Commentary |
7 May 2021

Australians need clarity on war or peace

A formal annual threat assessment from the government is better than the shapeless war talk voters are getting at the moment. Originally published in The Australian Financial Review.

Ben Scott
Ben Scott

The sudden increase in war talk is alarming.

It’s not just because the damage from a conflict between China, the United States and possibly its allies would be catastrophic. It is because of the narrow frame that this level of conversation puts on our national security and the choices in front of us.

China’s rise dominates our increasingly complex national security environment, but far from exclusively.

The climate crisis is starting to get the global attention it needs, but the implications for Australia are far from clear.

The Biden administration is normalising Washington, but there is no guarantee that Donald Trump, or someone like him, won’t return.

The Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs don’t monopolise headlines any more, but their future is unresolved.

Deep Western engagement in the “forever wars” is winding down - but the threat from Islamist terrorism hasn’t gone away, and the threat posed by right-wing nationalist terrorism is growing.

COVID-19 revealed global health and economic vulnerabilities. And the technological revolution is posing a whole new range of security questions.

Before these challenges present us with a single defining choice - between war and peace or acquiescence and victory – they will pose ever more smaller but no less difficult choices. Partly because war has become so costly, many states are putting more effort into seeking advantage through all means short of war.

China has proved particularly adept at competing in this grey zone: from economic coercion to aggressive cyber activity to establishing facts on the water in the South China Sea.

Australia has played catch-up as we have come to realise the national security implications of domains previously thought to be purely economic, commercial or technological.

To succeed in this environment, Canberra will need to make smarter choices, and more of them. That requires improving our national security decision-making structures and debate.

To make sense of our sometimes bewildering national security environment, Australians should be able to look to their government, but Canberra often speaks with many voices.

The once-anonymous heads of Australia’s national security departments and agencies have become much more public figures.

Home Affairs secretary  Mike Pezzullo is right to argue that we should not allow our fear of war to stop us being clear-eyed about possible threats.

But he doesn’t otherwise specify what the next war would be for, against or caused by other than to note that we “again hear the beating drums and watch worryingly the militarisation of issues that we had, until recent years, thought unlikely to be catalysts for war”.

Australians need more clarity than that. They could gain it from Australia’s national intelligence community, which the Turnbull government began restructuring at the same time as it created the Home Affairs Department.

Those reforms built on those adopted in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the faulty assessments of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction program. The methodologies of Australia’s agencies - and those of its Five Eyes partners - are now far more rigorous.

The national intelligence community is now led by the Office of National Intelligence. ONI is charged with producing objective, coherent and unvarnished assessments of our national security environment and potential threats.

Its director-general - Andrew Shearer – is afforded a degree of statutory independence to ensure that he is free to speak truth to power.

The director-general should also speak truth to the Australian people. He should provide a clear and calibrated public overview of the threat landscape.

At the moment there are few mechanisms for him to do so. A good model would be the unclassified, but comprehensive and carefully weighted, annual threat assessment that the US director of National Intelligence delivers to Congress.

An Australian equivalent could significantly improve public understanding of our national security challenges and choices, including on matters of war and peace.

Much of the recent discussion of Australia’s next war portrays it as something that would happen to Australia, rather than the result of a decision which Canberra would make.

Although our previous wars are often portrayed as a straightforward defence of liberty, Australia’s motivations - and the factors playing into our decisions - have almost always been more complex than that.

With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that Australia and its allies have made mistakes.

Vietnam was not the first domino. Saddam Hussein did not have an active weapons of mass destruction program. And the new national security consensus holds that the two decades’ global war on terrorism was – at least in its scale - a distraction from the challenges posed by a revisionist China and Russia.

Our need for smarter national security decisions will only grow.