How the Australian Army can help preserve the rules-based order
16 Jul 2019|

‘We live in an era of increasing competition where the rules-based international order is coming under increasing pressure.’

— Lieutenant General Rick Burr, Chief of the Australian Army

This key observation in the army chief’s ‘futures statement’, Accelerated warfare, goes to the heart of the service’s fundamental purpose in the 21st century. Identifying the drivers of this intensifying competition is crucial to understanding how the army’s strategic environment will evolve, why the increasing pressure on the rules-based order is of such importance, and how that pressure reinforces the significance of Australian land forces in the Indo-Pacific.

Competition is driven by scarcity and, beyond a certain threshold, it can easily morph into conflict. (The idea that competition results from scarcity is an economic construct. Another theory, from the international relations literature, is that competition and/or aggression can arise from attempts to rectify a real or perceived historical grievance. Both explanations are justifiable, but for the purposes of this article I’ve used the scarcity model.)

Integral to the concept of scarcity is the need for a system of rationing that forms the rules of the game, which help decide who can lay claim to the thing that’s scarce. These rules can be deliberately produced and enforced or they may arise organically and manifest as cultural customs, national values, and so on.

Scarcity is a ubiquitous fact of modern societies, as are the rules used to address it. The rules can change over time, either by design or by default. Those who like the rules work hard to preserve them, including by creating the institutional structures to perpetuate the status quo. Those who don’t like the rules try to change them, through persuasion, enticement, coercion or outright aggression. The campaigns for civil rights and women’s rights, for example, have been instrumental in shifting the criteria for social advancement from skin colour and gender to merit.

On the other hand, trends like population growth, urbanisation and the spread of technology are changing not just the rules of the game, but also the fundamental scarcities themselves. Shortages of food, energy, resources, jobs and housing are affecting national policies and international relations. Advancements in communications and medicine are allowing people to work remotely and well past the typical retirement age of 65, which, incidentally, affects the advancement prospects of the younger cohort.

It is in this context that the increasing competition between major powers and the pressures on the rules-based order become significant. The Indo-Pacific region already accounts for over 60% of the world’s population and that number is expected to grow over the coming decades. How to provide adequate opportunities for increasing populations is the primary challenge for all countries. This is intensifying the already critical scarcities of access and authority, such as access to resources, markets and skills to ensure economic growth, and the authority to use military or economic force to assert national interests. These scarcities have prompted a global competition to secure resources and power—as much as possible, as fast as possible, by whatever means necessary.

For much of the post–World War II era, such scarcities have been resolved by the rules of accountability and multilateral cooperation. Those rules (and any intercountry disputes) were adjudicated through the various institutions of the Bretton Woods system, which was created and led by the United States. The principles underlying the system were national sovereignty, the rule of law, individual liberties, free markets and free trade.

Any military action against other countries was supposed to be approved by a community of nations, and (relatively) equitable access to resources and markets was facilitated by participation in the international economic system. These rules haven’t always been followed and many violations have come from countries, including the US itself, but overall the system has ensured peaceful coexistence for much of the past 70 years and helped pull millions of people out of extreme poverty.

However, in the early 21st century, that system is being challenged by both populist governments and violent non-state actors. At their core, challenges to the rules-based system are little more than efforts to change the criteria by which critical scarcities are resolved. Rather than legitimising their claims through accountability and cooperation, the challengers are trying to normalise totalitarian absolutism and unilateral aggression as the new rules.

The game is shifting from one of mutual prosperity and shared values to one in which competition is a zero-sum proposition and might is right. This might be happening because the existing rules are no longer perceived by those involved to provide fair, effective or fast enough access to the resources and power they seek. Whatever its causes, this is a dangerous trend. If left unchecked, it could drive the region into chaos and leave the smaller countries and vulnerable groups at the mercy of the larger, more powerful ones.

As the 2016 defence white paper notes, these efforts represent a core strategic threat for Australia and therefore need to be effectively countered. The most important question for Australia is whether it can play by these new rules. The answer should be an obvious, unequivocal, ‘no’. If this new order takes root, it could cripple the framework which has helped Australia become one of the most peaceful and prosperous societies in the world, and in which it naturally plays to its strengths.

So, how can the Australian Defence Force, and the army in particular, help defeat efforts to undermine the rules-based order, and what capabilities does it need to do so?

The ADF has a lot going for it. While it’s comparatively small in the region, the ADF draws its strength from values whose power is far more enduring than that of totalitarian systems. In a region beset by historical, identity-based conflicts, the ADF draws further strength from its evident neutrality, which confers on it credibility as a trusted partner and interlocutor.

But the impact is not uniform. While the defence of liberal democratic values has to be a joint force effort, the maximum, lasting impact can only come through the sort of direct contact that the army achieves. That’s what makes it real and personal. Through its demonstrated prowess and proper conduct towards civilians, the army can infuse values that can percolate into the public discourse and politics of the host societies. This is the true north that should guide the military’s strategic planning, capability development and global partnerships in the 21st century.