Avoiding war must be Australia’s chief strategic goal

In How to defend Australia, Hugh White refers to the ‘deepest national objectives: security, prosperity and identity’, observing that states seem ‘willing to risk war to pursue these objectives, even at potentially appalling cost’. Security, prosperity and identity are often interleaved and interconnected in indiscernible and inextricable ways. They won’t be advanced in a war.

Historical examples or analogies of how wars start and how particular battles and campaigns are won abound. Yet there is only one universally applicable lesson from history: wars never bring about the strategic objectives the protagonists desire. That’s obviously true for the losers, but also for the victors. Wars have disruptive and transformative consequences that affect the domestic arrangements and the international relations of the participants.

Napoleon’s complex career was inseparable from the French Revolution. Although it encountered religious and monarchist resistance, a new French identity of secular, liberal republicanism began to emerge following the revolution. During his ascendancy from soldier to emperor, Napoleon added a new political outcome to the ongoing transformation of France—that of elevating the state above society.

Napoleon not only fostered the elements of the modern administrative nation-state in France, but through his conquests introduced recognisably modern administrative institutions across much of Europe. He inherited and then expanded and introduced to Europe ‘the first modern bureaucracy’. He instituted the first recognisable ‘“security state”, with its unprecedented levels of administrative surveillance and police repression’. The Napoleonic wars transformed Europe in ways that the victorious monarchs, emperors and tsars would be unable to reverse. In the wake of Napoleon, European identities were transforming into something different and unexpected.

World War I provides an even starker example of conflict not producing expected outcomes for the identity or security of the participants. As a result of the war, ‘The pre-war state system was destroyed and the prestige of the major European powers throughout the world was undermined.’ The war created the opportunity for the Bolsheviks to seize power in Russia. The German, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires collapsed. The colonial powers France and Britain were weakened financially and economically by the conflict. Millions of Europeans formerly in subject populations found themselves the citizens of new nations. Japan’s star rose in Asia to the ruin and subjugation of Korea and much of China.

World War I made the participants less, not more, secure. It radically changed the identities of the nations involved. And it laid the path to World War II. Again, major war had failed to achieve for the antagonists their ‘security, prosperity and identity’. World War II would be no different. Europe was divided, the European empires entered their terminal phase, the Cold War began, China fell to the communists, and the world teetered on the brink of nuclear war for the next four decades. The US national security state was born.

Now we hear again the voices of those willing to go to war to defend Australia’s ‘security, prosperity and identity’. Is it reasonable to expect, despite the historical examples to the contrary, that this time the deepest national objectives could be achieved by a major war?

The problem with most proposals for ramping up or reforming Australia’s strategic policy is that they hold out the prospect of success. They posit that the right strategy, capability, planning, preparedness and force posture can lead to the successful defence of Australia against a great power. They hold out confidently the prospect that Australia can be defended somewhere off shore—in the sea approaches or through alliance operations in the Northeast Asian maritime periphery.

There are two options in this narrative. One is what might be called the prudent White version, where Australia needs to seriously consider the prospect of defending itself against China after the US withdraws, becomes impotent or is unwilling to contest with China and defend its ally. To examine White’s ‘security, prosperity and identity’ claim under these circumstances from China’s perspective, it would seem that, if the Chinese were determined to launch an attack on Australia, they would be pursuing strategic military objectives tied closely to their own ‘deepest national objectives’.

In that case, the Chinese wouldn’t be likely to come under-resourced and with a strategy that optimised Australia’s chances of succeeding. They wouldn’t play into Australia’s hands. They presumably would have the sense to manoeuvre forces and attack weaknesses—or simply overwhelm or use attrition—to succeed in the campaign. They would come to win.

The other option is that the US regains so-called leadership in the Asia–Pacific in a definitive conflict with China. If it didn’t go nuclear, that would undoubtedly be a protracted and destructive war involving massive casualties, the displacement of huge populations, and the destruction of large amounts of civil and military industrial, transport, communications and service-delivery infrastructure. It would almost certainly extend to space and would inevitably envelop Korea, Japan and Taiwan. The legacy would feed regional antagonism for generations.

Like with other major wars before it, the world would be transformed and the protagonists badly weakened. After the conflict, those great powers that sat it out—perhaps India, Russia and Europe—would find their relative global strength greatly increased. The capacity of the US to exercise influence in the Middle East, Latin America or other regions could be greatly diminished. China’s economy and political stability, and perhaps its unity, would suffer. The aftermath would be unpredictable.

Security, prosperity and identity would suffer in either case.

It’s not that Australia doesn’t need a capable defence force. We do. And there are many roles for it. The danger is that political leaders will come to believe that Australia is defensible against a great power. That belief simply encourages reckless decision-making.

Australia’s deepest national objectives can only be preserved if avoiding war is the overriding strategic goal.