Australian strategy in an age of coyness
16 Mar 2016|

Follow the yellow bricked road

Readers of Australia’s DWP 2016 might well think themselves sold short in relation to one key concept: Australian strategy. The White Paper’s awash with money and equipment, but somewhat less clear about why power and force matter in the modern world. Kim Beazley and Hugh White have already bemoaned the sharp turn away from the idea of self-reliance in the defence of Australia, a priority that previously helped to determine force structure and strategic focus. But readers are also misled about Australia’s interests in broader global power balances by the constant over-selling of a relatively soft strategic concept: ‘the rules-based global order’.

Previous White Papers have been interested in strategic order, but none has gone as far as this one in placing rules at the heart of our understanding of international order. On the upside, the concept helps make Australia’s global role more politically saleable. But there’s a cost. The Paper’s repetitive use of the idea of the ‘rules-based global order’ causes it to misstate both our Strategic Defence Interests and our Strategic Defence Objectives. Our strategic interests beyond a secure Australia and a secure nearer region aren’t adequately described as ‘a stable Indo-Pacific and a rules-based global order’. And our strategic objectives beyond those related to our continent and the nearer region aren’t adequately captured by saying that Australia intends to ‘contribute military capabilities to coalition operations that support Australia’s interests in a rules-based global order’.

Make no mistake, I’m all in favour of Australia having an order-building focus to its grand strategy. Indeed, I argued as much back in Strategic Contours. We should aim upstream in an order-building role and not just downstream in a hedging role, particularly during a time of geopolitical transformation. But order’s not just about rules. To an important degree it’s about power and primacy. That’s the argument Samuel Huntington made in his debate with Robert Jervis back in the early 1990s, over whether primacy matters:

‘Power enables an actor to shape his environment so as to reflect his interests. In particular it enables a state to protect its security and prevent, deflect, or defeat threats to that security. It also enables a state to promote its values among other peoples and to shape the international environment so as to reflect its values. States and other actors who are powerful can, and do, do evil. But power is also the prerequisite to doing good and promoting collective goods. Almost nothing beneficial in the world happens except by the exercise of power.’

Rules are all well and good. They’re an important factor helping to separate the ruly from the unruly—those like al-Qaeda and IS who reject modern rules and norms, or those like China attempting to rewrite them. But rules aren’t self-enforcing. Nor can enforcing them always recreate the status quo ante. A heritage-listed building demolished by a wrecking ball is still demolished even after the law’s run its course.

Rules aren’t a yellow brick road leading to a strategic Emerald City. Sometimes we’ll have global interests—in power balances for examples—that aren’t subject to rules. And sometimes we’ll think our strategic interests are served even when rules must be broken, as we did when we joined the coalition that went into Iraq, for example. We can’t guarantee that all such ventures will end well—but nor can we guarantee we’ll never need to undertake them. Limiting our global interests to the protection of rules-based orders is a recipe for strategic minimalism.

On occasion, the authors of DWP 2016 seem to understand those points. They say at p.14, for example, that the rules-based global order is underpinned by US power and presence, as well as by ‘active engagement by regional states in building a rules-based order’. But at para 2.33 the paper says the rules-based global order is underpinned by ‘a broad architecture of international governance…including the United Nations, international laws and conventions and regional security architectures’. Across the board, ‘rules-based orders’ (both global and, occasionally, regional) are used to talk about our relationships with the US, NATO, ASEAN, the UN, Africa, Malaysia, Singapore, PNG, Fiji, and Tonga. The phrase is used as a catch-all to blur actual interests. And its prominence has already led to calls for Australia itself to be more diligent in complying with rules-based orders, and a more energetic advocate for Washington’s doing so.

So how might we better describe Australian strategy? I think we could say that we want to be a positive security contributor in a turbulent age, and not just a self-reliant defender of ourselves. There’s an order-building side to that strategy, and not just a hedging side. But the order-building side isn’t just about rule-compliance. It’s about defining the sort of order we want—a liberal, open, inclusive order where human rights matter and force and coercion are minimised—and being willing to support that order when we need to do so. That doesn’t necessarily mean more defence spending or a different ADF. But it does mean thinking more seriously about the place of power and force in the 21st century—something that would make us less coy about our actual strategic global interests.