Articles by " Rod Lyon"

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.

Shared and non-shared strategic interests in Australia–China relations

See-ming LeeWhen Prime Minister Abbott addressed the Boao Forum in China in early April, he told his audience that ‘Australia is not in China to do a deal, but to be a friend’. Actually, since he was towing behind him one of the largest business delegations ever to leave Australia, perhaps he should have said Australia is in China not only to do a deal, but to be a friend.

I take the prime minister’s statement as a sign that the Abbott government is determined to build upon the recently-agreed strategic partnership between Australia and China. But if we’re going to do that, then both countries need to speak candidly about their shared and non-shared interests in the strategic field. If our shared interests are thin, so too will be our relationship; if they’re thick, our relationship will similarly be thick. Australia and China have many interests in common, and there’s much more they could do together if they wished. But there’s also a list of topics on which they disagree—and glossing over those doesn’t help. Read more

Let’s start with the interests we share—not the obvious trade interests that arise from our high levels of economic complementarity, but the actual strategic interests. We both want a peaceful Asia, where development can occur and defence budgets are low relative to GDP. We share a strategic interest in Asian prosperity, as a driver for regional unification, and we oppose the formation of separate economic ‘blocs’—because those could quickly harden into opposing strategic blocs. We share a strategic interest in regional non-proliferation, not least because of the prospects for a proliferation ‘cascade’. Similarly, we share a strategic interest in secure sealanes, both our societies being heavily dependent on trade. (Perhaps more than any other factor, it’s that interest which suggests China’s strategic future will be more closely tied to the maritime-dependent world than some believe.) We share a strategic interest in countering Islamic extremism and addressing the concerns raised by the return of foreign fighters from Iraq and Syria. And we share a strategic interest in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief—reflected most recently in our cooperative engagement to search for the missing Malaysian flight, MH 370.

But it’s not all sunshine and puppies. We hold different views about the current regional order, which China sees as hegemonic and we see as stable, liberal and prosperous. We hold different views about future US engagement in the region: Australia sees the US alliances in the region as durable and beneficial; China sees them as the hangovers of an earlier era. We hold different views of the regional role of Japan: China’s more anxious than Australia about Japan returning to play a larger role. And we hold different views about territorial claims: China sees itself as a great power whose own national unification project isn’t yet complete, whereas Australia sees the competing claims of the various claimants in the East China Sea and South China Sea as justiciable (resolvable by international law) but—when pursued by force—disruptive to regional security.

That’s an important set of differences. In relation to future regional order, it’d be nice to get a clearer picture of what China wants. Sometimes Chinese visitors tell us they don’t see why China should be obliged to buy shares in a company where the US is already the CEO and Japan and Australia sit on the board of directors. Fair enough, but that’s just a statement about what China doesn’t want. Is it meant to be a subtle way of telling us that China wants to design its own company? Or would it like a G2 arrangement, whereby it shares that CEO role with the US? A G2 arrangement isn’t likely to fly in Asia: it’d marginalise too many security arrangements that lie at the core of the current order. If China wants to encourage ‘buy-in’ to a conception of the regional order that turns on a larger role for itself, it needs a clearer presentation of what that order would look like, and how it would work to the region’s benefit and not just China’s.

The alliance point is just as serious. The more Chinese representatives travel the region talking about US alliances as a hangover from yesteryear, the more they’ll stir resistance and resentment. In Australia, many strategic analysts agree that ANZUS is a more useful and more functional alliance now than it has ever been before. Far from being in decline, US alliances in the region look likely to last for many years to come.

What does all that mean for the future? The two countries have a healthy list of shared strategic interests, and should be canvassing ways in which they can both contribute—individually and jointly—to the realisation of those. But we also need to understand better through frank dialogue the points on which we disagree, because those are important issues—they go to the heart of the future regional order in Asia, a topic dear to all our hearts.

Rod Lyon is a fellow at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist. Image courtesy of Flickr user See-ming Lee.

Assessing the Ebola outbreak

Scanning electron micrograph of Ebola virus budding from the surface of a Vero cell (African green monkey kidney epithelial cell line. Credit: NIAID

The diagnosis of the first case of ‘imported’ Ebola in the US has heightened public awareness and anxiety over the current outbreak in west Africa. The development sits atop a wave of recent depressing assessments. Last week, the Center for Disease Control issued a projection that tried to allow for the infection rate beyond the official count, and that factored in the rate at which infections are doubling in the different west African countries. That report makes for sobering reading: it’s the source of the latest projection of a possible 1.4 million cases by January 2015. Moreover, CDC has revised upward its estimate of the virus’s morbidity rate, from roughly 50% to a more precise 71%. That’s a high figure.

The World Health Organisation has added to those concerns by noting that we might be witnessing a long-term shift of the virus out of the animal kingdom to become endemic in the human population. And the International Crisis Group has pointed to the social and political dynamics associated with the outbreak, suggesting we might see the ‘collapse’ of west African nations under the burden that Ebola is imposing. Read more

The Ebola crisis is still swelling in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, cutting a swathe through first-line medical responders (often small in number to begin with), weakening the capacity to cope with normal medical tasks, and biting into economic productivity and tourist rates. In recent weeks, we’ve seen a New York Times article canvassing the possibility that the virus might ‘go airborne’; an observation from a doctor in Germany that the virus might have to ‘burn itself out’ in the current areas of major infection, possibly killing five million people; and Kent Brantly’s testimony that Ebola is ‘a fire straight from the pit of hell’.

Let’s put some of that into perspective. First, the outbreak in Africa derives part of its vigour from the weak national health infrastructures deployed against it (patients are routinely turned away from over-crowded hospitals), and the culture of fear and denial that surrounds the virus (seen in the attacks upon—and sometimes the killing of—aid workers sent into remote communities to help raise awareness of the disease). Infrastructures can be boosted and cultures can be changed, but it’s not quite as easy to do either as some claim. Countries that already have strong health systems and greater public awareness about the disease are better placed to respond to it.

Second, and less well noticed amongst the slew of bad news over the last week or so, has been an item of good news: there’s evidence that the outbreak is coming under control in Nigeria and Senegal, with no new cases of infection being reported in the past 21 days.

Third, experts dispute the notion that the virus can easily ‘go airborne’. For it to do so, it would have to mutate to target respiratory cells as a preferred infection route; and it would have to become more resilient at surviving outside its host’s body. Some say that’s possible: that influenza made that jump in the past. Others say the possibility of Ebola making the jump is remote.

Fourth, the CDC points to the continuing efficacy of isolation as a primary treatment. The fact that hospitals and treatment centres can contain the disease has much to do with their ability to isolate patients and thereby decrease the transmission rate to others. If early cases are treated properly, the disease has little chance to spread.

Because of globalisation, we’re always worried these days by the prospect of ‘diseases without borders’. That’s a legitimate concern. Disease experts have for some years written about the growing viral superhighway that globalisation provides. But not all viruses are equally adept at travelling along the highway. Monkeypox proved capable of reaching out from west Africa to Wisconsin in 2003, infecting five-year-old Schyan Kautzer: an imported Gambian giant rat in a US pet store passed the disease to a prairie dog which passed the disease to humans, one ocean and half a continent away from its usual habitat. It was observed at the time that it was easier for a Gambian rat to enter the US than it was for a Gambian: the rat needed neither passport, nor visa, nor funds to pay for its own airfare.

But with the current Ebola outbreak, we’re primarily talking about the movement of infected humans across national boundaries. That’s what happened in the US case—travel occurred before the individual showed any symptoms—and it’s certainly possible that similar cases might spring up elsewhere. Still, most Ebola victims aren’t travelling anywhere fast; and key infection points don’t have strong connections to the globalised world. Of course if the virus were to entrench itself in a city like Lagos—unlikely if the Nigerians really do have the outbreak under control—that’d be more concerning.

But if Ebola probably isn’t going to be a major problem for most of us, it’s already one for a small number of countries in west Africa. Australia should do what it can to help tamp down the latest outbreak—both in the name of humanitarian assistance and to minimise the prospect of Ebola exploring its own mutational possibilities.

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

A world of Scotlands

The Not So Distant Past 1Regardless of how the Scottish referendum on independence turns out, it’s worth putting the event into context by recalling some basic facts concerning the rate of state proliferation. That’s not a topic that gets a lot of attention in news media. But how many countries do you think there are in the world today? Actually, the answer depends on how you define ‘countries’, but ‘about 195’ wouldn’t be too far from the truth. Given there were 68 in 1945, the number of countries in the international community has—roughly—trebled over the past seventy years. In short, state proliferation has been a powerful force, even during those Cold War years that we like to think of now as a veritable model of strategic stasis.

Moreover, there’s no reason to think the number of countries in the world has peaked. In his work on geopolitics, Saul Cohen, for example, argues that ‘the creation of up to fifty additional quasi- or fully independent states over the coming decades will change the territorial outlines and functions of many major and regional powers’. Indeed, political disaggregation will likely continue despite—indeed, partly because of?—the centripetal forces of globalisation, as testament to the strength of what we might call ‘identity politics’. Read more

These days, there’s a popular myth that state boundaries tend to be fixed and inviolable—witness the recent outcry over the de-facto annexation of Crimea by Russia. In reality, though, state boundaries are not nearly as fixed as many might imagine. Take a look at this brief three-minute video of how borders have changed in Europe over the last thousand years. It requires no great act of imagination to believe that an independent Scotland might arise—nor that it might, at some point in the future, be reabsorbed into the United Kingdom. Over long time frames, change seems normal.

The map’s not good at depicting the global growth in the number of states over the last seventy years—not least because decolonisation was a strong driver of state proliferation and most of that happened away from European shores. Nor is the map a good indicator of strategic angst. Seen at a distance—on a computer screen or from the other side of the world—state proliferation is an interesting phenomenon to watch. Seen close up, it’s highly unsettling and strategically unnerving. Consider the attempts by the Bougainville Revolutionary Army to force Bougainville’s secession from Papua New Guinea. Or remember when East Timor gained its independence from Indonesia and the effects that had on the Indonesia-Australia relationship? Similar effects, perhaps more severe, would attend any move towards independence by West Papua.

And so far we’re only talking about relatively small cases of state proliferation. While some might think the prospect a Black Swan event, a broader break-up of the Indonesian archipelago, for example, would have major geopolitical consequences—indeed, it would fundamentally reshape Australia’s strategic environment.

Whether Scotland votes for independence or not, the big message is that state proliferation remains an important driver in international politics, and our own region is not immune to it.

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

Security and liberty: a schematic

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.

The US and nuclear weapons: a turning of the tide?

While President Obama is still remembered most clearly in the public mind for the anti-nuclear language in his Prague speech of 2009, a string of events in 2013–14 suggest that a shift of emphasis is occurring in relation to nuclear weapons.

Given the intensity of media focus on a series of crises this year—Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, Ebola, and the South China Sea to name just a few—readers may be forgiven for having failed to notice that another important, though more incremental, development has also occurred. With each passing month it becomes clearer that a mood of nuclear realism is unfolding in US strategic policy. While President Obama is still remembered most clearly in the public mind for the anti-nuclear language in his Prague speech of 2009, a string of events in 2013–14 suggest that a shift of emphasis is occurring in relation to nuclear weapons.

First, the administration has committed to the long-overdue modernisation of the US nuclear arsenal. True, the initial funding decisions are merely the opening salvoes of a program that will take decades to unpack, and key decisions about the shape and size of the arsenal remain unresolved. But the administration has signalled a commitment to renovate the strategic triad, and even to modernise its principal tactical weapon, the B-61 bomb. Read more

Second, Washington has been busy putting its nuclear ‘house’ in order. By January this year, almost 20% of US Air Force officers in its nuclear weapons corps had been implicated in a proficiency-assessment cheating scandal. The Navy wasn’t immune either—earlier this month it expelled 34 sailors caught up in the nuclear cheating scandal. A senior naval officer was dismissed in October last year for inappropriate behaviour in Moscow. Some might even see the sacking of James Doyle by Los Alamos National Laboratory as part of that pattern. Certainly a more restrictive approach to nuclear information management and a more disciplined approach to command and control of the arsenal seem to be the flavour of the day.

Third, evidence points to a determination to rebuild the intellectual capital necessary to sustain the nuclear mission for another generation. A senior State Department official, at the Annual Deterrence Symposium in mid-August, spoke of the need to recruit a new wave of ‘political scientists, lawyers, physicists, geologists, engineers, and more’, in order to ‘bring the next generation into the nuclear deterrence enterprise’.

Fourth, what we might call the ‘three musketeers’ (Brent Scowcroft, Stephen Hadley and Franklin Miller) seem to have displaced—at least temporarily—the ‘four horsemen’ (George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, William Perry and Sam Nunn), as the media commentators of the day. The four horsemen have published a range of important op-eds since 2007 about the need to move away from nuclear weapons (see, for example, here, here, and here). Their arguments have generally gone unanswered. The musketeers’ recent article in the Washington Post, underlining the importance of forward-deployed nuclear weapons in Europe, was obviously written with one eye on the approaching NATO summit in Wales. But it has wider implications: after all, if forward-deployed nuclear weapons are so important in Europe, why aren’t they just as important in other theatres?

Fifth, the administration seems to have wound back slightly the significance it attaches to the imperative of ‘nuclear security’—a protracted exercise to round up insecure warheads and quantities of fissile material in the world. Clearly that mission’s still important: Washington continues to fund it during straitened budgetary times. But one gets the sense that, for the coming few years, rounding up stray quantities of fissile material is not as strategically important as resuscitating the US nuclear weapons arsenal.

And sixth, the administration seems to have gone back to taking seriously the nuclear policies of the other nuclear-weapon states: witness the State Department’s recent finding that Russia is in violation of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.

Now, some will argue that those are all just straws in the wind, and that if Obama wanted to shift his nuclear policy, he would just say so. But one year out from another NPT Review Conference, could he? Besides, has policy changed, or are we just seeing a shift of emphasis? In 2009 Obama said he thought a non-nuclear world would be safer and the US should work towards that goal. The goal, he said, might not be reached in his lifetime. And in the meantime, the US would need to ensure it could rely upon a safe, secure and effective nuclear arsenal. So a theme of continued reliance always sat side by side with the grander goal of nuclear disarmament.

I think the straws tell a story: that nuclear weapons are making a comeback in US strategic policy—driven by a growing mood of strategic realism in Washington. The strategic environment of 2014 looks different to that of 2009. True, the comeback will probably be limited. But when future historians look back on 2013–14, they’re likely to paint it as a turning of the tide on nuclear weapons policy, occurring—ironically—under the administration of one Barack Obama.

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

Is major war obsolete?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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