There’s one consistent thread to Australian Defence White Papers that didn’t really come out in Peter Jennings’ article—the notion of self-reliance. Of course, we didn’t come to that notion by accident—it was pretty much forced onto us through the British policy of no commitments east of the Suez and the 1969 United States ‘Guam Doctrine’, leaving us little option but to be prepared to act alone. But it’s been a consistent message in Australian strategic policy since 1972:
1972 – self-reliance in situations of less than global or major international concern,
1976 – face a range of other situations that we should expect to handle more independently,
1987 – defend ourselves with our own resources,
1994 – defend our country without depending on help from other countries combat forces,
2000 – defend Australia without relying on the combat forces of other countries, and
2009 – manage strategic risk.
One of the things that comes with a well-developed sense of self-reliance is the notion of being a ‘middle power’. In the context of the US alliance, then PM Rudd was at pains to tell the Brookings Institute in 2008 that we have the world’s 15th largest economy with the 11th largest military budget. But there’s more to it than those bare numbers and the notion of middle power is elusive; the common theme associated with traditional major powers has been their nuclear status and/or power projection capability. By relying on the United States deterrence umbrella rather than pursuing any nuclear ambitions and lacking a strong expeditionary capability, the notion of Australia as a middle power seems somewhat presumptuous—which begs the question as to what the White Paper discussions of self-reliance actually mean.
Lieutenant Colonel Scott Tatnell is a serving member of the Australian Defence Force.