The Defence Strategic Review as strategic theology

Sep 19, 2022
The wooden cubes with ethics inside a head symbols on grey background
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Even though the Defence Strategic Review is not scheduled to be delivered until March next year the circumstances in which it is embedded suggest that it is already a compromised document. If the intelligence and strategic assessments which inform it are not made public – and the indications are that this will be the case – then what will be on offer is a document infused with revelations which the common citizenry are excluded from knowing their provenance even though it is their security which is being determined by it.

Consider the requirements of such assessments if they are to be exemplary contributions to defence and national security strategy. In the first instance those responsible for them must adopt a rigorous and undiscriminating skepticism in relation to all claims as to the configurations of world politics by all who would proffer advice.

Immediately conceded, therefore, is the fact that these are, or at least should be, difficult documents to produce not least because the present state of the world is often ambiguous, but also because the future is subject to contingencies not yet apparent. They are, accordingly, encounters with tension, complexity, and uncertainty at every turn. Even the ostensibly unified national security establishment is an illusion: throughout the process the demand for a particular consensus – and thus resources – will intensify to the point where the ADF, DFAT, Treasury, and the Government will behave more like adversarial fiefdoms than a coherent community of interests.

To make matters worse, the contemporary Australian discourse on national security is not so much dominated but over-determined by a world seen through the prism of the United States and its attendant China Threat thesis which includes a stream of commentary heralding impending war.

To say that the discourse is politicised in the worst possible sense is an understatement given both the steady politicisation of the Public Service over many years, the outsourcing of advice on national security to think tanks and the all too human understanding by the relevant analysts that their careers and promotion prospects are at stake if they pursue paths not sanctioned by what passes for the prevailing political wisdom.

A similar caveat applies to those academics who might be involved: just as “visa scholarship” (friendly, or muted analyses of foreign countries by area specialists) is a blight on research integrity, so too, is the practice, internally, of “access scholarship” by those desperate to be among the consulted.

To state the situation bluntly, there is no place for a Defence Strategic Review which does not include the release and widespread publication of the assessments upon which it is based. To allow the former without the latter is to indulge and legitimise what has for too long been a disquieting feature of such documents – namely, the ways in which they are released upon the public in accordance with the precedent of Moses imparting the commandments after descending from Mt. Sinai.

That said, the Moses precedent has its attractions for those on the inside. First, in an intellectual-historical environment devoid of a tabula rasa, it will be observed that, since time immemorial (at least 1951 to be precise), precedent has served their predecessors (if not Australia) well. The ANZUS Pact and the alliance relationship are always duly honoured.

But there is more to this than mere deference to an arrangement that has seen Australia support and/or commit to the long schedule of illegal, unjust, unsuccessful, and unnecessary wars of the United States.

The refusal to demur in the face of such aggressions, let alone reject them outright, and then to subsequently refrain from a radical reconsideration of what the record means is evidence of a status being accorded the treaty and the alliance which is beyond the everyday political and the secular.

Reminders of this have accumulated, again over many years, in the form of critical scholarship which is empirically and analytically robust, but which has, for all of that, made no difference to the official rationale for the alliance.

To the extent it has been acknowledged, it is essentially according to a template long adopted by the Vatican – a refusal to act on the grounds of: non expedite (it is not expedient); or non e opportune (it is not timely), or (simply) fiat (let it be done thus).

Specifically, this speaks to a treaty – regarded as immutable – and its arrangements that are seen as so authoritative that it is no longer possible to make any extensive changes to them. Effectively, they have acquired a divine quality, a living directive to be interpreted by a chosen few and, of course, followed.

Those few enjoy the status of prophets, classically defined as those who, while they might foretell the future, are primarily concerned to pass on the message. They are according to the lights of the establishment in which they operate, instructed in a sophisticated interpretive system which bestows upon them the gifts of reconciling contradictions and informing the uninitiated.

It is accurate to describe them as authors of institutionalised prophecy, but therein lies a serious problem. As with their Biblical predecessors, their expert utterances are subject to the implicit and explicit expectations that the immediate community they serve places on them.

The content of their prophecies, therefore, must maintain the unity and purity of the received belief system including the deposit of faith which underlies it. Thus, although ANZUS and the alliance with the US was once described as a product of Realpolitik, its latent framing now is theological: it turns the secular into the divine with the consequence that all deep challenges from the political realm bring forth less a response in kind but, rather, dismissals which are in truth theological coping strategies.

If the claims above should be doubted, consider the following three questions:

First, why is it that Australian political leaders ever since the advent of ANZUS have never critically engaged with the ridiculous, theocratically derived national delusion which is American Exceptionalism?

Second, when the adversaries and enemies of the US (and hence Australia) are being defined, why is it that a comprehensive understanding of them is denied by focusing only on the immediate cause of the relationship and never on its precedents and likely trajectory both of which run the risk of contradicting the orthodoxy?

Third, if the Australia-US alliance is the sine qua non of Australia’s defence strategy, and if, as evidence indicates, the United States is riven with divisions of a chronic and debilitating nature which are a threat to itself and to others, will the citizenry be afforded an opportunity to examine how the assumption squares with the reality?

The answer to these lies in the Defence Minister’s obsequious address at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in July. There he set out his government’s intention to increasingly integrate Australia defence and national security with the US to the point where interchangeability – operating seamlessly – would be achieved.

This, in time, might be known as Richard Marles’ “Nearer My God to Thee” moment. In which case it would be tragic for Australia: allegedly it was sung by the doomed crew and passengers on two sinking ships – the Titanic and the Valencia as a form of consolation it was thought only prayer can provide.

Read more in our Defence Strategic Review series of articles.

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