MICHAEL McKINLEY. Arse-backwards: Surveying Australia’s future submarine debate and finding that it doesn ’t start with Australia. Part 5 of 5.

Apr 24, 2020

In the course of studying the arguments for and against the decision to acquire the Shortfin Barracuda submarine to replace the Collins Class boats the sense has emerged that almost every aspect of the debates was concerned with the need to please strategies determined elsewhere. This applies, moreover, to both the bureaucratic inarticulacy of government statements and the Insight Economics reports which, on the other hand, are compendiums of empirically based critique written for Submarines for Australia.

It is no surprise. The DNA of Australian defence and national security was transfused long ago, and subsequent behaviour has followed accordingly. Specifically, what flows from the historical records is this: Australia has resisted formulating an authentic doctrine of national sovereignty rooted in time and place.

In philosophical terms it has avoided the obligation to contemplate the national soul, to forge an authentic mental, even spiritual resource appropriate to its region and historical development.

To the contrary, it has relied upon acquiring a superabundance of imported ideas from almost anywhere except home. Somehow, something has happened which diverts the strategic mind and blunts the judgement in analysis, resulting in what Daniel Ellsberg once described as a process of “internal self-deception” – a specific state of mind which results in sheer fantasy.

One example: in the most recent Insight Economics report – ostensibly one dedicated to making the case for nuclear submarines – we find (at p. 6) that this acquisition should be complemented by a credible, deterrence-enhancing “superior offensive capability” consisting of two squadrons of advanced, long-range stealth bomber aircraft! Has anyone really thought through what this entails? Other than it’s as near as dammit to a legitimate John McEnroe Moment (“Are you serious?!”).

Since no later than 1945, Australian political leaders and strategic decision-makers have been faced with a dilemma – the choice between forging an original but (probably) primitive national strategic identity or assuming a sophisticated, but second-hand mental model of itself as an integral, polymorph member of the Western alliance system.

In truth, perhaps no decision was made. In many ways the decision-makers did neither (though they played a bit at the margins), nor did they admit that they were, so to speak, passive subjects. The psychological barrier to greater sovereignty and responsibility was too painful to cross, hence a record which hails little more than INTERFET and RAMSI as distinctly independent initiatives.

The process has been one of unconscious and unapologetic surrendering not only parts of the national territory but also some portion of the Australian strategic mind to those who think and act imperially. Foregone was the quantum of sovereignty that would otherwise have been possible had not the status of vassal been so enthusiastically adopted and independence so generous donated to the United States, in return for a world view refracted through the wondrous optic of American Exceptionalism.

This, of course, cannot be admitted and so a fundamentally dishonest image reigns: the national strategy is not Australian; rather, it is a hyphenated entity – Australo-American where the former is demonstrably recessive. Compounding this dishonesty is that those who decide what Australian strategy is are introduced to the subject in general and, more importantly, to the politics of strategy, under the worst possible conditions which is to say, opportunistically – and thus without any intellectual idea or moral purpose.

The result is a world of imagined beings who populate the national security plain – on the one hand, demons as defined in Washington, DC – and on the other, a saviour, fraternal communities (alliances), also defined and blessed in the same locale, and mystical bodies of principle and practice (the Rules-Based International Order) which, on closer examination, are convenient declarations but never to be pushed to the level of indiscretion. [Here, a
mischievous thought: if this Order was taken seriously many of the operations
undertaken by Australia’s submarines would simply not be approved in the first

This imagination, then, is bitter ground for forging a self-critical and self-respecting identity; it is, quite simply, too sparse in thought to resist being overwhelmed by forms of received thought which relieve the receiver of the need to forge its own doctrines. By extension, there is nothing redemptive about chosen powerlessness, of being a captive of an arbitrary and inescapable mindset.

Suggestively, on the basis of unfolding future submarine saga as a microcosm of thinking on national defence, it is difficult to believe that Australia is not a deeply troubled country. It so often at war that engaged citizens should be driven to ask whether it haa been perennially under threat or, failing that, whether it is a perennially aggressive country. These are questions seldom, if ever, asked.

An insecurity-based reflex has always triumphed over reflection and self-doubt (if either existed), and immature nationhood. The longer the future submarine debate continues, the more it becomes apparent that the temptation to assume an extravagant and exaggerated posture whenever an opportunity presents itself is ineradicable. And it results, naturally and logically, in what Peter Pierce bitingly described as a “premature ejaculation of national prowess.”

Other, unsettling questions come to mind at this juncture: what accounts for the refusal to learn in the face of extensive and, one would think, salutary, experience? Is it a matter of not wanting to know, or of being incapable of learning in the first place? Or, perhaps, is it a case of being able to learn only one type of lesson?

Alternatively, it could well be the consequence of a particular constellation of psychosocial forces which the former Secretary of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs, Alan Renouf, to write of as The Frightened Country. Whatever the answer, the phenomenon to hand is an arrested imagination. The possibilities of seeing the world from the unique perspective afforded by being island continent in a singular place – between Indian Ocean and the Southwest Pacific – are simply never entertained.

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

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