National Security: the decade after the decade before
25 Jan 2013|

'Near miss'. Image courtesy of Flickr user Madison Guy.

In strategy it’s the big judgements about security that matter— they set the context for all the policy decisions that follow. In Strong and Secure: A Strategy for Australia’s National Security, launched by the Prime Minister this week, there’s no bigger judgement than that Australia has a ‘positive’ and ‘benign’ security outlook. It’s worth tracking the use of these words in the Strategy. In her foreword Prime Minister Gillard says:

Some 12 years [after 9/11], our strategic outlook is largely positive. We live in one of the safest and most cohesive nations in the world. We have a strong economy. A major war is unlikely.

In chapter four, which reviews Australia’s strategic outlook, we read:

An assessment of the strategic environment suggests that the outlook for Australia’s national security over the next decade is largely positive. Major conflict is unlikely and we have a proactive, effective and adaptive national security capability to respond to challenges as they unfold.

The use of the word ‘benign’ is in a section titled ‘National Security Risks’:

The current international environment is unlikely to see war between major powers. However, it is characterised by shifting power balances, strategic and economic competition, and territorial disputes. This competition brings a degree of uncertainty and complexity to the relatively benign global landscape.

The Prime Minister warns that ‘this positive strategic outlook is no excuse for complacency’, but the biggest risk the Strategy acknowledges is ‘uncertainty and complexity.’ One can only hope that this upbeat judgement about Australia’s security was subjected to forensic analysis. How confident, for example, can we really be about the judgement that a major war is unlikely? In the Middle East, Iran’s nuclear development program could well spark a war in the very short term. The Strategy says that ‘Iran’s nuclear ambitions could also lead to heightened tensions and possibly further conflict.’ No kidding! In South Asia, there’s serious potential for a conflict between India and Pakistan, possibly sparked by another Lashkar-e-Taiba attack. In North Asia tensions between North and South Korea have been at a heightened state for years.

The authors of the Strategy might counter that such wars would not be ‘major’ or that they are far enough away from Australia for us not to worry about their consequences. I struggle to see how Australia could remain aloof from conflicts involving nuclear powers in areas where we have deep alliance and economic interests. More broadly, the best that could be said of the Strategy is that it has a remarkably optimistic view about the state of strategic competition emerging between the major powers. Yes, the paper does acknowledge ‘the potential for minor clashes to have dangerous outcomes’, but it would take a certain cast of mind to categorise a naval incident in the South China Sea as a minor clash. And the word ‘escalation’ doesn’t appear anywhere in the Strategy.

Even if the judgement about the low risk of major war is correct, we should ask if it’s the correct benchmark for assessing how well placed Australia is to handle strategic developments. Putting Afghanistan to one side, the biggest test of Australia’s national security community in the last forty years was the deployment of a brigade-sized force to East Timor starting in 1999. While the Strategy says of East Timor and the Solomon Islands that ‘the immediate outlook for security and stability is more positive’—there’s that ‘p’ word again—no one should doubt how quickly the need might arise for Australia to deploy a similarly sized force into our nearer region. Any such operation will be highly costly and will immediately absorb the full attention of government and the national security community.

Overall, the Strong and Secure statement underplays the strategic risks emerging in our wider region. It’s revealing that the Prime Minister’s speech at the ANU to launch the Strategy uses neither ‘positive’ nor ‘benign’ as words to describe Australia’s strategic environment. The language of Julia Gillard’s speech is more sober, more attuned to talking about the heavy responsibilities of office ‘because national security is the most fundamental task of government.’ It would be a much tougher sell to claim that the strategic environment is largely benign and that, as a consequence, defence spending can be significantly cut. But that conclusion follows naturally from the big strategic judgement in the Strategy. As the Prime Minister said in her speech, ‘The National Security Strategy will also inform priority-setting in a time of fiscal constraint.’ It most certainly will. Welcome to the decade after the national security decade.

Peter Jennings is executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Image courtesy of Flickr user Madison Guy.