Taking Australian strategic thought to the ‘School of Athens’

As a historian, I hold the now rather quaint view that the classics can help us make sense of the world. So to understand the recent efflorescence of debate in Australian strategic policy circles prompted by Hugh White’s How to defend Australia, it may be useful to start with one of the most famous artworks in Western civilisation, namely Raphael’s School of Athens in the Vatican.

The fresco depicts the great Greek philosophers arguing in the agora of ideas. In the middle stand Plato and Aristotle, the two towering figures of Western philosophy. Plato gestures upwards, signifying a higher reality of pure form beyond the physical world. Aristotle extends his hand downwards, indicating that what is important is down here in the world around us, in all of its variety.

Plato and Aristotle had different views on how one accessed the truth. For Plato, reason sufficed; in Socrates’ accounts, Plato could help people determine the good simply by tapping into the eternal truths that they knew already. In contrast, Aristotle collected, classified and compared individual things, whether plants, animals or forms of government. They also differed in their views on whether true knowledge was possible; in contrast to Plato’s certainty, Aristotle held that except in sciences such as mathematics, knowledge was probabilistic.

Their different ways of understanding the world created the fundamental dualism that underpins all subsequent Western thought: the world of pure form versus the messiness of this world of people and things; pure reason versus empiricism; deduction versus induction.

While we shouldn’t force the analogy too far, I’ve been struck by how much Australia’s strategic policy debates are characterised by elements of this dualism.

One the one hand there are those who believe that there are virtually unchanging ‘laws’ that determine our strategic circumstances, whether they’re derived from geography, demography, the nature of power, or history itself. If you can discern those laws, you can identify the greatest threats and design a force optimised to meet them. In this risk calculus, consequence generally trumps likelihood. The ‘defence of Australia’ school is Platonist, and White sits in this genealogy.

In contrast, an Aristotelian approach argues that there are many contingencies in this world, most of which can’t be precisely predicted due to the nature of changing human relationships. Ultimately, the best force structure is one that provides options for a broad range of contingences, rather a very small number of worst-case futures. To the Platonist, this is ill-disciplined dilution of scarce resources.

And while this may be an unfair characterisation, the Platonist approach seems to seek an impossibly ‘clean’ approach to war, suggesting that if we take advantage of our geography, we can avoid conflict on land and among the people, which is messy, unpredictable, and politically and morally complex. Rather, we can confine war to the geometric space of the vast skies and seas around us. In contrast, the other school sees war and conflict as inherently about people; the battlespace is ultimately not geographic but mental.

Just as it’s simplistic to categorise all Western philosophers as Platonists or Aristotelians, so it’s reductionist to assign our strategic thinkers to one or another immutable school. Individuals sit on a spectrum. And the centre of gravity of the community can move, like a pendulum prodded erratically by events.

It seems to me that the pendulum has swung away from White. That’s not just because the majority of the strategic policy community disagrees with his uncompromisingly bleak assessment of the future of US power and what it means for Australia.

It’s also because the Platonist approach focuses on the worst case, which is generally defined as military invasion of Australia, and that the defence force should be designed for that. However, over the past two decades, there has been growing acknowledgement that the ADF is not just a ‘break glass in case of emergency’ fire extinguisher, or an insurance policy, but a tool of national power that can and should be used every day to help shape the world in ways that support our national strategy.

This has been amplified by the view expressed by many that we have entered into a world characterised not by Platonic binaries (such as war versus peace) but by constant competition and even conflict at a threshold below war. This view has perhaps been put most compellingly here in Australia by ADF chief Angus Campbell in his analysis of political warfare.

It’s possible that the current concern with grey-zone conflict and political warfare could prove to be a fad (perhaps as US–China competition hardens into a cold war and the worst-case scenario of a hot one) and the pendulum will swing back to a binary, Platonist worldview. But at the moment White’s view is a contrarian position, at odds with the dominant paradigm shaping the actions of practitioners and policymakers.

While I’m more influenced by the contingencies (a nice word for messiness) of human history, there is much that a Platonist approach offers to the debate. For example, it insists on discipline in the alignment of strategy and capability to avoid trying to do and be everything. White’s point that the mere fact that a military capability could be useful is not sufficient reason to acquire it should be emblazoned over the entrance to Russell Offices.

Andrew Davies recently argued that ‘balanced’ force structures are lazy. I agree, if they seek balance for its own sake, or to avoid difficult decisions about prioritisation, or to keep all the services happy. But I don’t think a force optimised for one low-probability, worst-case scenario is the answer.

A Platonist approach can also paint potential futures that may seem unlikely or unimaginable, as White has done. But if those futures are undesirable, we can work to avoid them. As Campbell argued at ASPI recently, we can as part of a community of nations write our own history.