoes in the work of Nick Bisley and Brendan Taylor, who focused on the extent to which ANZUS might suck Australia into a North Asian conflict. Nick and Brendan are also interested in escalation dynamics, especially insofar as those serve as conductors for Australia’s own involvement. Amongst their recommendations, the single most contentious must surely be that Australia should be working now to manage US and Japanese expectations that it might have a role, while creating maximum freedom of manoeuvre with Beijing. Personally, I would have cast that the other way around: we should be managing China’s expectations that we’d be uninvolved and indifferent, while exploring maximum freedom of manoeuvre with the US and Japan.

The new interest in North Asian flashpoints marks a clear historical shift from an earlier era when the dominant Asia–Pacific flashpoints tended to be listed as the Korean peninsula, China–Taiwan, and South Asia. That brief list remained essentially unchanged for decades. But no longer. Regardless of whether readers agree with their arguments or not, what’s striking is the new interest of Australia’s academics in the emerging strategic balances in the region—not just the balance between the US and China, but those between the Asian great powers.

Rod Lyon is a fellow at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist. Image courtesy of Flickr user Mac(3).

Editors’ picks for 2014 ‘Security and liberty: a schematic’

Originally published 9 September 2014.

In recent weeks, three of my colleagues have written about the appropriate balance that we should attempt to strike between national security and civil liberties. Toby Feakin began the series with a post which argued that positioning security and liberty as opposite ends of a single spectrum, and then trying to find an appropriate balance point, was an inadequate way of thinking about the topic. Anthony Bergin replied that striking some sort of balance between security and liberty was a practical necessity. And Andrew Davies argued that having appropriate oversight mechanisms in place is a necessary condition for allowing secret state powers within a liberal democracy.

In this post, I want to explore the relationship between security and liberty. Stating the argument at its bluntest, I don’t find it helpful to think about security and liberty as the end points of a single spectrum. That’s because security and liberty aren’t polar opposites of each other. The opposite of security is insecurity. And the opposite of liberty is control. So if we want to explore the relationship between them, we should have a schematic that looks something like this:

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Positing the relationship that way gives a better picture of what we’re trying to do. Ideally, as a liberal, democratic society, we’re trying to find security measures that land in the top left quadrant—the ‘sweet spot’—where we enhance our security in ways that accommodate our civil liberties. The core of our national discussion should be about that quadrant because it lets us have both liberty and security. We don’t trade them off against each other; we seek ways to achieve both simultaneously. Doing that isn’t easy; it involves debate and hard work—especially since security and transparency aren’t always compatible objectives.

A different problem begins once we reach proposed security measures that don’t fit the sweet spot quadrant, because then those who we might call ‘libertarians’ and ‘securitisers’ head in different directions. The libertarians—those who value liberty higher than security—default into the top right quadrant and tolerate a higher level of risk. The securitisers—those who value security higher than liberty—default into the bottom left quadrant and tolerate a lower level of liberty for the gain of feeling more secure. I’m uncertain who, if anyone, lives in the bottom right quadrant, though some might end up there temporarily and by accident.

The strength of the libertarian default position depends on the level of risk. The higher the risk becomes—say from a serious bird flu epidemic—the harder it is to argue that civil liberties can remain unconstrained. Several countries in West Africa are facing those sorts of challenges today in relation to the Ebola outbreak. Conversely, the strength of the securitiser default position depends on the existence of a clear and present danger—unless such a danger exists, democracies don’t usually tolerate stricter controls.

As a liberal, democratic society, Australia should be reluctant to trade away liberties for gains in security. Having a liberal society doesn’t usually require us to be unsafe: much can be done in the sweet-spot quadrant, especially when threats are clear. The bottom left quadrant is the natural home of authoritarian governments and dictatorships, who are typically unconcerned about civil liberties. It should require extraordinary dangers for us to venture there.

Still, extraordinary dangers do sometimes arise—dangers that force us to devise and impose security measures outside the comfort zone of the sweet spot. When they arise, the usual reaction of governments is to move towards the securitiser default position, and not towards the libertarian default position. Few governments respond to new threats by becoming more libertarian. But for a liberal democratic government, time spent in the securitiser default quadrant becomes a factor in its own right. ‘Emergency measures’ are for emergencies, after all, not for normalcy. The measure of a liberal democracy is how quickly it can shape those new protective measures to allow it to return to the sweet-spot zone.

I suspect all of my colleagues are actually having a discussion about three things: what we can and can’t do in the sweet-spot quadrant; when we should and shouldn’t contemplate alternative measures; and how we might qualify those measures to better protect our civil liberties. Seeing the security–liberty issue as a two-axes problem and not a single-axis one helps us sharpen both questions and answers.

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

Retrovision, 2014

Looking back on 2014

Humorists often say that hindsight is 20/20 vision. Not so. Historians will tell you that we often don’t see things clearly even in the rear-view mirror. As ASPI begins its shutdown for the Christmas–New Year break, it’s a good time to reflect on where we are at the end of 2014.

Let’s start with the great powers. The US remains hesitant, its leader a Jeffersonian, its middle class sucked down by lack of employment opportunities and a declining share of the national cake. In his first term, President Obama used to talk about the recovery of the US middle class as the path to US leadership in the 21st century. That recovery hasn’t happened. The US remains the world’s dominant power, but there’s an uneasiness about its leadership. In Asia, allies and partners remain anxious about the US rebalance—which is happening, but not at a pace sufficient to satisfy their need for instant gratification and not to an extent that restores the US position in the region to what it was in earlier decades. Read more

In Russia, Putin’s charted a course to the past—not to the communist past, but to the Tsarist one, where supreme leaders weren’t constrained by the dead hand of communist bureaucracy. Putin enjoys having adversaries; he thinks Russia gets more attention that way. He’s not shy of using Russian hard power. We’ve seen that in Ukraine and in the resumption of long-range naval and air patrols. Earlier this month the Russian foreign minister was claiming Russia’s right to station nuclear weapons in Crimea; a claim designed to intimidate. But the Russian economy’s struggling, and with oil at its current price it’ll struggle more in 2015. Not a good combination of factors.

Xi Jinping’s China reached a Purchasing Power Parity milestone this year—becoming the world’s largest economy. But its strategic signals remain confusing. The concept of ‘Asia for the Asians’ that Xi outlined in May at the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia didn’t play that well in Asia, not least because of Chinese pushiness in the South China Sea and East China Sea. And it’s never quite clear what Beijing wants in terms of regional order. Its own picture of order seems historic rather than contemporary. It describes the current order as hegemonic, and of course in a real sense it is—but it reflects a hegemonic power interested in liberalism, prosperity and peace. China rose under that order. Its own preferred vision, ‘Asia for the Asians’, implies a closed regional system of a sort that hasn’t existed since the Opium Wars.

In Japan, Shinzo Abe’s government attempts a difficult balancing act in trying to be both evolutionary and revolutionary at the same time. Abe has a difficult task in front of him: defining a ‘normal’ role for Japan in Asian security, when the 20th century was comparatively bereft of convincing examples. Changes of leadership in both India and Indonesia raise the prospect that both countries might also be feeling their way to more expansive regional roles, but both are works in progress. Australia would especially welcome the opportunity to work more closely with Jakarta in the field of regional security.

In Europe, NATO allies are more nervous. Not nervous enough to make a substantial lift in their defence spending—Germany remains at 1.3% of GDP—but nervous enough to make the NATO summit in Wales one of the more important in recent years. NATO has rediscovered its strategic purpose, and it turns much more upon European defence than out-of-area deployments.

The Middle East retains its status as the world’s last geopolitical shatterbelt. Syria and Iraq now form the new crush zones between the Sunni and Shia worlds. There’s little the West can do to change that. Meanwhile the negotiations continue to constrain Iran’s nuclear program. Some form of agreement now looks more likely than not—but it’ll probably be one which leaves Tehran with a degree of nuclear ‘latency’ that the neighbours will find concerning.

In Australia, the recent events in Martin Place have cast a shadow over what’s primarily been a good year. Canberra’s concluded a range of Free Trade Agreements with rich partners, struck up a new strategic relationship with Tokyo, cemented its place in the G20, and committed to a target in defence spending of 2% of GDP. But it’s hard to escape the feeling that there’s much more that needs to be done, especially if Australian strategic policy is to keep pace with the transformational changes unfolding across the Asia Pacific.

At the Carnegie Endowment, the retiring president Jessica Tuchman Matthews recently depicted the coming year, 2015, as ‘a world confused’. Sounds like more of the same is on the way.

Rod Lyon is a fellow at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist. Image courtesy of Flickr user Bob B. Brown.

Australia as a ‘top 20’ power: balance, interests and responsibilities

FishIn wrapping up the Strategist debate on Australia as a ‘top 20’ defence power, I’d like to thank the other contributors for a fascinating exchange. Peter Jennings’ initial contribution drew a thoughtful response from Andrew Carr, and the series unfolded from there. Contributions from John Blaxland, Nic Stuart, Peter Dean, and Andrew Smith subsequently helped to illuminate the shape of the battlefield. Looking back over the contributions, the core difference that emerges is the one between regionalists and globalists. Carr, Blaxland and Dean are regionalists. Jennings and I are globalists. I think Smith’s a globalist by virtue of alliance. And Stuart’s got a foot in both camps.

I want to use this final post to talk about three things that seem to me to underpin the debate: the notion of ‘balance’ in our global and regional imperatives; Australia’s strategic interests; and the concept of international responsibility. Rolled together those factors become something like an exploration of Australian strategic identity.

Several contributors mentioned the need for Australia to strike a balance between its global and regional roles. I think that’s an important point. But I don’t think past Defence White Papers have been good at setting the balance between the near and the far in Australian strategic thinking. The layered concentric-circles model is structurally biased, because the circles lead ever downhill, emphasising a supposed declining interest in the more distant ‘issues of strategic concern’—to use Peter Dean’s phrase—and a strategic prioritisation on ‘fundamental issues’ close to home. The concentric-circles model doesn’t help us strike a balance; indeed, it doesn’t even pretend to be interested in the concept of balance. If we want to do some balancing between near and far, then we need a different way to think about Australian strategy.

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As I wrote in an earlier post, I think geopolitics should be seen as the key imperative in our more distant commitments: we don’t live on the Eurasian continent or along its rimlands, and that’s where the core of world order is set. We could be strong in our own neighbourhood, and there’s some merit in doing that: academic studies of war show that good relations with neighbours are an excellent starting point for a peaceful life. But we’d rule in the sandpit, and not play on the beach.

So I want to use the remainder of this post to talk about interests and responsibilities—because either factor might underpin a stronger notion of balance than mere geography does. If we ask ourselves where we have strategic interests and responsibilities in the world, then it strikes me that we can answer that question differently at different times. We can’t answer a question about geography differently at different times. In both world wars, for example, we had interests in not sitting out a global struggle that could determine the fate of democracies, even when those struggles were a long way away. Similarly, we might say we had a responsibility not to sit them out.

So, interests. Where do our strategic interests begin? I think all our contributors accept that Australia has global interests; where they differ is over how much and what sort of effort they think we should devote to protecting them. Peter Dean argues that we should pursue them primarily via diplomacy. I’ve argued before that we should make better use of the political arm of policy and not think about strategy in exclusively military terms. And, in fact, Australians are much more accustomed to globally-active foreign ministers than globally-active defence ministers. But diplomacy only gets us so far; I don’t think parachuting Julie Bishop into Iraq is going to solve that problem for us.

John Blaxland thinks we should make niche contributions to distant engagements, à la previous DWPs, and not be sucked into a Middle-Eastern vortex of ill-defined objectives. Again, there’s something to be said for a calibrated deployment to a distant battlefield—but only if it gives you what you want. For too long what we’ve wanted is Washington’s attention, not military victory. G20 countries shouldn’t fawn to get attention. Peter Jennings favours our fronting up to global problems, including with appropriate levels of military engagement. Some will ask ‘what’s the appropriate level?’ Good question—it certainly isn’t self-defining. Wars against revisionist great powers fall into a unique category, but we can and should debate our other commitments—in terms of our interests and responsibilities.

Finally, a few words on responsibilities. Do powerful countries have greater responsibilities than weaker ones? Well, hegemons typically have responsibility for the orders they create. But the push for Australia to do more isn’t just coming from Washington. If we look at the recent statements by Abe, Cameron, Xi, Obama, and Modi, several of the bigger G20 players seem to be asking us to do more. I don’t believe a benighted world awaits the Aussie enlightenment. But I do think with power comes responsibility, and our responsibilities run wider than being the big fish in a small pond.

Rod Lyon is a fellow at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist. Image courtesy of Flickr user Robert Couse-Baker.

Extended nuclear assurance: another thread in the tapestry

Another thread in the tapestry

Last year the government released a range of documents relating to Australia’s approach to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The documents, dating between 1945 and 1974, were edited by Wayne Reynolds and David Lee and published as part of DFAT’s Historical Series—a series that has previously done good work in relation to Timor-Leste, ANZUS and other topics. An electronic version of the latest text is available here.

I’ve been reading the manuscript off and on over the last couple of weeks, and the work certainly deserves greater public attention than it has so far attracted. Yes, the documents are heavily redacted—the phrase ‘matter omitted’ appears with depressing frequency. Still, what’s included is comparatively frank—and revealing. Moreover, given the scarcity of material released from Defence files across this period, some glimmers of policy thinking are better than none. Read more

The documents cover a number of policy issues surrounding the central question of whether or not Australia should sign and ratify the NPT. Some details come as a surprise. For example, we learn that some officials were giving consideration to Australia’s seeking recognition as a nuclear weapon state (NWS) under the NPT. Since the country had already hosted a range of nuclear tests on its territory, and Australian personnel had been engaged collaboratively in a number of non-explosive nuclear activities, the bare bones of an argument existed that we had a case to be treated as a NWS. (See paras 36–37 in Document 89.)

These days the broad outline of Australia’s nuclear history is no secret. But time and again, the documents reward the reader with interesting insights. The record of the interdepartmental meeting on 19 April 1967 (Document 88), for example, contains an assessment of where Australia then stood in its technical capabilities. In the words of Sir Leslie Martin, one of the defence scientific advisers at the table, ‘No other country outside the nuclear powers knew more than we did on nuclear weapons. Our physicists had participated in explosions. We had seen what was inside a weapon, and knew how to make it’. No wonder Australia appeared on the CIA’s 1963 assessment of possible future nuclear weapon states.

As the prospect of a treaty gathered pace, officials became anxious to ensure that it didn’t cut off Australia’s options. Similarly, they worried about the safeguards provisions, and how intrusive those might be. But my own interest lies more in their worries about security assurances: whether the ANZUS treaty guaranteed protection against a nuclear attack or large-scale conventional attack, and whether in the event of such an attack the political pressures would favour US nuclear retaliation on our behalf or not.

Many conversations, with the Americans and others, cover that topic. Of particular interest is the following text taken from an aide-memoire sent by the US government to the Australian government on 1 May 1968 (Document 126):

The United States Government fully appreciates the reasonableness of the Australian Government’s intention to give the Nonproliferation Treaty careful study. However, the United States Government believes that the question of Nonproliferation Treaty security assurances is one of primary concern to non-aligned non-nuclear states and not to military allies of the United States, who are already covered by the nuclear protection of the U.S.

Australia is an especially close ally of the United States, having joined with the United States in two security treaties—the ANZUS Pact and the SEATO Pact. These alliance commitments are stronger than any we could give to non-allied states in conjunction with the Nonproliferation Treaty. The strength of our security commitments pursuant to treaties of alliance is based not only on the treaties themselves but on a history and tradition of close political and military collaboration. The United States and Australia have fought together as allies in World War II and Korea, and are now fighting together in Vietnam. The sacrifices which the United States is sustaining in Vietnam testify to the seriousness with which the United States views its commitments.

That final clause of the first paragraph is especially interesting: US allies are ‘already covered by the nuclear protection of the US’. I’ve previously written that a public form of the US extended nuclear assurance to Australia can be found in the Nixon Doctrine, Clause 2 of which was interpreted by both government and opposition in Australia as constituting such an assurance. From the aide-memoire, it’s clear that other confidential assurances preceded that.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the words by themselves don’t appear to have satisfied the doubters. Document 153, for example, records Minister for External Affairs Paul Hasluck’s doubts in a discussion with the Italians in September 1968: ‘would the United States use its deterrent to save 12 million people in Australia, in the knowledge that this action would immediately endanger 200 million people in the United States?’

But the declassified documents verify one important fact: the doubts about extended nuclear assurance that have waxed and waned in Australia over decades don’t stem from the failure of the US to provide such an assurance. They stem from the failure of some Australians to believe it.

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