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STURDEE SYMPOSIUM ON AUSTRALIAN GRAND STRATEGY
Royal Military College
Duntroon
Canberra
Tuesday 12 April 2005

THE WORLD HAS CHANGED: GETTING DEPTH OF PERSPECTIVE

Paul Monk

Exactly four years ago, in a Quadrant essay entitled ‘Twelve Questions for Paul Dibb’, I argued that Australia was ‘at a strategic cross-roads’ and that we needed ‘an informed and thorough strategic debate’ in order better to see our way ahead.[i]  I cordially invited Paul to help make such a debate systematic, by responding to my twelve questions. He did not. He seemed to be of the opinion that no such debate was required, because the strategic policy he had helped craft in the mid-1980s was not in need of significant revision.

But a debate got going anyway. By mid-2003, it seemed to me that, while the debate was somewhat desultory and muted, it was happening and Paul and those who were in his corner were losing it - as much by default as through any inability to make a case.[ii] Last year, in an address at the Land Warfare Development Centre, I argued that, if we really wanted to have a serious debate, we needed to read something like Philip Bobbitt’s The Shield of Achilles, in order to get depth of perspective.[iii]

That address was well received and is in large measure, I suspect, what has led to my being invited here, to what is an outstanding forum for deepening the debate we had to have. By introducing that depth of perspective, my task this morning is to stimulate what I hope will be a concentrated, rather than a diffuse discussion about a number of fundamental issues. I shall approach the matter in three stages. First, by reflecting on why there has been an increasing need for serious debate in the specifically Australian context. Second, by situating that need in the far wider context of change and upheaval in the world outside Australia. Third, by putting to this forum a number of propositions, not as conclusions I have reached, but as questions to which I seek answers.

I was asked to address you specifically on the topic ‘The World Has Changed’. Isn’t the world constantly changing? Having been trained, in my early years at university, as a historian, I am accustomed to see much change as variations on largely familiar themes and, often, to reflect, as I’m sure many of you do, that, in the familiar phrase, originating in France and still particularly applicable there, the more things change, the more they remain the same. Since 11 September 2001, few phrases have been more common than the claim that the world will never be the same again. But what does that mean?

The attacks on the United States on 11 September 2001 were not a cause of the world changing, so much as they were a symptom of it having done so. The change in question had been under way for some time. What the destruction of the World Trade Centre and the wounding of the Pentagon did was shock a great many people. The impact of such attacks on the heartland of the United States was so great that it led many people to talk impulsively of the world having changed in irrevocable ways, without most of them having any clear or even discernible idea of what they themselves meant by this claim.

 Well before 9/11, however, it was common knowledge that the world had changed quite dramatically in just a few short years. The year 1989 was the watershed year, but even it came in the midst of a great deal of change. China had, by then, been in the midst of accelerating change for a decade. Japan was being touted as set to overtake the United States as the world’s number one economy. Then, entirely contrary to the expectations of most specialists, to say nothing of the general public, the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe collapsed, all within a few months, at year’s end. The apartheid regime in South Africa quietly dismantled itself. Then the Soviet Union itself imploded. The world was clearly changing.

Nor did it end there. The genocide in Rwanda, in which 800,000 people lost their lives; the terrible famine in North Korea in which up to two million people lost their lives; an all but unreported civil war in Zaire, in which four million people have lost their lives; the financial crisis in East and Southeast Asia; the 1998 breakout by India and Pakistan from what Jaswant Singh called ‘nuclear apartheid’; the collapse of the Suharto regime and the coming of democracy to Indonesia; the reversal of Indonesia’s annexation of East Timor; the decision of the United States to rescind the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972…all these and more occurred in the decade before 9/11. Change and crisis were endemic.

Not only were change and crisis endemic, but there were plenty of people arguing that we needed to rethink things and come up with some kind or other of ‘new world order’. Paul Dibb himself, in July 2000, gave voice to this diffuse sense that new thinking was required. He wrote, in a Quadrant essay to which my twelve questions in April 2001 were a belated response, “what defines the present era is its almost total break with everything we were familiar with during the Cold War.” That was a pretty strong way of saying that the world had changed.

He went further, writing in the same essay that “we find ourselves in an indecipherable world” in “a maze of complexity and contradictions.” He even went on to make the startling assertion that “the discipline of strategic studies has been of little use in enlightening our understanding of the current state of international affairs.” All of this, one might have thought, would have led him to state unequivocally that we were in need of a paradigm shift in the way we conceived our national security. Yet he baulked at drawing that conclusion.

It is difficult to avoid the judgment that he did so because he was bewildered by the maze in which he found himself and was unable to find his way through it. It is as if he was an infantry captain - as distinct from a retired Brigadier - who had been asked to fight against unconventional enemies in unfamiliar urban terrain in the dark without the advantage of either night-vision gear or close armored support and was bewildered by both the tactics of his enemies and the losses his squad was taking. He needed to pull back and rethink his tactics, but somehow he froze and insisted on digging in to slug it out.

Yet he did need to pull back for a rethink. We all did. The need is fundamental, not superficial and arises from the fact that assumptions which have long guided strategic policy thinking are, indeed, being seriously tested, if not overturned by the changes that have been going on in the world for some time. It is these sorts of situations that require paradigm shifts, as Thomas Kuhn explained that term in his famous study The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

A paradigm rules and governs the interpretation of whatever data appear on the over the horizon radar, until such time as too many anomalies accumulate for such interpretation to feel right - at least to those with sensitive antennae. They start to re-examine the assumptions they have taken for granted, thinking outside the square, as the classic puzzle has it, until they are able to come up with a reframing of things which accounts for all the data in a more economical and - partly for that reason - more convincing way.

We were in need of a paradigm shift in Australia before 9/11. We should not get too distracted by whether 9/11 itself warranted a paradigm shift. All it did was to highlight certain aspects of the new state of affairs which demanded that we pull back and rethink our strategic policy. For anomalies in the specifically Australian experience of the preceding decade had been indicating the need for us to rethink our strategic policy assumptions well before 9/11 sounded alarm bells in various quarters.

The specifically Australian paradigm that is in need of rethinking is, of course, the Defence of Australia (DoA) doctrine, informally developed in the 1970s and formalized under the Hawke Labor government in the 1980s. Its fundamental assumptions were that the world of the Cold War would endure for the foreseeable future; that in such a world, after the Vietnam War and the apparent retreat of American military power, Australia needed to be circumspect about foreign entanglements and better able than in the past to be self-reliant should it face a direct threat to its territorial sovereignty. The unusual geography of Australia meant that we could reasonably expect to detect emerging threats with advanced surveillance systems and defend ourselves against them with state of the art conventional forces in the sea-air gap between our northern shores and the islands of Indonesia and Melanesia.

There were deep assumptions and anxieties at work here which might have benefited from closer critical examination at the time. Among them were that, being remote from both our erstwhile great and powerful friend, Great Britain, and our more recent one, the United States, made us vulnerable to conventional invasion. The second was that such vulnerability consisted in having a huge shoreline open to the north. The third was that a modest expenditure of 2.8% of GDP per annum would enable us to defend this geographic frontier against the threats that might appear over the horizon - at least long enough for the U.S. cavalry to arrive.

The most dramatic precedent for all this, still very much in living memory in the 1970s and early 1980s, was the Japanese blitzkrieg through South East Asia in 1942 and the bombing of Darwin, but vaguer anxieties went back much earlier: to concerns about Germans in the South Pacific, pre-Bolshevik Russians in the Pacific and, even earlier, the French in the Pacific. There were also, of course, diffuse anxieties about Indonesia, dating back to the Sukarno era, and Asian Communism, especially the version ascendant in China under Mao Zedong.

By 1986, when Paul Dibb was putting the DoA into a fully articulated form  for Labor Defence Minister Kim Beazley, it would have required quite a lively imagination to conceive of the Japanese having another crack at military domination of South East Asia. Indonesia, under Suharto, was starting to do quite well economically, but was very far from having either the capabilities or the inclination to make a lunge at Australia’s northern shores, China was deep into fundamental economic reform and the first stirrings of a democracy movement that was challenging the Communist monopoly of political power. And Paul Dibb himself had just written a book on the Soviet Union in which he argued that it was considerably less potent economically than some Cold Warriors feared and more geopolitically conservative than such fears made it seem.

In short, the central assumption of the DoA was questionable from the start. Yet memories of 1942 and vague unease about Soviet ambitions and Indonesia’s demographic weight seem to have been enough to screen it from serious questioning. My own surmise is that those who crafted the DoA actually were not anticipating having to fire shots in anger in the sea-air gap. They believed that the Soviet Union and the basic strategic realities, as they understood them, of the Cold War would remain in place for the indefinite future, but that this would not entail a conventional invasion of Australia by a power in or lodging itself in the archipelagic screen to our north. Australia could reassure its citizens of their security, keep its defense expenditure within modest limits and avoid the risks of foreign wars, largely because the Communists were not coming - and neither were the Indonesians.

The conservative and uncritical nature of these assumptions seems to be borne out by the fact that the Labor government, for a decade after 1986, allowed defense expenditure to drift down to less than 2% of GDP and quite deliberately allowed the capabilities of the Army to shrink. But the broader complacency at work was already reflected in Dibb’s remark, in the Preface to his book on the Soviet Union, that:

“The Soviet Union’s internal political system is not considered here, because no fundamental changes are to be expected…What has been built so painstakingly over the generations, with much sacrifice, ruthlessness and conviction will not be allowed to disintegrate or radically change. The USSR has enormous unused reserves of political and social stability on which to draw and in all probability it will not in the next decade face a systemic crisis that endangers its existence.”

Small wonder, then, that he was bewildered by the collapse Communism in Eastern Europe just three years later and of the Soviet Union itself just five years later and the “almost total break (even before then) with everything we were familiar with during the Cold War.” But perhaps, also, the disinclination to countenance an actual paradigm shift from the DoA to something better suited to the new state of affairs - because many people broadly aligned with the DoA preferred to remain behind the secure moat to the north and to avoid the risks of foreign wars, if at all possible.

            But it is precisely here that the anomalies come into play. For throughout the DoA era, between 1986 and 2000, as is well known, Australian forces were deployed abroad on quite a few occasions and never once in a manner for which the DoA had prepared them. Whether in the island environment to our north or in the further abroad, we have not faced conventional enemies intent on mastering the sea-air gap and attacking or invading Broome, Darwin or Townsville. We have not had occasion to use capital ships or advanced combat aircraft in anything other than a symbolic role in the further abroad. We have, instead, relied on the Army to work on complex missions in a wide variety of operational theatres to do with post-Cold War world order concerns, with the other services operating to facilitate and support these operations.

            Until the INTERFET operation in East Timor, in 1999, these operations, starting with the Gulf War in 1990-91, tended to be written off as assimilable anomalies, which is to say exceptions to the DoA strategic policy that did not challenge its fundamental assumptions and did not require that it be reframed - even though there had been “an almost total break with everything we were familiar with during the Cold War.” A rather odd thing happened with the East Timor operation. It was cited as evidence that vindicated the DoA, because, so it was alleged, the DoA posited the region to our north, not the further abroad, as our strategic priority and the basing of the Army in the north had made the deployment easier than it would otherwise have been. This line of argument has been repeated in regard to the Solomons.

            This is what happens when a paradigm is challenged: evidence is tugged and pulled in contending directions, bits of it are cast aside altogether, the assumptions of the old paradigm are stretched and bent to accommodate otherwise inassimilable facts. This is not by any means merely a matter of strategic policy debates. It is a universal phenomenon and can be observed every day, both in other public policy areas and in the physical and social sciences.

            Notwithstanding various attempts to assimilate it into the DoA paradigm, the INTERFET operation marked the beginning of a serious questioning of that paradigm  - two years or so before 9/11. The questioning took two forms: an informal unease, especially in government quarters, that the operation had been so taxing for the Defence Force; and a formal challenge based on some longer term thinking and critical analysis of the force structure built up under the DoA and its limitations. The first is common to many policy areas and anyone with political common sense knows that governments must, in the nature of the case, often muddle through and amend things piecemeal while keeping up appearances.

            There comes a time, however, when more fundamental thinking is called for. The more formal critique of the DoA suggested this was the case with Australian strategic policy. The 2000 White Paper was where the informal unease and the formal critique intersected. It articulated an interim position and mandated some incremental adjustments to force structure priorities in the light of the anomalies of the preceding decade and especially the East Timor operation; then came 9/11. The question at that point was not whether the world had changed, but whether we had even begun to think deeply enough about the ways in which it had done so and the implications these entailed for our strategic assumptions.

            The disproportionate impact of 9/11 had to do with several of its characteristics: the fact that massive blows had been struck at the centers of the American economy and its military power by a non-state actor; that these blows had caught the world’s most powerful military and intelligence establishments entirely off their guard; that there were threats of further and even more devastating assaults that might involve weapons of mass destruction and that would indiscriminately target civilians; and that there was no evident way to identify, deter or strike back decisively against the perpetrators; even though it was clear to all but the paranoid that al Qaeda had done it. The problem was that al Qaeda was a shadowy confederation with global reach, not territorial fixity.

            My own immediate response to the events of that day was reflected in an essay called ‘Seven Theses of War’, published ten days later, in which I made a first attempt to reckon with the above considerations and their disturbing implications.[iv]  Like all of you here, I made what efforts I could to get the matter into some kind of historical and strategic perspective.[v] It was not, however, until last year, reading Philip Bobbitt’s The Shield of Achilles, that I felt I had discovered at least the rudiments of what was needed for rethinking the truly profound implications of 9/11; which is to say of the deeper and wider changes in the world of which 9/11 had been such a stunning symptom.

            It is Bobbitt’s central claim that states evolve over time, not in a teleological manner towards some discernible end of history goal, but in a Darwinian manner, under the pressure of strategic competition. Such competition drives not simply revolutions in military affairs but revolutions in constitutional affairs. The consequence is what might be called a pattern of competitive equilibrium punctuated by epochal wars. Those wars are fought over constitutional issues and only end when the underlying constitutional issues are resolved by the triumph of one kind of state over others. This, in turn, leads to international treaties which generalize the new constitutional paradigm in terms of agreement between states as to what they themselves are and how they shall behave in regard to one another.

            Augsburg (1555), Westphalia (1648), Utrecht (1713), Vienna (1815), Versailles (1919) and Paris (1990) are the treaties he cites as epochal in this respect, marking the evolution, within the international states system from princely states, to kingly states, to territorial states, to state-nations, to nation-states and then to the new state form he sees as arising in the wake of what he calls the Long War of the 20th century - market states. That war, from 1914 to 1990, was over what form of nation-state - liberal, fascist or communist - would prevail. It ended only when the liberal state had comprehensively defeated and discredited both of its rivals.

The detail in which he addresses his fantastically complex subject and the originality of his analysis have made Bobbitt’s book required reading for all those concerned with contemporary strategic affairs. Nonetheless, I do not believe we should allow today’s proceedings to become a debate over Bobbitt’s particular arguments. I want only to suggest that his way of looking at the course of modern history offers us a very timely stimulant to rethinking the implications of 9/11 and the most fundamental assumptions that have determined and continue to determine how we, in Australia, think of strategic security and articulate strategic policy.

His most important general observation is that, having resolved the great constitutional issue of the 20th century that divided them, nation states at the end of the century found themselves increasingly uncertain how to configure, much less deploy their armed forces. This was the context not only of Paul Dibb’s bewilderment, but of the tentativeness and often the irresolution of national leaders around the world. In other words, what we face here is not merely a matter of anomalies in Australia’s specific strategic paradigm, but fundamental problems for the strategic paradigm that has governed the thinking of nation states for a century.

This might seem like too much to tackle in a one day symposium on Australian grand strategy, but in fact it offers us our best chance at seeing our particular dilemmas and uncertainties in a broader context and thus gaining insights that we might otherwise miss. Let me note in passing that I think this is, to some extent, what happened with David Kilcullen’s recent paper for the Centre for Independent Studies, ‘The Forward School of Australian Statecraft’. David began by stating that globalization “renders the often claimed distinction between local, regional and global security issues of little relevance to strategy”, but then added that this only reinforces something which “has always been so”. This, he proceeded to argue, is why DoA was never actually followed and why it was conceptually “a deeply flawed strategy.”[vi]

There is much to be said for David’s critique of the DoA paradigm, but the line of argument he adopts risks turning us inward to a debate about the history of Australia’s specific concerns and the relative merits of continental defense in depth, versus a quite traditional forward defense posture. Bobbitt’s interpretation of modern history, conversely, challenges us to rethink what security itself is about; not just for ourselves but in the world at large, as we enter the 21st century. He sees a need for all nation states to reconfigure what their defense forces are designed to do, how they are trained to act and where they fit within a broader architecture of state security.

Bobbitt claims that the technologies generated in the Long War - especially weapons of mass destruction, information technology and global communications - have undermined the basis of the liberal nation-state, even as they helped bring down its fascist and communist rivals. They are doing so by creating threats and pressures against which the nation-state finds it increasingly difficult to defend itself under the terms of the 20th century strategic paradigm of threat, deterrence and retaliation. Given what is now arising, he argued, writing before 9/11, this whole paradigm would, of necessity, be replaced by a strategic paradigm based on vulnerability, pre-emption and resilience.

Note that Bobbitt did not conceive any of these ideas in response to 9/11, but on the basis of an analysis of the past 500 years which led him to conclusions that just happened to seem extraordinarily well-timed when The Shield of Achilles was published in 2002. His work is like the theoretical physics done for years before the outbreak of Hitler’s war in Europe precipitated the Manhattan Project and the making of the atomic bomb. He was not thinking inside the square, but was thinking long and hard about matters that most of us give little heed to, or see almost entirely in more conventional terms.

How, then, do we fit within the far larger picture painted by Bobbitt? For most of our history, we were somewhat inclined to think that we were or could become vulnerable to conventional invasion by a hostile nation state. During the Long War, this occurred once - when Japanese forces lodged themselves in the archipelagic screen to our north. Under the DoA we configured our force structure to deal with that kind of contingency. Now we need to consider a whole range of vulnerabilities that are not likely to take this form. Under the DoA we considered that our force structure would serve to deter such conventional assault. Now we must consider the possibility that such a force structure will be irrelevant to almost all the problems we are likely to confront.

Under the DoA we assumed that our forces, if they did not deter a conventional attack, would be useful in retaliating against its perpetrators. Now we must consider the need for pre-emptive action to head off not conventional but unconventional attacks; as well as the need for building resilience into our legal, medical, informational and infrastructural systems in order to guard against disabling attacks by unconventional enemies.

Let me conclude by asking three sets of questions. The first has to do with the existing DoA architecture and its adequacy. The second has to do with the idea of an epochal shift in the nature of international relations. The third has to do with the feasibility of adjusting our own strategic policy along the lines indicated by Bobbitt. I shall confine myself to three questions in each case, in the hope that they might actually be addressed in some more or less coherent manner.

First, as regards the DoA:

1: Assuming that we do not face the threat of an air war over the sea air gap between now and 2020, what is the purpose served by acquiring 100 Joint Strike Fighters, given that they will cost us some $20 billion and that our defense budget is under relentless pressure?

2: Assuming that failed state operations in the island archipelago are more likely to demand our resources than is a naval shoot out with Indonesian or Chinese forces, what precisely is the purpose served by investing some billions of dollars in Aegis-equipped destroyers?

3: If the real dangers we are likely to face will not come over the northern horizon, what, other than the Over the Horizon Radar, ought to be the centre-piece of our surveillance of the possible dangers that could confront us?

 

Second, as regards the idea of an epochal shift in the nature of international relations:

1: Isn’t it the case that, while there is still much pious genuflecting in the direction of the United Nations as an idea, as a practical reality it is in serious disarray?

2: If that is so, must we not rethink the fundamental architecture of collective security put in place under the old paradigm at the height of the Long War?

3:  Pre-emption was declared discredited after the failure to find WMD in Iraq, but if, on the contrary, it is likely to be an increasingly pressing expedient, what understandings do we need to develop with our neighbors, starting with Indonesia, to ensure that it is both feasible and does not cause inter-state conflict?

 

Third, as regards the feasibility of adjusting our own strategic policy along the lines indicated by Bobbitt:

1: What practical (as compared with conceptual) obstacles stand in the way of our choosing to expend the $20 billion the Joint Strike Fighters would cost over the next decade or so on a combination of research into UAVs and substantially enhanced joint special forces for maneuver operations in the littoral environment or coalition operations in the further abroad?

2: As compared with a command and force structure designed to defend the moat, what national security architecture would it take to better develop critical infrastructure resilience against covert sabotage; and robust inter-agency coordination in the event of a major incident involving nuclear, biological or chemical weapons?

3: As compared with the existing intelligence infrastructure, much of it originally conceived in terms of the nation-state threats of the Long War, what skills and what kinds of institutional architecture will be required to anticipate and address the challenges of the changed world we are now entering?

 

There will be some present who have quite developed ideas on one or more of these questions and I look forward to hearing from them. Let me close with one simple request, that we see these discussions as an exploration of ideas, rather than a defense of ideas. As JFK says to Curtis Lemay, in the film Thirteen Days, when told that he is in a pretty tight spot, “Well perhaps you hadn’t noticed. You’re in it with me.”[vii] We’re in this together. Let’s see what common, deepened understanding we can achieve concerning our country’s grand strategy for the early 21st century.


[i] Paul Monk ‘Twelve Questions for Paul Dibb’, Quadrant, April 2001, pp. 40-43.

[ii] Paul Monk ‘A Strategic Changing of the Guard’, The Australian Financial Review, Friday Review 6 June 2003, pp. 6-7.

[iii] Paul Monk ‘An Indian Summer: New Dangers After the Long War’, The Australian Financial Review, Friday Review 15 October 2004, pp. 4-5.

[iv] Paul Monk ‘Seven Theses of War’, The Australian Financial Review, Friday Review 21 September 2001, pp. 1-2.

[v] Paul Monk ‘Timely Guide to Islamic Perspective’, The Australian Financial Review, Friday Review 26 October 2001, pp. 6-7.

[vi] David Kilcullen ‘The Forward School of Australian Statecraft’, CIS, February 2005, p. 1.

[vii] The historical record indicates that it was actually General David Shoup, not Curtis LeMay, who told Kennedy he was in a pretty bad fix, to which Kennedy responded simply, “You’re in it with me.”