Australia and War To-day
19 May 2017|

Image courtesy of Flickr user Liza Lagman Sperl.

Sometimes events move quickly. In December 1998, John Howard wrote to his Indonesian counterpart B.J. Habibie, suggesting that East Timor should vote on self-determination. Fewer than ten months later, Australia was leading a UN sanctioned mission to East Timor involving 23 troop-contributing nations, with around 6,500 ADF personnel deployed on land, sea and air.

The INTERFET operation couldn’t have come at a worse time; the Australian Defence Force (ADF) had fewer active duty personnel than at any point since 1964, and long-stagnant funding had rendered the force hollow and poorly equipped. To add insult to injury, Defence was in the grip of a highly disruptive efficiency drive that was attempting to get blood from a stone.

Events were set in motion in late January, when Habibie wrote to the United Nations requesting an autonomy vote for the province. Less than ten days later, the Chief of the Defence Force issued a Warning Order for possible unilateral and multilateral ADF operations in East Timor. There followed a whirlwind of activity within Defence. In March, the government announced that the Army’s Darwin-based 1st Brigade was being brought up to 28 days’ operational readiness. Across the ADF, inventories were checked, warehouses scoured, warstocks replenished, and training began in earnest.

By June, a high-speed civil catamaran had been commissioned into the RAN to fill a critical gap in the ADF’s amphibious lift capacity. And soldiers finally got the body armour and modern helmets they’d been asking for. In a parallel track, our diplomats worked overtime to secure a UN resolution and muster international support before any ADF personnel set foot in East Timor.

The operation was a success, largely because no time was lost in preparing (though Indonesian cooperation was also critical).

Four White Papers and $435 billion later, you’d expect the ADF to be ready for anything that might be thrown its way. In many scenarios, you’d be correct; the ADF is now larger, better equipped, and more integrated than in 1999, and it has almost two decades of hard-won operational experience. Anything that the ADF has done over the past 18 years—from East Timor to Syria—it could repeat tomorrow with confidence.

But the future won’t be like the past—it never is. The world is changing rapidly and unexpectedly. I fear that the gap between today’s preparedness and tomorrow’s challenges may be even greater than that faced by our ‘fitted for but not with’ defence force back in 1999.

Throughout this century, the ADF has been busy in keeping the peace close to home, and assisting the United States further afield.  But, as costly as these operations have been in human and financial terms, they are not comparable with conventional interstate conflict—which I believe is a more pressing risk today than at any time since at least the end of the Cold War. The ground is shifting beneath our feet.

Don’t believe me? Here’s what some prominent thinkers are saying:

  • Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, has just penned a book entitled A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order, in which he argues that ‘the fundamental elements of world order that have served the world well since World War II have largely run their course’.
  • Henry Kissinger said in an interview in Atlantic magazine in late 2016 that ‘the world is in chaos. Fundamental upheavals are occurring in many parts of the world simultaneously’, adding that ‘a crisis in the South China Sea over 280 islands, many of which are rocks protruding into the ocean, could escalate into a global conflict’.
  • Francis Fukuyama, the political philosopher who once foretold the ‘end of history’, now says that ‘the risk of sliding into a world of competitive and equally angry nationalisms is huge, and if this happens it would mark as momentous a juncture as the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989’.
  • Historian Max Hastings and strategist François Heisbourg have each compared newly elected US president Donald Trump with Kaiser Wilhelm II in the context of the latter’s culpability for starting World War I.

Of course, public intellectuals are sometimes prone to hyperbole—it comes with the territory. Perhaps our government is getting a more optimistic outlook from its intelligence analysts? I doubt it. Consider the following two passages from executive summary of Global Trends: Paradox of Progress, a 226-page report from the US National Intelligence Council released in January 2017:

‘The progress of the past decades is historic—connecting people, empowering individuals, groups, and states, and lifting a billion people out of poverty in the process. But this same progress also spawned shocks like the Arab Spring, the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, and the global rise of populist, anti-establishment politics. These shocks reveal how fragile the achievements have been, underscoring deep shifts in the global landscape that portend a dark and difficult near future.

The next five years will see rising tensions within and between countries. Global growth will slow, just as increasingly complex global challenges impend. An ever-widening range of states, organizations, and empowered individuals will shape geopolitics. For better and worse, the emerging global landscape is drawing to a close an era of American dominance following the Cold War. So, too, perhaps is the rules-based international order that emerged after WWII.’

If that’s what the US intelligence community is saying in public, what must they be thinking in private?

Yet we continue as if its business as usual, squabbling about how many jobs will be created in one electorate or another. The worst part of surrendering defence policy to the political imperative of ‘jobs and growth’ is that we’ve taken our eye of the ball at what might be a critical time.

In the second part of this blog, I’ll explore what we can do bolster Australian’s security in the near term.

*In 1935, ex-prime minister William ‘Billy’ Hughes wrote a book with this title arguing against appeasement and in favour of rearmament, he was forced to resign from the Lyons government for his efforts.