The colonisation of the Australian strategic imagination

May 18, 2023
Toy war ships and submarine are placed on the playing Board in the game battleship.

Interrogating the public record provides a fundamental challenge to the integrity of the Defence Strategic Review (DSR). It comes in the form of a reality which few wish to acknowledge: the captive Australian strategic imagination – a phenomenon of which Peter Dean, Head of the United States Study Centre at the University of Sydney and principal author of the DSR, is the current leading example.

To read the Defence Strategic Review (DSR), one of the most important documents on Australia’s defence, is to immediately become acquainted with contradictions, inadequate understandings of central concepts to the point of professional incompetence, and to find that there are serious, vital questions simply not asked, is to reach a frightening conclusion: that, which from inception appeared to be vacuous exercise, was indeed a vacuous exercise. Worse, the DSR’s authors are not so much Australian writers, as written Australians.

The data base for above-mentioned flaws in the DSR has been well canvassed on this site and elsewhere and they do not need to be revisited in their entirety here except in passing. Instead, the proposition is that, if readers of the DSR and related statements and pronouncements care to examine their provenience – that is, their authorship and, notably, where they originated or were nurtured in their early existence – they will find that these are documents produces within a regime of indirect rule by scribes who have enthusiastically given themselves to such a project.

And it was predictable from the beginning – from (say) when it was thought appropriate to appoint six retired US Navy admirals to deeply embedded consulting and even defence policy roles relating both to the DSR and matters which determined the AUKUS submarine decisions.

But it was also predictable when it was announced that the two independent leads of the Review were to be a former Chief of the ADF, Air Chief Marshall Angus Houston, and a former Defence Minister, Stephen Smith.

The latter’s “independent” status is begged by his appointments prior to the Review:

  • Senior Advisor to The Asia Group (TAG – a firm with aerospace and defence interests).
  • Distinguished Fellow and Board Member of the Perth USAsia Centre, a public company funded in the main by the Australian Government, the Government of Western Australia, and occasionally the governments of Japan and the United States; it is located on the campus of the University of Western Australia and describes itself as “Australia’s leading think tank for the strengthening of relationships between Australia, the Indo-Pacific and the United States.”
  • Chair of the UWA Defence and Security Institute (DSI), an initiative by, and “hosted” at UWA, and described as “an accredited Defence Industry Security Program.”

The question that arises , therefore, concerns the nature of the proclaimed independence when, to all intents and purposes, Professor Stephen Smith has passed through a revolving door to assume the role of coordinator and promoter of defence-related industries and the alliance with the United States; indeed, his appointment to the board of TAG was heralded as such by TAG’s press release.

All the above, of course, is legal even if the predicate logic based on independence, is a chimera.

The same indulgence cannot be extended to the appointment of Professor Peter Dean, formerly the director of the DSI, as principal author of the DSR and Co-Lead of the DSR Secretariat. One set of reasons, outlined by Mack Williams and John Menadue on this site relate to Dean leading two US State Department-funded public diplomacy programs on the US-Australia Alliance.

What they point to are a series of questions which constellate around conflicts of interests.

Interrogating the public record further provides another fundamental challenge to the integrity of the DSR. It comes in the form of a reality which few wish to acknowledge: the captive Australian strategic imagination – a phenomenon of which Professor Dean is the current leading example, as his online profile and the press release (acknowledging the support from the Australian Government, Northrop Grumman, and Thales) on his appointment as Head of the United States Study Centre (USSC) at the University of Sydney make clear.

They detail a professional career productive in publications, and regarded as successful in some quarters, of dedicated service in the cause of the alliance – effectively the promotion of US interests.

It has been a service generously rewarded: notwithstanding the State Department programmes above, there have been: fellowships at think tanks, research appointments with DFAT and Defence in Australia, the latter of which provided $1.3 million Defence Strategic Policy Grant which established the DSI with him as Director.

Such trajectories are not new and are not limited to security studies specialists. Indeed, it was once a source of morning coffee wonder among colleagues to observe how it was possible, professionally, for some to go from humidicrib, to high dependency, to intensive care, to assisted living and without ever fully experiencing the natural atmosphere and zoology of the academy which most faculty inhabit.

To be clear, the USSC has a right to exist. But not on the campus of any self-respecting university in Australia. The reason is straightforward. It is an agent of advocacy for the interests of a foreign government given local cover by the Australia-US Alliance establishment which now includes the countries’ universities. It bears the same relationship to an authentic university as a drummer does to a band: someone who just hangs around with musicians.

It has a right to publish its war-with-China tracts which have marked its lists over the years and which seek to seduce Australia into the strategic fantasies of Washington – such as “Mapping the Third Offset: Australia, The United States and Future War in the Indo-Pacific.”

Which is to say that it has a right to do everything it’s doing – but not in an authentic university given to the Enlightenment project and its core disposition of institutionalised, rigorous and undiscriminating scepticism.

Equally, in this light, Professor Dean has a right to be the USSC’s Director, Foreign Policy and Defence. But was it right for him to be associated with the Centre for International and Strategic Studies (CSIS) in Washington while simultaneously holding a senior academic appointment at an Australian university?

[CSIS, it should be understood, is a prominent and well-funded think tank which resembles a cross between a seagull (scavenger) and a magpie (attracted by shiny objects) dedicated to influence-peddling. Accordingly, while it has attracted some of the great and the good of US strategic thinkers, it is also indiscriminate – a habit best indicated by the longstanding appointment of the unindicted war criminal, Henry Kissinger, after Harvard had pointedly refused to offer him a professorship in 1977.]

Thus, to be an academic appointed to an Australian university while simultaneously being an agent of advocacy for US strategic interests is an obvious conflict of interests.

As well, there are, or ought to be, prima facie disqualifications from holding any position in an Australian university especially when the record of the USSC is considered. In summary form, and juxtaposed with the obligatory scepticism noted above, what is to hand is the rigid observance of the Nelsonian Imperative – the studious refusal to engage with US decline.

Where are the deep, fundamental critiques of the US that, behind closed doors are the terror of its allies? The USSC website reveals little of note. The nearest to an acknowledgement that things are amiss is Senior Fellow Bruce Wolpe’s eleemosynary contribution, “The troubled states of America” and it had been published earlier on this site.

To operate for so long in this frame of mind is a betrayal of academic integrity and intellectual courage and represents overall an organisation exhibiting in plain sight a phenomenon that Christopher Hitchens described as the cowardice of its convictions.

It is, of course, too late to reclaim the imaginations lost to colonisation nor, correspondingly, can the DSR be salvaged. The future for independent thinking and acting, however, remains within the realms of possibility but the realisation of that potential will require extraordinary efforts, especially in the universities where so many of Australia’s strategic analysts are trained and educated.

Fortunately, there are precedents. Harvard’s rebuff of Kissinger is one. And Georgetown University, the original host of the CSIS, provides another: after continuing affronts to its academic integrity posed by the CSIS over twenty-four years, the board of directors simply kicked it out in 1986.

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