Time for a national strategy?
15 Mar 2018| and

Deep in our Australian collective psyche is a fundamental belief that we’re ‘the lucky country’. You can’t blame us because even our national anthem says ‘our land abounds in nature’s gifts, of beauty rich and rare’. The hard economic data is also pretty clear: we’re the world’s 55th most-populated country, but its 13th largest economy.

Unfortunately, a nation needs a lot more than luck or a ‘she’ll be right’ attitude to thrive in the uncertain and hyper competitive 21st century.

Optimists might argue that our natural resources and proximity to Asia will ensure our place in the Asian century. But there’s evidence to indicate that this isn’t the case. In 2015, a PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) report warned that Australia could fall out of the G20 by 2050. Last year, PWC reported that it might occur by 2030. Our regional neighbours in Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam are growing fast and we’re slowing.

It’s hard to ignore the various profound and unprecedented challenges to our standing as an influential middle power in our region and beyond. As we enter 2018, the international community appears increasingly frayed and fraught. While we agree with Michael Shoebridge’s recent article that the rise of China may not spell the end of the West, it could well be a factor in the demise of Australia’s influence in such countries as Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar.

Australia doesn’t need to stay ahead: it needs to get back in the game. We need a coherent strategy that combines our various endeavours into an effort focused on building and enhancing national power. That will require more than a handful of well-written white papers.

To be sure, many Australians prefer to focus on matters at home. That has put pressure on our political leaders to focus on domestic issues—from healthcare to education to alternative energy to same-sex marriage. While these are all important, governments, both Coalition and ALP, have focused on them to the exclusion of other enduring and long term national interests. Australia’s politicians need to step above populism to develop our national strategy for the 21st century.

Often, strategists are tempted to emphasise the security dimensions of a national strategy because they are the simplest to develop and sustain. However, Australia needs a national strategy that covers our country’s strategic pillars—economics, diplomacy, information integration and security.

Seventy years ago, Hans Morgenthau, the father of realism in international relations, argued that the elements of national power were geography, natural resources, industrial capacity, military preparedness, population, national character, national morale, the quality of diplomacy and the quality of government.

Australia is doing much to leverage its geography, natural resources and military preparedness. But we can, and must, do far more to increase our population and to improve the quality of our diplomacy.

While bigger isn’t always better, Australia’s national strategy needs to meaningfully engage with the politically sensitive issue of population growth, including the role of immigration. A focused population strategy will be the only way Australia can address productivity, its aging population and a declining taxation base.

The lesson of the last 73 years is clear: we’re more powerful, effective and safe when we pursue our national interests as part of a community of nations. Australia will always have a robust relationship with the US, and maintaining that should be integral to a national strategy.

However, we must also weave those values, initiatives and associations that are uniquely Australian into our strategy. And we must build on our regional relationships and the lessons learned from the past to assist our endeavours for the future—in trade, in renewable energies, in commerce and in defence.

Australia’s 2017 foreign policy white paper was a positive step forward in terms of promoting good diplomacy. Unfortunately, it stopped well short of being the roadmap to achieve what Morgenthau would have considered necessary for good diplomacy. He argued that a nation’s diplomacy ‘combines those different factors into an integrated whole, gives them direction and weight, and awakens their slumbering potentialities by giving them the breadth of actual power’.

The development of successful national strategies has always been predicated on compromising between aspirations and reality. A national strategy serves as a roadmap, so can’t include Pollyanna politics or pessimism. Our national strategic objectives will need to be tempered against budget realities and forecasts, and imbued with our cultural mores.

After all, whether informal or formal, a national strategy is about our leaders creating or shaping a future on a day-to-day basis by reconciling means and ends with purpose of action for the long term.

Efforts to develop such a strategy may uncover inconsistencies in our current diplomatic, economic and security strategies. But its very development will open the door to opportunities to ensure that its impact is progressively greater than the sum of its parts.

But without a national strategy, the shaping of Australia’s destiny will be left to fate at best, or to foreign influence at worst.