Government and governance, National security | Australia

13 February 2020

Until Canberra has a clear vision of what they are intended to achieve, building Australia’s political warfare capabilities would be a mistake, Elizabeth Buchanan writes.

Australian Liberal MP David Sharma’s call to develop Australia’s ‘political warfare’ toolkit makes the case that Canberra should be able to – in the likeness of Israel’s Mossad – take action to intentionally subvert, influence, or destabilise an enemy to our advantage.

Sharma echoes sentiments from the earlier manifesto of his colleague Andrew Hastie, indicating the idea is gaining traction. The term political warfare is often used interchangeably with ‘grey zone’ tactics and increasingly with the particularly popular notion of ‘hybrid warfare’. Ultimately, political warfare is designed to exploit an adversary’s weaknesses along various fronts, often all at once, to cripple the target.

Sharma argues Canberra must develop these offensive, as well as defensive, political warfare tools, and Hastie pays tribute to revolutionary literature by using the title of Lenin’s seminal 1902 publication – What is to be done – to craft his case for Australia entering the political warfare game. For Hastie, in order to preserve peace, Canberra must “understand our adversaries and become practitioners of hybrid and political warfare ourselves”.

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Yet political warfare arrived in Australia decades ago. The West is no stranger to the concept, just look to the ‘public diplomacy’ mandate of President Eisenhower’s United States Information Agency. There’s no serious argument that the West, including Australia, given its ties to America, is not accustomed to the art of political warfare, or that Australia is not already engaging in it.

Rather than a need to enhance Australia’s offensive political warfare capability, Canberra’s real challenge stems from global technological advances which have enabled other states to strike across multiple fronts with unprecedented speed. Australia’s defensive political warfare capacity is getting weaker. States like China, Russia, and North Korea have adapted quicker to the perks of our global information age, and weaponised this advantage in order to outsmart their adversaries.

Australia’s defensive political warfare game needs some serious investment. Here, the priority should be educating the Australian population. Canberra could follow the Estonian and Finnish approaches, which involve educating school children and upskilling the general population to play an active role in national security.

Australian political warfare debate remains centred around bolstering offensive objectives. The problem is Canberra is thin on country-specific expertise. What follows is the potential to misread the adversary, or its intentions, which puts the country on the back foot from the beginning.

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For example, in his article, Sharma argues authoritarian leaders are vulnerable to be embarrassed and exposed via targeted political warfare operations. Critically, this is the case for some, but not all, authoritarian states.

Sharma uses the 2016 Panama Papers leak to support his thesis, citing the Russian public’s apparent shock and dismay at allegations of Putin’s offshore financial windfalls. Subject-matter nuance is missing here, and the empirical evidence undermines the hypothesis. Data from the independent Russian polling firm, Levada, refutes that notion the Panama Papers embarrassed Putin or made him vulnerable. In April 2016 at the time of the leak, Putin’s approval rating was hovering around 82 per cent. It actually rose to 85 per cent by the end of 2016.

Russian news media reported on the Panama leak widely, and even delved into the dodgy financial dealings of Putin’s close associates (Putin himself was not named in the leak). Still, Putin’s approval rating did not even dip back to the 82 per cent it was at the time of the Panama ‘exposure’ until towards the end of 2017. It is evident that a state’s political warfare strategy is only ever going to be as effective as its understanding of the target state allows.

Crafting offensive political warfare capabilities is complicated given the realities of our interconnected and globalised international system. Australia ought to better understand the stakes involved, take the Sino-Australian relationship for example. Executing an offensive political warfare operation against China would surely be too costly for Australia to consider, given its economic over-reliance on China.

This leads to the question at the heart of whether Australia should enter the offensive political warfare game. What will it cost? This question can only be answered by working backwards to grasp exactly what Canberra is protecting. Developing offensive political warfare capabilities would first require a succinct understanding of the Australian national interest. Once more, it would appear this critical debate is still being overlooked, as Canberra is heading into the 2020s without a comprehensive national security strategy.

National security is a responsibility that should be shouldered by all Australians. Before jumping to bolster Canberra’s political warfare war chest, we must first grasp what constitutes the Australian national interest. Then, Canberra needs to articulate that in a national security strategy. Only then should it start canvassing its offensive political warfare options.

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