Strategic partnerships: Bismarck and beef
14 Jan 2014| and
Otto von Bismarck

The theme of partnership is a growing one in Australian strategic policy. In some ways, it’s a useful qualifier to the emphases placed in an earlier era on ANZUS and self-reliance. And it’s probably not a coincidence that the notion of partnerships has arisen in tandem with Asia’s rise in global politics. In this post we want to work through the concept to highlight a more structured way of thinking about it.

We have to begin by observing something about the region as a whole. For at least the next twenty years, we’ll find ourselves on the periphery of a region where the strategic centre of gravity will be shifting—closer to us, rather than further away. As a consequence, we’ll sense the greater intrusion of Asian power shifts into our personal space. Those power shifts don’t automatically generate a more disintegrated Asian region. If we ask ourselves what would drive the growth of separate strategic blocs in Asia, the simplest answer is that the growth of Bismarckian nationalism, not mere multipolarity, is the factor most likely to exert such disintegrative pressures. In short, Asian mulipolarity is certain but the direction of nationalistic identities is uncertain—and possibly concerning.

Nationalism in itself isn’t a malignant force, and all countries are nationalistic to some degree. But nationalism comes in different flavours. In the matrix below (click to enlarge) we’ve attempted to capture the different national identities of some countries based on a simple two-axes division: between nationalism and internationalism on the one hand, and between exclusive and cooperative forms of engagement on the other.

There is, of course, a degree of subjectivity and arbitrariness to the placement of particular states on the two axes, but the matrix helps give a visual portrayal of our argument that nationalism in its excluding form—here labelled ‘Bismarckian’—might be a powerful contributor to the emergence of a set of distinct power ‘blocs’ in Asian security. ‘Bismarckian’, of course, refers to that redoubtable Prussian realist, who pithily observed: ‘It is the destiny of the weak to be devoured by the strong.’ By ‘exclusivist’ we mean a propensity to pursue national interest obectives as ‘win–lose’ outcomes in the international environment. A ‘my country, right or wrong’ approach which reduces the potential for negotiated ‘win– win’ outcomes. An important test for Asia’s rising powers will be whether or not they can evolve a more cooperative form of nationalism; one that allows them to play a larger role in providing public goods to the region and working alongside others on a regular basis.

As power shifts in Asia, proponents of an integrated regionalist future will need to gradually reinvent regional order, carving out larger roles and responsibilities for those Asian players willing to play positive regional roles. Australia takes a close interest in regional order—but our key objective is that the order remains stable, liberal and prosperous. In part because we value that objective, we’ll continue to ally ourselves with the principal architect of the previous (and still current) stable, liberal and prosperous order, the United States. But in an Asia that will increasingly look multipolar and nationalistic (unlike the bipolar, ideological competition of the Cold War), we’ll want both to do more with ANZUS and to supplement the alliance with a set of regional partnership arrangements.

‘Partnership’ is a remarkably loose term, so we shouldn’t be shy about trying to add some content to it. Around the region, we will form our most lasting strategic partnerships—our first-circle partnerships—with other regional players

  1. who, like us, are concerned about regional outcomes being determined by a set of Bismarckian competitions
  2. who, like us, attempt to promote a stable, liberal and prosperous order
  3. and who, like us, have the capability and the will to operate beyond their own limited subregions.

None of those partnerships is likely to become an alliance in the true sense of the word. An alliance satisfies all three tests, but it’s also characterised by a formal agreement on when the members will come to each other’s aid, and typically includes regular patterns of defence cooperation and exchange. Australia has one ally and it’s not in the market for another; nor is it clear that any Asian great power will create its own alliance structure across the region. Still those first-circle partnerships will form a valuable part of our engagement strategy, and some may come to include their own forms of defence cooperation.

Beyond that first circle of partnerships a second will also be formed, the exact status of which will be blurred by the interchangeable terminology. Those second-circle partnerships will be with partners who fail one of the three tests for the inner circle. They’ll still offer strategic gains for us and the other player, but for both partners the relationship will be a more limited one. Will there be a third circle, for countries that fail two of the tests? We suspect not; the basis for cooperation would just be too thin. Even though they aren’t alliances, all partnerships involve calculations of relative risk and reward: the hamburger has to have some beef. In all cases, a decision about the beef quantity of a particular hamburger would be a matter for political decision-makers but we can’t see a future for strategic partnerships that are purely vegetarian.

Allies and partners are force multipliers and Australians should see them as such. Moreover, we should encourage others to think about them the same way—not least because doing so would be a partial antidote to the more exclusive variety of nationalism in Asian strategic settings. An era of partnership-building in Asia is already under way in Australian strategic policy. How effectively we pursue that policy will likely be a greater determinant of regional security outcomes than anything we can do by ourselves.

Peter Jennings is executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and Rod Lyon is a fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and an adjunct associate professor at the Griffith Asia Institute. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.