Strategy and Hard choices

Is strategy only for great powers?

Perhaps on the grandest of scales. But in some ways, it is easier to think strategically from a more modest vantage point.

Strategy, as Edward Luttwak once argued, is more often a child of weakness rather than strength. Being conscious of one’s relative weaknesses, limitations and boundaries is in many ways the beginning of sound statecraft, the discipline of aligning one’s interests with one’s power.

This can be seen in Australia’s latest Defence White Paper. While not everything in the document will persuade everyone (for example, I’m not convinced that a ‘rules-based’ international order can exist. Who could ever set and enforce rules consistently and impartially, and would we want such a godlike power to police us?), there is a discipline in the document that marks it out as worthwhile.

The Paper is distinctive for its coherence. It does not pretend that we can escape hard choices or tradeoffs. It does not confuse serious thinking with making wishlists. And it does not assume free lunches.

Above all, this blueprint places a limitation on its outlook that can easily be forgotten, geography and geopolitics. Instead of articulating unbounded and vague ideological concepts, it links ideas and priorities very closely to space:

The principal task for the ADF is to deter and defeat armed attacks on Australia by conducting independent military operations without relying on the combat or combat support forces of other countries. This means that the ADF has to be able to control our air and sea approaches against credible adversaries in the defence of Australia, to the extent required to safeguard our territory, critical sea lanes, population and infrastructure.


After ensuring the defence of Australia from direct attack, the second priority task for the ADF is to contribute to stability and security in the South Pacific and East Timor. This involves conducting military operations, in coalition with others as required, including in relation to protecting our nationals, providing disaster relief and humanitarian assistance and, on occasion, by way of stabilisation interventions.

The next most important priority task for the ADF is to contribute to military contingencies in the Asia-Pacific region, including in relation to assisting our Southeast Asian partners to meet external challenges, and to meeting our alliance obligations to the United States as determined by the Australian Government at the time. The strategic transformation of the region will mean that Australia should be prepared to make contributions – including potentially substantial ones – to such military contingencies in support of our strategic interests.

Finally, the ADF has to be prepared to contribute to military contingencies in the rest of the world, in support of efforts by the international community to uphold global security and a rules-based international order, where our interests align and where we have the capacity to do so.

Using geography as its marker for Australia’s political interests, it distinguishes what is vital from what is desirable.

It also recognises that calculating risk and insecurity is not just a matter of probablistic futurology (eg. ‘this problem is likely, and therefore is a priority, whereas this worse problem is remote, therefore irrelevant’). It balances probability with severity, and against the fashion of ‘new wars’ literature, refuses to dismiss the deadliest risks, and instead of treating the unknowability of the future as a throat-clearing preamble, uses it as a basis for prudent caution:

The Future of Major War
2.14 The Government specifically considered the issue of major war and whether, after the tragedies of the twentieth century, major war has had its day. This is a crucial question for defence planning, as the answer has the potential to reshape the way in which we consider the structure and role of our armed forces.


2.15 War among highly advanced militaries is the most complex, and dangerous, strategic challenge faced by nations. Preparing for it requires the investment of very significant materiel, technological and human resources. If we take the view that the risk of war in the traditional sense, especially among the major powers, is remote to the point of being unthinkable, we would be able to radically change the way we think about our armed forces. We would be able to free up at least some of the significant resources required to maintain sophisticated armed forces and use those resources for other purposes.

2.16 We need to make a judgement about this very carefully, because being able to fight high intensity wars, and to what degree and extent, is the most difficult judgement to make in defence planning terms. This is because being able to fight and win on your terms in high intensity wars depends ultimately on having the right force structure and military capabilities.

2.17 After careful examination, it is the Government’s view that it would be premature to judge that war among states, including the major powers, has been eliminated as a feature of the international system. While growing economic and other interdependencies between states will act as a brake on the resort to force between them, and high-intensity wars among the major powers are not likely over the period to 2030, such wars cannot be ruled out.

2.18 Shows of force by rising powers are likely to become more common as their military capabilities expand. Growing economic interdependence will not preclude inter-state conflicts or tensions short of war, especially over resources or political differences. Moreover, there is a risk that the constraints on major war imposed by the international system might break down unexpectedly and relatively quickly, were it to be the case that major power interests were fundamentally at stake in a crisis, and if one or more were to miscalculate the reaction of others at such a time.

So the document is delightfully unfashionable in this respect. It doesn’t fall prey to the banalities of globalisation theory, where all things are linked and equally important. It assumes that we can be wildly wrong in our prophecies. And above all, it is not written as a manifesto for Australia’s global importance. It is written from a consciousness of minor status, that we are not in the club of eminent powers, and is intellectually richer as a result.

George Kennan down under? Lets not get carried away.

Advertisements
%d bloggers like this: