Articles by " Rod Lyon"

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

Near or far? The choices of a top 20 defence nation

Map_Geopolitic_MackinderAs the wire fences go up in Brisbane for the approaching G20 meeting, I’d like to revisit the topic canvassed by a couple of recent blog posts on what it means for Australia, in defence terms, to be a ‘top 20 nation’. Both Peter Jennings and Andrew Carr have outlined competing visions (here and here) of what it means for Australia to be a top 20 defence player. Both accept our status on the list. But they differ on what that means for our defence and strategic policy. The principal difference between them turns on the extent to which Australia should look out to—and engage with—the wider regional and global strategic environment. Peter’s in favour of doing that; Andrew isn’t. Andrew wants Australia to behave like most other top 20 powers: focusing on its near neighbourhood, and its local, geographic priorities.

Let’s start by clarifying ‘top 20’. Neither Peter nor Andrew define the term, so I’m going to propose two definitions, both of which lead us to a pretty similar group of countries. First, we could simply go with G20 membership. Alternatively, we could go with the top 20 global economies by GDP (as assessed by purchasing power parity). The table below shows the countries in each group in alphabetical order, plus the European Union (EU), which qualifies on both counts. Seventeen countries and the EU are common to both lists; Argentina and South Africa also feature as G20 members; Iran and Spain feature on the economic-size list. Read more

Top 20Whichever list we go with, it’s clear that most of those countries already live in contested strategic environments. Halford Mackinder once said that Eurasia was the World Island, and that whoever ruled the World Island ruled the world. Over half of the 17 countries common to both lists live either on the World Island or on the rimlands around it: those powers don’t need to cast their strategic vision far in order to find their strategic priorities.

Who are the remainder? Well, from the 17, just six more: the US, Canada, Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia and Australia. The US and Canada already tie themselves to the strategic balance within Eurasia and along its rimlands. Brazil, Mexico and Indonesia don’t. That leaves Australia. So, are our strategic interests more like those of the majority of top 20 states whose fate is determined by the World Island, or are they more like the strategic interests of Brazil, Mexico and Indonesia? Personally, I think our strategic interests aren’t much like Mexico’s or Brazil’s, though I must admit I’ve never sat down to do a side-by-side comparison. By contrast, we do share an important overlap of strategic interests with Indonesia, because we’re the two biggest players in Southeast Asia. Still, that overlap certainly doesn’t define the totality of our interests.

Andrew argues that our greatest constraint is geography. If that’s true, we don’t need to worry much about whether we’re a top 20 player or not, since our geography doesn’t change in response to that. But, in a strategic sense, our immediate neighbourhood isn’t ‘world shaping’. And, frankly, it never was. That certainly doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant—indeed, Southeast Asia’s becoming more relevant with each passing year. Nor does it mean we shouldn’t be putting more effort into Southeast Asia. But the world—more particularly Eurasia, the World Island—can still go to hell in a hand-basket while we’re building our patterns of strategic cooperation in Southeast Asia. And that’s not something we want to happen. We, like other strategic players don’t want a world where Eurasia falls under the domination of a coercive great power.

In short, we’re globalists because it’s in our strategic interests to be so. Actually, we’d remain globalists even if we weren’t a top 20 nation—even if, say, more developing countries leap ahead of us on the economic-size list. Still, being on the list means we have the resources to be able to make a difference on the global and regional stage. True, by ourselves, we can’t shape the world: we can often make a difference, not the difference. Few countries can, even among the great powers. But we should see ourselves among the players, and not among the observers.

Rod Lyon is a fellow at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Asian security: responsible orders and responsible actors

Building BlocksAt the centre of Australian strategic policy lies a puzzle: how do we grow a responsibility-sharing order in an Asia of rapidly shifting power relativities? The traditional answer has been to nurture new forms of regional security architecture that would embrace the full range of key players, strengthen the concept of a regional community, and articulate ‘rules of the road’ to codify regional strategic behaviour.

We’ve pursued that strategy over a number of years as a complement to other strands of our policy, including maintaining our alliance with the US (hoping thereby to ensure continued US regional primacy), strengthening the self-reliant capabilities of the ADF, and attempting to grow what might be called ‘critical mass’ in Southeast Asia. We were ASEAN’s first dialogue partner, we played a role in the design of APEC, we were a keen supporter of the emergence of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), and we campaigned for an expansion of the East Asia Summit and its prioritisation within the range of regional architectures. Read more

In a region characterised by nationalism and bilateralism we’ve championed multilateralism as the principal vehicle not just to harness responsibility but to grow it. As Bob Carr wrote back in July 2012:

The expansion of the EAS … creates an institution with the membership and mandate to help manage an increasingly crowded strategic landscape, ensure outward-looking regionalism continues as the bedrock of Asia-Pacific integration and foster habits of cooperation.

That positive picture of regional institutions—with all their managing, ensuring and fostering—has typically been complemented by a negative one of the capacity of individual nations to be part of the solution. As Carr put it:

The strategic rationale for the expanded EAS remains as it was when the idea of such an Asia Pacific community was first promoted by the Australian Government. No national responses—no matter how well crafted—will be enough to resolve the range of challenges confronting us…

But that way of thinking about the problem is changing. Policy hardheads have long argued that multilateral institutions can’t do much of the heavy lifting. Yes, having an ARF and an EAS has value. But even with expanded memberships and greater diplomatic buy-in from key players, the structures meet too infrequently, and chase the low-hanging fruit too determinedly, to provide real confidence that they’ll be effective shapers of the emerging Asia. So increasingly we’re seeing Australian—and regional—policymakers fit another string to the bow.

In short, policymakers are increasingly trying to grow a responsible order in Asia by working more closely with those individual actors that they judge to be already responsible. How do we separate regional actors, though, into those we think make ‘responsible’ contributions to the order and those who don’t? All states do some things that make them look responsible. And some we think of as responsible do things we don’t like—they hunt whales, for example. So a lot turns upon a state’s specific level of commitment to a stable, liberal, prosperous order.

Growing responsibility at the regional level, then, doesn’t just mean showing up for multilateral meetings, and devising new rules of the road. It includes empowering responsible actors vis-à-vis others and working with them, individually, to strengthen what we think are the principal features of the emerging regional order. Some of that work will risk being seen as strategic balancing because some of it is: we can’t build a regional order that has rules on one side of the fulcrum and power on the other. Even responsible orders require defenders. But a commitment to building an order by bilateral spade-work frees us from our earlier mythology of believing that everyone has to belong to the same club. In a deep sense, that doesn’t matter—what matters is their willingness to row in time towards a common objective.

India and the NPT is a classic case. It can’t join the NPT as a nuclear-weapon state, but it can behave in ways that mimic P5 behavioural traits, including by accepting a world of few nuclear states, the need for strict controls on nuclear materials, and the obligation of being a responsible, self-deterred great power. What’s true for India and the NPT is also true for other countries and other regional order-building institutions: what matters isn’t membership, but support for the principle of order-building. If the region’s filled with responsible actors, it won’t much matter what the architecture looks like.

If we’re entering an age when more regional players head down that bilateral order-building route, we should expect to see a partial eclipse of the importance of regional institutions. In their place, we’ll see larger roles played by strong-willed, extroverted national leaders prepared to push an order-building agenda. Over recent decades we’ve become used to strong-willed national leaders in Asia—but introverted ones. Extroverted leaders will be a new phenomenon. The order-building prizes will go the leaders who can do most both to enhance responsibility-sharing and to strengthen responsible partners in that environment.

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

The Australia–Indonesia bilateral relationship: strategic design or muddling through?

Le Monstre RollercoasterLate last year, as the bilateral relationship between Australia and Indonesia struggled with the revelations of the spying scandal, Colin Brown, an adjunct professor at the Griffith Asia Institute, described the history of the relationship in a carnival metaphor:

For anyone interested in Australia–Indonesia relations, nothing so characterises the phenomenon as a car on a roller-coaster. Any rise is followed inevitably by a fall. The ride is never boring, and in a bizarre kind of way it is quite predictable. But sometimes you might hope for a little more stability, a few more moments of calm.

That image of the roller-coaster is an old one—Brown himself has used it before. Indeed, it’s been around long enough (and been true long enough) to induce a weariness in even the most determined optimist. But in this post I’m hoping to convince readers that, strategically, there’s still much to play for here. Read more

Let’s start by looking at Southeast Asia. The table below, constructed from the publicly-available data in the CIA World Factbook, provides a quick economic snapshot of the ASEAN countries based on 2013 estimates. I’ve appended Australia at the bottom of the list just to give a sense of relative economic size.

If we look at the ASEAN figures first, it’s obvious that ASEAN isn’t a collection of evenly-sized economies. If we focus on the purchasing-power-parity measurement of GDP, we see in ASEAN one large economy (Indonesia), five middle-sized economies (Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam), and four dwarves (Myanmar, Cambodia, Brunei and Laos).

GDP (US$)(PPP) GDP (US$)(Official Exchange Rate) Real growth rate Per capita (US$)(PPP)
Brunei $22.25bn $16.56bn 1.4% $54,800
Cambodia $39.64bn $15.64bn 7% $2,600
Indonesia $1,285bn $867.5bn 5.3% $5,200
Laos $20.78bn $10.1bn 8.3% $3,100
Malaysia $525bn $312.4bn 4.7% $17,500
Myanmar/Burma $111.1bn $59.43bn 6.8% $1,700
Philippines $454.3bn $272.2bn 6.8% $4,700
Singapore $339bn $295.7bn 4.1% $62,400
Thailand $673bn $400.9bn 2.9% $9,900
Vietnam   $358.9bn $170bn 5.3% $4,000
Australia $998.3bn $1,488bn 2.5% $43,000

Compared with the ASEAN countries, Australia’s economy is poised between Indonesia’s and Thailand’s. It’s not really like Thailand’s, though, and we can see that by looking at the GDP estimates based on official exchange rates, where’s Australia’s economy is three-and-a-half times the size of Thailand’s. So the two dominant economies in Southeast Asia are Indonesia’s and ours. Between us, we have the first requirement for a meaningful partnership: shared economic strength.

We also have something else that might empower a strategic partnership—a set of complementarities. Analysts often say the relationship has no ‘ballast’; that it’s all sail and no rudder, regularly blown off course by the winds of public opinion. Turning the issue around, though, we have an opportunity to nurture a set of complementarities with Jakarta: we’re a developed economy with a small population and good contacts in the Western world; they’re a developing economy with a large population and good contacts in the Islamic and non-aligned worlds. Those complementarities could form the basis for a genuine partnership—if will exists in both capitals to pursue one.

A third driver of a strategic partnership is a shared sense of strategic transformation: we both live in a region that’s having strategic significance thrust upon it. That’s important. Previously we’ve had plenty of scope to rehearse our differences at the regional level. But with more great powers wanting to play in Southeast Asia’s space these days, we share an interest in nurturing what the Indonesians would call ‘regional resilience’ and what we might call ‘a Southeast Asian power core’.

So far, I’ve put a positive spin on a future partnership. So why don’t we have one? Three reasons. First, the drivers I’ve pointed to above are all abstract. In the reality of everyday events—like boat people, live cattle exports, spying scandals, and drug trafficking incidents—abstract similarities get lost. Second, the complementarities that I identify arise because we’re so different. As Gareth Evans and Bruce Grant observed in their work Australia’s Foreign Relations, ‘No two neighbours anywhere in the world are as comprehensively unalike as Australia and Indonesia’. And third, there’s the issue of priorities. Neither of us prizes a partnership highly enough to make it work. That might be changing. In 2013 we had a conservative political leader campaigning on the slogan of ‘more Jakarta, less Geneva’—but then again Geneva’s never ranked that highly in Australian strategic policy.

So where does that leave us? It means we’ll have a stronger strategic partnership in the future, but it’s as likely to grow from a policy of muddling through as it is from a policy of strategic design. If we want to push a particular design of a partnership, we’re going to have to put heavyweight political muscle behind it. On occasion, the Abbott government does signal that it’s prepared to do that. Still, others have been here before. Paul Keating made a serious effort to improve a relationship he saw as ‘a thin foreign policy crust covering a disappointingly hollow core’. The important difference this time round is Asian transformation: if that doesn’t drive us to work more closely together, I suspect nothing will. It’s do-or-die time for the Australian–Indonesian strategic partnership.

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

North Korea: Kim Jong Un, authority, and a debilitated king

Kim Jong UnKim’s back on deck, albeit walking with a cane. His reappearance yesterday brought to an end a 40-day absence from public view, during which speculation ran rampant about what might have caused it. In response to his reappearance, international media seem to have set aside half-wishful thoughts that he might have been overthrown and returned to a theme of all’s-well-that-ends-well in Pyongyang. But it’s worth unpacking the issue of the missing Kim just a little more. True, no regime change occurred. Still, the absence was so poorly handled by the North there might well be other issues in play here besides Kim Jong Un’s health. Perhaps future absences beckon. In any event, Kim’s health matters—it’s tied up with both his authority in North Korea and the broader issue of the post-Kim North Korea.

During the leader’s absence from public view, North Korean media suggested that Kim was undergoing a course of medical treatment and had been experiencing ‘discomfort’. Speculation about the source of that discomfort ran thick and fast, including gout, diabetes, strained tendons, and ankle injuries. But given the unusual political circumstances of North Korea—Kim’s a young dictator trying to lock down his succession in a country about whose inner-circle politics we know almost nothing—it’s not entirely surprising that other, more sinister, explanations also received an airing. It’s probably true that if Kim Jong Un’s going to be toppled, that’ll occur while he’s still settling into the job—because if he makes it through the early years he’ll probably be there for decades. So any unexplained absence of the leader is bound to draw attention—hence the occasional bursts of black humour that Kim’s discomfort might have been caused by a ‘nine-millimetre headache’. Read more

But there was always a large element of wishful thinking in believing that a regime change had unfolded in North Korea without anyone noticing. And throughout Kim’s absence, as Susan Rice, the US National Security Adviser said at the weekend, there was no actual evidence that he’d been deposed: no signs of a power struggle; no tanks in the streets of Pyongyang. Even the short-notice visit of a high-powered delegation to Seoul suggested that someone was in control and making the principal decisions.

But Kim’s absence matters in ways that go beyond the simple possibility of regime change. So far the image Kim Jong Un’s been building is of an energetic, youthful leader—a decisive personality able to wait out his enemies both foreign and domestic. Tennyson said that authority forgets a dying king, so it’s reasonable to conclude that it has at least some short-term memory lapses about a debilitated one. A prolonged absence—or repeated absences—will do more than feed international speculation about whether dark deeds have been perpetrated by Colonel Mustard in the conservatory with a candlestick. It’ll paint inside North Korea the picture of a vulnerable leader. That’d be a problem for Kim—and not especially helpful for the rest of us hoping to see clear North Korean decisions in relation to a resumption of talks about the North’s nuclear program and a ‘grand bargain’ about the program’s dismantlement.

Moreover, we shouldn’t overlook the bigger questions concerning the future of leadership in North Korea. Here, I would recommend readers have a look at Scott Snyder’s excellent post on the National Interest blog, The Buzz. Kim’s young: he has no heir in the traditional line of succession, and won’t have one for at least a couple of decades. During his absence, media tended to focus a little more upon his sister, Kim Yo Jong. But most of her influence probably derives from her brother. In short, for many years to come Kim’s going to be staring down the barrel of a succession crisis, with no obvious successor.

Kim’s recent absence is a potent reminder of the political difficulties that a dictatorship like North Korea confronts. And yes, we’re talking here about the future leadership of a nuclear-armed country. The issue’s a serious and multi-layered one: thinking about Kim’s absence in the ‘Where’s Wally?’ framework doesn’t quite capture it.

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