Australian strategy has a TINA problem
26 May 2016|

Image courtesy of Flickr user ArTeTrA

In 1983 Bob Hawke and his new Treasurer Paul Keating came to office promising to resist radical changes to Australia’s economic system. Hawke’s election pitch had recognised the economy was in bad shape, but he wanted to solve its problems by doing the same things Labor always liked doing: emphasising cooperation and boosting public investment in infrastructure and industry.

We all know what happened next. Confronted with a much worse set of numbers and trends than had been expected, the government turned rapidly to embrace economic liberalisation, radically reforming Australia’s economic system.

Why raise this now? Well, like 1983’s economic trends, 2016 brings with it a series of strategic trends which are increasingly negative. Like 1983 our politicians have initially approached this by doubling down on the ideas they’ve long favoured.

The key difference, however, is that should a new government come to office in July and decide on the need for change—even incremental change—there are no clear alternative conceptions of Australian strategic policy, at least in the public domain, waiting to be embraced.

Malcolm Fraser’s book Dangerous Allies only turns to the question of how to secure Australia outside the US alliance in its final pages. And it largely waves away the question with an acknowledgement that higher spending will be necessary as we eke out a new reality with the US at an arm’s length. Contrary to the public image of his work, Hugh White’s main contribution to the strategic debate is actually about the choices that should be made by the US. To his credit, Ross Babbage has written perhaps the most detailed ‘Game Plan’, but it largely swims with the tide in seeking ever stronger cooperation with the US.

And beyond that? Plenty of fine papers, reports, speeches, blog posts and articles highlight specific issues and argue for specific changes to issues or process. Some even sketch out some new organising principles for defence. But there’s nothing that could be adopted tomorrow as a coherent policy alternative, or even has enough bones for policy officials to quickly flesh out.

Where Hawke and Keating were able to draw on 30 years of new economic thinking by academics and intellectuals and the policy experience of the governments of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and others, there are few substantive alternatives floating around Australia’s strategic community.

Of course, that analogy isn’t exact. It’s much easier for governments to substantially change economic policy than to make even moderate adjustments to how they interact with the governments around them. Still, to borrow from Thatcher, it increasingly feels like a TINA situation: There Is No Alternative.

Whether by drift or jump, moving ever closer to the US seems the only option for which coherent, clear policies and guidance is available. This isn’t a problem of ideas, as such. Many on the right advocate for closer links with democratic powers like Japan in order to help reassure the US that it’s worth staying in Asia. Many on the left want better ties with Southeast Asia in case the US isn’t willing to continue engaging. And while the Greens have lots of criticisms of the current system, it’s not clear they would like the actual price tag their preference for neutrality would require.

While people like Andrew Shearer have admirably advocated for particular changes, there still isn’t much in the public domain for a government to adopt wholesale. It may be that radical change isn’t needed. And we don’t need to indulge in demands for ‘grand strategies’ that somehow weave every aspect of our peacetime nation into a unified whole. But without detailed work on the options, challenges and opportunities, the scope for strategic flexibility, already fleetingly small, will shrink even further.

Perhaps it’s still far too early to hope for a proliferation of proposals. The regional order is still shifting and assuming we already know enough to form a coherent strategy may be a mistake. Maybe spending more time figuring out in a granular fashion what is occurring is a better use of analyst’s time than bold speculation on tectonic shifts.

So this is a qualified criticism of my field and the state of the debate. I certainly haven’t written anything like the kind of contribution I’m calling for, so I’m just as willing to find excuses. Yet, as supporters of economic liberalisation are finding today, the absence of coherent, thoughtful alternatives doesn’t lead to unquestioned dominance but to confused and populist responses that prefer to rip up the system today than undertake slow and steady change over the years.

To avoid such a future, Australia’s strategic alternatives need a lot more fleshing out. With luck these efforts will never be implemented. The US alliance will suffice and alternatives will gather dust. But even in that rosy scenario we’ll still be a lot better able to evaluate today’s small changes or respond to a shock tomorrow with such resources at hand.