It may seem odd that Prime Minister Julia Gillard would use the occasion of the launch of the nation's first ever formal national security strategy to endorse the view that the 'national security decade' is over.
This begins to make sense, though, when you note the strategy's conclusion that the nation's biggest security challenges in the new era will come not from terrorists or fragile-state anarchy but from the actions of powerful states. If the national security or 9/11 decade is indeed at an end, then a new age – the international strategy decade — is just beginning.
Does this make Australia's security environment more or less threatening than during the 9/11 decade? Is the nation safer today than it was when Kevin Rudd presented his national security statement in 2008? If so, then why all the fuss about the need for a strategy? If not, then why is the Government tightening the overall security budget, especially in defence?
On these points, there are no clear answers, at least none that the Government is willing to state.
The new strategy document also pulls its punches when it comes to identifying the states that worry Australia's security planners. Rudd's 2009 defence white paper was perhaps excessively blunt about China, but this new strategy, like the Asian Century White Paper, swings too far in the direction of cryptic coyness. There's plenty of reference to cyber challenges, espionage, even something mysteriously called 'foreign interference', but the prospective sources of these risks are politely left unnamed.
To be fair, it is hard to fault the new 47-page strategy on its structure and bureaucratic word smithing. This is a considerably more coherent and crafted document than Kevin Rudd's laundry-list national security statement of 2008, and it is mercifully shorter than the 300-odd page Asian Century paper. It seems to reflect commendable consultation across government, demonstrating the very kind of coordination and efficient use of limited resources that the PM is calling for.
This is also substantially more than an election pamphlet, contrary to some of the media's less charitable characterisations. Yes, the Prime Minister's speech was needlessly partisan in giving the Howard Government no explicit credit for its national security achievements across most of the 9/11 decade, such as the massive, sustained and effective response to the Bali bombings.
But the new strategy itself is not, thankfully, a mere party-political confection. Drawing on the Asian Century white paper, it embeds national security within a framework of Australia's wider international aspirations. It also sets the scene for a new defence white paper. In that sense, it is the middle step in a logical policy cascade.
But, like Ms Gillard's speech, the strategy leaves unanswered at least two glaring questions on the crucial issue of resources and priorities.
Repeatedly, it emphasises international engagement and partnerships as critical to Australia's security. This would seem to be adding further to the demands on our overstretched, underfunded Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). But beyond the Prime Minister's carefully worded claims about expanding the Department's 'footprint', there is no evidence that the Government plans to give DFAT the resources to do the job.
Second, if the future really is about interstate risks, including those relating to military power, then presumably having a strong defence force is one way to deter or manage them. Nowhere does the strategy explain why the dawn of an era of intensified state-on-state challenges is precisely the right time to cut the defence budget. Perhaps that is one feat of drafting gymnastics that has been reserved for someone else. Spare a thought for the defence white paper team.