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The Australian Strategic Policy Debate Through the Lens of

Philip Bobbitt’s The Shield of Achilles 


            In an address to the national summit on Australia’s relations with Asia, in the Old Parliament House, on 13 August, Paul Dibb remarked that dealing with terrorism is a police matter, not a military one. Those who claim that the strategic environment has fundamentally changed are quite mistaken, he argued. Al Qaeda and its ilk are a problem, but as threats go they are simply not in the same league as the old Soviet Union.

Philip Bobbitt, in his acclaimed study of war and peace, The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace and the Course of History  sees the matter differently. He argues that the dangers which have arisen in recent years are every bit as great as those we have just faced down. They are all the more so for being of a different nature to the threats faced down in the Cold War and characterized by unprecedented uncertainty.

Bobbitt argues that the new dangers will compel profound reassessments of the nature of ‘national’ security itself and, with it, the civil laws, force structures and rules of engagement that buttress such security. Indeed, he goes so far as to suggest that unless such changes begin, in anticipation of what could now happen at any time, we could face a catastrophic breakdown in global order.

To see why he believes all these things - and believed them before the 11 September 2001 attacks on the United States shook up so many people’s views of global security - requires plunging into the profound rethinking of the course of modern history that his book embodies.

Bobbitt has almost nothing to say about Australia specifically, but his thesis surely has application to our case. Dibb, on the other hand, has little to say about the larger scheme of things that is particularly distinctive or original. To borrow his own phrasing about the relative gravity of threats: as theoreticians go, he is simply not in the same league as Bobbitt. Nonetheless, my purpose here this morning is to bring the two together conceptually; to place Dibb’s general outlook, his unwavering adhesion to the Defence of Australia orthodoxy of the 1980s, under the lens of Bobbitt’s argument. For it is time our strategic policy debate was conducted at that level.

Cameron Stewart on Kim Beazley’s Legacy

             Just under two months ago, when Kim Beazley returned to the Opposition front bench, a quite incisive opinion piece in The Australian, by Cameron Stewart, directly raised the kind of questions I think need asking. It was headed, ‘The bomber faces his military legacy: Kim Beazley’s 1987 defence doctrine may be largely intact but is it still relevant?’ Stewart described the DOA reforms as “the most radical and far reaching restructure of our defence force and of defence strategy in the post-World War II era”.

Nonetheless, he asked, “If Labor is elected, how welded will Beazley be to the doctrine he helped to create 20 years ago? Will he be willing to reshape it to suit the times, or will he argue that it remains as relevant as it was in the 1980s?” Good questions, but Stewart’s answers were equivocal. He pointed out that the Government has criticized Beazley’s doctrine as “narrow, isolationist and ill-suited to the era of global terror.” He quoted Robert Hill as declaring that the doctrine was “dangerously out of touch” with today’s strategic realities.

Yet he went on to point out that, “the Government may have trouble laying a decent punch on Beazley and his legacy, given that it has not reversed any of his key defence reforms, including the creation of a two ocean navy and the large and permanent basing of troops in the north. It will also struggle to criticize Beazley’s other main defence legacy - the revitalising and reshaping of Australia’s ties with the US and fostering closer defence links with the region.”

“Beazley’s biggest miscalculation as defence minister”, Stewart remarked, “was to underestimate the role the army would need to play in overseas deployments. He pumped money into the navy and air force at the expense of the army. Yet it was the army that would later shoulder the burden of deployments to Cambodia, Somalia, Rwanda, East Timor and the Solomon Islands.” The Howard Government, he went on, has increased the size of the army and committed to the purchase of both heavy tanks and large amphibious transport ships to better equip it for expeditions off shore.

As Minister for Defence, Stewart suggested, Beazley would shift priorities away from coalition operations with the United States to a closer regional focus. He quoted Beazley as stating, in a speech of August 2003, “We are in danger of losing the coherence [that] came with our bipartisan focus on the defence of Australia as our first priority, while perceiving costly solutions to an expeditionary approach, which we are handling effectively enough anyway.” In short, Beazley’s approach to strategic doctrine seemed to have changed little over the years.

Stewart’s equivocal conclusion to his July column consisted of having a proverbial six bob bet each way. “The Beazley doctrine may be looking a little ragged around the edges these days,” he wrote, “but it has largely stood the test of time. The challenge for Beazley, if he gets another shot at the job, will be to confront his legacy. He must have the courage to adapt and modernize his doctrine as required to suit Australia’s future defence needs.” In what precise ways Beazley would have to confront, adapt and modernize his legacy, Stewart did not venture to suggest.

Bobbitt’s Book a Masterpiece 

Yet this is the subject that we must explore and it is my central theme this morning. It is why I have chosen Philip Bobbitt’s work as a touchstone. For Bobbitt has no stake in Australian partisan political squabbles and no attachment to our established doctrine or force structure. He is an individual with formidable practical experience, so he cannot be dismissed as an impractical boffin or mere journalist. He is, at the same time, possessed of a depth of worldly erudition that must be the envy of any scholar, as much as of any statesman.

His treatise has been greeted by those best placed to assess it as a masterpiece for our times. In the words of Michael Howard, it will surely rank as one of the most important works on international relations published during the last fifty years. Above all, it offers what William Shawcross has greeted as an awe-inspiring survey of the roots of strategic thinking, international law and the constitutional structure of states over the past five hundred years.

It is, in this regard, far more searching in its analyses and fruitful in its findings than, for example, Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1988), Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations (1996), or John Mearsheimer’s The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (2001). None of those major works has any significant claims on our attention in Australia, though each may appear to have such claims. Bobbitt’s work is different. It demands our attention and that is why I have chosen to reflect on it in this forum. I look forward with great interest to your questions and comments.

Bobbitt’s Central Arguments 

The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace and the Course of History is a substantial book, over 900 pages in length. As Michael Howard remarked, in his Foreword, it is a remarkable and perhaps unique book. “There have been many studies of the development of warfare, even more of the history of international relations, while those on international and constitutional law are literally innumerable. But I know of none that has dealt with all three of these together, analyzed their interaction throughout European history, and used that analysis to describe the world in which we live and the manner in which it is likely to develop.”

How can one attempt to summarize so comprehensive a work and apply its insights to Australian strategic policy in the course of an hour? Only with considerable chutzpah, I fear. Yet I think it is possible to draw a number of central insights from Bobbitt’s work which can be applied directly to our own strategic policy debate, without either oversimplifying his argument or placing our own concerns on a bed of Procrustes. I think there are three central premises to Bobbitt’s argument and that he draws four powerful inferences from them. I shall present each of these and then suggest the ways in which I see them illuminating the issues that are in play in strategic policy and force structure debates in Australia, in 2004.

Interlude: The Beslan Massacre

Before setting out the elements of Bobbitt’s incisive worldview, however, let me pause to situate our exchange here in a less theoretical, more immediate frame of reference. As I turned my thoughts to composing this speech, over the past few days, there occurred the massacre at Beslan, in North Ossetia. It has generally been described as an atrocity of the same kind as 9/11, the Bali bombing and the bombings in Istanbul and Madrid. There have even been unconfirmed suggestions that the perpetrators were a collection of Chechens, Kazaks and Arabs somehow linked to the broader Islamist cause. Whether they were or not, yesterday morning’s coverage of the matter, on page 12 of The Australian raised many of the issues with which Bobbitt is concerned and about which I shall talk.

The headline read ‘Confusion Over Nationality of Killers’. Two peripheral columns were headed ‘Revenge takes root in the ashes’ and ‘Life of fear and humiliation for Moscow’s Chechens’. An opinion piece by William Rees-Mogg was headed ‘A tragedy of historic proportions and flow-on effects’. The first of these headlines taps into the theme that war can now be waged by proxy, by virtual states, by coalitions of terrorists and criminals, with the nation state finding it ever more difficult either to define its enemy or to strike back effectively. The others amplify this theme in various ways.

The second column, for instance, recorded that the citizens of Beslan are now taking counsel for their own defence, having lost confidence in the ability of the Russian state to protect them against the menace by which they have just been devastated. The key passage read: 

“They directed their anger at the organizers and abettors of terrorism in the volatile Caucasus region, and said they could no longer rely on local or Russian law enforcement for protection. President Vladimir Putin’s image as an iron willed no-nonsense leader, relying heavily on his KGB past, now counts for little in many people’s eyes. They are furious with what they see as his inability to shield the nation from terrorism and from the fallout of the decade long conflict in the northern Caucasus. Now Mr Putin’s calls for restraint appear to carry little weight with so many touched by the crisis. In Beslan, Fatima Ganukova scoffed at the President’s surprise visit to the town early on Saturday to meet survivors, saying instead he should have visited the morgue to view the scope of the tragedy. ‘Of course, after the funerals our men will try to take matters into our hands’, Ms Ganukova said. ‘And, of course, this is the right thing to do.’”

Meanwhile, in Moscow, Chechens who have themselves fled from the chaos and brutality of the war in the Caucasus find themselves the victims of fear, suspicion and hatred. This is accentuated by the fact that a grim species of Chechen terrorism has stalked the Russian capital - Chechen women called ‘black widows’ who become suicide bombers in the quest for revenge for the deaths of husbands, fathers or brothers at Russian hands in the Caucasian war.

            Against this background, William Rees-Mogg dubbed the Beslan massacre a “low probability, high impact event”, which could have wide-ranging ramifications well in excess of its immediate horror, or the specific intentions of its perpetrators. Regarding the massacre itself, he exclaimed, “There is a blank horror about what they did to young children that, fortunately, has few parallels in the history of evil.” Regarding its wider ramifications, he postulated that it was intended to undermine Putin and destabilize Russia, but that it could indirectly shake the oil markets and should reinforce concerns about the potential consequences of WMD in the hands of such groups.

            Rees-Mogg went on to argue that Beslan will probably have the unintended effect of strengthening Putin’s hand, pushing Russia closer to the United States, getting Bush re-elected in November and encouraging both India and China to work more closely than ever with the United States in combating every kind of militant anti-state group, be it nihilist, religious or secular separatist in inspiration. He may be correct in drawing some of these conclusions, but his analysis seems to be based on  loose and almost entirely tacit theoretical reasoning. Such reasoning badly needs strengthening, if it is to give us much traction in dealing with the problems in question.

            To begin with, moral revulsion at what has happened, while understandable, needs to be kept in perspective. The Beslan massacre reminded me very much of the description by Thucydides, in the seventh book of The Peloponnesian War, of the Thracian massacre at Mycalessus, in 413 BCE. For those whose memories of Thucydides are dim, let me recall the episode. The Athenians had sent a band of Thracian mercenaries back home by sea, instructing them to inflict what injury they could upon the enemy en route. The Thracians landed not far from the small city of Mycalessus. Its inhabitants were off their guard for want of fear that anyone would molest them and had left their city gates open “through their feeling of security.”

What followed provides, as does so much in The Peloponnesian War, a benchmark against which to measure our own judgments of war and its terrors. As Thucydides recorded:

“The Thracians, bursting into Mycalessus, sacked the houses and temples and butchered the inhabitants, sparing neither youth nor age but killing all they fell in with, one after the other, children and women and even beasts of burden and whatever other living creatures they saw; the Thracian people, like the bloodiest of barbarians, being ever most murderous when it has nothing to fear. Everywhere confusion reigned and death in all its shapes; and in particular they attacked a boys’ school, the largest that there was in the place, into which the children had just gone, and massacred them all. In short, the disaster falling upon the whole city was unsurpassed in magnitude, and unapproached by any in suddenness and horror.”

Perhaps Beslan School Number One will be remembered as paradigmatic in the same manner as the boys’ school at Mycalessus and for much the same reasons.

However, it is less the horror of what happened than its implications with which we should be chiefly concerned. For, like 9/11, the Bali bombing, the Istanbul and Madrid bombings, the massacre at Beslan is not an isolated atrocity or a mere crime. It is part of a disturbing new reality, the nature and implications of which we ignore at our peril. Bobbitt analyzed this reality, and its underlying causes and implications, before 9/11, not in reaction to it. Only the Postscript to his book was written after al Qaeda’s planes hit the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. Let me, therefore, begin my summation of his argument with that Postscript and then work backwards into his deeper analysis.

Bobbitt’s Postscript 

Bobbitt called his Postscript ‘The Indian Summer’. Characteristically, he explains precisely where the term comes from. The phrase, he wrote, “usually evokes a pleasant sensation of warm autumn weather that gives us a second chance to do what winter will make impossible”. It’s origin, however, “is more menacing. The early American settlers were often forced to take shelter in stockades to protect themselves from attacks by tribes of Native Americans. These tribes went into winter quarters once autumn came, allowing the settlers to return to their farms. If there was a break in the approaching winter - a few days, or weeks of warm summery climate - then the tribal attacks would be resumed, and the defenseless settlers became their prey. Once again, the settlers were forced to band together or to become victims, attacked one by one.”

He went on to argue that we are now in such an Indian summer and must look to our defences. If these first attacks “inspire us now to deal realistically and creatively” with the emerging dangers of the 21st century, then the sacrifice of thousands on 9/11 could yet be turned to our common advantage. But if we disregard the implications of those attacks, he warned, we could find ourselves confronted by “a world-rending cataclysm” as global institutions fracture, states lapse into turmoil, weapons of mass destruction proliferate and are used, and civil law is warped by fear into new authoritarian forms. For, he concluded, “we are entering a fearful time, a time that will call on all our resources, moral as well as intellectual and material.”

Why does he apprehend such a cataclysm? First, because, in his own words, “War is not a pathology that, with proper hygiene and treatment, can be wholly prevented. War is a natural condition of the State, which was organized in order to be an effective instrument of violence on behalf of society…On September 11 2001, the nascent community of market states came to this knowledge as every society that preceded it has: through violence.” Second, because the nature of the war that hit home that day is something existing laws and strategic doctrines are not equipped to deal with. Third, because the cascading consequences of not being so equipped could trigger crises far worse than most people can readily imagine.

Immediately after 9/11 and for some time thereafter there was a vigorous debate about whether it should be responded to as a crime or an act of war. Bobbitt is not in doubt that it was an act of war. The problem is that it was not an act of war by a nation state and therefore put customary usage of the laws and machinery of war out of their reckoning. In his own words:  

“The multinational mercenary terror network that Osama bin Laden and others have assembled is a malignant and mutated version of the market state. Like other emerging market states, it is a reaction to the strategic developments of the Long War that brought forth cultural penetration, the liberalization of trade and finance and weapons proliferation on an unprecedented scale. Like other states, this network has a standing army; it has a treasury and a consistent source of revenue; it has a permanent civil service; it has an intelligence collection and analysis cadre; it even runs a rudimentary welfare program for its fighters and their relatives and associates. It has a recognizable hierarchy of officials; it makes alliances with other states; it promulgates laws, which it enforces ruthlessly; it declares wars.”

Yet it is a virtual state, not a territorial one, not a nation state, “which means that our classical strategies of deterrence based on retaliation will have to be rethought.” They cannot be effective in these circumstances, because “what threatens the states of the world now is too easy to disguise and too hard to locate.”

            We are, Bobbitt believes, on the cusp of a new epoch of war, the nature of which will confound those who think of war merely along the lines given by twentieth century experience, to say nothing of pre-twentieth century experience. The liberalism that emerged triumphant from the twentieth century struggles against fascism and communism will have to reshape itself to cope with what is coming and most of its citizenry are unprepared for the thinking or the political behaviour that this will entail. Their very concepts of security are outmoded and confused. Most fundamentally, “National security will cease to be defined in terms of borders alone, because both the links among societies as well as the attacks on them exist in psychological and infrastructural dimensions, not on an invaded plain marked by the seizure and holding of territory.”

            “In such a world,” Bobbitt tells us, “we must move our thinking from threat based strategies that rely on knowing precisely who our enemy is and where he lives, to vulnerability-based strategies that try to make our infrastructure more slippery, more redundant, more versatile, more difficult to attack…There will be no final victory in such a war. Rather, victory will consist in having the resources and the ingenuity to avoid defeat. So long, however, as states rely on a deterrence and retaliation model for their strategic paradigms - that is, a model that requires a threat-based analysis - they will inevitably neglect those steps, including enhanced intelligence collection, pre-emption, the development of defensive systems (including sensors), vaccinations, the pre-positioning of medical supplies and advanced methods of deception that provide the basis for operating within a different paradigm, one that relies on a vulnerability analysis.”

Bobbitt’s Core Arguments

            These observations will, I should think, already suggest how Bobbitt’s view of things differs from Dibb’s and how it might impact on our own thinking about strategic policy and force structure planning. There is a depth of perspective to Bobbitt’s claims, however, which has to be appreciated before we can usefully venture to discuss the implications of those claims for our own case.

It is to that depth, therefore, that I shall now turn, in order to lay bare the premises and the reasoning behind Bobbitt’s challenging assertions. It will then become apparent that, whoever wins the coming Federal election, the Australian Government will have to confront the outmoded premises of existing strategic doctrine and have the courage to adapt and modernize it, in Cameron Stewart’s phrasing, to suit Australia’s future defence needs.

            I remarked earlier that there are three central premises to Bobbitt’s argument and that he draws four powerful inferences from them. Let me now set out what these are. The first premise is that modern history is best understood as a series of epochal wars that have shaped both state constitutions and the international society of states. The second premise is that strategy, law (both constitutional and international) and history (as a study) are inextricably intertwined, since they shape one another. Properly speaking, none can be understood without close reference to the others. The third premise is that the state is not withering away, but nation states are turning into market states, which have a different constitutional and strategic logic than nation states.

            Each of these premises requires some explanation, but let me first set out the four inferences he draws from these premises, before explaining or commenting on either premises or inferences.  The first inference is that what are normally thought of as a series of wars in the twentieth century actually constituted a single epochal war, lasting from 1914 until 1990. The second inference is that three key technologies produced during this epoch -  weapons of mass destruction, information technology and global communications - are undermining the very possibility of nation states in the twentieth century sense. They are creating a new political order of what he calls “market states” and setting strategic and legal challenges for these states that will drive the further evolution of both state and international law.

            The third inference is that the old strategic paradigm of threat, deterrence and retaliation must be replaced by a new one based on vulnerability, pre-emption and resilience. This will require fundamental rethinking of strategic doctrine, force structures and international law. Such rethinking has barely begun, but must accelerate or be overtaken by events in possibly catastrophic ways.

The fourth inference is that international institutions, now in large measure discredited, will be necessary, but will have to be transformed or reinvented if they are to play the constructive role required of them. As it stands, the United Nations is seriously dysfunctional and old alliance structures are coming under intolerable strain, not because of American unilateralism per se, but because of the exigencies of the new strategic environment, to which they are ill-adapted.

Bobbitt’s First Premise and First Inference 

            Bobbitt’s first premise is grounded in a view of history that goes back via Hobbes and Machiavelli to Thucydides. Indeed, he opens his argument with the claim that Thucydides was the first to write the history of an epochal war, when he realized, in 413 BCE, or shortly thereafter, that the struggle between Athens and Sparta was not merely a series of wars but a prolonged, fundamental conflict, which would shape the whole future of the Greek world. “So it is with all epochal wars,” he asserts, “ - the Hundred Years’ War, the Thirty Years’ War, the Punic Wars - and so it will be seen of the war of the twentieth century.”[i]

            “Epochal wars”, he writes, “put the constitutional basis of the participants in play and do not truly end until the underlying constitutional questions are resolved.”[ii] From this premise he derives his first inference. “We should regard the conflicts now commonly called the First World War, the Second World War, and the Korean and Vietnam Wars, as well as the Bolshevik Revolution, the Spanish Civil War and the Cold War as a single war”, he infers, “because all were fought over a single set of constitutional issues that were strategically unresolved until the end of the Cold War and the Peace of Paris in 1990.”[iii]

            That single war, which he dubs the Long War, was fought to determine which form of constitution - liberal parliamentary, fascist or communist - would replace the imperial states of Europe that had emerged after the epochal war of the Napoleonic period and had dominated the world between the Congress of Vienna and August 1914. This competition was itself triggered, he argues, by the instability of two imperial states - Germany and Russia - which morphed into the fascist and communist forms that the liberal democracies then had to master in order to survive.

            Indeed, he argues that Nazism and Stalinism were simply heightened or extreme versions of imperial German and Russian nationalism, thrown up by the trauma of defeat in 1917-18. He does not merely assert these claims, but argues for them in quite a fascinating way. I shall not, however, digress to discuss his supporting arguments here, since that would detain us too long.

The more important point is that he sees this process as rigorously analogous to earlier epochal struggles, which shaped the emergence and fate of princely states, kingly states and territorial states between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. Just as earlier epochal wars were resolved by major international settlements - Westphalia, Utrecht and Vienna - so the Long War was resolved by the 1990 Peace of Paris.

This settlement, setting the seal on the victory of the liberal parliamentary  nation state over fascism and communism, encouraged Francis Fukuyama to declare the ‘end of history’. Bobbitt offers a more challenging and realistic appraisal of what had actually happened and a far more complex prognosis as to what possible futures we now face. At the heart of his prognosis is the claim that, having resolved the great constitutional issue of the twentieth century that divided them, nation states of the early twenty first century are “uncertain as to how to configure, much less deploy, their armed forces.” The uncertainty has arisen, because the traditional answers depended “on certain assumptions about the relationship between the State and its objectives that the end of this long conflict has cast in doubt.” [iv]

Bobbitt’s Second Premise and Second Inference 

This brings us to Bobbitt’s second premise: that strategy, law (both constitutional and international) and history (as a study) are inextricably intertwined, since they reciprocally shape one another. It is most concisely stated as follows: “The State exists by virtue of its purposes, and among these are a drive for survival and freedom of action, which is strategy; for authority and legitimacy, which is law; for identity, which is history.”[v]  Law cannot come into being until the state secures a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. Strategy cannot be formulated unless law prevails, for in its absence there is only civil war or banditry. “Yet the legitimacy necessary for law and for strategy derives from history, the understanding of past practices that characterizes a particular society.”[vi]

Once again, Bobbitt argues in some detail for this premise, but I shall pass over that argument for the sake of brevity. The most important thing about this premise is his second inference: that the key technologies produced by the Long War -  weapons of mass destruction, information technology and global communications - are undermining the very possibility of nation states in the twentieth century sense. Just as surely as cannon and muskets in an earlier era undermined the possibility of principalities and feudal baronies, these technologies, he argues, began to undermine the nation state at just the point when its liberal parliamentary form had triumphed over its darker rivals for primacy. Each in its own manner and all taken together render it increasingly difficult for the nation state to maintain the kind of sovereignty by which it was defined. The consequences will flow across strategy, law and the uses of history.

Because all three of these technologies had their origins in the actual mechanics of the Long War and are associated with nation state histories, it is not easy to stand back and appreciate how they actually undermine the sovereignty of nation states. But Bobbitt goes to great pains to demonstrate how they do. It is because they render the defence and governance of territories and populations increasingly problematic. They do so by creating threats which transcend borders or territorial conflict; by creating economies that transcend any national base; and by making possible histories which the nation state cannot master through the control of information.

Bobbitt’s Third Premise; His Third and Fourth Inferences 

            This brings us to Bobbitt’s third premise: that the state is not withering away, but nation states are turning into market states, which have a different constitutional and strategic logic than nation states. To cope with the challenges of market economics, three variants of market state have emerged, he argues: the entrepreneurial, the managerial and the mercantile. All have their roots in the liberal parliamentary nation state, but all are being forced to evolve under the above pressures and there are decidedly different ways in which the various mutant strains might turn out. One thing which will differentiate them will be the capacity they exhibit to reshape their military and security forces for what Paul Bracken, writing in 1993, called “an entirely new operational environment, taking account of revolutionary changes in military technology and the possible appearance of entirely new kinds of competitors.”[vii]

            What all variants of the market state are finding or will discover to their cost, according to Bobbitt, is that the permeability of borders due to the uncontrollability of capital flows and of information, combined with the social consequences of these developments, the novel dangers posed by weapons of mass destruction in many more hands and forms than during the Cold War, environmental and viral hazards, the difficulties in managing consensus or marshalling resources for strategic purposes and the unrelenting nature of economic competition require new ways of thinking about what they themselves are and how they must cooperate. It is these considerations that give Bobbitt his third and fourth inferences.

            The third inference is that the old strategic paradigm of threat, deterrence and retaliation must be replaced by a new one based on vulnerability, pre-emption and resilience. This will require fundamental rethinking of strategic doctrine, force structures and international law. Such rethinking has barely begun, but must accelerate or be overtaken by events in possibly catastrophic ways. The fourth inference is that international institutions, now in large measure discredited, will be necessary, but will have to be transformed or reinvented if they are to play the constructive role required of them.

            Stated broadly in this manner, these inferences of Bobbitt’s may seem quite common fare. Certainly, variations of them have been in circulation for some time. What he has put together, however, is a powerful synthesis, with historical and conceptual roots that give it considerably more leverage than other, more superficial reflections along similar lines. Taken together with his other premises and inferences, these elements of his worldview offer, I suggest, quite a powerful set of lenses through which to re-examine both recent developments and future prospects.

Possible Worlds and Scenario Planning

            In the twenty fifth chapter of his book, Bobbitt contemplates what he calls ‘possible worlds’, generated through the scenario planning tools developed some decades ago at Shell. He sets at the head of that chapter a quotation from a Shell paper of 1992, which warrants general circulation. “By considering alternative futures, we begin to see that the future is shaped not only by the past but by what we think is possible and by the choices we make.”[viii] He describes whole worldviews that, in his own words, “if they govern action, will bring into being radically different worlds.” He seeks to provoke serious thinking about such alternatives and about the choices required to bring one or another into being - or head off its development.

            The problem is to induce such thinking and such choices at the level of state strategic planning. Having worked in the White House, the Senate and the State Department; having been both Director for Intelligence at the National Security Council and Senior Director for Strategic Planning under both Democratic and Republican administrations, Bobbitt is well placed to comment on the difficulties that impede scenario planning at the highest levels of government.  Let me quote a few chunks from his remarks on this point, before turning to the question of Australian strategic policy, because I think you’ll find that they ring true here, although written without Australia specifically in mind.

            “Strategic planning assumes an answer to the question that scenario planning poses: what sort of future do we want?” Bobbitt observes; and such scenario planning is not much practiced in governments. It’s worth getting clear why he believes this to be so. The feasibility of serious scenario planning depends upon “a dialogue with decision makers at many levels in order to create a culture that is sensitive to the implications of change and alert to opportunities to create favorable conditions for change.” The problem is that senior analysts cannot spend sufficient time with senior officials to generate such a dialogue. They also tend to withhold their estimates from “the many hundreds of other less senior officials who, together, could bring such a culture into being.”

            “High impact, but low probability contingencies (remember Rees-Mogg’s description of the Beslan massacre), which are crucial to the imaginative dialogue of the scenario process, are of little interest to busy politicians. Competing scenarios, in the absence of a culture of dialogue animated by a sense of rapport with leaders at the top, are anathema to bureaucrats, whose careers are risked by answering questions like, ‘What would it take for this estimate to be dramatically wrong? What could cause a radically different outcome?’, which translates to ‘What arguments can you give me that undermine your recommendations?’[ix] Does this sound familiar? From all that I have seen and heard over the past fifteen years, all this has certainly characterized the strategic policy debate in this country at the highest levels - if not among professionals, at those few centers where experimental thinking has been actively encouraged.

            The key thing to get here is the ongoing open-endedness of the thinking involved. Writing of the successes of Shell’s own scenario planning, Bobbitt comments, “The problem is that [they] are inevitably laid to having correctly predicted the future, rather than having enabled its decision makers to cope better with that future as it, unpredictably, unfolded. Prepared by their alternative scenarios, Shell executives were able to see a pattern in events - a story - that their competitors experienced as mere noise, a chaotic departure from conventional expectations.” For “the managers of every corporation operate according to conventional expectations, usually unarticulated and seldom fully tested against alternatives.”[x]

The Strategic Policy Debate in Australia

            Against such a background, how are we to ponder the strategic policy debate in Australia? I think the first observation that needs to be made is that the debate looks narrow and ill-informed against the deeper conceptual understanding of world affairs Bobbitt provides. The second observation I’d make is that those who continue to defend the old strategic doctrine, Paul Dibb most of all, appear to dismiss with scorn even preliminary attempts to rethink matters. They need to be confronted by something as formidable as Bobbitt’s thesis in order to be forced into a serious debate. The third observation that occurs to me is that, while some tinkering with the force structure has taken place in the past four years, it would appear to have taken place on an improvised basis, an ad hoc basis, not on the basis of deep and consequential thought.

            Australia is a nation state evolving into a market state for the reasons identified by Bobbitt. As much as any such state, though with our own peculiar variations on the common themes, we are becoming more and more implicated in world order and global infrastructure security challenges, less and less likely to be threatened by conventional territorial invasion. Yet the Defence of Australia doctrine still postulates territorial defence and denial of the so-called sea-air gap to a notional major adversary as its absolutely central priorities. Those priorities take the lion’s share of defence spending allocations.

Even as our actual military and security commitments more and more resemble those that Bobbitt’s worldview would anticipate, the defenders of the old doctrine insist that nothing fundamental has changed and that, in Hugh White’s words, we must still be prepared to fight conventional nation state wars.[xi] It is not necessary to postulate that such wars will not occur in order to see that, as a matter of practical reality, they are extremely unlikely to occur in ways that directly threaten Australian sovereignty in the conventional sense of the term.

            As I understand matters - and I am, of course, an outsider, with only a citizen’s grasp of these things - Australia is faced by growing problems in maintaining its armed forces, because of budgetary constraints compared with the expensive nature of contemporary advanced platforms, the lure of the marketplace on service personnel, the contradiction between a force structure configured for continental defence in depth and the realities of constant overseas deployments requiring more and different capabilities than have been developed under the existing doctrine. All of this was true in the 1990s. The emerging strategic environment of terrorist threats and economic vulnerability accentuate these problems. Yet still we are told that the force structure must be essentially maintained as it is.

            Consider the decisions to purchase both Aegis-equipped destroyers and Joint Strike Fighters. The former seem to have no realistic mission. Their acquisition implies that we have capital ships to defend, but we don’t. I am given to understand that they are defended on the basis that they are necessary to protect oilers and supply ships. What, however, will the oilers and supply ships themselves be oiling and supplying? Why, Aegis-equipped destroyers. The argument is circular and reminds one of St Edwards’ Hospital, in Yes, Minister, which had no patients, but was kept operating anyway. As for the Joint Strike Fighters, one is at something of a loss to understand why so many billions of dollars are to be lavished on an aircraft that could only be of use in the least likely contingency. Economics is supposedly about rational choice given limited resources. The JSF does not look like a rational choice, in all the circumstances.

            What looks rational, however, will most often depend on the paradigm from which one is working. The point is that Bobbitt’s paradigm and his scenarios would have us thinking long and hard about what our vulnerabilities are, instead of what threats we face; about how resilient we can make ourselves, rather than about how we can retaliate against some notional conventional aggressor; about how we can best contribute to the security of international economic and informational infrastructure, participate in pre-empting emerging dangers and build new alliances against unconventional dangers, rather than about whether we can blast an imagined conventional enemy out of the sea-air gap between our northern shores and the islands of Indonesia.

A Grand Opportunity for Kim Beazley

            These are fairly radical thoughts. But it is thinking that we are in need of right now. The tinkering that we have done since 2001 has been reasonably intelligent, but the paradigm seems hardly to have shifted, hardly, indeed, to have been perceived as a paradigm at all, but rather as if it were simply an unchanging reality. What has not taken place is a truly thorough, scenario-based reconsideration of the assumptions built into the Defence of Australia doctrine. If the Dibb Review made eminent sense in 1986, because the ADF had been drifting conceptually since the end of the Vietnam War, a similarly fundamental review would now seem to be in order.

Given his dogged adherence to his longstanding views, this should not be conducted by Dibb or by any of his cohorts, including Hugh White. It could, however, be conducted under the auspices of a bold Defence Minister, given leeway to undertake it by the Prime Minister. I see no reason why that Minister could not be Kim Beazley, should Labor win government next month. He would then have the distinction of having twice, within a generation, led a systematic rethinking of Australia’s strategic policy. He could do so on the plausible basis not only that it is necessary, but that the Coalition failed to undertake it, despite its dissatisfaction with the existing force structure and its frustration with the workings of the Defence Department.

Institutionalizing Critical Thinking

When the then Minister of Defence, Ian McLachlan, first announced, some six years ago, that the Government was interested in creating a new institute of strategic policy, with a view to generating fresh ideas in this domain, I was heartened. I took the initiative of approaching Melbourne University about the possibility of such an institute being set up there, should the Government be prepared, as the Minister had indicated it would, to contemplate setting up the institute outside Canberra. I suggested that such an institute should have three characteristics:

o       It should not be funded by the Defence Department, but should be set up to work with a range of clients in both the public and private sectors.

o       It should not recruit its staff on the basis of their defence specific backgrounds, but on the basis of their critical thinking skills.

o       it should produce not position papers, competing with the deluge of other such papers for the attention of decision makers, but advanced techniques for critically examining the reasoning and assumptions behind policy proposals.

No such design was favored. ASPI was set up, in Canberra, funded by the Defence Department and drawing its staff overwhelmingly from Defence backgrounds. After only a few years, it appears to be out of favor and struggling to make much of a difference to the strategic policy debate. There is even talk of its being folded into the Lowy Institute in Sydney. We need to do better. We need to do better on an ongoing basis, not merely by having a once-off, high-level review, though that would be a start. I have in mind the kind of scenario based dialogues that Bobbitt mentions. Yet even a review of the scope undertaken in the United States in 2001, under Andrew Marshall, would be a start. That review was long overdue, as Bobbitt himself remarks, and it made a number of controversial recommendations, including missile defence, cyber and infrastructure protection and force resizing. It also, he pointed out, had “profound consequences for the constitutional make-up of the country.”[xii] What would inhibit us, what does inhibit us, from holding a similarly searching and far-reaching review?

If Bobbitt is even approximately correct in his diagnosis of the new strategic environment and his prognosis for the epochal struggle ahead, between market states and anarchic forces, we shall be compelled to undertake such a radical rethinking of our strategic policy and force structure in the not too distant future. What will it take to prompt such thinking? We have certainly had a good deal of early warning about what is brewing. But, sunk in old paradigmatic ways of seeing our security, we lumber on, tinkering and tarrying, rather than thinking hard and coherently about where we are heading. We have always had the luxury of living in a continent-sized country remote from nation state threats. Like our rich natural resource endowment, that encourages a certain complacency. In this Indian summer, we cannot afford such complacency. For the dangers that are now looming are, in their own way, every bit as great as those of the past century. We must prepare ourselves to deal with them, or run the risk of coming to grief in grimly unfamiliar ways.


[i] Philip Bobbitt The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace and the Course of History, Penguin 2003, p. 21.

[ii] Ibid. p. xviii.

[iii] Ibid. p. 24.

[iv] Ibid. p. 7.

[v] Ibid. p. 6.

[vi] Ibid. p. 7.

[vii] Paul Bracken ‘The Military After Next’, Washington Quarterly, 16 (1993) p. 157.

[viii] Bobbitt op. cit. p. 715.

[ix] Ibid. pp. 717-18.

[x] Ibid. p. 719.

[xi] Hugh White ‘Why We Still Have to be Ready to Fight’, The Age, 30 July 2003.

[xii] Bobbitt op. cit. p. 814.