The past week has been a rich one for annual events. For Aussies, of course, the major one was Australia Day. Here in the US we’ve seen two others: the kick-off of the annual G’day USA public diplomacy effort, and President Barack Obama’s 2015 State of the Union (SOTU) address. Those two events combined with a few others last week to offer a rich field of insights into how US and Australian policymakers perceive the security threats our countries face.
Starting on Tuesday night with the SOTU, we heard of an Administration most concerned with America’s middle-class economics and keen to ‘turn the page’ on some hard years of economic troubles and taxing military exertions. Obama didn’t tackle ‘hard’ national security and foreign policy until the second half of the speech and, when he did, terrorism dominated his remarks. Terrorism was the context for the first mention of US international security efforts and arose again in connection with ISIL, cyber security, the closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, and the need for transparency and reform in America’s security surveillance practices.
Compared with previous SOTU addresses, Obama’s treatment of security was reasonably weighty, but he was careful not to let it stray too far from home, cleverly securitising some contentious aspects of his domestic policy, including climate change and even lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality. His remarks certainly had the flavour of his coming battles with a Republican-dominated legislature and the 2016 election campaign.
The theme of terrorism was reinforced by the Chief of Staff of the US Army, General Ray Odierno, in a speech to an advocacy organisation the following morning. Odierno stressed that, despite the draw-down of forces in the Middle East and Afghanistan and the shrinking of the full-time Army, terrorism ‘is not going away’ and must be confronted by the institutional Army in its force structure and capabilities.
Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence Dr Mike Vickers sustained the emphasis on terrorism at a think-tank event the same day, describing terrorism and cyber threats as the major short-term threats faced by the US.
Terrorism was raised again on Wednesday, this time by Australian voices, during a conference on the US–Australia Alliance. The Prime Minister’s senior adviser on national security, Andrew Shearer, listed domestic terrorism as his principal contemporary national security concern, citing terrorism again as an important theme in the bilateral intelligence relationship. That emphasis was repeated by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop in her keynote address a little later, in which it was the principal security challenge addressed. But Bishop’s remarks did reveal a more expansive view of international security, reinforcing the role of Westphalian nation-states in the international system on which Australia relies and hinting at a globalist view of Australia’s security challenges and responsibilities.
The emphasis on terrorism as the dominant contemporary security threat is interesting in light of another event last week: the release of the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks 2015 Report. That well-regarded annual assessment of the risks facing both individual countries and the international system acknowledges terrorist attacks as a significant problem, but for the first time in several years also presents inter-state conflict as the most likely high-impact risk of the next decade—a risk not given the same weight in Australian and US policymakers’ recent comments.
This tension between the immediate threat of terrorism and longer-term risk of inter-state conflict is a problem for both countries’ national security planning. As much as anything the challenge may be one of policy bandwidth—the ability to deal with terrorism and other sub-state threats constantly, while making critical long-term force structure and investment decisions in a resource environment that is—for the US—historically constrained. Getting that wrong could result in a security apparatus that’s adequate for neither.
Australia’s confronted with fewer choices in this area and the decisions already made on sea- and airlift and airpower, along with the ground-force capabilities coming from Project LAND 400—if it delivers—should give us reasonable options across the spectrum. This year’s defence white paper will be an opportunity to lay out the rationale for those decisions by explaining what it is we’re securing ourselves against, and how we mean to do it. For the US, whose hard power is much more important to the international system, the choices are tougher and the consequences of error more significant. The debate over those choices bears careful watching.
Andrew Smith is a consultant and independent researcher based in the United States. Image courtesy of Flickr user Mike.