Strategic personalities and a changing world
16 May 2019|

As the federal election campaign winds to a close, John McCarthy, formerly one of the senior figures of the Australian diplomatic corps, has published a thoughtful piece urging the incoming government to engage Australians in a serious discourse about the country’s changing place in the world. We face, he believes, a set of national decisions arguably more important than any we have taken since World War II. True, those decisions are more ones of navigation than simplistic choices between our security and economic interests. Still, McCarthy says, ‘We might have to develop a new strategic personality.’

Unfortunately, McCarthy doesn’t give us many hints about what that new strategic personality might look like. His piece focuses more on foreign policy issues than strategic ones.

Without attempting to put words into McCarthy’s mouth, I want to explore that notion of a new strategic personality. I suppose a good place to start is to consider what Australia’s strategic personality is now, since that would at least give us a basis for thinking about how it might change.

I’ve long been attracted to the ‘Strategic Personality Typology’ devised by the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA) in the US, which draws on the better-known Myers–Briggs Type Indicator. Readers who want to understand that typology and some of the ways it can be used might have a quick browse of Caroline F. Ziemke, Philippe Loustaunau and Amy Alrich’s work on the effectiveness of nuclear deterrence, for example. A specific study, also by Ziemke, applying the typology to Iran and Iraq can be found here; the typology itself is well set out in Appendix A.

Much like individuals, states can be thought to have strategic personalities, a set of ingrained habits which reflect their relationship with the world. They can be introverted or extroverted in their dealings with that world; sensing or intuitive in terms of the information they pay most attention to; and thinking or feeling in how they analyse and act upon that information. Ziemke and her colleagues see the US, for example, as extroverted, intuitive and feeling: extroverted because its ‘ultimate concerns’ cannot be satisfied at home; intuitive because it takes truths to be self-evident; and feeling because the US traditionally emphasises values rather than logic in its dealings with the world (which is why President Donald Trump has come as such a shock). By contrast, they see Japan as introverted, sensing and feeling, and China as introverted, sensing and thinking.

Australia’s strategic personality isn’t identified in Ziemke’s work, but I’d argue that we’re probably an extroverted, sensing and thinking personality type, which, according to the IDA model, would make us like Germany and Sweden. We’re undoubtedly extroverted—Australia has looked outward ever since white settlement. And I suspect we’re too steeped in British empiricism to be intuitive. The balance between thinking and feeling is probably narrower than the other two indices, but I’m inclined to see us as a thinking state ready to make calculated decisions under pressure. So, for Australia’s strategic personality to change, we’d need to become more introverted, more intuitive or more feeling.

Those would all be big leaps to make. In terms of the typology, flipping merely from extroverted to introverted would make us look more like China and Saudi Arabia; from sensing to intuitive, more like France and Turkey; and from thinking to feeling, more like Britain and Italy. A full personality inversion (to an introverted, intuitive, feeling state) would make us look more like Iran, Russia and Serbia.

But here’s the rub: a state’s strategic personality—at least in the IDA typology—is the product of its history and culture, the ‘ingrained habits’ of its long-term interactions with the world. Strategic personalities are constructed over generations—and they’re resilient. A state doesn’t choose to have a particular strategic personality one year and a different one the next; it doesn’t swap its strategic personality for reasons of geopolitical convenience. In the strategic personality stakes, states change only slowly.

As an extroverted state, we’re a regional anomaly. All the Asian major powers are introverted: not just China, Japan and India, but Pakistan, Indonesia, Thailand and South Korea. As Ziemke says,

Introverted states look inward to identify their national interests, see the international system as a loose conglomerate of autonomous actors, see their history as self-contained, are boundary sensitive, and seek primarily to defend their Ultimate Concerns against external stresses.

Introverted states can still be aggressive and expansionist—as Japan was in World War II—if their policymakers believe that such actions enhance the state’s interests. China seems to offer a current example of a state whose ‘ultimate concerns’ remain domestic, despite the fact that its strategic agenda reaches steadily outward.

Australia would be ill-advised to mimic an introverted state in order to imply either a greater degree of shared strategic affinity with Asia or a greater degree of strategic separation from the US. As an extroverted, sensing, thinking strategic personality, we’re already different from the extroverted, intuitive, feeling US on two out of the three indices.

And since we can’t readily change who we are, we should be comfortable with our own place in the region. The question that confronts Australia in the Asian century is not ‘How do we change our strategic personality to become more like our neighbours?’ It’s ‘How does an extroverted, sensing, thinking state shift its policy settings to maximise its objectives in a changing world?’ That pulls our attention back to the things that matter: our objectives and how best to pursue them. And, by avoiding an attempt at an unlikely fundamental personality change, it diminishes the risk of others seeing us as a poseur in Asia—pretending to be something we’re not.