Making strategic policy: what’s involved?
7 May 2015|


With preparations for the 2015 Defence White Paper well underway, I’d like to offer some thoughts about how strategic policy is—ideally—made. I see strategy as the purposeful actions undertaken by an actor within a specific environment with the intention of shaping future outcomes to the actor’s benefit. So making strategic policy means solving a puzzle in three parts: understanding an environment largely not of our own making; determining our own global and regional role; and acknowledging a set of constraints that bound that role.

Let’s start with the environment. We live in a globalised world characterised by power diffusion and strategic dynamism. Weakened global and regional leadership is a likely condition in that world. In part that’s because it takes longer to build winning coalitions when power is diffused, but it’s also because the emerging powers don’t always share the worldview of the more established powers.

One thing interconnectedness hasn’t done—and some thought it would—has been to make hard power obsolete. And because force is still an important variable, strategic analysts continue to be interested in its use—including by agile, non-state actors well poised to exploit globalisation’s empowering features. But interconnectedness has helped to drive a major reformulation of the security agenda, expanding it to include both traditional and non-traditional threats.

Despite that expansion, the most dangerous strategic opponent we might face would still be a revisionist great power. Do revisionist great powers now stalk the earth? The two that attract most attention, Russia and China, seem to be only limited revisionists. But their recent behaviour raises a deep, troubling and as yet unanswered question: how revisionist do they have to be before we need to worry?

Strategic dynamism dominates in Asia. Major powers—with little history of strategic cooperation at the top-tier and second-tier levels—are engaged in both a spatial and a positional competition for influence. Nationalism underpins that competition and cuts away at the internationalist ethic required to strengthen the key pillars of the regional order. A saving grace is that, despite Xi Jinping’s talk of ‘Asia for the Asians’, the region’s fastest-rising great power, China, doesn’t yet retail a narrative of a different regional order.

Let’s turn to the second part of the puzzle: Australia as actor. In theory, this is the ‘middle bit’ of any Defence White Paper, holding together how we see the world and the capabilities we plan to use to defend against perceived threats. But in a grander sense it asks us about Australia’s optimal ‘design’ for the world, because that design gives meaning and purpose to our strategic policy.

As a country, we are what we are: an arid island continent, not situated along the strategically important Eurasian rimlands but at some distance from them. We have a large continent, a small population and an economy dominated by the mining, farming and service sectors. How do we see our own role in the world? In the broadest sense, Australian grand strategy hasn’t changed since white settlement. We were born into a world of Western advantage, and our strategy has been to seek a secure Australia within a stable, liberal, prosperous global order. That order endures. So I don’t believe we’re engaged in a search for a new grand strategy. Rather, we seek a way to achieve our traditional objective in the 21st century.

Still, in recent years Australian strategy has been marked by debate rather than consensus. Defence and security issues are typically seen as points of bipartisan agreement in Australian politics. That’s true—until it’s not. The flurry of official declaratory policy since the White Paper in 2000—Defence Updates in 2003, 2005 and 2007, Defence White Papers in 2009 and 2013, amongst other documents—suggests that bipartisanship mightn’t be as strong as some believe.

Different White Papers have placed different emphases upon different ‘Australias’. The 2009 paper, for example, stressed Australia’s role as a muscular, self-reliant power, reluctant to seek assistance from its ally unless it were to find itself entangled in a conflict with a great power. The 2013 paper placed more stress on our role as an order-builder, and saw strategy as an ‘upstream’ political activity and not just a ‘downstream’ military response. Each White Paper in turn invited criticism from those who believed that it portrayed not merely the environment, but Australia’s strategic identity, incorrectly.

Finally, let’s turn to the third part of the puzzle: the constraints. In reality, many things constrain us, but here I want to talk about four factors in particular. Each holds us ‘prisoner’ by limiting our freedom to act in the world. The first factor is our declaratory settings, which make us a prisoner of our own mouth. Second is solvency, which makes us a prisoner of our wallet. Third is the need for public support for a strategic policy, which makes us a prisoner of our political system. And the fourth factor is capacity, which makes us a prisoner of our existing capabilities. This is the area where the rubber meets the road, where strategic policy ideas press up against the defined priorities, the affordable, the sellable and the doable.

In the three parts of the puzzle lie the core of all the current contests in Australian strategic policy. The environment is complex and transformational, we’re arguing among ourselves about the sort of purposeful actions and outcomes that would best suit our interests, and the constraints seem to press in upon us from all sides.

The 2015 Defence White Paper has much ground to cover.