Laura Tingle’s recent Quarterly Essay Political Amnesia: How We Forgot to Govern argues that Australia’s public service policy-making capability has atrophied. The end of agency head tenure, the explosion of ministerial advisors, and the loss of staff with deep historical memory of policy successes and failures have all contributed to the deterioration. The end result has been a public service unable to seriously evaluate policy options, and too timid to provide the frank and fearless advice that was once its hallmark. Tingle takes aim principally at the central and domestic policy agencies, stating that 'no one develops deep expertise in anything, with just a few exceptions, such as defence, national security and foreign affairs.'

Australian soldier in Iraq, 2003 (Photo: Australian Defence Image Library)

Tingle may be letting Defence and Foreign Affairs off too lightly. There have been some alarming signs of poor historically-based analysis in the national security portfolios. An egregious example was Foreign Affair’s minister Julie Bishop’s speech to the Sydney Institute last year, in which ISIS was rated the greatest threat to global security since 1945. The entire Cold War, its proxy wars and threat of nuclear holocaust was somehow rated as comparatively benign. 

Unfortunately the Defence White Paper 2016 released last month contains similar serious blemishes in its treatment of history. Chapter 2 asserts that a 'global-rules based order' has 'helped support Australia’s security and economic interests for 70 years' (p 45). It tells us that this order is now under 'increasing pressure' and is 'showing signs of fragility'. The challenges to the global-rules based order cited include terrorism, North Korea’s nuclear programs, Russia’s actions in the Ukraine and cyber threats. These are serious problems. But do they warrant us viewing the current juncture as some kind of historic turning point after 70 years of adherence to international law? 

This is, of course, an absurd proposition. It omits 40 years of significant global and regional conflict and disorder between 1950 and 1990, including the Korean War 1950-1953, the Vietnam War 1955-1975, the Soviet Union’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, Vietnam’s invasion and occupation of Cambodia 1979-1989, Indonesia’s 1975 invasion of East Timor, the Cambodian genocide 1975-1979 and the Indonesian mass killings of 1965- 1966, to name but a few. Unless we can construe these events as somehow indicative of a strong and effective global rules-based global order, that order is, relatively speaking, now in much better health than it was during the Cold War. By glossing over the invasions and conflicts of the Cold War period, the Defence White Paper overrates the significance of recent developments and thereby grossly misrepresents our overall historical trajectory.

Tingle argues the Howard Government accelerated atrophying of policy capability by relegating the public service role to one of implementation rather than provision of advice. Real thinking was to occur in the offices of ministers and their advisors. Although not mentioned by Tingle, one of the worst examples of the neutering of the public service occurred with respect to the Iraq invasion of 2003. As recorded in the report of the inquiry into Australia’s intelligence agencies of 2004 (the Flood Review) the decision to invade Iraq was taken without a national or strategic assessment (p. 26). This assessment would have holistically considered the strategic costs and benefits of the military action and its aftermath. As described by Garry Woodard in his review of the policy and intelligence process leading to the Iraq deployment:

A strategic assessment is a cost-benefit analysis of alternative causes of action. It takes account of the competing demands on and necessary priorities of a medium power. It requires self-knowledge as well as knowledge of other countries including the adversary. It should use the lessons of history for making decisions and expressing views to allies. It needs to be comprehensive and with a long-term perspective, so that ministers can comprehend the consequences of any decision to go to war. These consequences are national, international, regional, and relating to alliances, and require analysing the prospects and implications of success and failure.

Whether, after having received such a national or strategic assessment, the Howard Government would have changed its mind on supporting one of the worst policy decisions in living memory is not the issue here. What is of concern is that like a muscle left unused, policy and analytical capacity inevitably withers when not called upon. To what extent are Defence, DFAT and other parts of the national security apparatus today able to develop penetrating policy analyses evaluating the costs and benefits of military operations? Are they doing more than simply facilitating their implementation? The Defence White Paper’s crude and tendentious characterisation of the state of the rules-based global order does not inspire confidence.

Some might argue that a couple of crudely written paragraphs in the strategic assessment are relatively unimportant in comparison with the good points of the 2016 Defence White Paper. It has after all, produced a more viable and sensible plan for developing Australia’s defence capabilities than was the case in the previous White Paper. But the issue here is that decisions to use military force are often based on assessments of historical trajectory, and whether trends are favourable or not. The concerning point about the Defence White Paper’s distorted view of the trajectory of the rules based global order is that it appears to be aimed at framing China, through its actions in the South China Seas, as a key threat to the rules based global order. As Sam Bateman has recently pointed out, this is overly simplistic.

With a public service whose analytical capacity and historical memory are blunted, there is a real risk that the widespread peace and prosperity in our current strategic environment leads to disproportionate alarm over the areas of tension. A drawing pin on the smooth felt of a pool table looks more prominent than it does on a rocky path. One of the most serious events in the South China Sea was the clash between the Chinese and Vietnamese navies in March 1988 in which three Vietnamese navy vessels were destroyed with considerable loss of life. In that week the Canberra Times reported that Iran’s military forces had moved into Iraq, a South African convoy was heading into Angola, the US had sent troops into Honduras, Britain was rehearsing a Falklands operation, and the US and Soviet Union and United States defence secretaries had met to discuss inter alia whether the Soviet Union was changing its doctrine from an offensive posture to a defensive posture. Consequently the South China Sea clash was given all of three paragraphs on page 5 of the Canberra Times on 17 March, and no further coverage that week. 

This is not to argue that the significant developments in the military balance in our region do not deserve serious reflection. These of course need to be factored into our planning. But our national security agencies should not allow the abundance of satellite imagery of China’s activities in the South China Sea to overwhelm their interest in executing balanced appraisals of the history of the issue. President Barack Obama’s measured capacity to assess the relative gravity of threats, evident in his recent comment that 'ISIS is not an existential threat to the United States' but that 'Climate change is a potential existential threat to the entire world if we don’t do something about it' seems to be missing here at present.

Photo courtesy of Australian Defence Image Library