The persistent illusions of the 2016 defence white paper

Enough time has passed for the presumptions about the international environment, the strategic logic and the national objectives of the 2016 defence white paper (DWP 2016) to be assessed. This record of Australia’s strategic policy rates poorly in 2019. Australia’s strategic policy is based on misjudgements and needs resetting.

A core proposition of DWP 2016 was that the ‘stability of the rules-based global order is essential for Australia’s security and prosperity’. That order meant a world where ‘all countries’ had ‘a shared commitment … to conduct their activities in accordance with agreed rules which evolve over time, such as international law and regional security arrangements’. A corollary was that the ‘global strategic and economic weight of the United States will be essential to the continued stability of the rules-based global order on which Australia relies for our security and prosperity’.

Moreover, DWP 2016 judged that, ‘The world will continue to look to the United States for leadership in global security affairs and to lead military coalitions that support international security and the rules-based global order.’

While it might be unfair to expect the government to have anticipated the extent of the harm the Trump administration would cause to international institutions, norms and behaviour, the credulousness displayed about the continuing role of the US showed little appreciation of the emerging risks. The government was blinded by an inability to distinguish Australia’s security interests from those of the US.

Events since 2016 have shown that the confidence put in the US was seriously misplaced. None of the major European powers regards the US as the protector of the global order, and nor does China, Russia or India. The prospect of seeing major US-led coalitions in the future seems remote.

On the contrary, the US has been corrosive of the rules-based global order. The Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and recognition of the Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights have damaged the previously close alliance between Europe and the US. So have the administration’s speculation over withdrawing from NATO; ambiguous stance towards Russia, Europe’s primary strategic concern; and ending of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, regarded by the Europeans as a vital bulwark against a nuclear arms race on the continent. The Trump administration seems intent on starting a trade war with Europe.

US policies in the Middle East have only served to heighten tensions and undermine security. The ham-fisted attempt to build a coalition against the Iranians has led to closer strategic cooperation between Turkey, Russia and Iran. The administration thoughtlessly encourages Israel’s illegal encroachment on Palestinian and Syrian lands—actions that directly undermine the UN Security Council.

If Israel were to annex the West Bank settlements with US endorsement, a near fatal blow would be delivered to the authority of the Security Council. Annexation would inflame pro-Palestinian passions around the world, including in Indonesia. The US has mishandled engagement with North Korea and failed to take advantage of opportunities for a staged reduction in the nuclear threat it poses to the region. Through these and other disruptive policies, Australia’s security is weakened by America’s actions.

Making short-term strategic predictions is problematic and fraught, let alone getting right ‘a thorough process of review and assessment of Australia’s security environment spanning the next 20 years’. That was always a naive fantasy, but one undertaken by every white paper and driven by the necessity for capability planning and acquisition. The 2000 defence white paper couldn’t possibly have anticipated 9/11 and the two decades of the ‘war on terror’ that followed. But reorienting policy after that document was simpler than the readjustment to strategic policy required now.

‘A strong and deep alliance is at the core of Australia’s security and defence planning’ and ‘maintaining interoperability with the United States is central to maintaining the ADF’s potency’, says DWP 2016. Unfortunately, the US that the government had in mind was illusory. Australia’s third strategic defence objective under the white paper is ‘to work closely with our ally the United States and other international partners to provide meaningful contributions to global responses to emergent threats to the rules-based global order that threaten Australia and its interests’. That approach no longer makes sense.

The task of reorienting Australia’s strategic policy is not simple. Few more difficult, or more important, projects confront the next government, and probably every government that follows for decades. Extracting Australia from the suffocating symbiotic US relationship will be a long and complicated process. Not only is the US no longer the unchallenged global hegemon, or the recognised leader and champion of the rules-based order, its national and strategic interests no longer align as closely with Australia’s.

Policy on Israel and the Middle East shows how the ill-considered belief in the US has already put Australia in an awkward position. It might be difficult to find a stance on Israel, the two-state solution and the West Bank after blindly and unnecessarily following the US in recognising Jerusalem as the Israeli capital. President Donald Trump may find that position domestically useful, but it potentially leaves Australia on a policy trajectory that puts it at odds with Indonesia, Malaysia, the Islamic world and most Western nations.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s November foreign policy speech stuck to the usual line. The unwavering support for the US persists. ‘[T]he United States remains vital to the sort of region we want to see’, he said, adding that Australia supports ‘the strongest possible US political, security and economic engagement in the Indo-Pacific’.

Over the coming decades, beginning with the next government, the validity of that view will be profoundly tested.