Robert Ayson is Director of Victoria University’s Centre for Strategic Studies in New Zealand.
It's time for me to fess up. I used to be one of those sometimes annoying people who thought it was a good idea for governments to produce a formal national security strategy. I wanted them to show me how various pieces of the national security puzzle fitted together and I wanted them to do so in a publicly released document. But I am now less sure this is a good idea, and the Gillard Government's newly released National Security Strategy has confirmed my unease. It does so for a number of reasons.
The first is the illusion of coherence. The National Security Strategy talks about Australia's approach to national security as representing a 'unified system'. That's an immensely challenging ambition, and with so many national security issues involved, this can quickly turn into a listing process which describes all the things being done rather than quite how they fit together, let alone how choices might be made between them.
One rule of thumb is that the coherence of any written strategy exists in inverse proportion to the number of bullet points it contains. And there are quite of few of these in the National Security Strategy.
The second is the dependence on coordination. The National Security Strategy concludes that there are three priorities for the next five years. These are: enhancing Australia's Asian engagement, developing an integrated approach to growing cyber-security problems (which attract the adjective 'malicious' at least a dozen times in the NSS), and building security partnerships.
All of these follow the main message of the document: we are going to be better at working together in the national security community and with others, including domestic actors and overseas partners.
Now, a coordinated effort can be a good thing if it can be had, but it is not a strategy in and of itself. A truly all-in approach (the 'whole of government' nirvana and beyond) can even work against the making of choices which clear strategy normally requires. One could be overly cynical and think that the emphasis on coordination in the NSS is even stronger than it would have been had there been some more money (and not less) going around. But I don't think that's the only thing going on here.
I say that partly because of the third issue: the problem of defence. The National Security Strategy shows that defence accounts for the vast majority ($26 billion per year) of Australia's overall national security expenditure ($33 billion). And cyber-security issues aside (on which about half a billion dollars are spent a year), it is only when the document alludes to the changing military balance in the region and what that means for Australia that one gets the sense of real energy.
Despite the talk about building a range of relationships in Asia (a boiled down version of the vast Asian Century White Paper), there is some real ambivalence here. While the Indonesia relationship gets a big thumbs up, the NSS also warns that 'regional powers could seek to exercise influence over our national decision making and use of our resources.' Rising larger and taller is Australia's defence-rich alliance relationship with the US which 'is critical to our ability to deter and defeat adversaries'.
The NSS appears to be saying that the alliance is Australia's big national security answer. It may be wondered if this is a sustainable judgment when Western power is being challenged in the region. But at least it means that the NSS is making a choice. That choice endorses defence as the national security king in Canberra, regardless of what is currently happening to the ADF's budget.
If the real choice here is to pursue Australia's national security through a strong military alliance with the US, this National Security Strategy offers more than coordinated comprehensiveness. It actually provides a decision, and that's something real strategies offer. As the same decision will likely underpin this year's Defence White Paper, one can't accuse the Gillard Government of strategic inconsistency. But one can wonder how essential the production of the NSS really was.
Photo by Flickr user Todd Ehlers.