Defence Strategic Outlook lacks a civilian perspective.

The Defence Department’s Strategic Update is somewhat servant to the past rather than the future. It’s just one way to see the world and should be subordinated to a civilian perspective in less adversarial terms. The government’s endorsement of the Update is tragic and dangerous.

It is at the core of the Defence Department’s Strategic Update that the world is changing.

But that the Australian government does, apparently, adopt this document as the core of its response to a changing world is tragic.

It is inevitable that a document prepared by defence forces would focus on threats and responses to threats, defining the world in conflict terms. But that is just one way to see the world and ought to be subordinated to a civilian perspective on the world in more real and less adversarial terms.

The truth of our strategic environment is that we advance most effectively by respecting our region and the countries in it. The government continues to take advice mainly from ideologically hysterical sources hateful towards China and it is difficult until that changes to see positive ways forward in the maintenance of peace and the avoidance of war.

The Strategic Update has within it the seeds of self-proving, self-succeeding in creating a divisive and conflictual mess. We plan to spend an additional amount on defence-toying greater than our inadequate domestic response to COVID-19.

The usual platitudes there, such as in 2.14, page 25, that “Australia must be an active and assertive advocate for stability, security and sovereignty in our immediate region” … as was spoken by government ministers each year of our involvement in the Vietnam war.

But having asserted the primacy of our immediate region the struggles between interests in Defence are evident in the muddle of para 2.11 on page 24:

“Defence must also remain prepared to make military contributions outside of our immediate region where our interests are sufficiently engaged, including in support of US-led coalitions and counter terrorism actions such as in the Middle East. Therefore, the ADF’s ability to deploy forces globally, where the Government chooses to do so, must be maintained. This includes contributions across the wider Indo-Pacific, including in North Asia. North Asia is a region of global strategic and economic significance and Australia has important trade and broader partnership-based interests with countries in the region. But any such wider contributions must be based on specific national interests. Consideration of making wider military contributions should not be an equally-important determinant for force structure compared to ensuring we have credible capability to respond to any challenge in our immediate region.”

This follows such well-known assertions that we remain a staunch ally of the United States and [2.10] that we support a rules-based international order.

Which can only encourage one to quote US Secretary of State Pompeo not so long ago at Texas A and M University.

… when I was a cadet, what’s the cadet motto at West Point? ‘You will not lie, cheat or steal or tolerate those who do.’ I was the CIA director, we lied, we cheated, we stole. That’s, it was like, we had entire training courses. It reminds you of the glory of the American experiment.

And we should remember that our engagement in the Middle East for two decades remains illegal, and that our involvement with the United States there in destruction of the region has been a foundational contributor to the threats of terrorism in our immediate region that is apparently now our first concern.

The paper asserts that:

“Only the nuclear and conventional capabilities of the United States can offer effective deterrence against the possibility of nuclear threats against Australia.”

There is of course the prospect that sanity and sensible foreign policy could be far more realistic deterrents. No sane government can consider the possibility of use of nuclear weapons. And no sensible notion of strategic reliance on the United States can ignore the reality of the self-preoccupation, divisive paralysis and weakness of the United States.

I note in passing, cognisant of the Strategic Update’s concern for engaging with the region, that on 6 July Fiji ratified the treaty banning nuclear weapons, a treaty to which Australia is opposed and which Australia has not signed, let alone ratified.

I also note the agitation about tiny Kiribati changing its recognition of government of China from the authorities in Taipei to those in Beijing, a reality Australia recognised in December 1972. (Our prime, foreign and defence ministers were born between 1965 and 1968). The recent rush to consider more aid and more defence force activities in the South Pacific has to be seen in the context of a history of patronising racist rudeness of Australian leaders towards South Pacific leaders in recent times and the abysmal progressive reduction of Australia’s overseas development assistance to the lowest levels ever. If we do better than some major powers on the data at link, we need to bear in mind our ‘immediate region’ and its needs in the wake of colonial depredation.

To get a sense of ‘colonial depredation’ consider the history of humble nutmeg. Why is Indonesia so genial? Had Indonesia sought a forward defence posture such as we have maintained since the 1950s and as is confirmed in this Strategic Update we would have been more than frantic. And while the Update argues for extravagant defence spending as a result of COVID-19, Indonesia is going in the other direction.

I go back to Jack Ma. “You’re supposed to spend money on your people.” [especially
from 5:30]. Had the money the US has spent on futile wars been spent on social and physical infrastructure in the United States, the US would have no crisis now with China. What follies we have followed.

Australia has to be worth defending, less given to bigotry and slurring descriptions of the world we live in, more committed to social justice programs, more determinedly correcting inequality, more rapidly shifting the Australian economy to one based on sustainable energy and sensible employment, less servile to the 1% and dinosaur opinions of those who hanker for a past that cannot be retrieved. Seeing the world in less adversarial terms, recognising other countries’ rights to be themselves.

The Defence Department’s Strategic Update is a servant to the past rather than the future. The government’s endorsement of the Update as its view of the world is tragic and dangerous.

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Dennis Argall's degrees were in anthropology and defence studies. his governmental work in foreign, defence and domestic departments and for the Australian parliament. His overseas postings included Beijing as ambassador, and Washington. He regrets the extent of his personal experience with disability but it has perhaps sharpened his desire that the future be a better country.

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