Geraldine Dooge interviewed Nick Warner Director General of the Office of National Intelligence (podcast) for Radio National. As Warner is the principal adviser to the Prime Minister on intelligence matters his assessments of the strategic environment are of great interest.
The new agency came out of the 2017 Independent Intelligence Review. It retains the functions of the Office of National Assessments for strategic assessments plus responsibility ‘to ensure Australia has an agile, integrated intelligence enterprise that will meet the challenges of Australia’s evolving security environment’.
In the interview Warner was measured and guarded in his comments, as might be expected from Australia’s senior national intelligence community official. Warner’s remarks concentrated on the role of the new Office of National Intelligence and matters of accountability and the tension between civil rights and security. Even before actually taking up the role Warner engaged gatherings of business leaders ‘to explain how we see the world and what assessments we’re putting to the government’. What he says matters.
Warner enumerated to RN what he saw as the most important threats facing Australia. He prefaced his assessment of the risks by observing Australia faces ‘the most challenging strategic circumstances that it has for decades’ and emphasised that ONI doesn’t do policy work.
Speaking to the China-US strategic rivalry he focussed exclusively on China. US actions in the ramping up the strategic competition was ignored, and the cause of the tensions between the great powers was laid at the feet of Xi Jinping, under whom ‘China has become increasingly confident’ and who is determined ‘to deliver China’s ‘national rejuvenation’.
Ignoring any contribution from the Trump administration to the strife in East Asia is perhaps not surprising given the intimate relationship between Australia and the US under the five eyes arrangement. But it is concerning coming from Warner. This is an underlying theme in most of Warner’s views of the strategic challenges.
Warner regarded Trump’s walking away from the Vietnam summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un in February as doing the ‘right thing’. That’s putting a very selective spin on what is a singular policy failure. Over the two summits with the North Korean leader that produced no real results, the capriciousness of US administration has seen Kim belittled, exalted, praised, excused, feted and surprised, and seen sanctions imposed and withdrawn.
The bumbling manoeuvring has provided the opportunity for Kim to drive a wedge between the US and its ally in South Korea, a breach exacerbated by the failure to consult over reduction of joint military exercises. Kim has garnered a degree of international legitimacy, and US diplomacy has had no impact on or mitigated a very real regional nuclear threat.
The rules-based international order, under which, according to Warner, members of the United Nations should adhere ‘to international law, regional security arrangements and trade agreements’, is under threat because ‘the power of states rather than the rules that inform the behaviour of states is more important than it used to be’. The blatant US undermining of the UN is not mentioned.
While undoubtedly China stretches the international norms, conventions, and laws and works within the international institutions cynically to its advantage, there are really only two powerful states that flagrantly disregard and undermine the post-Second World War international framework; Russia and America.
Russia’s transgressions include the invasion and annexation of Crimea, interfering in other nations elections, and extra-judicial killings in foreign states. But these are no more corrosive of the international order that the actions of the US. The unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA demonstrated a serious lack of good faith and commitment to an agreement which was endorsed by the Security Council. Trump’s failure to condemn the Saudi leadership for murder of Khashoggi can only lead to more assassinations.
More damaging to the international security regime was the unilateral recognition by Trump of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights that not just contravened a series of Security Council resolutions but weakened the general legal prohibition on seizing territory by force. Russia is exculpated for Crimea and Israel now feels licensed to illegally annex West Bank settlements aggravating Middle East states. The hostility of Trump to multilateralism, the supranational European Union, collective trade agreements, and international judicial organisations are significant in the unravelling of the rules-based order.
The Radio National interview was not a forensic inquisition and Warner had to keep his responses unclassified. Nevertheless it raises a number of disturbing issues. While the timing of the interview might be unconnected with the proximity of the coming election, and nothing in Warner’s history indicates that he is political in any way, the voters are entitled to an objective assessment of the international environment. It is certainly incumbent on Warner given the influential position he holds to recognise that his words carry weight.
He has an obligation when speaking publicly to ensure his assessment of the international situation is balanced and not to give an impression at odds with what he is advising the Prime Minister and the Cabinet. The open source information on the big geopolitical issues available in the media and academic literature, as opposed to detailed all source intelligence on day to day decision making and covert acts by foreign nations, is never fundamentally at odds with classified material. His sanitisation of the direct responsibility of the current US administration for causing, contributing to, or exacerbating the threats to Australia is as inexplicable as it is obvious.
Warner’s granting of interviews in which he tries to provide a truncated or shorthand assessments of the big geopolitical issues that are a of crucial interest to Australians is problematic. Omitting the disruptive influence of the US on global security and normative international relations can only feed ill-informed anti-China sentiment. In this case his views could support unscrupulous electoral fear mongering and negatively affect the chances of a genuine debate over Australia’s security priorities.
Mike Scrafton is a former senior Defence executive, former CEO of a state statutory body, and former chief of staff and ministerial adviser to the minister for defence.