Are we preparing for the right kind of conflict?

Hugh White’s latest book has stimulated a debate about the defence of Australia and the capabilities and shape of the Australian Defence Force. This is an important discussion to have, not only because it will shape our options to respond to future conflicts, but also because of the scale of spending involved and the vast opportunity cost.

But there’s a problem. The discussion focuses on low-probability, high-consequence events—that range of possible scenarios where significant differences in outcome hinge upon whether Australia has 12 submarines, or 24, or 36.

But that is fundamentally a debate about the wars of the past. Like the drunken man searching under the lamppost for the keys he lost on the other side of the street—because that’s where the light is—it’s focused on looking for answers where we are most comfortable searching. We are not searching in the dark for real answers to current problems. A rebalancing or refocusing of the force we needed for the 20th century won’t solve the problems of the 21st.

It ignores a significant current problem: manipulation of the information environment that results in the slow, creeping erosion of our sovereign decision-making. A core challenge facing liberal democracies is how to govern effectively in the face of a concerted information contest with diverse competitors deliberately manipulating the marketplace of ideas.

Aspects of this challenge were recently outlined by ADF chief General Angus Campbell at ASPI’s ‘War in 2025’ conference. Campbell offered US diplomat George F. Kennan’s definition of political warfare: using ‘every means at a nation’s command—short of war—to achieve national objectives’.

Framing this contest as warfare is useful for evoking a response in that it emphasises both the high stakes and that this is a competition with winners and losers. But framing it as warfare also has downsides. As a liberal democracy, we strongly prefer peace and are reluctant to engage even with the concept of war—among many, the term itself causes an instinctive rejection. And it seems hyperbolic to compare the deadly consequences of kinetic warfare with the creeping consequences of actions below the threshold of armed conflict.

But regardless of what we call it, our potential adversaries, or competitors, consider us to be aggressors in the information aspect of this contest. Russia and China have interpreted what we think of as our ‘soft power’ as deliberate political warfare. The Chinese Communist Party’s ‘Communiqué on the current state of the ideological sphere’, for example, identifies the West’s free media, our conception of individual human rights, and our forms of democracy as deliberate attempts to undermine the party.

So, from our competitors’ point of view, liberal democracies have always engaged in political warfare—we just didn’t realise it because it wasn’t an overt whole-of-government strategy. We outsourced our attack and defence, to a large degree, to independent media, entertainment and cultural institutions.

Whether authoritarian states are using political warfare because they feel they are the victims, or because they have identified an asymmetric way to counter the conventional military strength of the West, we are certainly in a contest.

And although this information contest is not new, changes in the world and the rise of the internet have altered the traditional balance of power. Abusing social media, our adversaries are able to achieve global reach, precisely target the fractures in society, and take advantage of instant feedback to rapidly change and modify their messages until they become viral.

While our adversaries have been empowered, our traditional defences have been crippled: the collapse of the traditional media business model has gutted our independent high-quality media. What were once gatekeepers will now uncritically broadcast the messages of the adversary. During the 2016 US presidential election, for example, the mainstream media amplified the effect of the theft of John Podesta’s email (he was Hillary Clinton’s chief of staff).

Political warfare, much of which maliciously manipulates our information environment to achieve broader goals, is a whole-of-government problem and needs a whole-of-government response.

Australia’s strategy should involve digital literacy initiatives; support for high-quality, independent media; regulation of tech platforms; and efforts to understand, respond to and shape the information landscape. The digital platforms inquiry dealt with Facebook’s and Google’s concentration of power and actually contained many relevant recommendations, but it framed the issue from an economic and market power perspective. But we need a far more robust response than the inquiry would recommend.

Rather than being just the unfortunate side effect of technological development, some of the changes we see are the direct result of adversarial political warfare and encompass far more than two tech companies. CCP influence over and control of Australian Chinese-language newspapers, for example, is not particularly significant to the broader economy, but warrants more deliberate efforts to promote independent, uncensored Chinese-language media and to embrace the ethnic Chinese community.

Perhaps most challengingly, it will require the government and the public service to define positively what they stand for, both domestically and overseas. That will be difficult given the current perception in much of the public service—including in the Department of Defence—that transparency equals risk.

Yet the research on disinformation is quite robust—first impressions matter. By failing to be forthcoming and transparent, the government is effectively ceding the ‘high ground’ of political warfare, allowing potential adversaries to occupy strategically important territory uncontested.