Skilled diplomacy is vital to Australia’s defence, says ADF chief

Strong diplomacy is crucial to avoid conflict, and the Australian Defence Force must operate within an envelope created and expanded by the nation’s diplomatic efforts, says ADF chief Angus Campbell.

Failure of this key element of statecraft places greater pressure on the use of hard power, General Campbell tells The Strategist.

Australia’s 2023 defence strategic review, released in April, emphasised the importance of diplomacy as a complementary instrument of national defence and called for a substantially heightened focus for Australian diplomacy in the Pacific and Southeast Asia.

That reflects the very strong view of Campbell, the officer responsible for honing and maintaining Australia’s hard-power capabilities.

‘I think it’s important not to see diplomacy as the soft form of a securitised or militarised perspective of the world, but rather that a component of diplomacy deals with security and stability, and complements harder power like military capability,’ he says.

‘The absence of diplomacy means that your perspective can default very quickly to how to use hard power, how to express something forcefully, how to overwhelm a competitor or an opponent rather than to find pathways of cooperation. Diplomacy and military power need to work complementarily, and they both exist to pursue and support the national interest.’

Having an integrated perspective of the national interest, and not a sectional perspective, is crucial, says Campbell. ‘For a military, diplomacy can prevent conflicts. It can mitigate conflicts. It can provide partners in conflict to support you. It can express and win wider global sympathy and support to your cause. It can mitigate the scale or the escalation of a conflict, and hopefully it can bring a conflict to an end. So that’s a very direct relationship,’ he says.

Campbell says the far more important, and longer term, indirect relationship is all about how diplomacy across the full breadth of Australia’s engagement with the world creates relationships, arrangements, normative behaviours and expectations within international communities of people as much as between governments and, in his case, security agencies. ‘It creates a recognition that cooperative effort is always more beneficial to more of that international community and, I think, generates the idea of security, stability and prosperity for people, which is a good outcome.’

Diplomacy, says Campbell, is often backed up by hard power, but Australia would be weaker if it didn’t have an impressive diplomatic service and such a strong history and a cultural approach of engaging with the world and expressing a view of Australia and of how Australia can contribute. ‘And that is overwhelmingly a diplomatic effect. It’s led by professional diplomats, but it is contributed to by every other part of government, and indeed key flagship representatives in industry, in science and technology, in education, in innovation, and in our parliamentary expression of diplomacy through engagement with other parliaments.’

The ADF has military personnel in attaché or attaché-like roles in 42 Australian missions overseas. Campbell says they’re an element of an integrated whole-of-government ‘Team Australia’ effect. ‘And that’s the way they work, and that’s the way they think, and that’s what I expect of them. They’re building, daily, the relationship between nations and particularly between armed forces, strengthening cooperation and understanding and creating people-to-people links complemented by the exercise, training and activity program.’

Campbell says the attaché system is complemented by humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations in the region and other efforts undertaken by groups of like-minded nations as much as by allies and partners in more traditional arrangements. ‘And all of that is complemented by the long-term schooling program, in Australia for international military students and also for Australians going overseas.’

As a reflection of government recognition of the importance of people-to-people relationships through the international educational program, overseas military students in long-term programs were one of the very few groups authorised to enter Australia to attend courses during the Covid-19 lockdowns. ‘While essentially the country was closed, our outreach through offering places in school and university-level programs for military officers was maintained throughout,’ Campbell says.

‘Australia has never fought alone, and we never want to fight alone. We’re always going to be stronger as a relatively modest population on a very big piece of the earth’s surface if we have partners who will work with us in common cause. And that’s been our history, our military and strategic cultural heritage.

‘We are always stronger when we are with others, when we can find a reason for collective expression of security rather than an individual or national expression of that aspiration. And Australia geographically is going to be secure when its region is secure, and insecure when its region is insecure. So the effort of our defence attachés as a component of our larger diplomatic mission, working across a whole lot of other agencies and components of those missions in combination with very extensive exercise engagements, presence and the training relationships, contributes to building our understanding of partner nations, their understanding of us and prospectively the possibility that that common understanding may one day be of benefit to all in terms of supporting a collective security approach to a common challenge.’

That makes the role of defence attachés critical, says Campbell. It means that instead of looking at the ADF, including the reserves, as a total force of about 100,000 people, allies, partners, friends and like-minded nations can come together with a much greater deterrent effect.

In his own experience, close personal relationships developed over many years made it easy to get a meeting when specific matters had to be discussed.

Campbell says the region isn’t inclined towards large formal multilateral security structures, so all the ways Australia connects with other nations, including through the ADF, are crucial. ‘We continue to seek to do that, and to thicken up those connections because one day they and we might find common cause and we will all be better for it by having done so much together before such a challenge arises.’

That’s a subset of what the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade does as a whole-of-government lead expressing Australia to the world. ‘We are not the lead, and we shouldn’t be the lead. We are a contributor.’

Campbell says that if a nation doesn’t find ways to build relationships that strengthen cultural or people-to-people connections, economic connections and international institutional arrangements, then it isn’t fully engaging in building like-minded perspectives. ‘From that political and policy perspective, when we’re pulling together as Australia, we can be very persuasive and we can be part of a much greater story with other nations willing to work with us. The worst place you want to find yourself on a battlefield is alone, and Australia should never want to be alone.’

Campbell pays close attention to who’s appointed to attaché roles. ‘Essentially they are messengers and trusted confidantes from Australia and from the ADF to our partner nations and militaries. They matter because we want to build relationships that prevent or deter conflict, and we want to be able to respond, if necessary, with more than simply Australia’s capacity, but rather the capacity and power of a community of nations.’

Australia’s strategic policy documents carry three essential messages, says Campbell. ‘We are trying to shape in ways that build a secure world, particularly in our near region. We’re trying to deter the inclination that countries can successfully achieve their goals through force. But, if necessary, we want the capacity to respond if deterrence fails. And that capacity to respond, from my perspective, should always be with more than the sum total of power and effect that Australia can generate alone.’