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ASPI’s decades: Confronting threats, facing a pandemic

Posted By on August 23, 2021 @ 06:00

ASPI celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. This series looks at ASPI’s work since its creation in August 2001.

Australia can no longer take refuge in the barriers of time and distance as a defence against the pestilence without. It is clear that geographical notions of security and national stability defined in terms of territorial sovereignty and integrity are not the only relevant factors in today’s environment. Not only has the transnational spread of infectious disease transformed our view of national security by producing threats without visible enemies, but it has also rendered the ‘national’ insignificant and replaced it with the ‘international.’

Peter Curson, Invisible enemies [1], 2005

At the start of the 21st century, terrorism redefined Australia’s threat calculus.

Canberra’s response remade the national security community, even as the terms of the terrorist threat evolved.

Terrorism merged with the cyber world. Violent political extremism eventually became as much of a danger as militant jihadism.

Then, in 2020, the pandemic redid the threat calculus again. Australia experienced the expanded notion of security as old warnings about disease arrived as fact. The pandemic became the threat confronting every Australian.

In the 2020 Counterterrorism yearbook [2], Isaac Kfir and John Coyne identified three themes:

  • Salafi-jihadi terrorist activities had continued a decline that was noticeable from 2015: ‘The decline is very much linked to the demise of ISIL and the fact that al-Qaeda has changed its strategy.’
  • Dealing with returning foreign fighters and those convicted of terrorism offences coming to the end of their prison sentences: ‘[T]here’s a drastic need for the international community to adopt a united, cohesive approach to tackle not only foreign fighters but their dependants.’
  • The role of technology, especially social media, in the evolution of violent extremism: ‘[W]e’re likely to see more cyberterrorism and … extremist groups are likely to continue to use the internet to promote their intolerant views, placing an enormous strain on states that must balance the right to free speech with security.’

The yearbook’s fifth edition in 2021 stressed the continuing development of terrorism as well as the evolution of ideas about resilience, the multiplying roles of technology, and the threat of the new far right. Leanne Close judged [3]: ‘Terrorist ideology now attracts larger, more diverse sections of our societies because propaganda and online rhetoric are increasingly sophisticated, making the rapid spread of misinformation and disinformation harder to contain.’

ASPI produced three books on the coronavirus in 2020, each with the general title ‘After Covid-19’; volume 1 in May was subtitled ‘Australia and the world rebuild [4]’, volume 2 in September was ‘Australia, the region and multilateralism [5]’ and volume 3 in December was ‘Voices from federal parliament [6]’.

In the foreword to the first volume, Governor-General David Hurley wrote:

‘The way forward’ is a topic occupying the minds of many Australians at the moment. When I think about Australia in 12 months and five years’ time in the context of the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, I frame my thoughts in the simple, post-operation review process that I was taught in the ADF: to achieve our agreed outcome, what must be sustained and what must be improved? In our current situation, therefore, what policies, programs and actions must be sustained and in what areas must we improve?

The editors of volume 1, Coyne and Peter Jennings, said that in the years leading up to the global crisis, Australia, like many countries, failed to heed health specialists’ warnings. Critical pandemic readiness was an insurance policy deemed too expensive by most nations:

The pandemic has shown that far too much of our national resilience, from broadband bandwidth to the capacity to produce basic medical supplies, has been left to market forces and good luck rather than planning. While the global Covid-19 pandemic is far from over, it’s clear that the crisis has brought about seismic social, economic and geopolitical changes to our world.

The editors of volume 2, Michael Shoebridge and Lisa Sharland, said Australia needed to think big:

Simply accelerating or continuing current policies and engagement won’t produce the results we want. Waiting for others to define a post-Covid-19 agenda for us, whether that’s the UN, Washington, Delhi, Tokyo or Brussels, just won’t work, because everyone is groping about in search of solutions.

Notably, in several areas, Australians have done at least as much thinking about this as anyone else on the planet. It turns out that we aren’t bad at navigating concurrent crises and making decisions that attract domestic and international support. Australia’s policy and influence can help lead debates and decisions, just as we have in China policy and in technology policy, notably with 5G and countering foreign interference.

This volume of articles shows us that Australia is entering a more disorderly, poorer world where there’s a real risk of nations and peoples turning inward and hoping that big problems—such as intense China–US struggles over strategic, economic and technological power—will go away without anyone having to make hard choices; that, if we just wait, we can get back to business as usual. That won’t work. The risk of military conflict between the world’s two big powers, involving US allies such as Australia and Japan, will be greater in coming months and years than at most times since the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.

Volume 3 asked Australia’s federal parliamentarians to consider the world after the crisis and discuss ‘policy and solutions that could drive Australian prosperity through one of the most difficult periods in living memory’. That drew responses from 49 MPs and senators.

One key theme was concern about supply chains, focusing on both security and prosperity. Australia could play a substantial role as a stable and predictable source of exports, including agricultural products, critical minerals and rare earths, and as a provider of high-quality education.

The global outlook was dominated by China, and four contributions focused on how to respond to Beijing during and after the crisis.

The editors, Genevieve Feely and Jennings, concluded:

How Australia assures its prosperity and security after the pandemic is a central concern for our parliamentarians. Different contributors offered alternative models for society, such as using wellbeing as a metric instead of economic output or emphasising improving the climate in the recovery phase of the crisis.

Whatever the topic, our MPs clearly have an intuition that there’s an opportunity for change and that the opportunity needs to be seized to improve Australia’s security and prosperity. It’s obvious that there are strongly divergent views on policy choices here, but a common uniting theme is the need to ensure that Australia learns lessons from the pandemic experience.

In thinking about the pandemic, ASPI could call up one of its early papers—Invisible enemies: infectious disease and national security in Australia [1]on the threat of emerging pandemics and the need to reassess preparedness for a major outbreak of infectious disease.

In 2005, Peter Curson wrote that approximately 40 newly emerged infections had been identified around the world over the previous 30 years, including AIDS, legionnaire’s disease, mad cow disease, SARS and bird flu.

Traditionally, national security had been defined by the dynamics of international relations, the defence of national territory, the protection of citizens from external threats, and the state’s survival. Rarely, Curson wrote, had infectious disease played an integral part in the ‘high politics’ of states.

Curson’s proposition in 2005 became the experience that Australia and the world grappled with in 2020, when infectious disease threatened national security.

The health of Australia’s population was a critical resource vital to the stability of the nation. Disease would threaten ‘not only the livelihood and way of life of individuals, but also … the stability and viability of the state’.

Curson went on to discuss how people handle fear in their lives, the problems of ‘panic, avoidance, scapegoating, rumour-mongering, violence and other personal adjustment strategies’, and how the media would report pandemics, playing to the ‘desire to sensationalise, to exaggerate, and play on people’s emotions’.

The re-emergence of infectious disease had become a top-order security issue, no longer the sole preserve of the physician or public health specialist, as Curson had forecast:

Transnational health threats involve every aspect of modern life, including food safety, human rights, organ transplants, travel, commerce and trade, education and environmental law. HIV/AIDS illustrates the extreme challenges faced by countries and their citizens when faced by a virulent infection that affects a large proportion of the population and for which no specific cure or treatment exists. There are many lessons and challenges for Australia here, but the underlying message is that infectious disease needs to be near the top of the national security agenda.

Article printed from The Strategist: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au

URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/aspis-decades-confronting-threats-facing-a-pandemic/

URLs in this post:

[1] Invisible enemies: https://s3-ap-southeast-2.amazonaws.com/ad-aspi/import/SI_Enemies.pdf?VersionId=22pJ5vCP8gLGz80NlNdm6fMOy8lOC9cU

[2] Counterterrorism yearbook: https://s3-ap-southeast-2.amazonaws.com/ad-aspi/2020-03/ASPI%20Counterterrorism%20YB2020.pdf?XVWQRHtHM0Yjs4OTfES3sLpkmCl36X4e

[3] judged: https://s3-ap-southeast-2.amazonaws.com/ad-aspi/2021-03/ASPI%20Counterterrorism%20YB2021-v2.pdf?qRIjpA0b0aLaWsvXREMAf8yo8I.uyWxN

[4] Australia and the world rebuild: https://s3-ap-southeast-2.amazonaws.com/ad-aspi/2020-05/After%20Covid-19%20Australia%20and%20the%20world%20rebuild%20%28Volume%201%29_1.pdf?1l8YBWW7I1CYhxOvZatd5fSJbKn1tbrO

[5] Australia, the region and multilateralism: https://s3-ap-southeast-2.amazonaws.com/ad-aspi/2020-10/After%20Covid-19%20Volume%202.pdf?oE8oA0fwayBGmtDMQ7itfwkG86SHY9WV

[6] Voices from federal parliament: https://s3-ap-southeast-2.amazonaws.com/ad-aspi/2020-12/After%20Covid-19%20Volume%203_1.pdf?YAvLkXatwCsGNLpd82TXp.B9SGqkci3n

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