The book on ASPI’s first 20 years

ASPI today publishes a book on its first 20 years: An informed and independent voice: ASPI, 2001–2021.

A senior diplomat from one of Australia’s close ‘Old Commonwealth’ partners tells a story about hosting a Canberra visit from his country’s defence minister, an aspiring political operator.

The minister came to ASPI for a 90-minute roundtable with senior staff. Mark Thompson briefed on the defence portfolio’s budget woes—this was one of those years when financial squeezing was the order of the day, and a gap was quietly appearing between policy promises and funding reality.

Andrew Davies reported on the challenges of delivering the joint strike fighter, the contentious arrival of the ‘stop-gap’ Super Hornet and the awkward non-arrival of the future submarine.

Rod Lyon spoke about the insurmountable problems of Iraq and Afghanistan, the rise of the People’s Republic of China and our own government’s foreign policy foibles. It was, like many ASPI meetings, a lively and sustained critique of policy settings.

Driving back to the high commission, a somewhat startled minister muttered to his diplomatic escort: ‘Thank God we don’t have a think tank like that back home!’

The genius of ASPI is that it’s designed to be a charming disrupter.

Sufficiently inside the policy tent to understand the gritty guts of policy problems, but with a remit to be the challenger of orthodoxies, the provider of different policy dreams (as long as they’re costed and deliverable), the plain-speaking explainer of complexity, and a teller of truth to power. Well, that’s perhaps a little too grand.

ASPI aims to be a helpful partner to the national security community, not a hectoring lecturer. But the institute ceases to have any value if it just endorses current policy settings: the aim is to provide ‘contestability of policy advice’. That’s not always easy in a town where climbing the policy ladder is the only game.

ASPI was intended by then prime minister John Howard to encourage development of alternative sources of advice to government on key strategic and defence policy issues. The view was that public debate of defence policy was inhibited by a poor understanding of the choices and issues involved and ASPI would contribute an informed and independent voice to the public discussion.

‘An informed and independent voice’. There couldn’t be a better description of what the institute has sought to bring to the public debate; nor could there be a more fitting title for this study of ASPI’s first 20 years by Graeme Dobell, ably assisted by the voices and insights of many ASPI colleagues.

It’s striking that the government opted for the model that gave ASPI the greatest level of independence. A decision to invite a potential critic to the table is the decision of a mature and confident government. It’s perhaps not surprising that there aren’t many ASPI-like entities.

ASPI was directed to be ‘non-partisan’, above daily politics.

A fortnight after the institute’s arrival, the world fundamentally changed. The September 11 attacks jolted the strategic fabric of the Middle East and the world’s democracies. ASPI couldn’t have started at a more challenging time for strategic analysis.

Born in the shadow of 9/11, ASPI turns 20 in the stunning aftermath of the fall of Kabul. There never has been a more desperate need for contestability in policy advice.

Building scale, research depth, a culture of pushing the policy boundaries and a back-catalogue of high-quality events and publications takes money. In ASPI’s early stages, I recall the view that it couldn’t possibly be regarded as independent if the bulk of its resources came from the Department of Defence.

Lately, the charge is that the ‘military–industrial complex’ or foreign governments must be the tail that wags the dog. The Canberra embassy of a large and assertive Leninist authoritarian regime can’t conceive that ASPI could possibly be independent in its judgements because, well, no such intellectual independence survives back home. ASPI must therefore be the catspaw of Australian government policy thinking.

Those contentions are not borne out by ASPI products. There are plenty of examples (from critiques of the Port of Darwin’s lease to a PRC company; analysis of key equipment projects such as submarines and combat aircraft; assessments of the Bush, Obama, Trump and now Biden presidencies; examination of the defence budget; differences on cyber policy) in which the institute’s feisty contrarianism has been displayed. In my time at ASPI, I’ve never been asked by a politician, public servant, diplomat or industry representative to bend a judgement to their preferences.

For good or ill, the judgements made by ASPI staff, and our contributors, are their views alone. ASPI was designed to be independent and its output demonstrates that every day.

It became clear several years ago that the institute needed to broaden its focus away from defence policy and international security more narrowly conceived to address a wider canvas of issues presenting some of the most interesting and challenging dilemmas for Australia’s national security. We sought to bring a new focus to cyber issues by creating the ASPI International Cyber Policy Centre. This was followed by work addressing risk and resilience; counterterrorism; policing and international law enforcement; countering disinformation; understanding the behaviour of the PRC in all its dimensions; and, most recently, climate and security.

ASPI has the advantage of being small and flexible; it has a charter to look beyond current policy settings; it can talk to a wide range of people in and out of government to seed ideas; it can engage with the media; it allows expertise to develop because key ASPI staff have stayed in jobs for years and built a depth of knowledge not necessarily found in generalist public servants who frequently change roles.

By creating a more informed base of opinion on key defence budget and capability issues, ASPI has strengthened parliamentary and external scrutiny of the Defence Department and the Australian Defence Force.

The institute has also helped to lift public understanding about critical military capability issues, such as the future submarine project, the future of the surface fleet, air combat capabilities, the land forces, space, and joint and enabling capabilities.

ASPI has had substantial impact on national thinking about dealing with the PRC, and that has helped to at least set the context for government decision-making on issues such as the rollout of the 5G network, countering foreign interference, strengthening security consideration of foreign direct investment, and informing national approaches to fuel and supply-chain security.

It has sought to make policy discussions about cyber, critical and emerging technologies more informed and more accessible. ASPI has offered many active, informed and engaged voices on international issues of importance to Australia, from the Antarctic to the countries and dynamics of the Indo-Pacific, the alliance with the US, the machinery of Defence and national security decision-making, the security of northern Australia and even re-engaging with Europe.

What essential elements make the ASPI model work? The not-so-secret sauce calls for a think tank (not a university department) that has independence and excellence, that is non-partisan, that is a willing to annoy Canberra, and that has the time and proper funding to grow.

My commitment to the organisation comes about because of the value I believe it adds to Australia’s defence and strategic policy framework. These policy settings are the foundation of the security of the country, the security of our people and the very type of country that Australia aspires to be.

Australia would be better defended if we had more lively debates about how best to promote our strategic interests. ASPI has been a national gem in sustaining those debates.

At the core of An informed and independent voice is Dobell’s sharp take on the intellectual content of hundreds of ASPI research publications, thousands of Strategist posts and many, many conferences, seminars, roundtables and the like. He has done a wonderful job of breathing life into this body of work, reflecting some of the heat and energy that came from ASPI staff and ASPI contributors investing their brain power into Australia’s policy interests.

In the book’s pages, you read of Australia’s own difficult navigation through the choppy strategic seas of the past 20 years. It’s a thrilling ride and a testament to the many wonderful people who have worked at or supported the institute.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Australia will continue to need contestable advice in defence and strategic policy.

The coming years will be no less difficult and demanding than those recounted here. Australia’s future is likely to face even greater challenges. Never forget that strategy and policy matter. Profoundly so. That’s why ASPI matters.