Getting Australia’s ‘strategic interests’ right
7 Feb 2013| and
Seeing strategic interests that require the use of force?

The new National Security Strategy (NSS) is meant to set the context for the next Defence White Paper, scheduled for release later this year. But it falls short on one key point. While NSS provides a good coverage of Australia broad security interests, it could’ve better elaborated Australia’s strategic worldview. The 2000 and 2009 Defence White Papers included a chapter called ‘Australia’s Strategic Interests’, however the image of strategic interests sketched out in these was limited, reactive, and heavily defence-oriented. When the Defence Minister spoke at both ASPI and Lowy functions in August last year, he outlined Australia’s strategic interests in the same way—and no one raised so much as an eyebrow.

However, there’s a problem in seeing Australia’s strategic interests merely as ‘those national security interests… in relation to which Australia might contemplate the use of force,’ as the 2009 White Paper put it. For one thing, this approach puts the cart before the horse—making us think first about where we might be willing (and able) to use force and then defining our strategic interests accordingly.

The potential use of force is of course where the Defence Department focuses its attention and, as a result, it tends to frame the debate in those terms. In the 2009 Defence White Paper, our Defence Department lists our ‘most basic strategic interest’ as defending the continent of Australia from armed attack. ‘Most basic’ is apparently meant to mean ‘most important’ strategic interest, given another phrase where a secure neighbourhood is described as ‘our next most important strategic interest’. The security, stability and cohesion of our immediate neighbourhood, including Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, East Timor, New Zealand and the South Pacific island states falls under this section.

Beyond our neighbourhood, the 2009 White Paper also argues that Australia has an ‘enduring strategic interest’ in the stability of the whole Asia Pacific—from North Asia to the Indian Ocean. Lastly, the 2009 White Paper identified a strategic interest in an international order that restrains aggression and manages threats. The chapter in the 2000 White Paper is similar, though not identical, in its concentric circle/ ‘layering’ of our strategic interests.

The problem with limiting strategic interests to instances where we might consider the use of force is that it makes us think that Australia’s strategic interests are its defence interests. You might think that we’ve always thought about strategic interests principally in defence terms: but that’s not the case. The 1968 Strategic Basis of Australian Defence Policy (PDF), for example, offers some crucial advice on considering the multiple elements of strategy (not just military)—advice that the authors of the 2013 White Paper would do well to heed. The 1976 Defence White Paper included a similar thought: ‘Insofar as we can directly influence developments shaping our strategic prospects, this will often be by the political rather than the military arm of policy.’ But if that’s true, what’s the point of defining our strategic interests merely in relation to the military arm of policy?

Worst of all, our current approach, in both the NSS and Defence White Papers, contains nothing that might be considered as proactive ambition. The overall effect is to portray Australia’s national strategic interests as narrow and reactive, when it would be better if they were broad and proactive. National strategic interests are not something that Australian policymakers should think about only in the narrow, defence-oriented manner that has been adopted in recent years.

We might avoid the trap that strategic interests and strategic objectives are all about the use of force in either of two ways. The first would be to broaden our understanding of the ‘use’ of force, so that it includes broad, shaping activity as well as direct conflict. Our defence capabilities are only one of our instruments for pursuing grand strategy, and in an era of regional transformation that is neither driven by force nor stoppable by force, we’re probably back in those scenarios where the political arm of policy will be carrying more weight than the military arm.

The second, and better, way of escaping the trap is simply to say upfront that strategy is about how we pursue the world we want, and not just about the use of force. That means thinking about strategic interests in a more proactive, aspirational way.

Rod Lyon is a non-residential fellow and Hayley Channer is an analyst at ASPI. This article is excerpted from an ASPI Policy Analysis released today and available here. Image courtesy of Department of Defence.