A grand strategy Plan A for Australia?

Worry abounds. There are calls for radically new defence policies, a defence Plan B, a doubling of defence spending, a nuclear deterrent, a conventional one and, most recently, a national security strategy. However, before jumping to a solution, let’s think for a moment.

In recent decades, Australia’s defence policies have been driven more by risk management than by strategies. The defence budget has been conceived in insurance policy terms: the ADF will be developed to ensure that if a bad event occurs the losses Australia suffers will be minimised—or at least kept to a tolerable level—through ADF defensive operations. There’s a clear logic in that approach, but now it might be time to change and embrace strategy.

Strategy can be thought of algebraically as ends = ways + means—or, in words, strategy is the way in which the means (for example, the ADF) are used to achieve the desired ends. A good strategy can increase the power of Australia’s defence capabilities, and, as the formula hints, a bad strategy can reduce them. Getting more bang for the buck is appealing, but successful strategies are intellectually hard to devise. Moreover, a defence strategy isn’t something created independently; instead, it is a product of a grand strategy.

Many conflate grand strategy with the US national security strategy, but the NSS is just a specific sort of grand strategy that addresses matters of congressional concern as required under the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act. The NSS is, accordingly, a late Cold War creation when the Soviet Union was the obvious central focus. After the Cold War, though, with the USSR dismantled, the NSS lost concentration, drifting into a milieu grand strategy type that aimed to shape the general international environment. These documents have been easy to critique as failing. It’s a poor model for other states to follow.

Instead, it’s wiser to learn from the US’s Cold War containment grand strategy and focus laser-like on a specific state (or small group of allied states), as a positional grand strategy does. For Australia, that focus might be the cause of the angst that’s driving the calls for changes in our defence posture: China (there are other possibilities).

Choosing China would mean that, in broad measure, the rest of the world would comprise others who could help, hinder or distract us from the task of building the relationship we want to have with China. Indeed, arguably since 2009, defence white papers have conceived of the US alliance in terms of how the Americans can help us manage China—not how Australia can help the US achieve it ambitions.

An Australian grand strategy about China would aim to both harness and guide the use of all instruments of national power (the means), including diplomatic, informational, military and economic measures.

Furthermore, a grand strategy also involves building the material and non-material resources needed for implementation. Once developed, those resources are allocated to the subordinate strategies that individually direct each instrument of national power in accordance with the overarching grand strategy. Without this guidance, the lower-level strategies would be uncoordinated, work at odds with one another and be unlikely to succeed. Reflecting this, Colin Gray declares: ‘All strategy is grand strategy.’

A major issue with all this is that an understanding of what ends are sought is essential. While a strategy generally focuses on immediate concerns, a grand strategy looks well beyond them to a desired future and ways to reach it. It is a conceptual roadmap that imagines actions that could potentially change the political relations between the states involved. A grand strategy is therefore all about agency—how we will try to shape our environment, not just how the environment will shape us.

Today the end is conceived as a rules-based order, although there are several practical problems and other options exist. International orders have form and content. While the form of having mutually agreed rules between Australia and China is attractive, the content is perhaps more problematic. What the Chinese Communist Party deems necessary may not be completely compatible with our desires.

The ends are also crucial because they significantly affect our choice of ways. The means may remain the same across various grand strategy alternatives, but how they are used determines the ends that are achievable. The ends and the ways are directly related; if one changes the other generally does also.

Thinking grand strategy changes how we view defence. The issue becomes not whether we need radical policies, more money, nuclear weapons or other exciting acquisitions, but rather how can the ADF best help Australia achieve the particular future we want? And that’s a hard question needing hard thinking to answer.