Crying wolf: on the scale and pace of strategic change
15 Mar 2017|

In Senate Estimates recently, DFAT’s Secretary Frances Adamson introduced a discussion of the new foreign policy white paper with the statement, ‘We do this in a complex international environment where the scale and pace of change is unprecedented’.

That claim is so common as to be unexceptional. But I think exception should be taken. The current era is difficult, but its difficulties don’t rise from change that is either too fast or never before experienced.

The ‘pace’ argument is perhaps the easiest to deal with. Economically, the Asia–Pacific has developed in a consistent, largely predictable manner for decades. What worked in the North Atlantic in the 18th and 19th century worked in the late 20th century in Asia. Indeed, the West committed significant material and intellectual resources to make it happen. While population growth in the first half of the 20th century was unprecedented in human affairs, the rate today is half what it was in the 1960s, and trending steeply down.

Politically, the countries of the region have maintained their borders for decades and offered few surprises—beyond perhaps the pleasant—with democratic transitions in South Korea, Indonesia and possibly Myanmar taking hold. Nor is technology changing as fast as believed. As Tyler Cowen has argued, we’re actually going through a ‘great stagnation’ in terms of innovations that shifts how society—or warfare—operates.

Staring at our phones all day is hardly comparable to the bewildering shifts that flowed from 19th century inventions like electricity, oil and the telephone, or 20th century inventions of radio, photography, flight and nuclear weapons. Even the ‘Revolution in Military Affairs’ and rise of autonomous systems has proven largely evolutionary and equates to an extension or replacement of existing capacity, rather than ushering in a wholly new way of fighting. Maybe that’ll change, but that time is not here yet.

The ‘scale’ argument is even less persuasive. While 9/11 was shocking, terrorism is hardly new, and unlike the Cold War, those seeking to overthrow our society from within possess neither the resources nor ideology to make their efforts plausible. The terrorist threat is offset by reductions elsewhere:  domestic crime and violence has waned, freeing up police, and we’ve observed a reduction in inter-state and intra-state conflict, freeing up the military and intelligence services. (Even if scholars don’t really know why either of those changes have occurred.)

For Australia, as much as Trump threatens to upend things, we’ve had to endure far more change in other periods. In a two-year stretch at the end of the 1960s we lost both mummy and daddy as the UK and US radically reduced their presence in our region and their commitment to our security and economy. Those losses, particularly the UK’s withdrawal, was far more wrenching, emotionally and intellectually, than anything we would suffer today should Trump trample ANZUS.

Finally, while China is big and getting bigger, Australia has always had to live with giants. In the 19th and early 20th centuries we had global dominating European powers like Germany and France controlling military outposts in the islands to our north. In the mid-20th century we were directly attacked by Japan and the USSR often lurked nearby. But unlike almost all previous eras, today Australia possesses a plausible capacity to defend itself and a range of options to expand or improve that capacity. We’re also part of a region which now has far more capacity and determination than ever before to reject becoming a giant’s plaything.

By telling ourselves we’ve never seen a world as difficult as this one, we make three errors. First, we lose a sense of scale. Not long ago I heard a US admiral declare that Asia has had ‘more than 70 years of security and stability’ which seems to overlook several wars his own military had fought in, more than a dozen decolonisation conflicts and the nuclear-armed Cold War standoff. Without a sense of scale it also becomes easier for those wanting radical and simplistic policies—like regional nuclear proliferation or bans on Muslims—to gain legitimacy.

Second, we obscure the opportunities of history to help inform us of alternatives. In the face of the challenges of the 1960s we created a brand new defence strategy, overhauled our Defence Department, and created the Australian Defence Force. No one is suggesting changes on anything like that kind of scale today, but there’s much we can learn from the past about how to successfully manage periods of strategic transition if we stop thinking that we live in unique times.

Finally, inflated worries about today can obscure the enduring problems that bedevilled us yesterday. It’s not hard to find rose-tinted recollections of the Obama administration’s approach to Asia, even if a year ago many of the same voices were bemoaning the drift and unanswered questions of the Pivot. There was much about our region that needed changing pre-Trump, and still does. An attitude that implies things have never been more difficult doesn’t make us more open to change, it actually makes us more resistant and less creative.

Ultimately policymakers and pundits will always have a tendency to say today is the worst of all possible worlds and point to threats lurking on our doorstep. But in truth, it could be far worse. Let’s stop crying wolf until we can see it clearly.