​​​​​​​Rethink assessments, processes to sharpen national security decisions

Australia should change the way it makes decisions on complex national security challenges, a new Lowy Institute Analysis argues. A new national security strategy would help guide policymakers but it is more important to strengthen the decision-making process itself.

Titled Sharper choices: How Australia can make better national security decisions, the Lowy Institute Analysis Paper has been written by former senior intelligence officer and Research Fellow Ben Scott. He argues that rapid changes in the geostrategic environment have forced Australia to quickly respond to emerging security threats. While this reactive and at times improvised approach has proved effective, the growing complexity of challenges means that an over-arching strategic approach may benefit the government.

“The blurring of old distinctions between security, economics, development, and technology is a recurring theme of the new geopolitics,” Scott said. “Australia should seek to improve the quality of its decision-making by following through on its history of imposing more structure on national security decision-making.”

The report does not advocate for an overhaul in the structure of Australia’s national security architecture. Instead, it argues that the government, primarily the National Security Committee of Cabinet, should more often seek discrete assessments of complex national security problems to ensure that all relevant dimensions are considered.

“The growing complexity of Australia’s national security environment increases the risk of getting decisions wrong,” Scott said. “This would enable the separate consideration of Australia’s long-term strategic goals when critical decisions are made.”

As examples of issues that could be subject to greater assessment by the NSC, the report considers two recent major decisions – over 5G mobile technology, and nuclear-powered submarines – and highlights the various strategic concepts – from upholding the rules-based order to navigating complex interdependence – that should be reflected in such an approach.

Lowy Institute Director of Research Hervé Lemahieu said the report would contribute to thinking inside and outside of government about the best ways in which to deliberate these big security questions.

“Ben’s research provides a meaningful starting point for the relatively new Albanese government to deconstruct Australia’s security dilemmas and to sharpen the prosecution of critical national-security decisions in the years ahead,” he said.

The report is available to read and download at the Lowy Institute website. 

Key Findings

  • Global disorder and China’s rise are creating a more complex and competitive national security environment that will present governments with tougher choices and more of them.
  • A new national security strategy would help guide policymakers but strengthening the decision-making process would do more to improve the quality of national security decisions. 
  • To do so, Canberra should commit to more rigorous decision-making procedures and more frequently seek multiple discrete and independent assessments of complex problems.


About the Author

Ben Scott is a Research Fellow and Director of the Australia’s Security and the Rules-Based Order Project at the Lowy Institute. He has over twenty years’ experience in diplomacy, intelligence and international development. He joined the Lowy Institute from the Office of National Intelligence, where he was a Senior Middle East Analyst before representing ONI at the Australian Embassy in Washington DC from 2016-2020. In Israel and the Palestinian territories, Ben was the Rule of Law Adviser to Quartet Representative Tony Blair, Australian Representative to the Palestinian Authority and Third Secretary at the Australian Embassy in Tel Aviv. Ben was a Diplomatic Fellow at the Lowy Institute in 2005 and wrote the Lowy Institute Paper Re-imagining PNG: Culture, Democracy and Australia’s Role. He served as a Bougainville peace monitor for six months in 1998.

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