MIKE SCRAFTON. The dangerous shibboleths of ‘strategists’

Feb 27, 2019

Some commentators on strategic policy seem to regard Australia’s national interests as close enough to immutable. That makes strategic policy a trivial and static matter.

Realignment of the geopolitical tectonic plates is insufficient to cause a review of cherished judgements. This is bad policy. The answer to any question is inevitably more money for Defence and a closer and more submissive relationship with the US.

Strategic policy should evolve and adapt; a dialectical process. Strategic policy addresses the spectrum of the employment of military force in international affairs up to and including major, and potentially total, war. The closer the policy options move towards the violent end of military involvement the greater the feedback loop between international events and the domestic impact.

Some elements of strategic policy, such as capital acquisition, training and preparedness levels, logistics holdings, and resupply systems, can be evaluated quantitatively. How much investment is enough, where, when and how might or should the military be used, and the relationship between offensive and defensive priorities, are always disputed and make great demands on decision makers’ subjective judgements. Judgements that are always at the mercy of contingency.

Strategic policy begins with a pragmatic and objective assessment of the international environment. This includes evaluation of trajectories and the prospects for discontinuities. The policy should articulate in which policy objectives will be pursued or prepared for by the military followed by a realistic judgement of what might be achievable.

The relationship between national interests and strategic policy is problematic. National interest cannot be captured in a few pithy sentences or vague idealistic slogans; as Australian national security documents tend to do. Defining national interests at any point in time should be done considering available resources, opportunities, alternatives, probability of success, possible domestic and international responses, and, above all risks to the security, welfare, wellbeing and prosperity of the citizens.

This brings me to Marcus Hellyer’s piece in The Strategist. His essay is drawn from ASPI’s ‘Agenda for change: Strategic choices for the next government’; a collection of 30 short essays by leading thinkers covering key strategic, defence and security challenges.

For Hellyer, Australia’s international objectives remain ‘freedom of action on the international stage; an international system that respects the rights of all states and individuals; and freedom from coercion or military threats’. He anticipates that the next government would not be happy ‘in a world where the strong oppress the weak, or other countries tell us how to run our affairs’. The next government he hopes will ‘reassure the US that at least one of its key allies in the Asia–Pacific is willing to step up and share the burden of collective security; and demonstrate to all countries that we’re willing to back up our commitments to the community of nations.’

In pursuit of these eternal verities, and operating apparently on the dual assumptions that we all know what they mean in terms of costs and risk and that intuitively we understand how far Australia should prepared to go in securing these open-ended goals, Hellyer says it is ‘essential that the incoming government confirm its commitment…to the goal of spending 2% of GDP on defence by 2020–21’. He stresses ‘[M]ore will be necessary’ and argues for a ‘strategic review that should kick off soon after the election’ to determine how much more.

Let’s take ‘freedom of action on the international stage’. What does that mean for Australia’s military policy and planning? Presumably, Hellyer means freedom within the constraints of international law and consistent with the customary rules, multilateral agreements, and procedures governing international institutions. If he is advocating for a freedom to exercise military force unilaterally beyond Australian territory or globally with allies, irrespective of the sovereignty of other nations, it should be spelled out. Without significant clarification and qualification this is an empty and meaningless statement.

Or, ‘an international system that respects the rights of all states and individuals’. This is similarly an open-end and deliriously ambitious objective that is not only unachievable in the real world but also not adhered to in the government’s pragmatic foreign policy decisions. Taken literally as a strategic policy objective this would indicate Australia’s willingness to use military force to rectify serious human rights abuses taking place across the globe ; including Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Egypt, Sudan, Myanmar, Nicaragua or Venezuela. Pursuit of human rights and justice is important, but in practical terms it is a diplomatic not a military issue.

It cannot be a serious proposition that Australia by employment of military means would be able to address ‘freedom from coercion or military threats’. Certainly, in terms of possible coercion Australia maintains a level of military capability that would deter regional states in Southeast Asia from interfering with freedom of navigation or overflight rights. Were deterrence to fail Australia would prevail against attacks from any neighbouring states and in operations in the region. However, the growth of military threats to Australia from not only China, but the emerging power of India and Indonesia, cannot be retarded by an arms race but only through arms control agreements and diplomacy.

Such cavalier formulations of national interest and objectives are not harmless. The use of military force by one nation always incurs the significant risk of not only retaliatory action but serious and unexpected escalation and long term enmity. As the world breaks up into great power spheres of influence, and illiberal and authoritarian regimes proliferate, Australia’s primary strategic interest is not found in the hubristic pursuit of unrealizable objectives.

In this change and disruption, in this transformation and reshaping of the international scene, the avoidance of confrontations and conflicts that could slide into major wars is paramount. Rarely canvassed in strategic policy literature is the cost to the civilian population of war. The justification for accelerating investment in arms never seems to factor in civilian deaths and destruction. Strategic policy in not trivial.

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.

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