ASPI’s decades: Strategy
3 May 2021|
Dark globe.

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

The name is the game: the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

ASPI thinks about strategy. And the alchemy of dollars, deeds and dreams that turn strategy into policy.

To the threshold question—posed by wit or cynic—of whether Australia has a strategy, turn to the response 45 years ago of Professor T.B. Millar, prefacing  his book Australia in peace and war: ‘Having written all these words, I would reply: if a policy has so much history, who can doubt that the policy exists!’

On the Millar measure, ASPI’s wordage over two decades proves Australia’s effort to do strategy.

The institute’s discussion of what Australian strategy should be is spiced by argument about what strategy is.

ASPI ignited at a line from former Foreign Minister Bob Carr in his memoir: ‘All foreign policy is a series of improvisations.’ In response, eight writers debated Strategy and its discontents.

What was strategy’s core business? Who should practise it? Is enough strategy being done in Canberra by Foreign Affairs, Defence or other parts of government?

Peter Jennings pondered the difference between good crisis managers and poor long-term planners: ‘Countries that invest in strategic thinking and planning have more capacity to deliver better quality policy. Countries that don’t take strategy seriously risk policy drift and ultimately losing national advantage.’

Robert Ayson responded that strategy and planning aren’t synonymous, and strategy can be more a state of mind than a formal process.

Rod Lyon thought Canberra’s grand strategy was Australia’s project for the world: ‘No-one writes it down for the simple reason that it isn’t the property of one person. Nor, I suppose, is it ever fulfilled, so there’s no sense of the objective’s being reached.’

Starting from the Greek noun strategos meaning ‘general’ (hence ‘strategy’, or the ‘art of generalship’), Nic Stuart lamented the weight modern strategy has to carry: ‘“Strategy” now covers everything from the work of a commanding general right through to culture (making us all think correctly) and business (so we’ll buy more widgets). It’s now being expected to define the thinking work of politicians, too.’

Anthony Bergin was less dismissive of business insights, saying that much could be gleaned from the best management gurus: good strategy is an educated judgement about what will work, while bad strategy is vacuous and superficial, tripping over its internal contradictions.

Strategy’s future, according to Jennings, depends on the capacity to vanquish the four horseman of policy eclipse: ‘short-termism; risk aversion; groupthink; and failures of imagination’.

A later offering from Peter Layton quoted the dictum that strategy is about ends, ways and means. The optimism of strategy, Layton wrote, is not a realist spiral into ‘nightmares of forever wars’, but the effort and imagination of better ends: ‘[T]he trade of the strategist is to focus on how to make better futures rather than map the descent routes into bad ones.’

Strategy is an attempt to think long term amid the noise and improvisation of events, and ASPI arrived on the scene at a momentous moment.

The institute was registered as a government-owned company on 22 August 2001. Three weeks later, the 9/11 decade was born as the planes struck the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon. As the institute was finalising its first strategic assessment in October 2002, jihadist bombers struck in Bali. Thus, the title of the assessment became Beyond Bali, identifying three core challenges for the new decade:

  • Combat terrorism: ‘We now face an unprecedented risk from terrorism, and our most urgent policy priority must be to respond effectively.’
  • Stop further deterioration in the security environment in the Asia–Pacific over coming years.
  • Maintain and possibly increase the defence capabilities announced in the government’s 2000 defence white paper.

In 2004, Power shift: challenges for Australia in Northeast Asia argued that the balance of power and influence in Northeast Asia was undergoing profound and fundamental shifts.

William Tow and Russell Trood wrote that China had embarked on a comprehensive strategy to become a pre-eminent regional power: ‘The path to a new regional order with China at its epicentre could easily be uneven, but its direction is clear.’ Japan had set out to become a ‘normal’ state, engaging with its neighbours and re-evaluating the long-term importance of the US alliance.

ASPI developed an early habit of offering a strategic overview to Australia’s political leaders at the time of a federal election. The election in October 2004 prompted Scoping studies: new thinking on security. The 11 contributors found many pieces to puzzle over in the previous five years: the intervention in East Timor, the 9/11 attacks and the new perils of terrorism, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the future of the US alliance in a dynamic Asia–Pacific.

Rod Lyon described a transformation of the international security environment. Old enemies had been static and hierarchical. New enemies were dynamic, networked and evolving. Lyon saw conceptual shock:

This deep-level change in the international system will have profound consequences for our security. We cannot continue in the same old way, treating interstate war as ‘real war’ and everything else as peripheral. We are at one of those rare historical junctures where decades of strategic continuity are unravelling. Our enemies are changing and our doctrines are breaking down.

In 2005, one of the greats of Australian strategy, Coral Bell, weighed in with Living with giants: finding Australia’s place in a more complex world on the ‘unstoppable and accelerating’ shift of global power eating away at the ‘unipolar world of US paramountcy’.

Two emerging patterns could advantage Australia. The first was a regional security community in the Asia–Pacific, starting with ‘a simple resolution by a group of countries that they won’t go to war with each other again’.

The second pattern was the need for a global concert of powers (a ‘company of giants’) to avoid hegemonial war as new great powers (China and India) arrived in the magic circle. If the concert of powers couldn’t be reached, Bell wrote, then instead it would have to be a balance of power:

[T]he greatest world dangers and the most pressing demands on our ability to cope remain likely to come, just as they did in 1941, from conflicts between the great powers of the central balance, rather than from regional crises, however acute, or from the jihadists. A new Cold War, between the US and China, or between Japan and China, or between India and China, or between a Russia–China coalition and the US, with whatever allies it could recruit in Asia and the Pacific, would provide true nightmares.