The sad state of Australia’s security discourse

Australia has all but institutionalised self-censorship in intellectual strategic thought. An absence of secure academic positions, widening of the policy-scholarly divide, and a corrosive culture of in-fighting over a piece of the same (dwindling) funding pie continues to diminish our national security studies sector.

We have curated an intellectual space in which the same voices exist in harmonious agreement. Most strategic analysis or intellectual work tends to be churned out by design, not debate. Who needs robustness, let alone nuance?

Where there is difference, it tends to be personalised and emotional. Ad hominem jabs, attacks, and improper (often lasting) accusations of political allegiance are no longer manageable hazards of public intellectual life. Instead, they have become entrenched realities of our security discourse. Such forces use social media platforms, spill ink in national newspapers, and tend to dictate the membership of security centres and institutes – as well as the invitation lists for seminars and conferences.

To understand the depth of tribal thinking and dysfunction, just look at two specific issues in our international affairs sector: China and Russia. We know that China is a critical variable in Australia’s future security. Yet a cursory assessment of Australia’s commitment to understanding China and growing our capacity to do so well into the future, is bordering on negligent. A recent study of the Australian Academy of the Humanities found only 17 people have graduated with Honours in Chinese studies between 2017 and 2021—including just one in 2021.

It is doubtful that these dismal numbers are due to a lack of interest in the field, particularly given the broad range of career pathways such training offers—from private sector to government. More likely, this reflects the toxicity our national China debate portrays. If you aren’t critical (enough) of Beijing’s foreign policy, you are tarred ‘pro-China’. If you venture deeper to understand the drivers of Chinese strategy or consider the merits of it, you risk being branded an agent of the Chinese Communist Party.

Australia’s Russia sector is no better. Well known is the consistent public dismay directed at the state of the sector for its inability to invest in and grow the next generation of expertise since the original exodus in the 1990s, after the Soviet Union collapsed. But recent calls for more investment merely attempt to mask the deeper problem: apparently only one variant of Russian expertise in Australia is worthy. Attempts to dissect Russian foreign policy, consideration for Moscow’s Asia-Pacific territorial interests, its Antarctic Treaty role, or its potential to blunt our China or Iran challenges, are simply reflective of a ‘Pro-Russia’ agenda.

In today’s context of the enduring Ukraine-Russia war—or ‘conflict’ for those seeking to be labelled a Russian sympathiser—any commentary or research output that questions the utility of Russia sanctions or the Australian national interest in providing military equipment to Kyiv, attracts accusations ranging from being a useful idiot to a Russian spy. Why would any young scholar want to wade into such a minefield?

There will one day be a post-Putin Russia with which Canberra will have to co-exist in the international system. Foundational understanding of the state, the language, its history, and its web of bilateral—and growing—global ties, is critical for Australia to navigate for the future adequately, let alone competitively.

Dismissing research and analysis on opportunities for dialogue with Russia as demonstrating someone’s lack of morality and values is perplexing, given Russia has well-established military interests throughout our neighbourhood. But that didn’t stop a piece being published in an international journal in 2020 that canvassed the emergence of ‘Russia’s Australian well-wishers’, hyperlinking my publications in three of the four instances. Of course, being compared to Professor John Mearsheimer was not itself cause for offence, nor was being tarred a ‘realist’.

Over the past few years, our sector has lost significant voices. Brendan Sargeant, Allan Gyngell and James Goldrick are three figures who supported the next generation of security scholars. They each pushed us to be better analysts, to take the time to reflect on strategic trajectories, and urged us to keep at the centre of our mind curiosity as to what role Australia could—or should—play in the international arena.

All three also implored us to lead by example and cultivate robust debate on Australian security affairs. It was not the notion of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ that shaped discourse with these giants, it was a question of how best Australia could, or should, navigate strategic competition. Debate over the ‘why’ necessarily required deep reflection of all aspects, known unknowns, and consideration of duelling positions.

A former senior Australian Government public servant continues to follow my work closely, often sharing their opinions of my analysis with—unknowingly— mutual networks. For some time, I stopped covering Russian strategic developments, despite holding a PhD in Russian strategy, fearing ‘scholarly’ retribution, or blacklisting in the Australian intellectual community. What resulted was a vacuum, filled quickly by non-experts bent on feeding the 24-7 news media cycle with Russia analysis.

We can learn plenty from watching the anti-Mearsheimer camp expand in Australia’s security sector. Mearsheimer will no doubt weather the storm, and his privilege no doubt promotes his sense of safety in continuing to contribute to the international security discourse. For emerging analysts and early career researchers, things are not so easy. One must decide on either side of a binary construct in which expertise does not get to exist in the nuance, the middle-ground.

Facts no longer exist; emotion shapes Australia’s security discourse. What does this mean for the future of our intellectual culture? Australia is growing a next generation of scholars and experts who are going to self-censor to navigate increasing political pressures. The damage will be generational.

If you have concerns of the foreign influence or espionage variety, use the well-known systems in place to act on it. Robust debate and dialogue are a foundational aspect of our liberal democracy, something we should all work to protect and promote. As a sector, we need to raise the bar and instil a culture of durable contestation. Demand more of your colleagues on this front. And to you, the former senior public servant, please do reach out directly for a coffee. My shout.