The Defence Strategic Review must not confine itself to “more of the same” but address a new world

Sep 12, 2022
Chinese flag building over the USA flag in a jigsaw puzzle
Image: iStock /berkozel

The government is conducting a Defence Strategic Review: “an independently-led review that will consider Defence’s force posture and force structure.” The terms of reference are narrow. What is needed, what this Defence Review may not be able to do, is a review of Australia’s overall strategic circumstances. Courage is needed to choose between allocation of resources to what makes Australia strong and healthy as a nation on the one hand, and deeper spending on dangerous pointy toys on the other.

The terms of reference state that “The 2020 Defence Strategic Update and 2020 Force Structure Plan recognised the trends identified in the 2016 Defence White Paper were accelerating at a rate faster than anticipated. The world is undergoing significant strategic realignment.” The 2020 Update was entirely a defence force review of threats, not a document about Australia’s strategic interests. The 2016 White Paper is far back in history. The 2020 Update was galvanised around acceleration, here at last we have something called “significant strategic realignment”. But what does that mean?

What is needed, what this Defence Review may not be able to achieve, is a review of Australia’s overall strategic circumstances. Of over riding importance is that Australia be worth defending, that we have economic, environmental and social policies working to improve our secure development with minimisation of inequality. That raises at the outset questions of the proportion of public moneys that should go to the defence force rather than national improvement.

Elements in the new circumstances include:

The failure of the international community to address climate issues with sufficient urgency

1. There will be more severe weather events in Australia, by the end of the century rising seas damaging high value residential and business areas. Capital costs of adjustment will be very high; social and industry adjustments may be chaotic.

2. Countries in our region and beyond will face climate calamities on a far greater scale than is likely in Australia. We will need to assist with disaster relief and recovery and social and immigration policy.

3. There is a broad policy question of whether there is a need for a separate force for disaster management. There is likely to be some defence opinion in favour of shedding disaster responsibilities but we do not have resources for two forces. At the present time priority is given to power projection capabilities, but that is inappropriate.

The decline in the unipolar global power system 

The decline in the unipolar global power system advanced by the United States in the past 30 years. The Defence White Paper of 2016 was in an era of complacence about the virtue of US/NATO led interventions in many countries. It is a large part of the present reality that those interventions have created more problems than they have resolved. We have fallen silent as a nation, about what we have done.

In strife, do more of the same

1. There is a natural tendency in strife to try to do more of the same, as with AUKUS and as with the provocation of war with China and prolongation of proxy war with Russia in Ukraine. This is pretty dumb.

2. In part this tendency to do more of the same reflects the determination of people in power to keep going ahead; in part it reflects the extraordinary growth of arms industries in the recent past and the dependence in democracies on votes from communities host to arms industries.

3. The situation is made more dangerous by the lapsing of arms control agreements and loose talk about nuclear war options.

4. The extraordinary consumption of fuels by defence forces and the degrading of large areas of land, sea, and air with filthy debris damages the natural order and human condition and further complicates the climate mess, both directly and because of the diversion of public funds into folly. We are party to this.

Changes to the global power balance

1. Australia has traditionally been aligned to a great power. However, we are entering a new multipolar era in global circumstances in which the alliance will be anachronistic and contrary to national security.

2. The political and social decay causing development of ‘post-democracy’ in the US and UK renders foolish the notion that we can in some way fight for ‘democracy’ against ‘autocracy’. This propaganda posture and that of ‘rules based international order’ are masks for interventions for entirely selfish reasons, causing upheaval and perturbations in invaded and sanctioned countries. Constantly mumbling ‘rules based international order’ should not be allowed to mask the reality that so much done in that name is illegal, disordering, disruptive, violent, deadly, and contrary to rights of states to manage their own affairs as provided in international law including the Charter of the United Nations.

3. Beginning in 2017 the Australian government and media have driven the nation away from rational understanding of international and regional affairs. Especially as regards China which is no threat to Australia or the US, but is a threat to US hegemony and its desire to be the sole global power.

4. Hysteria-based hatred provides a convenient case for heavy armament. But not for Australia’s security.

5. Change in the global power balance is not a shift from power A to power B within the same mental construct of power. We do not need to ‘choose sides’. The character of international relations is changing. We can choose a more open and collaborative world or continue to waste money on preparing for fights where we lose sovereignty… and can’t ‘win’ – fights that will be more likely to disrupt resource allocation, environments and global climate.

6. We are likely to see more countries shifting financial transactions away from the US dollar, which will weaken the US but enhance the ability of other countries to escape the impoverishment of ordinary people through sanctions regimes.

7. ASEAN countries with a tradition of non-alignment in most member states are likely better equipped than Australia to do well in a multipolar world.

It will be difficult to shift longstanding fixed views in Australia, on the need for alliance and fear of China. But having laboured at policy level in the business of the alliance with the US in the past, I am now firmly of the view that there is no virtue in alliance with the US, no historical evidence of its value since World War 2. The statement in the 2020 Strategic Update that US nuclear weapons are Australia’s best defence against nuclear weapons involves layers and layers of hokum. While there has been lively concern about recent actions by the Governor General, there has been no peep of comment on the willingness of the Governor of Western Australia, Kim Beazley, to express strong views on how Australia and India should seek to contain China in a speech in Perth on 25 August. Beazley is on the board of the US Studies Centre in Western Australia, as is Stephen Smith, one of those charged with oversight of the Defence Strategic Review. (The US Studies Centres in Sydney and Perth are unrestrained agencies of foreign influence.)

It will be extraordinarily difficult to detach Australian defence forces from their integration with US forces. Along the way we should expect acts of disobedience, unless there is an active and positive educational process. Careers will be at risk.

Government courage and leadership is needed, to guide a process of review of our national posture and the allocation of resources between things that make Australia strong and healthy as a nation, with good friends around us, on the one hand, and on the other deeper spending on dangerous pointy toys. In particular there is no case for submarines or tanks.

There are a couple of members of the opposition who have built careers in politics after the army, whose ideas should be put aside given their history of advocacy for the Afghanistan war. Smith and Houston have also been part of a continuum of strategic and defence posture from Beazley through coalition and Labor Governments to the present. It is to be hoped that they can orient themselves to a different future, knowing that the first old-school diehards they have to shift are those who have called for the review, Albanese and Marles.

Read more in our Defence Strategic Review series of articles.

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