Australia as a ‘top 20’ power: balance, interests and responsibilities
27 Nov 2014|

FishIn wrapping up the Strategist debate on Australia as a ‘top 20’ defence power, I’d like to thank the other contributors for a fascinating exchange. Peter Jennings’ initial contribution drew a thoughtful response from Andrew Carr, and the series unfolded from there. Contributions from John Blaxland, Nic Stuart, Peter Dean, and Andrew Smith subsequently helped to illuminate the shape of the battlefield. Looking back over the contributions, the core difference that emerges is the one between regionalists and globalists. Carr, Blaxland and Dean are regionalists. Jennings and I are globalists. I think Smith’s a globalist by virtue of alliance. And Stuart’s got a foot in both camps.

I want to use this final post to talk about three things that seem to me to underpin the debate: the notion of ‘balance’ in our global and regional imperatives; Australia’s strategic interests; and the concept of international responsibility. Rolled together those factors become something like an exploration of Australian strategic identity.

Several contributors mentioned the need for Australia to strike a balance between its global and regional roles. I think that’s an important point. But I don’t think past Defence White Papers have been good at setting the balance between the near and the far in Australian strategic thinking. The layered concentric-circles model is structurally biased, because the circles lead ever downhill, emphasising a supposed declining interest in the more distant ‘issues of strategic concern’—to use Peter Dean’s phrase—and a strategic prioritisation on ‘fundamental issues’ close to home. The concentric-circles model doesn’t help us strike a balance; indeed, it doesn’t even pretend to be interested in the concept of balance. If we want to do some balancing between near and far, then we need a different way to think about Australian strategy.

As I wrote in an earlier post, I think geopolitics should be seen as the key imperative in our more distant commitments: we don’t live on the Eurasian continent or along its rimlands, and that’s where the core of world order is set. We could be strong in our own neighbourhood, and there’s some merit in doing that: academic studies of war show that good relations with neighbours are an excellent starting point for a peaceful life. But we’d rule in the sandpit, and not play on the beach.

So I want to use the remainder of this post to talk about interests and responsibilities—because either factor might underpin a stronger notion of balance than mere geography does. If we ask ourselves where we have strategic interests and responsibilities in the world, then it strikes me that we can answer that question differently at different times. We can’t answer a question about geography differently at different times. In both world wars, for example, we had interests in not sitting out a global struggle that could determine the fate of democracies, even when those struggles were a long way away. Similarly, we might say we had a responsibility not to sit them out.

So, interests. Where do our strategic interests begin? I think all our contributors accept that Australia has global interests; where they differ is over how much and what sort of effort they think we should devote to protecting them. Peter Dean argues that we should pursue them primarily via diplomacy. I’ve argued before that we should make better use of the political arm of policy and not think about strategy in exclusively military terms. And, in fact, Australians are much more accustomed to globally-active foreign ministers than globally-active defence ministers. But diplomacy only gets us so far; I don’t think parachuting Julie Bishop into Iraq is going to solve that problem for us.

John Blaxland thinks we should make niche contributions to distant engagements, à la previous DWPs, and not be sucked into a Middle-Eastern vortex of ill-defined objectives. Again, there’s something to be said for a calibrated deployment to a distant battlefield—but only if it gives you what you want. For too long what we’ve wanted is Washington’s attention, not military victory. G20 countries shouldn’t fawn to get attention. Peter Jennings favours our fronting up to global problems, including with appropriate levels of military engagement. Some will ask ‘what’s the appropriate level?’ Good question—it certainly isn’t self-defining. Wars against revisionist great powers fall into a unique category, but we can and should debate our other commitments—in terms of our interests and responsibilities.

Finally, a few words on responsibilities. Do powerful countries have greater responsibilities than weaker ones? Well, hegemons typically have responsibility for the orders they create. But the push for Australia to do more isn’t just coming from Washington. If we look at the recent statements by Abe, Cameron, Xi, Obama, and Modi, several of the bigger G20 players seem to be asking us to do more. I don’t believe a benighted world awaits the Aussie enlightenment. But I do think with power comes responsibility, and our responsibilities run wider than being the big fish in a small pond.

Rod Lyon is a fellow at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist. Image courtesy of Flickr user Robert Couse-Baker.