Australia’s National Defence Strategy: Where ideology trumps strategy

May 1, 2024
Crossed arms Australian soldier with national waving flag

The ‘National Defence Strategy’ is not a strategy. It is an ideology. An ideology that firmly ties Australia’s future to that of the United States. A horrifying thought.

Australia apparently faces the ‘most complex and challenging strategic environment since the Second World War’. From the perspective of the underpinnings of Australian defence policy for many decades, that is indeed true. For Australia has progressively locked itself into a ‘defence’ strategy that was based on a shaky foundation; namely a foundational assumption of the ongoing global military dominance of the United States.

Events have proven this foundational assumption false.

As recently as 2016, the Defence White Paper claimed, boldly, that the United States would remain the pre-eminent global military power over the next two decades. By the 2023 Defence Strategic Review, it was acknowledged that the United States is no longer “the unipolar leader of the Indo-Pacific.” The evidence that the United States imperial system is now in freefall grows by the day.

Not that you would gain this understanding by reading the National Defence Strategy (NDS).

For, whilst not explicitly stated, it is clear that the NDS seeks some form of restoration of the unipolar moment. That historical flash in the pan where the United States was the unchallenged superpower ‘attended’ by its Western allies. The NDS demonstrates this in two ways. The first is the sell-out of Australian sovereignty to the United States, as explained by Rex Patrick. The second and interrelated is the commitment to ‘upholding’ the global rules-based order (RBO).

The RBO is repeated like a mantra throughout the NDS. Yet there is not a single mention of the United Nation or the United Nations Charter and only three mentions of international law.

A growing scholarship highlights that the global order, as enshrined in the United Nations Charter and international law, and the RBO are not the same. Italian diplomat Marco Carnelos describes the rules-based order as a “a self-referential mindset twisted to the interests of Washington and its allies” with the order being based on “neoliberal ideology and imbued with double standards.” Professor Clinton Fernandes describes the RBO as a euphemism for empire with the central organising principle of Australian foreign policy being to remain on the “winning side of a worldwide confrontation between the empire and the lands dominated by it.” John Dugard SC concludes that an international order founded on the UN Charter and international law “is a sounder recipe for peace than the amorphous and discriminatory rules-based international order.”

It is worth reflecting upon Dugard’s conclusion. If the stated purpose of the NDS is to achieve regional peace and prosperity, then the enforcement of the RBO actually undermines this purpose. This incoherency is evident elsewhere in the NDS.

The foreword acknowledges Australia’s security and prosperity are inextricably linked. A major contributor to that prosperity is obviously China. Whilst China is omitted as a key security partner, the list of partners includes the entire collective West including the United Kingdom and Europe. The dichotomy between maintaining our prosperity via Australia’s crucial trade relationship with China and aiming to maintain our security by excluding China as a key partner could not be starker.

The NDS’ ideological prism is also evident in the language used. For example, acknowledging the values that Australia shares with the United States whilst noting China’s different values and political systems. Given Australia’s history of involvement in illegal wars of aggression and its ongoing complicity in the genocide being committed in Gaza, it would appear that the primary value that Australia shares with the United States is an insatiable and amoral appetite for power.

If as the NDS states, there is an intense contest of narratives and values between China and the United States, it would seem that the values offered by Australia and the United States have little to commend themselves to the rest of the world.

The NDS acknowledges on multiple occasions that Australia’s future depends upon protecting our ‘economic connection to the world’ as well as the free flow of goods, services and finance in the global market. China’s future also depends upon this. Despite this shared interest, of critical importance to both nations, the NDS only speaks of shared interests with our ‘key partners.’

The NDS has been developed without any sense of reflection upon how the numerous actions of the United States, its sub-imperial powers and vassals have ineluctably led over the last 30 years to the strategic environment we now face.

The NDS is disingenuous when it describes the increasing prevalence of ‘grey-zone’ activities, coercion, and a military build-up taking place without ‘strategic reassurance or transparency’ when by any objective measure it is the United States that is the primary driver of these actions. It is the United States that is attempting to contain China, to restrain its development. Not vice versa.

The NDS is ahistorical when it highlights that revisionist states can undermine peace and stability, citing Russia’s ‘unprovoked’ invasion of Ukraine as an example. The totality of the evidence now available refutes any credibility of such a claim, whilst (as just one example) the revisionist actions of the collective West in facilitating Israel’s genocide through undermining international law are ignored.

It is patently clear when all is considered that the NDS describes an ideology. An ideology centred upon restoring the primacy of the United States, at a point in time when it is clear that the United States’ imperial system is in a terminal and accelerating collapse.
Will this ideology facilitate Australia’s security and prosperity?

It is difficult to see how.

There is no indication, yet, that the United States is willing to accept it is no longer the global hegemon. The logical outcome of the no reverse gear policy of the neo-conservatives who hold the reins of power is an almost inevitable conflict with China. As the severe economic damage caused to Europe by the proxy war against Russia in Ukraine has demonstrated, Australia’s best interests will not be a consideration in any decision to go to war with China or undermine its economic development. As history has repeatedly shown, the United States will act in the interests of its own elites, and theirs alone.

Despite this, the NDS firmly ties Australia’s future to the future of the United States. A proposition that should fill even the casual observer with horror.

The NDS is not fit for its stated purpose. But Australia desperately needs a rational national strategy. A national strategy based upon the following principles may actually achieve the security and prosperity that we seek:

  • A realistic appraisal of the world as it is. This can only be achieved through an honest reflection and acceptance of responsibility for how Australia’s actions, and the actions of our allies have been major, if not primary, contributors to the current imbroglio.
  • The restoration of the global order as defined by the United Nations Charter and international law, as the only order to which Australia subscribes. The RBO must be abandoned as it is the primary source of global and regional instability.
  • Recognition that security is indivisible. Australia can only be secure if all nations of the region, including China, are also secure.
  • The most complex and challenging strategic challenge that Australia faces is disentangling ourselves from a corrupted alliance. Abandoning AUKUS, which is looking increasingly unachievable (and thus offers a face-saving exit strategy) should be the first step.
  • Actually addressing fundamental issues, related to environment, energy and inequality, that are the drivers for future insecurity.

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