The Australian National Security Strategy: still under construction?
29 Jan 2013|
Australia's National Security Strategy: still under construction?

The new National Security Strategy has much to commend it in terms of ambition and intent, although its real strength is probably as a comprehensive public information overview document. This is an important matter in a democracy, where the great Departments of State expend society’s resources in trying to achieve agreed national goals.

There’ll be many who will comment on the Strategy’s judgments on the strategic environment and threats, but the conceptual framework it’s built upon will probably escape much scrutiny. While a less exciting aspect, it’s worth examining how the framework sharply constrains the Strategy and unfortunately diminishes its overall value.

Firstly, the Strategy isn’t a grand strategy unlike, for instance, the American National Security Strategy (PDF). A grand strategy is concerned with the development and allocation of resources—manpower, money, materiel, legitimacy and soft power. The Australian National Security Strategy glances backwards to last year’s budget allocations but otherwise is uninhibited by resource considerations. Also, rather than guiding the full range of the instruments of national power, the Australian Strategy focuses strongly on hard power instruments, including border security and law enforcement as well as the ADF. There’s little mention of the economic, diplomatic or informational instruments.

The Strategy also isn’t a risk management strategy, unlike the UK National Security Strategy. The British Strategy prioritises risks into three tiers, based on a National Security Risk Assessment looking out five and twenty years. The Australian Strategy, on the other hand, lists a range of risks but neither prioritises them nor explains how they were derived. And rather than adopting a whole-of-government approach like the UK document, the Australian one is much more narrowly conceived to emphasise activities only concerning a small number of Departments and agencies. In fact, both the British and the Australian National Security Strategies aren’t national in the sense of encompassing the whole-of-the-nation. They really only encompass ‘the state’ (and in the Australian case not even all of it) and perhaps should be renamed accordingly!

That’s what it isn’t. But what is the Australian Strategy document? Like other strategies that adopt a risk management approach, it has many lists. Australia, we are told, has four objectives in the national security field, seven ‘key risks’ and eight ‘pillars’. Wags may suggest that this then means ‘only’ 224 possible permutations, but it raises the more serious question of why these numbers? Why eight pillars, why not four, or indeed twelve?

These ‘laundry lists’ are sometimes reflective of strategies built from the ground up; existing activities and current Departmental predilections are aggregated by some coordinating organisation in an eye-pleasing manner and on a broadly functional basis. This might have happened in the Strategy given that that the objectives, risks and pillars sometimes overlap and sometimes only loosely align, with little direct connection between them. There seems to be a confusion of business strategy methodologies—including the use of the ubiquitous vision statement—with a risk management approach, and the result is a certain degree of incoherence.

However, the Strategy’s four objectives are worthy enough statements in themselves: for example, who wouldn’t prefer to ‘secure our assets’ rather than make them more insecure? But the objectives are ultimately not measurable on a quantifiable (or even qualitative) basis. As such, how can anyone know when the objectives have been achieved or which are the most cost-effective methods to reach them? Worse, the objectives aren’t prioritised and at times are in conflict with each other. One objective seeks to strengthen our sovereignty while another seeks to secure our infrastructure; the latter may require embracing alliances or collective defence, potentially diminishing our sovereignty. How are such tensions to be reconciled?

The problems identified here could be addressed by having a clear objective, in the service of which the nation’s ‘means’ can be employed. All else would then follow, including a whole-of-nation scope, priorities, sensible resource commitments and overall coherence. This doesn’t mean some Stalinist command approach which everybody must rigidly follow, rather an overarching objective towards which the various Departmental and agency working levels can work in flexible ways.

And lo, right at the end the Strategy gives us this Holy Grail. Tucked away at the finish is a cogent list of three priorities—albeit only loosely linked to the earlier four objectives, seven risks and eight pillars: enhanced regional engagement, integrated cyber policy and operations and ‘effective partnerships to achieve innovative and efficient national security outcomes’.

Two of the priorities are means to an end; cyber defence isn’t a good in itself but is done to protect other interests and, similarly, partnerships are formed to achieve specific objectives, not as ends in themselves. But the other priority is different, and hints at working towards building a particular type of institutional order amongst the nations in our region. And it’s this potential grand strategic objective that could form a meaningful basis for a more useful national security strategy.

Peter Layton is undertaking a research PhD in grand strategy at UNSW. Image courtesy of Marko Milošević.