Ethical infrastructure and the inversion of soft power
30 Jul 2019|

Power is the ability to impose one’s will without aid from or hindrance by others. It can be exercised by individuals (including individual states) or in combination with others (through alliances, for example). Power can exerted through the use, or threat of use, of force—‘hard power’—or through the exercise of influence—‘soft power’.

One aspect of power that’s often taken for granted is the ability to resist the will of another. In that sense, power is best conceived in terms of both offensive and defensive capacity. Thus, the untrammelled exercise of power will result in others conforming to your will while you remain impervious to theirs.

The defensive side of power also comes in hard and soft forms. Hard defensive measures are obvious and well understood. However, the soft aspect of defensive power receives comparatively little attention. That needs to change—especially as vulnerabilities in this area of national security are beginning to be exploited by potential foes.

One of the simplest precepts of strategy is to ‘divide and conquer’. That can play out on several levels—ranging from forcing an opponent to fight on multiple fronts to employing tactics designed to break alliances, sow dissension and basically disrupt the capacity of a foe to act efficiently and in a coordinated manner.

Some people try to counteract such tactics by ‘hardening’ their ‘control’ mechanisms. However, while that might be necessary, it is never sufficient. Thwarting the divide-and-conquer strategy also requires building a culture of common intent in which every person—whatever their level of seniority—carries within them a good understanding of the command intent and an orientation towards realising its requirements.

However, what if the target for division and conquest is not a defined group of people but a whole society? How might that society respond?

I ask this question because, as noted above, there’s compelling evidence that potential foes—especially those governed by unitary, authoritarian  regimes—recognise the advantage to be gained by splintering, say, liberal democracies in order to undermine their capacity to resist effectively. Attempts to achieve that outcome can be seen in Europe (not least in the lead-up to the Brexit vote,  and since) and, infamously, during the 2016 presidential elections in the US. This is an ongoing issue.

Of course, efforts to stimulate and exacerbate divisions have been made far easier by the effects of events like the 2008 global financial crisis, and by a series of ethical failures that have undermined trust in many institutions (churches, the media, politics, corporations) across the Western world—even to the point where the legitimacy of core institutions has been called into question.

A strong, resilient society needs more than just physical and technical infrastructure; of equal importance is its ‘ethical infrastructure’. This is because a society’s ethical infrastructure helps to preserve its integrity and coherence, and acts as a shock absorber to cushion the effects of change and to counteract attempts to divide and conquer.

In other words, ethical infrastructure is a vital aspect of a state’s defensive soft power.

So, how are Australia’s defences? In a word, largely broken—mostly as a result of neglect.

All institutions are built on ethical foundations: a core purpose and associated values and principles. Like most foundations, they are often laid down by past generations and then forgotten. If a state is lucky, they maintain themselves. However, such luck is rare. Instead, forgotten and left to moulder in the dark, the foundations erode and eventually (almost always when it is too late) cracks appear in the facade and the structure is damaged.

That is what has happened to many of our core institutions. They have betrayed their purpose and have acted in opposition to their espoused values and principles. They have earned public reproof as ‘hypocrites’—all brought about without any deliberate intention to destroy the reserves of trust and regard upon which they ultimately depend for their legitimacy.

Most commentary about this state of affairs tends to focus on the specific negative effects for each institution. However, what if the harm done is systemic in nature? What if the damage done to a society’s ethical infrastructure makes it especially vulnerable to those who would divide and conquer?

I think the time has come to look at such matters through a national security lens. Just how much integrity does a society require in order to defend against attacks targeting its coherence and its ability to cooperate when under stress? Is there a bare minimum of consensus required, in terms of core values and principles, of a kind that transcends potential points of division—for example, in relation to religion or politics? Do we have a duty to revitalise the nation’s ethical infrastructure—not as an optional extra and not in a piecemeal manner, but as a conscious and integrated program of investment?

My hunch is that we ignore this aspect of national security at our peril. We can have all of the tools of hard power at our disposal but be defeated because of a loss of cohesion and will. A society’s natural weaknesses in this area of defence, if left unaddressed, can be exploited by a canny enemy that knows it can save blood and treasure by exploiting them.

The Ethics Centre has been working on these concepts for the past couple of years and hopes to engage more widely on this topic.