As work on the Defence White Paper begins to quicken, I think there ought to be a broader public debate about what Australia’s strategic role should be. This is the under-discussed part of every White Paper. We seem to have endless coverage of what the strategic environment is like; and almost as much on how we manage the constraints on our role, such as defence budgets and legacy force structures. But it’s the bit in the middle—the section that joins together the environment and the constraints—that’s always undercooked. What role does Australia want to play in the world and how does it want to play it?
I was reminded of how little we address the question when the topic surfaced unexpectedly in a recent discussion at ASPI. We were discussing Asian strategic narratives when a visitor asked what Australia’s strategic narrative was. It’s a deep question, and mimics the classic question of grand strategy: what’s Australia’s project for the world? Large questions of identity and history swirl together here. Identity, because the question asks in part how we see ourselves. History, because there’s no Australia that comes to the 21st century but the one that played the role it did in earlier centuries.
Australian identity is now complex and multifaceted. Undoubtedly there are still vestiges of ‘the Japanese colony in Africa’ as William Hudson used to call us—a colony established on the far side of the earth from the mother country, populated initially with prisoners and their guards, fearful of engagement with its neighbours, and 200 years after white settlement retaining the British Queen is its Head of State. Being so far from our home protector, we thought naturally that our security was tied to that of the Empire. And we were born to think of naval power as our creator, supplier and protector, nurturing a strategic inclination to partner with the dominant Western maritime power of the day.
But since at least the 1970s, a growing strain of nationalism has been echoing in Australian foreign and strategic policy, reflecting the emergence of a generation that found dependency shameful and wanted a more independent strategic voice. In the years since, we’ve unpacked a doctrine of defence self-reliance, explored the idea of Australia as a Good International Citizen, and embarked upon a debate about whether Australia is a middle power, a pivotal power, a second-tier power, or something else. Blending those roles with our traditional great-power-partnering role hasn’t been smooth. And given the likely shifts in strategic weight that’ll unfold over coming years, both within Asia and beyond, our relative power status is likely to be more of a topic for discussion rather than less.
We’ve also become more comfortable with the notion of Asian engagement. True, we don’t fully agree where on the possible spectrum of engagement we want to place ourselves: from mere functionalism at one end of the spectrum, to identity issues (thinking of ourselves as Asians) at the other. Critically, we want to play several strategic roles in Asia: as multilateral architect, order-builder, trading nation, muscular Asian power, strategic partner, and US southern anchor in the region. The roles don’t all pull in the same direction. At a time when Asia is experiencing transformational change, it’s unsurprising when we’re uncertain which role we want to play when.
The effect of regional transformation has been to fracture Australia’s strategic narrative even more than it already was. From various corners of the strategic prism, voices now shout out for us to stay linked to the dominant Western maritime power, to strengthen ANZUS for a new century of challenges, to be self-reliant in key missions and capabilities, to be an order-builder in Asia, to partner with the rising like-minded Asian players, to muscle-up for a new round of regional coercion, to accommodate China’s rise as US power declines, to step back from entanglement in possible Asian conflicts, to reinforce the strategically cohesive effects of closer economic cooperation, and to step up to the new benchmark of good international citizenship and accept our Responsibility to Protect. Lest you think I’m over-egging the pudding here, let me caution that those are just the mainstream voices.
For each of those possible roles, there’s a supplementary question. How much of the role do we want to buy into? A strategic role can be pursued either proactively or with greater restraint. If we were proactive, we would define our strategic interests broadly, use our security instruments frequently, accept a leadership role in terms of costs and burdens, and decline the option of being a passive bystander. If we were restrained, we would define our strategic interests narrowly, use our security instruments rarely, share out costs and burdens with other players, and choose the observer option more frequently. It might be we choose to be proactive on some issues or in some regions, but not in others.
This post can’t resolve all the tensions in Australia’s possible strategic role, but it can underline how much the undercooked middle section of the White Paper debate contains a set of deep and problematic questions. The questions are every bit as serious as ‘Is China an order-builder or a revisionist?’ And every bit as serious as ‘Do we need a bigger submarine or a smaller one?’
Rod Lyon is a fellow at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist. Image courtesy of Flickr user Marko Mikkonen.