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All planned out

Posted By on March 13, 2019 @ 06:00

Open any report, article or blog piece on the contemporary strategic environment and you’re likely to find two contradictory statements. Uncertainty has never been higher, and yet we’re told the need for long-term planning has never been greater.

Australia is awash with long-term plans. We’ve had three defence white papers in the last decade, along with an Asian century white paper and a foreign policy white paper. There are regular national security statements by prime ministers, and, with an election looming, plans are underway for more plans to plan how we plan to go.

To a degree, this is all useful. As Dwight Eisenhower famously said, ‘Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.’ White papers force governments to confront first principles and long-term challenges, rather than the day-to-day morass of details. They are learning exercises as leaders and the bureaucracy size each other up and work out their relationship.

What is not clear is whether Australia has benefited from the mass of planning over the last decade.

Long-term plans, especially in the large official structures, are not vehicles for introducing significant change. The more inclusive and transparent the process, the less likely it is to depart from the status quo. This was the case in the US with the quadrennial defence review, and seems true in Australia. Thus, the use of such processes today, at a time of great uncertainty, needs to be carefully considered. The 2009, 2013 and 2016 defence white papers are still locked in a concentric circle model for Australia, and a defence force that is still largely the same shape (albeit far more lethal) as it was in previous decades.

The desire for long-term planning has also come at the cost of debate about what is going on in our region. The desire for bipartisanship stems in part from a belief that we need structured, long-term plans and that debate hinders planning and may introduce big shifts. As I’ve outlined elsewhere, bipartisanship has impeded good policy and national unity and hasn’t protected the armed forces as promised. Yet it is beloved of the long-term planners. Our uber-planner of the last decade, former prime minister Kevin Rudd, said prior to taking office that ‘we can ill-afford, in our circumstances, to chop and change our fundamental policy orientation for dealing with the rest of the world every few years’. Looking back as we scramble to deal with the new environment, a little more willingness to change could have been a very good thing.

Consider, then, the long-term plans we have settled on, such as the bid for 2% of GDP for defence. What was held up as the gold standard in 2013 by a wide variety of commentators and officials has now become a ‘floor’, with critiques growing over the tying of defence to an ‘arbitrary figure’. The Defence Department faces the choice of either sticking with the certainty of insufficient funding or undertaking the whole planning process once again and hoping the next ‘certain’ figure will be more meaningful.

The rising dissatisfaction with our planning outcomes shouldn’t really be surprising even if it is often unacknowledged. Humans are poorly equipped to be long-term planners. The activity itself assumes a level of knowledge and judgement that we just don’t have, and no amount of big data or even AI will overcome that. Psychological research also shows that people can do okay at putting ‘ends, means and ways’ together over the short to medium term, but long term their thoughts drift from viability to desirability. So not only is uncertainty over the long term far higher, but our brains are poorly equipped to think over that length of time as well.

With Donald Trump and Xi Jinping disrupting our neat plans, Australians have begun looking around for a new approach, which, of course, has been labelled the search for ‘Plan B’. We therefore seem to be reaching for the same policy toolkit we’ve embraced over the past decade and which in part has contributed to us getting here: a reverent belief in planning, ideally of the long-range variety. Alongside this is the growing search for agrand strategy’ as a new and even higher level of planning.

None of this is to suggest we sink into a national live-in-the-moment haze and take up finger painting instead. Decisions have to be made, today, about long-term capability issues and ad hoc casting around won’t suffice. But it is a caution about the influence of intellectuals, academics and a kind of thinking which overestimates our mental capacity and has an aesthetic preference for neat, clear grand strategic ideals over the messy present. It is also an encouragement that we need serious public debate, today. We also must develop a willingness to chop and change precisely because we don’t know what the right answer is, or the question, or the public’s willingness to agree to the result and fund the answer in full.

Article printed from The Strategist: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au

URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/all-planned-out/

[1] in the US with the quadrennial defence review: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/14702436.2018.1497442

[2] bipartisanship has impeded: http://www.tai.org.au/content/i%E2%80%99m-here-argument-why-bipartisanship-security-makes-australia-less-safe

[3] we can ill-afford: http://www.australianpolitics.com/news/2002/10/02-10-02a.shtml

[4] arbitrary figure: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/forward-defence-in-depth-for-australia-part-3/

[5] Psychological research also shows that: https://academic.oup.com/isq/article/56/3/530/1796026

[6] growing: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/the-case-for-a-new-australian-grand-strategy/

[7] search: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/a-grand-strategy-plan-a-for-australia/

[8] for: http://www.defence.gov.au/adc/adfj/Documents/issue_201/Stothart_April_2017.pdf

[9] a: https://escholarship.org/uc/item/5sf691qt

[10] grand: http://airpower.airforce.gov.au/APDC/media/PDF-Files/SAASS%20Papers/SAAS05-Great-Powers,-National-Interests,-and-Australian-Grand-Strategy.pdf

[11] strategy: http://sdsc.bellschool.anu.edu.au/experts-publications/publications/6603/ostrich-sticks-its-head-sand-and-thinks-itself-safe