Where do Australian interests stop?

Men from the 2nd South Australian (Mounted Rifles) Contingent, who fought in the Boer War. Third from left is Trooper Harry "The Breaker" Morant. South Africa, c. 1900.As dawn broke on 1 January 1901, the splendidly-attired band of the Royal New South Wales Lancers was busy polishing its kit (including the new kettle-drums to be carried on a beautiful white Clydesdale draft-horse). The regiment would soon provide a ceremonial guard for Lord Hopetoun, our first Governor-General, as he travelled in state to Centennial Park. There, he’d soon proclaim Australia a nation. A couple of hours later, as the sun rose in South Africa, other Lancers were also rising for duty. But the troopers there weren’t preparing for parades—they were too busy fighting the Boers.

Before the turn of the new century, a squadron of volunteers had paid their own way to travel to England and train with the Dragoon Guards. Those soldiers were on their way back to Australia when the ship docked at Capetown. Between the troopers’ leaving London and arriving in South Africa, the Empire had declared war on the Boers. But as the ship docked on 2 November 1889 a telegram from the NSW Premier, Sir William Lyne, was rushed aboard.

There’d been a major political debate back in Sydney. Many believed if the Empire was at war, NSW was too. They insisted the squadron should disembark and fight. Others, including many conservatives, felt the quarrel between the free Dutch settlers (who’d left the Empire to win and establish their own land) and the English settlers of the Cape was none of Australia’s business.

Seventy-two Lancers ignored the strong hints of their government to return. Instead, they disembarked from the SS Nineveh and went off to fight the Boers, becoming the first volunteers from the Empire to do so. When its hand was forced by the cavalrymen the state parliament back in Sydney supported their action. Later, thousands of Australians would join the small band and serve in South Africa.

For these soldiers, and their supporters back at home, the idea that  interests ended at the watery boundary of the continent was ridiculous. For them there was no question: if the Empire was deploying troops, Australia would be there. Others insisted there was a choice and what was needed was careful consideration before force was deployed abroad. It lingers today.

The argument’s become the touchstone of an issue that’s continued to bedevil our country’s military commitments ever since: what, exactly, are Australia’s interests and where should we fight? If everyone could agree what those concerns actually are, there’d be no requirement for any Parliamentary debates—ever. Yet ironically, it’s exactly the need for genuine debate and argument that ensures no government is ever likely to allow them to take place. No Prime Minister ever wants to risk having their judgement overturned as happened in the past.

After all, the country voted ‘no’, emphatically and decisively, not just once but twice when asked if conscription should be introduced during WWI. Twenty years later Prime Minister John Curtin (who’d previously opposed the issue) vacillated before finally bowing to his American master. Douglas Macarthur, wanted the diggers for mopping up tasks, including a fight in Borneo (although definitely not in the Philippines). Even at the time this was declared ‘an unnecessary war’. The later small deployments of professional soldiers to Borneo and Korea didn’t provoke much outrage back in Australia, although the subsequent contribution to Vietnam left deep and continuing scars.

And today? The political reality is, quite simply, that politicians from the main political parties have no desire to see any genuine debate take place.

Canberra will never host debates like those in the Athenian agora, as that city-state agonised over whether to send an expedition to invade Sicily. At first the assembly voted to send just 60 ships to Italy, a small commitment the state could afford. Then Nicias, an opponent of the expedition, outlined the real dangers that the troops would face. He hoped to convince everyone to scuttle the expedition. Instead the Athenians decided to double down. They sent over 100 triremes, embarking on an intervention that would result in Athens’ eventual defeat and subjugation to Sparta.

Thucydides didn’t believe in the wisdom of crowds and neither has any Australian government, Labor or Liberal since World War I. The politicians are determined to retain the ability to make war in their own hands. For operational reasons (and because of a disjunction between dawn in Iraq and Question Time in Canberra) John Howard didn’t, in fact, even inform Parliament before SAS boots were on the ground invading Iraq in 2003.

The reality is no government will ever again be prepared to allow real and genuine debate to occur before declaring war. It forces the Government to make a case and sometimes that can be quite difficult. It opens a Pandora’s box. No, the actual decision to use military force remains one of the few prerogatives PMs have left. There’s no way they’ll ever hand it over to others.

Nic Stuart is a columnist with The Canberra Times. Image courtesy of Australian War Memorial.

The Canberra officer (7): political nous and playing politics

Then Chief of the Defence Force, Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, AC, AFC, returned the salute of Australia’s Federation Guard at the beginning of the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, which was held at the Sydney Football Stadium in 2010.

Previous posts in this series explored the Canberra officer project; Arthur Tange; the promised land of Jointery; taming the service chiefs; the Vice CDF; and CDF atop the diarchy.

The military venturing into politics is taboo: politicians command, generals obey, constitutional and military demarcations are clear. Well…yes, but…

Senior officers play against top politicians, often close to the hottest politics. The taboo can’t banish the political codes and tones and moves the ADF wields. To illustrate, consider a great Canberra officer who burnished rather than burnt his career by telling Parliament the truth about ‘kids overboard’.

Angus Houston was one of the best recent chiefs of Air Force, stepping up to be a fine chief of the Defence Force. Houston’s decade at the top proved he’s an excellent product of the Canberra officer project. Not least of his skills was political nous. Houston’s political intelligence is one of the project’s defining requirements, even if taboo.

First, a 2010 character sketch from the veteran Ian McPhedran:

Well regarded by politicians from both sides and seen by the public as a warm and gentle man, Houston is a tough operator when it comes to dealing with his subordinates and the six defence ministers and three prime ministers to serve under his watch. ‘In private he can be imperious and he is brutal with his underlings,’ a well-placed source said. His ruthless streak was used to good effect to prevent former Army Chief Peter Leahy from lining up for the top job. Former Howard Government Defence minister, Brendan Nelson, said Houston loved the Defence Force ‘as much as he loves his wife.’ He was intelligent, caring and protective of people in uniform. ‘He has a genuine affection for them,’ Dr Nelson said. He said his biggest shortcoming was that ‘he doesn’t understand that sometimes it is important to admit you don’t know and to promise to find out.’

So—key traits, political or military—push hard, have the facts, no weakness. Come to a period when Defence allegedly leaked against its own Minister (Defence investigated and absolved itself); eventually the Minister resigned. Exiting in 2009, Joel Fitzgibbon lashed out at Judases in his own ministerial office and in Defence. The weekend after the resignation, Glenn Milne in the Sunday Telegraph (June 7, 2009) reported Fitzgibbon telling colleagues that Houston was ‘the best politician in the country’.

The Houston response to the barb-cum-compliment was a concise description of power as seen from the CDF’s chair:

My job is not to say: ‘Yes Minister’. My job is to basically provide frank and fearless advice, and I do that. But at the end of the day, I totally accept that the minister or the Prime Minister in the National Security Committee of Cabinet has to make the decision.

Notice the grouping: minister, PM, and NSC. Ministers come and go. The NSC presides and the PM rules. Houston had a ringside seat at the NSC where he watched policy being made at close range, and, by invitation, took part in debates.

On the day Foreign Minister Stephen Smith was shifting to become Defence Minister in 2010, Houston was briefing journalists on Afghanistan, and praised his new minister:

As the minister for Foreign Affairs, he was intimately involved with everything to do with Afghanistan. I’ve always found him to be a hell of a nice guy and I respect him for his competence and his capability.

Fulsome, indeed, but no departmental secretary would pass such a public judgement on an incoming minister. Former Liberal leader, John Hewson, wrote that Houston’s ‘disturbing’ comments on Smith’s ‘appropriateness’ illustrated the military’s sense that it’s different and special:

It is not an exaggeration to say that Defence now pretty much sets its own ‘rules of engagement’ with government. Indeed, it can be argued they are not blameless in explaining the high turnover of Defence ministers. Defence force chiefs see themselves as ‘all powerful’ and in ultimate control, with the department working for them, and the minister mostly to be tolerated, sometimes where necessary intimidated or just humoured.’

In the strange ways of politics, this attack rates as a tribute to perceived power.

Finish with a funny moment that says something about current perceptions. In 2011, as Houston headed for retirement, the Canberra Times ran a yarn quoting ‘a defence insider’ saying that the Defence Secretary, Ian Watt, would step down at the same time Houston left. That prompted a denial statement from Dr Watt: ‘Notwithstanding media speculation in this morning’s Canberra Times, I advise that I have no intention to resign from my position when Air Chief Marshal Houston retires, whenever that might be.’

Defence secretaries don’t yet have to commit sati on the pyre of departing CDFs.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of Department of Defence.

Reader response: a parliamentary vote on military action?

House of Representatives Front BenchHeath Pickering argues that ‘in the interests of democratic scrutiny and ensuring that any intervention occurs with broad political support, RAAF air strikes in Iraq (and potentially Syria) must be supported by a parliamentary vote in both houses’.

He cites the precedent of the UK where David Cameron lost a non-binding parliamentary vote last year (285–272) to support a British intervention in Syria. Prime Minister Cameron wasn’t legally required to hold the vote, but chose to do so (to avoid a repeat of the country’s swift backing for the invasion of Iraq). No British government has previously lost a vote over matters of military involvement since at least the mid-19th century.

I’d support Heath’s call for greater information to be provided to parliament on decisions about defence deployments. That might include governments providing a statement to parliament outlining the basis of the decision and reporting on the progress of military operations. Read more

But I’d reject the idea of parliament voting on decisions to go to war. Governments need the capacity to react quickly to events. Sometimes they won’t be able to disclose all secret intelligence that supports a decision. Most critically, where the government of the day doesn’t have control of the Senate—now the norm in Australian politics—the executive would be hamstrung in acting, regardless of the political, diplomatic and military circumstances of a crisis. The current Ludlam bill would, if accepted, simply hamstring the government of the day to the whim of minor parties.

There’s also the practical issue of the time delay this will create in engaging personnel. That’s a big enough problem now for the ADF, without the added complication of having to get both houses involved, possibly out of session.

The bottom line is that in a two-chamber system any government that’s required to get the approval of both houses for overseas conflicts will simply be a hostage to fortune.

A one-chamber system might be workable if a vote on troop deployments was thought necessary. But we have that already in the House of Representatives, where members can change a government or the majority party can change a leader if they oppose a war strongly enough.

There’s also a fundamental question of ‘what’s a war?’ for the purposes of a vote. The US system is relevant here: the US Congress has ‘war powers’ but the president has authority to exercise right of self-defence which has seen several wars/armed conflicts launched by the president without any reliance on Congress.

In any event, it’s not clear who in Australia would decide when parliament is to have a say on troop commitments, nor define the precise circumstances that would count as a ‘war’.

By the way, even if we introduced a vote to go to war I don’t think it would make any practical difference to the actual outcome. I can’t think of a single example where it would have changed a decision on Australia’s commitment to send our troops to war.

Anthony Bergin is deputy director of ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user Alison Young.

Reader response: US foreign policy

President Barack Obama talks on the phone aboard Air Force One with President Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine about the Malaysia Airlines plane crash in eastern Ukraine, July 17, 2014.A recent article on The Strategist argued that the US needs to ‘turn down the heat’ by taking advantage of opportunities to ‘arrest deteriorating situations (like Iraq and Ukraine).’ But that advice assumes the United States is capable of arresting those situations in the first instance, and that their resolution would provide foreign policy benefits to the US proportionate to the effort required to effect change.

As the most powerful nation on Earth, the US certainly has the military capability to intervene in situations such as Iraq and Ukraine should it so choose. No other country could have simultaneously maintained combat forces half a world away in the manner the US did in Iraq and Afghanistan throughout the 2000s. But the ability to deploy troops depends on more than military and logistical elements. In a broader sense, the US occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan have eroded global confidence in American leadership, limiting its ability to build international consensus and partnership on humanitarian intervention. Read more

While Hillary Clinton may argue that US intervention in Syria could have prevented the rise of ISIS, it’s easy to forget the widespread international hesitance around intervention at the time, especially following mission creep in the UN-sanctioned intervention in Libya.

In addition to the difficulties in building international consensus around the precise nature of intervention in Iraq and Ukraine, President Obama would also have to justify overseas deployment of American troops to his electorate. Following over a decade of overseas deployment, the American public’s appetite for sending troops into harm’s way is low indeed. In June, for example, the Washington Post found that 65 per cent of Americans opposed sending US ground forces to Iraq. For an already unpopular President, political capital may best be spent on his domestic agenda rather than justifying foreign military interventions.

In the case of the conflict in eastern Ukraine, it’s hard to see what more the US could have reasonably done. Deploying US forces could have dangerously escalated tensions between two nuclear powers and, while there’s more that the US could have done short of military action, economic sanctions and the exclusion of Russia from international fora are not insubstantial.

True, the US could have intervened more heavily in both Iraq and Ukraine, but it would have come with significant costs to the US’s reputation as well as the economic, human and electoral costs of international deployments. Those costs might not be worth the benefits intervention would deliver to the US. It’s hard to see how the trouble spots in Ukraine and the Middle East pose a direct threat to the US. In fact, it has been argued that they probably don’t even pose a danger, imminent or otherwise, to the international order that the US upholds.

It’s not surprising that US allies in the affected regions are calling for American intervention in those areas. What the Western world has to realise is that it’s not the role of America to uphold peace and democracy everywhere, especially as it deals with its own structural deficit issues which are contributing to the shrinking of US hard-power capability.

President Obama’s opposition to ‘dumb wars’—that is, wars over issues that pose ‘no imminent and direct threat to the United States’—is already on record. There have been consistent calls for US allies to stop freeriding and invest more in defence and national security capabilities. It shouldn’t be surprising then if the US doesn’t engage with issues that aren’t core to its defence and foreign policy requirements.

We can’t expect the US to solve all of the world’s problems. For a halcyon decade following the end of the Cold War the US was, perhaps, the world police. While the world may be ‘heating up,’ it doesn’t appear to have reached the point where it threatens America’s core interests and national security. If the US doesn’t intervene in areas where the costs of intervention far outweigh any direct potential benefits to it that should be seen as a success of foreign policy rather than a failure. If the security and safety of eastern Europe, the Middle East, or other areas of the world (perhaps southeast Asia?) are of concern, instead of relying on America to come to the rescue we could perhaps work on building national and multilateral institutions with the capacity to respond to and contain crises.

Jacob Traeger is an account manager with CMAX Advisory. Image courtesy of The White House.

Hasten slowly in the Middle East

After delivering his remarks, President George W. Bush shakes hands with Australian Prime Minister John Howard during the State Arrival Ceremony held for the Prime Minister on the South Lawn Tuesday, May 16, 2006. "Freedom has enemies, and for more than a hundred years, Australians and Americans have joined together to defend freedom," said President Bush. "Together we fought the Battle of Hamel in World War I. Together we fought in World War II from the beaches of Normandy to the waters of the Coral Sea. Together we fought in Korea and Vietnam. And together we're fighting, and winning, the global war on terror." White House photo by Paul Morse

Australia seems poised to send F/A-18 Super Hornets to support a ‘coalition of the willing’ in what’ll probably prove to be a futile attempt to contain the so-called Islamic State forces that are reshaping the political geography of Iraq and Syria.

Behind the public discussion—the talk of ‘humanitarian assistance’, the disaster of women and children being slaughtered willy-nilly, the need to defeat the cancer of terrorism—there’s evident confusion about the nature of the problem, its short-term strategic and political effects, the consequences of action/inaction for Iraq, Syria and the neighbouring states, and the ultimate impotence displayed by a reliance on air strikes alone.

Nor is there any exploration of how Australia’s strategic interests are engaged by the events that are unfolding in northern Iraq. Perhaps the answer is that they aren’t. Just as Australia’s strategic interests weren’t at stake in the genocides and humanitarian disasters that befell Africa during the past three decades—frightful though they continue to be—any deployment to assist militarily in Iraq also does not meet a strategic imperative. Read more

Fundamentally, Australia’s core national interests aren’t threatened in Iraq. And to invoke ‘the war against terrorism’ and ‘attacks on our values’ as a justification for military action in Iraq is fundamentally to misunderstand what’s happening in northern Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East.

The serial tragedies unfolding there are symptomatic of profound changes in power relationships and power balances as the death throes of the Ottoman Empire continue to affect the Middle East. The nineteenth-century colonial paradigm driving the carve-up of the Middle East following WWI—best exemplified in the Sykes–Picot Agreement that drew straight lines on maps to accommodate British and French interests—created the instability inherent in the Middle East ever since. But, as we’ve seen in Africa and to some extent on the Indian sub-continent, cartography doesn’t resolve the underlying tensions between clans, tribes, ethnic groups and religious sects that have been jostling for supremacy or survival for more than a millennium.

The West’s fascination with the nation state reflects its preoccupation with the collective experience of European (and, by extension, North American and antipodean) polities since the Peace of Westphalia. And as we, in the guise of strategists, contemplate the meaning of Clausewitz’s dictum ‘war is the continuation of policy by other means’, we must understand that military power is a tool of the state and that, a fortiori, war is something that states do.

Australia’s reliability as an ally ready to support US adventures may serve US interests (though it’s difficult to see how US interests have been served by the destruction of Iraq and the creation of a failed state in Afghanistan). But the question that Australian governments must ask themselves is whether support for US-initiated and US-led military action serves either the interests of the states where force is to be used, or those of Australia.

It’s clear that the international community needs to address the humanitarian crisis in northern Iraq. It’s also clear that the US and Australia, as contributors to that crisis, have a future role to play. And it’s inevitable that at-risk populations will need security. But to take a unilateral approach to the problem—air strikes against IS forces—is to tackle a symptom of the problem, not its cause.  Air strikes may offer some temporary solution, but they can’t deliver the stability necessary in the long term. Although it’s manifestly an imperfect vehicle, the UN and its agencies, guided by an appropriate Security Council resolution and a suitable peacekeeping force, prospectively offers a more effective solution.

And what of Australia’s interests? Successive Defence White Papers and Ministerial Statements have reaffirmed that Australia’s strategic interests are most deeply engaged in Asia and the Pacific. But as the Defence Minister boasts on the ABC’s Lateline that ‘we do have a lot of capability at our fingertips’ and that ‘we’re at a high state of readiness’, what signals are we transmitting to Asia, and to our own community for that matter? Yes, we’re demonstrating our loyalty as an ally of the US. But are we demonstrating that we know how to act in our own interests, the interests of our neighbours, or the interests of those whom we are ostensibly trying to help?

This isn’t about walking away from the US, or transforming ourselves into some kind of fair-weather friend. It’s about mediating a more deliberate and nuanced approach. It’s a pity that the practices developed and the lessons learned from our successful deployment to East Timor in 1999—a decision taken by the Howard government, it should be noted—aren’t more deeply etched on the consciousness of our current decision makers.

Allan Behm is a former head of the International Policy and Strategy Divisions in the Department of Defence. Image courtesy of The White House archives.

ASPI suggests

President SBY witnessed the signing by Ministers Bishop and Natalegawa of the Code of Conduct in Bali yesterday.

Fairfax’s Michael Bachelard kicks off this week’s recommended readings and podcasts with this op-ed on how Australia ‘won’ the spying row with Indonesia. He argues that the language of the Code of Conduct, signed yesterday by Ministers Bishop and Natalegawa, hardly alters the position PM Abbott adopted when the spying scandal broke in November last year: we’ll keep spying but we promise not to use it against you. Keep reading here.

Also on Southeast Asia, two pieces on Thailand’s politics. The first by Khemthong Tonsakulrungruang on New Mandala examines how the newly-appointed National Legislative Assembly works and what impact it’ll have on democratisation. The second by Panida Pananond on East Asia Forum looks at why high economic growth in Thailand will continue to be challenging as long as the junta’s in power.

On Northeast Asia, Pacific Forum’s Brad Glosserman has a newish Washington Quarterly piece that paints a picture of a smaller Japan as the most likely future—a view that might differ from that held by Australia’s political leadership. Glosserman’s assessment turns upon the attitudinal constraints in Japanese society. Read more

Turning now to an interesting question in contemporary civil-military affairs: do millennials fit into military culture? The US Coast Guard’s Commander Darcie Cunningham argued that the more lax work ethic of millennials and their expectataion of accelerated promotion, among other concerns, grated against the military’s more traditional, hierarchical and time-in-rank system. Unsurprisingly, some millennials service members objected to the Commander’s near monodimensional depiction of their generation, notably CIMSEC’s Scott Cheney-Peters who argued many millennial members of the all-volunteer force joined in part for the ideals the military embodied.

For our technology picks of the week, China is developing a supersonic submarine that can travel to Shanghai to San Franscisco in ’100 minutes’. And lastly, in keeping with my weekly Lego inclusion, here’s a working replica of a W134D Vulcan minigun. It doesn’t fire Lego rounds but spits out ‘spent cartridges’ (Thanks David Andrews).


What the psychological effects of firepower? In his podcast interview with CIMSEC, US Army General Robert H. Scales (ret.) noted that more research needs to be done on relationship between human factors and the effectiveness of munitions. He also discussed the historical basis for American’s fascination for explosions. (duration 39mins)

For an American perspective on the recent AUSMIN talks, see this CSIS interview with Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Amy Searight on importance of the signing of the Force Posture Agreement framework including leveraging the Marines’ Darwin presence for further cooperation initiatives in the region. (duration 5mins)

Following Rosalyn Turner’s piece this morning on drones, check out the CNO’s Rapid Innovation Cell’s interview with CNAS’ Paul Scharre the difference between the Army’s approach to using unmanned aircraft vs the Air Force’s and how the US will get the most out of its drones. (duration 53mins)


Canberra: LSE’s Dr Jude Howell will discuss how the securitisation of aid after 9/11 has impacted on its delivery and the security of NGO workers as well as broader questions about the purpose of aid in civil society, at ANU’s Crawford School of Public Policy, Tuesday 2 September at 12.30pm.

Melbourne: ‘The winner takes all? Lessons from the Afghan election’ is a panel discussion hosted by University of Melbourne. Panel members include Prof William Maley, Dr Susan Schmeidl, Dr Astri Suhrke and Niamatullah Ibrahimi, Wednesday 3 September at 6pm.

Natalie Sambhi is an analyst at ASPI and managing editor of The Strategist. Image courtesy of the official website of the President of the Republic of Indonesia.

Fifty years of Australian civilian police involvement in international peacekeeping

Three police officers serving with the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC). Their role was to help maintain order before and during the national elections. The men are all wearing blue United Nations (UN) caps.This year marks an important anniversary: 50 years ago, in May 1964, 40 Australian police officers arrived in Cyprus for a 12-month mission in what was to be the beginning of Australian civilian police involvement in international peacekeeping. While Australia agreed to contribute police officers to Cyprus, it had refused to commit military forces due to the volatile situation in Southeast Asia. The Cyprus request presented Canberra with the political opportunity to commit to international peacekeeping missions without jeopardising its own regional security concerns. And it provided the UN force in Cyprus with a contingent of personnel that could handle civilian tasks that the military wasn’t trained to undertake. Today the Australian police regularly form part of UN peacekeeping contingents, but here’s a look at how this legacy started.

On 17 February 1964, at Britain’s request, the UN Security Council took a look at the situation in Cyprus, which had steadily deteriorated since the outbreak of violence between Greek and Turkish Cypriots in December 1963. After the UN Secretary General had failed to reach an agreement with the parties, and following Turkish naval manoeuvres off the Cypriot coast, the Security Council adopted on 4 March a resolution authorising the Secretary General to create, with the consent of the Government of Cyprus, a peacekeeping force for the island. Read more

The United Nations force in Cyprus (UNFICYP), commanded by India’s Lieutenant General Prem Singh Gyani, became operational on 27 March. Australia chose not to contribute soldiers to the peacekeeping force, despite British attempts to convince Canberra otherwise. Australia’s position was that, because of other commitments and the onset of the Confrontation between Malaysia and Indonesia just as America increased its involvement in Vietnam, Australia would be unable to consider a contribution to Cyprus. That wasn’t to say the Australian Government didn’t see merits in supporting the UN mission; before sending police, it sent £A50,000 towards the cost of the peacekeeping force.

Meanwhile, General Gyani decided that military personnel weren’t trained for police duties and the experience in the Congo—where in 1960 the UN first deployed police—had shown that police were a valuable addition to a UN force. The United Nations police force for UNFICYP was established in April 1964. In Cyprus, the police were required to assist in restoring normal conditions and to deal with civilians—tasks in which the police had a greater chance of success than armed soldiers. Gyani thus called for a group of 200 policemen to make up a contingent. The role of the police would be to liaise with the local police, conduct joint patrols, staff joint check-posts, conduct special investigations, and prevent police malpractice.

Still reluctant, the government changed its mind in late April 1964 after an appeal from the Canadian Foreign Minister, to meet the Secretary-General’s request for a small contribution. For Canberra, there were sound reasons to choose that course of action: it didn’t require a reversal of its unwillingness to supply troops, and the government was keen to gain influence in New York in case the conflict between Malaysia and Indonesia was brought before the UN. Also, while Cyprus wasn’t strategically important to Australia, it was a member of the Commonwealth and Canberra didn’t want to see Britain’s military presence in the Eastern Mediterranean wane.

After successful discussions with state governments the Australian Government announced to Parliament on 6 May that it would supply a contingent of 40 police officers to the mission: 10 from New South Wales; 10 from Victoria; 5 from Queensland, South Australia and the Commonwealth police force; 3 from Western Australia; and 2 from Tasmania. The police mission that arrived in Cyprus in May 1964 was the beginning of a long tradition of Australian police deployments to UN peacekeeping operations. The police experience in Cyprus also revealed the importance of including a civilian component within a wider military operation to deal with civilians and local police forces.

For 50 years then, Australia has supported a civil–military approach to peacekeeping that draws upon diverse elements of national power, and which treats restoration of law and order as an integral part of the mission. That approach casts an important light on Australian engagement with UN-led intervention missions: our engagement has typically seen both strengths and weaknesses in military commitments, and a need for supplemental forms of involvement and order-building.

Sue Thompson is a lecturer and graduate convenor at the National Security College. Image courtesy of Australian War Memorial.

The drone campaign in Pakistan: a precise tool for a messy problem

An MQ-9 Reaper sits on the flight line at Hurlburt Field Fla., April 24, 2014. The MQ-9 Reaper is an armed, multi-mission, medium-altitude, long-endurance remotely piloted aircraft that is employed primarily as an intelligence-collection asset and secondarily against dynamic execution targets. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. John Bainter/Released)

It’s been ten years since the first known drone strike in Pakistan. It wasn’t certain the campaign would reach that milestone earlier this year; there hadn’t been a strike reported for almost six months. But the US once again fired up its fleet of armed UAVs following an attack by Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) on the Karachi airport in early June. There’s since been a succession of strikes in North Waziristan targeting TTP and foreign fighters. The resumption of strikes and the ten-year milestone provide an opportune moment to take stock and reflect on the outcomes of this long-running campaign.

According to the Obama administration, drone strikes have made a successful contribution to US counterterrorism strategy. In an effort to drum up support for the drone campaign during the run-up to the 2012 elections, Obama repeatedly underscored the ‘precision’ of armed UAVs in unusually candid public remarks. When the President announced that the core al-Qaeda leadership had been ‘decimated’ in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), it was made clear the campaign had played a substantial part; around 34 influential al-Qaeda leaders and facilitators have been killed in Pakistan by drone strikes since 2005. Read more

Still, we can’t conclude that drones have had the kind of ‘decimating’ impact the Obama administration has claimed. They’ve managed to suppress al-Qaeda in the region but have failed to dismantle the organisation or significantly degrade its capacity to inspire jihadist ideology. The campaign in Pakistan has shown that drone strikes are only a limited response to militant jihadist groups. Yet they’ve become the central tool in US offensive operations against terrorist groups. A decade later, al-Qaeda and its affiliates persist as a serious threat to the region—as demonstrated by the Karachi airport attack.

During his time as Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates described a ‘syndicate’ of terrorist groups in South Asia, including al-Qaeda, along with the TTP, IMU and a host of others. According to Gates, ‘a success for one is a success for all’. That’s an apt description of the situation in Pakistan’s border areas. The support and shelter jihadist groups continue to offer one another has seriously complicated efforts to disrupt specific organisations through targeted strikes. An absence of boots on the ground, along with the rocky and unreliable relationship with the Pakistani military and intelligence service, has exacerbated that problem for the US. As Gregory D Johnsen stated, ‘what appears to be true thousands of feet up in the air often looks different on the ground’. This complex and often shifting syndicate model has contributed to the remarkable resilience of the groups operating in the region.

An intricate network also exists within groups, which further complicates the use of drone strikes. Audrey Kurth Cronin, a reputable scholar on how terrorist groups end, reasoned that leadership decapitation through targeted killing simply won’t work on an established organisation like al-Qaeda which lacks traditional hierarchical structures. That has been demonstrated by the resilience of jihadist movements in the FATA despite continuing high-profile deaths within senior ranks. In fact, those deaths can act as a motivating factor; the Karachi airport attack was spurred by the killing of TTP leader Hakimullah Mehsud in a drone strike in November 2013. Terrorism expert Thomas Joscelyn has emphasised the ‘deep bench of talent’ from which al-Qaeda can draw, and the same is true of several other jihadist groups in South Asia.

The resilience of groups in the FATA to the effects of drone strikes casts a dark shadow over the border. But as the Coalition prepares to withdraw from Afghanistan, it appears likely that drones will continue to feature in the skies above eastern Afghanistan and the FATA. In June the Stimson Center Task Force on Drone Policy released a report (PDF) that questioned whether a serious cost-benefit strategic analysis on the use of drone strikes had been undertaken by the US, and warned against the ‘heavy reliance on targeted killings as a pillar of US counterterrorism strategy’. Those comments raise questions as to whether the United States and its partners need to find new methods for dismantling terrorist networks in the region.

The host of countries scrambling to acquire armed drones should consider the lessons of the past decade before moving forward. The limited effects of drone strikes evident in Pakistan speak to the broader constraints of long-running targeted killing campaigns as a counterterrorism and counterinsurgency measure. While al-Qaeda has been suppressed in South Asia, drone strikes have been unable to dismantle or destroy the groups operating in the FATA. Drones are tactically precise, but of limited use against a messy strategic problem.

Rosalyn Turner is an administration officer at ASPI and recently completed ASPI’s internship program. Image courtesy of Flickr user United States Air Force.

Parliament must vote on any intervention against Islamic State forces

Parliament House, Canberra.

On Monday, independent politician Andrew Wilkie called on Prime Minister Abbott to seek parliament’s approval before using military force in Iraq. He said, ‘If Australia is to recommit combat troops to Iraq it must be…with the approval of the federal parliament’. His comments came amid reports the Abbott Government is considering an extended military campaign against Islamic State forces in Iraq.

America has already begun air strikes against Islamic State forces in Iraq. But it might be forced to increase the scope of its campaign and possibly extend targeting into Syria. More extensive strikes could potentially bring in America’s allies, including Australia.

Wilkie’s comments provide a timely reminder that parliament’s powers for vetoing or deploying Australian military forces overseas are weak. In June Michelle Grattan grappled with this debate about whether the parliament should authorise when and how Australia goes to war. Similarly in discussing the PM’s profound prerogative, Graeme Dobell wrote that ‘Australia needs to confront systemic weakness, if not failure, and build in some stronger requirements for the future use of its armed forces’. In the interests of democratic scrutiny and ensuring that any intervention occurs with broad political support, RAAF air strikes in Iraq (and potentially Syria) must be supported by a parliamentary vote in both houses. Read more

That line of argument follows not just Wilkie’s concerns, but also those of the Democrats and Australian Greens who have previously entered six ‘defence amendment bills’ into parliament to check prime ministerial war powers. Over the period from 1985 to 2014, five of those bills have failed to pass and one is currently before the House of Representatives (almost certain to fail). Both the major parties, Coalition and Labor, have voted against the bills.

The bills (PDF) have aimed to amend the Defence Act 1903 echoing Wilkie’s stated provision:

… members of the Defence Force may not serve beyond the territorial limits of Australia except in accordance with a resolution, which is in effect and agreed to by both Houses of Parliament, authorising the service.

In contrast, the Defence Act states: ‘Members of the Army may be required to serve either within or beyond the territorial limits of Australia’. It doesn’t specifically mention the proper authority to authorise the service.

The major parties are naturally sceptical and perceive an ulterior motive behind the bill. In 2011 Labor Senator Mark Bishop told the Senate the bill appears to restrict overseas military deployments under any circumstance. Senator Scott Ludlam’s 2008 Bill also received scrutiny from the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee (FADTLC). Although the Committee expressed doubts about the credibility of the legislation and recommended the bill not proceed (PDF), they stressed the importance of parliament’s involvement in ‘open and public debates about the deployment of Australian service personnel to warlike operations or potential hostilities’.

The current Minister for Defence, David Johnston, is on record noting concerns with how the provisions of the bill would operate in practice:

No matter how positive are the underlying principles of this bill—and the bill is laudable—the impracticality of full disclosure to the parliament in a strategic sense and where intelligence, diplomacy and classified documents are concerned means that we must continue with the system as it now stands.

Britain has experienced a similar debate over its war powers. Like Australia, Britain shares a Westminster political system and is a close ally of the United States. Despite that, Britain has become more apprehensive about entering into international conflicts. Two parliamentary committees have recommended constitutional reform transferring the power to declare war from the executive to the House of Commons. Specifically, the House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution (PDF), which examines all public bills concerning constitutional issues, stated that:

Government should seek Parliamentary approval (for example, in the House of Commons, by the laying of a resolution) if it is proposing the deployment of British forces outside the United Kingdom into actual or potential armed conflict.

In support of that recommendation, former Prime Minister Gordon Brown publicly advocated for constitutional reform, citing a need to establish a ‘more open 21st century British democracy’. Last year, David Cameron lost a non-binding parliamentary vote by 285–272 to support an intervention in Syria.

Legislation to provide the parliament with the authority to approve the use of force is also becoming more common in liberal democracies. Countries like Germany, Italy, Denmark, and the Netherlands all require parliamentary approval before military deployments can be made. And America’s War Powers Resolution restricts the president’s use of armed forces beyond 60 days without support of the Congress.

Australia regularly involves itself in foreign conflicts. Media scrutiny and parliamentary debates do occur. But in the interests of both parliamentary accountability and public support, the government must allow a parliamentary vote on a future deployment to Iraq.

Heath Pickering is a Master of International Relations graduate from the Melbourne School of Government. Image courtesy of Flickr user Prateek Rungta.

Defence: towards social inclusion

Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA) third year undergraduates, keep warm during the ADFA Exercise Leadership Challenge III.

Diversity and social inclusion have been key issues for Defence. The Defence strategy for cultural change and reinforcement, Pathway to Change, has mandated a focus on those issues, and others, in Defence’s cultural evolution. But what do they mean? And why does Defence remain focused on them?

Diversity is about increasing the kinds of people working in Defence, and social inclusion is about ensuring that the different kinds of people feel part of, or a sense of belonging in the organisation.

Diversity and social inclusion have become important because Defence has traditionally been an organisation predominantly of men from a narrow cultural background, which doesn’t currently reflect the increasing diversity of the community Defence serves. Also importantly, Defence isn’t meeting some of its recruiting targets and that impacts its ability to fulfill its mission. We need a fully resourced Defence force to ‘defend Australia and its national interests’. Read more

My recent report on diversity and social inclusion in Defence looks at that question from the perspective of everyday language use. Language plays a part in enabling diversity and building social inclusion. Nevertheless, it can also be used to resist diversity and social inclusion by excluding those who are different and limiting the kinds of people Defence heralds as models of its ideals. And as my report acknowledges, being different can really matter when an organisation like Defence conducts routinised, dangerous work in tightly-bonded teams. You can’t be seen to be different and you can’t be seen to make a mistake. Both risk exclusion.

My report shows how language can be used to exclude; how it is used to build a limited kind of hero who models a limited set of desired values and behaviours while building teams that are tightly bonded and effective in dangerous situations. It demonstrates how being different can be tough in a mono-culture, but social difference can be negotiated and group acceptance can be achieved.

In the course of the research, I interviewed a number of Defence people who identified themselves as being in some way ‘different’ and my research includes many examples that rely on language to exclude. And each example arises from the fact that the targeted person is considered different from the others. This ‘othering’ can lead to marginalisation which, in turn, can lead to loss of capability. It also means talented people may choose not to join Defence, or leave it because they cannot succeed at becoming part of the group.

Yet all is not lost. The interviewees of the study shared their strategies for overcoming difference and demonstrated how humour—and banter—plays a critical role and needs to be learned in order to mitigate difference. Being conversant at banter offers people in Defence a linguistic means of achieving social inclusion.

As part of the language study, the report maps the four cultures of Defence: Navy, Army, Air Force and the public service showing why they are different from each other, what kinds of cultural tensions they face and how language plays its part in the construction of each.

A synopsis of my report has just been published by ASPI and is available here.

Elizabeth Thomson is an academic research officer at the Centre for Defence Research, Centre for Defence and Strategic Studies, Australian Defence College. The full version of her report commissioned by the Department of Defence is available here. Image courtesy of Department of Defence.

Five rules when negotiating for the South China Sea


Seated across the table, China’s representative railed against the Americans for a litany of offences. The Vietnamese, Philippines, and Indonesian representatives looked on, their thoughts obscured by a mix of smirks and smiles. This wasn’t, however, a meeting at this month’s ASEAN Regional Forum in Myanmar. Rather, it was a South China Sea simulation at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC.

Divided into groups, attendees—a mix of Asia hands and novices—represented South China Sea claimants, along with the United States and not-quite-claimant Indonesia. Participants strove to hammer out a joint communiqué encompassing the parties’ varied interests while absorbing conflict resolution and negotiating skills. Complicating the matter, the talks were set against the scenario-injected backdrop of the Chinese construction of an artificial island in Vietnam’s claimed exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Although I flatter myself as educated in the basics of the region’s maritime disputes, the evening still proved educational. Readers of The Strategist might be interested in five distilled rules: Read more

1. Chinese plays to Asian solidarity ring hollow

Assigned the role of a proud representative of Vietnam, I sought to halt construction of China’s artificial island and secure assurances against future infringement of our national sovereignty under the recognised principles of international law. That was a non-starter for the Chinese negotiating team. However, they did attempt to buy me off through vague promises of infrastructure investment before launching into a lecture on the US. In their view, Americans were destabilising the region, were themselves unable to provide stability rom half a world away, didn’t believe in international law, were interested only in a new breed of colonialism, and should acquiesce to a sphere of influence similar to their own dominance of the Caribbean.

I’ve witnessed this attempt at building an exclusive Asian rapport at other forums. Then, as in this instance, it was undermined by the accompanying mix of veiled threats and seeming indifference towards the neighbours’ real concerns. My rebuttals to China’s points—that its investments often led to little local hiring and spawned resentment, and that Vietnam cared less whether a nation signed UNCLOS than if it followed the principles therein (ie not parking an oil rig in someone else’s EEZ, for example)—received sympathetic concurrence from other claimant states.

2. Wild cards are unlikely to change the situation

In the run-up to the exercise I asked colleagues to suggest ‘wild cards’ that could be played to shake-up the negotiations. Unfortunately many of those turned out to be outside my bounds as a country representative (and I’ve covered them in a CIMSEC post here).

In the event, it was revealed that the Indonesian moderator had been meeting and potentially dealing with China on the sidelines of the talks. Yet that did little to alter the negotiations. Similarly, I sought out ‘win-win’ proposals, with a bid for joint economic development deals, as in the Gulf of Tonkin, after a freeze on new construction, claims, and resource exploitation—essentially the elusive ASEAN Code of Conduct and a reflection of Vietnam’s real position. At the same time, I noted that, if the United States was having difficulty maintaining its vessels in the region, the deep-water port of Cam Ranh Bay could be refurbished for a renewed American presence. Unfortunately, the joint-development proposal was rebuffed by China, as most were in the course of negotiations. Rule four explains why those wild cards and proposals failed to change the calculus.

3. Conflict transformation doesn’t always work

Indonesia tried to tap into ‘conflict transformation‘ to propose parts of the disputed waters be made ecological or resort preserves. I suggested bringing in Australia and New Zealand as disinterested third parties to oversee a fishing-rights management scheme preserving stocks until a final resolution on the dispute was made. Those ideas, and the desire for our communiqué to contain language affirming regional commitment to the peaceful settling of disputes under the principles of international law, were all scuttled in turn.

4. China has little to lose from torpedoing negotiations

The reason for those failures mostly stemmed from a single assessment. Because China didn’t appear to face any negative repercussions for continuing its policies of tailored coercion and salami tactics, it had the least incentive to alter the status quo. Therefore China had a strong position or, in negotiation theory, the best alternative to a negotiated agreement, should the negotiations fail. That meant China could effectively wield a veto due to its ability to walk away without fear of losing much. Little surprise that 5 of 6 teams failed to produce a substantive communiqué.

5. ‘If at first you don’t succeed…

…change the definition of success.’ After attempting to find ‘small wins,’ such as paying lip service to regional peace, the Indonesian moderator grew frustrated with Chinese vetoes of the rest of the agenda and decided to create a ‘unanimous minus one’ list of items all other negotiators agreed to.

… agree to keep meeting.’ Students of international relations will be heartened to learn that we did agree not only to meet again, but also to develop a new regional forum to focus solely on dispute resolution. After all, negotiators need to ensure they stay gainfully employed.

Simulations such as this won’t by themselves solve seemingly intractable issues. (For a look at lessons learned from the real-life negotiations between Indonesia and the Philippines over their maritime boundary, see this article from The Diplomat.) Nevertheless, simulations can serve a useful purpose by sparking novel approaches to well-worn squabbles.

Scott Cheney-Peters is a surface warfare officer in the US Navy Reserve and the founding director of the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC). Image courtesy of Flickr user Martin Fisch.

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.