Planning? Bah! Sensible chaps just do strategy
12 May 2014|

It’s great Robert Ayson took the time to post a rejoinder to my article about why DFAT doesn’t do strategy. Any debate about the purpose and content of strategy is a useful debate to have. But that said, I find Rob’s definition of strategy incomprehensible—a form of strategic mysticism based on ‘more of a state of mind than a formal process’, ‘the encouragement of a specific intellectual climate’ where a ‘small unseen adjustment to one of Australia’s external relationships’ can be as strategic in its effect as a white paper.

Well, how elegant! I’ll have to mention that to our special forces in Afghanistan some time. But I must concede the charge that, in my haste to diagnose DFAT’s condition, I failed to define exactly what this strategy ‘thing’ is that diplomats don’t do and Defence does diligently.

In the defence world, strategy is the planning (that word again) that drives how we use military force to promote Australia’s interests, the pointy end of which is military operations. But defence strategy has a long tail, stretching back to defining the capabilities the armed forces need to run their operations, buying and sustaining that equipment, budgeting to pay for it and training people to use it. That is indeed complex, requiring a quite deliberative effort, rather than just the right state of mind. The business of strategy might well end in combat and that produces the sense of instability that Rob refers to in quoting Lawrence Freedman. In my experience, though, strategy is seldom improved by a ‘dire crisis’—by then it’s usually too late to be making cool appreciations of the national interest. To manage a crisis well, you need a pre-developed strategy, something that informs all those artful ‘small unseen adjustments’ DFAT officials reportedly make.

Of course most strategy isn’t directed to the design and use of military force. The type of strategy DFAT might apply in writing a white paper is more about how we should shape foreign policy to achieve long-term objectives. I can partly agree with Rob here, this type of strategy shouldn’t be about announcing desired end points, so much as it’s shaping the journey to help us get better outcomes. On this measure the Asian Century White Paper is one example of how not to do strategy. Readers might remember that document set a series of targets—Australia will be one of the world’s top ten economies per capita by 2025; our schools will be in the world’s top five by 2025, etc, etc. But how, dear Dr Henry, but how?

Rob and I would probably agree that good strategy isn’t about setting delusional targets for economic and social change. In the DFAT context, strategy is exactly as Rob puts it in his last paragraph: ‘a sharp appreciation of Australia’s interests, [that]…is kept in mind as both big choices and the smallest of adjustments are being made.’ Australia, being a consequential country, perhaps makes more big adjustments than Dr Ayson’s New Zealand, where smaller adjustments may be the norm. But the question I would put to Rob is: how, precisely, do you develop that sharp appreciation of interests? That’s strategy. One can be systematic and deliberative—and that’s what’s known as ‘planning’. Or one can dismiss that approach and pretend that sensible chaps (I use the term advisedly) just know how to do this stuff. Oops, we are back at crisis management.

Peter Jennings is executive director of ASPI.