It’s time to decommission ASPI

Jan 3, 2021

The time has come – indeed, is well past – for those responsible for giving the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) its Length Of Type Extension to decommission it in the manner of a ship of the line, or submarine, whose usefulness to the fleet has demonstrably expired and cannot under any circumstance be regarded as fit for purpose it was designed for.

Credit – Unsplash

Retiring it from active service would be a hard call on those parts of it which, over the years, have made, and continue to make frequent important, relevant and research-based contributions to national security issues in the areas of, for example, defence industry, technology and economics, defence infrastructure and the overall supply chain.

For these, a new institutional home should be found because their work makes available the bases for understanding the political and logistical economies of defence to an interested public.

The same cannot be said of the outpouring of ASPI’s political-strategic analyses, most especially those promulgated in recent weeks under the authorship of its Executive Director, Mr. Peter Jennings. They are of a tone – strident, bordering on the manic – and of a type which has all the hallmarks of a sloppy, ahistorical, incurious approach to strategic policy. In short they are the product of an institutional mind closed to moving beyond the surface manifestation of alliance protocols and their intolerance of change and its drivers.

Two recent pieces on this site frame this development: one, by Mike Scrafton identified the hectoring which ASPI has resorted to in its refusal to countenance understandings of China other than its own that might be valid by dismissing the scholars, commentators and analysts holding them as “Beijing’s collection of local useful idiots” (elsewhere he describes them as a “chorus of Beijing’s local fanboys”).

Scrafton also accurately identifies the parading of “indulgent war fantasies” involving what are know as “disruptive technologies” and a conceptual ignorance of what deterrence would be with regard to China in the same document.

The research literature on these subjects is substantial and their findings are devastating for any continued belief in their efficacy of the strategies in question but, to all intents and purposes, they are ignored.

The second piece is Marcus Reubenstein’s analysis of the ASPI’s attempt to intervene in the deliberations of the Australian Research Council as part of a project, funded by the US Stare Department, to link certain academics at Australian universities with programmes favouring the Chinese military.

Between these and other recent posts in The Strategist by Jennings the intellectual character of ASPI is a reproach and betrayal of the organisation’s founding role and principles.

While it was never expected that ASPI would embrace to entire gamut of strategic studies (Critical Security Studies by way of one example), it was, so far as the public record bears witness, never intended to be a stenographer to US psychoses of decline, and a purveyor of what is, with regard to China, Threat Porn.

In its foundational period it produced strategic analyses that were intellectually aware and on important issues and though one might have disagreed with their arguments and conclusions, one did so for serious reasons based on the same levels of engagement and robust propositions. That changed quite some time ago.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in its recent pronouncements on China in particular – which tend to alternate between those of a concierge (most days) and a political-strategic consigliere when irritated by the impertinence of contending voices and points of view.

Informed by the view that Australia’s previously cordial relationship with China was always delusion and is now irretrievable because the latter has disclosed its true, threatening nature, the way forward to peace, apparently, is to reject the gullibility and idiocy of past policies on China and enter into an even tighter geosynchronous orbit around the United States.

As befits such a satellite it should eschew existing relationships with China, forge more links with democracies, fast-track the research, development and eventual production of “complex munitions” (missiles), and aggressively offer to host the newly reconstituted 1st Fleet of the US Navy from HMAS Stirling and the Port of Darwin – a basing arrangement which would complement the already exisiting “rotational presence” of the US Marine Corps.

The objective is a clear and unambiguous endorsement of the July defence strategic update understood as “a new effort to increase the range and hitting per of the Australian Defence Force.”

It would be an understatement to describe the foregoing as poor defence policy recommendations; in essence they are egregious – conspicuously bad and dangerous.

In justification there is no need to look beyond the gravitational centre of them which is to say US global strategy and the ostensible democracies which are to be embraced.

In injuriously brief terms, the United States, by any strict accounting, normally functions as an oligarchy or a plutocracy, depending on the focus; over the last quarter of a century the system manifests itself as an American version conforming to the essential elements of fascism.
Strategically, a close reading of just two documents, National Security Strategy (2017), and Joint Vision 2020 (2000), spell out the non-negotiable objective of “overmatch” / “full spectrum dominance” – which is to say a regime which cannot contemplate strategic parity let alone the legitimate demands of others to contribute to the establishment of the rules of world politics.

In all they provide a blueprint for global politics as a mirror image of US domestic politics: tribalistic, resentful, and incipiently prone to major war.

As for the other democracies, almost certainly they will have to include the other members of The Quad – India and Japan. Neither should be thought appropriate and reliable security partners; and neither is on a political trajectory that is remotely democratic (see recent posts by Ramesh Thakur and Gavan McCormack).

To say the least, this is a scandalous state of affairs for an organisation dedicated to providing policy advice on national security. And it is only made worse by a particularly disingenuous aside – namely, that the funding that ASPI receives from the Australian defence industry has no more impact on its analyses than does the substantial defence and industry funding on the analyses of most Australian universities.

This is a curious confession: on the one hand it does not deny the influence of funding on analysis; on the other it is ignorant of the public record – specifically, the admissions by one professorial head the International Relations Department of the ANU and another by the head of the same university’s Peace Research Centre. In both cases they stated that they engaged in self-censorship because they operated within a threat environment which could see them closed down for producing analyses and positions unpleasing to Government.

Such honesty was welcome and refreshing, albeit late and somewhat muted, and it goes to the heart of the malaise of ASPI – now concerned, in the main, to circumvent critics thought and critical engagement in the interests of peddling half-truths and illusions.

Michael McKinley is a member of the Emeritus Faculty, the Australian National University; he taught Strategy, Diplomacy and International Conflict at the University of Western Australia and the ANU.

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