Repositioning Australia to face its future

It’s time we stepped up

Lesley Seebeck

National security, Arts, culture & society | Australia, The World

8 July 2019

Rethinking Australia’s defence strategy is welcome but not enough to meet the challenges facing the country. Increases in research and development, education, and developing better civilian capability should match any increase in defence spending, Lesley Seebeck writes.

Debating the defence of Australia is back in fashion. That’s something of a relief, as given the pace of change in the world, I’d hate to think we may be caught flat-footed.

Australia faces an increasingly volatile strategic environment: we need to think more imaginatively about our situation if we are to meet the challenges of this era of digital change and rising illiberalism.

Further, this is not a task for the Department of Defence or the national security community alone – it’s too important for that. Defence interests, even national security interests, don’t equate to strategic interests. It’s up to civilian decision-makers to make the call on strategy and decide on the instruments most appropriate for its achievement.

When the challenge is broad, so too should our responses. Rather than plunging into decisions about the military’s force structure, let’s think first about strengthening the country’s technological resilience.

The need to do this has been evident for years. But with the prospect of greater economic decoupling in Asia, as well as increasing concerns over the effects of the United States unpredictably hefting its strategic and economic weight – with little consultation with its allies – Australia finds its own technological competence and sustainability at a crisis point.

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In Europe, once dominant industries are struggling with technological change. That’s even more so the case in Australia, which has lost substantial sectors of its manufacturing industry.

Rather than focusing on writing papers about AI ethics, or relying on the law as a tool of control, Australian governments – including those of states and territories – need to invest heavily in fundamental R&D, technology, skills, and improved ways of doing things in the future. We should seize the opportunity to build new capabilities without the business practices and mindsets of the late 20th century standing in its way.

Second, we should actively strengthen our societal resilience. Measures being undertaken in the name of security and efficiency are building a brittle protective shell around our people and institutions at the cost of reducing the prospects for flexibility and creativity.

In so doing, these measures – from regulatory changes, restrictive funding of R&D, to the indiscriminate accumulation of data by large entities – are undermining societal resilience, not reinforcing it.

Instead, each proposed measure should be assessed against the prospective contribution it would make to strategic solvency, societal adaptiveness, national capability, and the inherent Western values of individualism, liberty, and democracy. We should aim for security through freedom rather than offsetting freedom to achieve security.

More on this: Australia and India move towards an Indo-Pacific strategic partnership

Third, Australia needs to broaden its strategic reach. The US alliance will remain vital to us, but increasingly, we will have to shoulder more of the security load. That will mean acting as a shaper of security arrangements in the region and with other, like-minded nations.

Articulating a broader, more coherent strategic vision that aligns with our core values – those that people would fight for – is needed to bring others along on that path. Relying on the formation of a rules-based order no longer suffices; Australia needs to act on a vision of itself that reflects a clear differentiation from authoritarian and illiberal states.

Further, should we find ourselves needing to make sacrifices, the community would best be served in fully understanding the why, and the how, those sacrifices align with those values.

Fourth, the country needs to realign its own capabilities and force posture with the power determinants of the 21st century. Kinetic capabilities remain important. But the world is moving – rapidly – to one in which power is exercised asymmetrically, continuously, and focused at the gravitational core of society.

Australia is investing heavily in a shipbuilding capability. That program needs to be understood not just in terms of ships built, but as an opportunity to use to strategic advantage the broader ecosystem of advanced skills and industrial capacities such an endeavour requires.

A substantial increase in resourcing to better position ourselves is necessary – now. Defence will need some. But any increase in defence spending should be matched by increases in R&D capability, in education, in developing better civilian capability, and in helping secure critical capabilities for the future. Strengthening those aspects of society, the economy, and national capability would provide the diversity and depth needed to cope with uncertainty.

The country’s existing traditional tools and institutions for strategy and statecraft are either not well made enough for the current tasks, or have been emaciated through efficiency dividends, budgets cuts, and reliance on an outdated worldview.

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Boosting the civilian side of national security should be a priority. As a starting point, the Australian government could do much worse than to emulate the recommendations for revamping the US State Department proposed by Kori Schake and Brett McGurk.

Last, and perhaps most importantly, we need to boost our civilian strategy, statecraft, and decision-making in government. Too much has been outsourced to allies or delegated to officials as our political leaders find the challenges posed too complex to understand, too wicked to tackle, or too menacing to weakened political positions.

Reducing Australian strategic needs to national security or Defence – or more worryingly in a democracy, the military’s interests – does the Australian nation and its values a disservice.

That makes it particularly incumbent on our political elite to understand the changed nature of the world and the drivers of that change. Equally, they must renew the vision, rationale, and capability needed to underpin Australia’s position and role in the world. Leaders need to persuade friends and allies for a repositioning and strengthening of the West, while making hard decisions to act on and realise Australia’s future.

Our political leaders – and their civic and industry counterparts – need to exercise the muscle of purpose, persuasion, and negotiation. Not simply with friends and allies, but with the broader Australian community as well. The change starts at home.

I find myself in furious agreement with other recent commentators on the need for a fundamental resetting of Australia’s strategic position and posture. Now that the government has been returned, there’s no better time for it to step up, build the case for change, and prioritise its efforts accordingly. Conversely, there’s no worse time for it to continue on its current course.

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