Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Australia: A maritime nation without a maritime culture

Australia: A maritime nation without a maritime culture
Published 9 Oct 2013 

James Holmes is Professor of Strategy at the U.S. Naval War College. The views voiced here are his alone.

Australia is an island nation of vast scale that depends on secure sea routes for prosperity and defence. Yet in my experience ordinary Australians appear to conceptualise a continental nation, dependent mainly on ground and air forces for defence.

Maritime military culture was a constant refrain on day one of the Royal Australian Navy’s Sea Power Conference in Sydney yesterday. More specifically, Australian government officials and military officers bemoaned their country's supposed deficit in maritime culture. They have a point. Nations that depend on the sea — the vast majority of Australian imports and exports travel over sea — yet turn inward are apt to neglect their vital interests. They misallocate resources.

Culture takes upkeep. Australia is hardly the first — and probably not the most — forgetful sea power. In June 2012, at the Naval War College's Current Strategy Forum, I moderated an entire seminar devoted to the question: Is America still a maritime power? Consensus: no.

Eminent 19th century US strategist Alfred Mahan fretted constantly about this. One of his major motives for writing about sea power was to debunk the notion, common among early Americans, that they could depend on commerce raiding in wartime rather than field a battle fleet able to command the seas. The War of 1812, when the Royal Navy shut down not just US overseas commerce but even coastal trade, was his jumping-off point. This was an example not to be repeated. The character of the American people and government worked against the kind of durable, long-lasting nautical culture Mahan espoused.

How can Australia get around this cultural deficit?[fold]

The International Fleet Review is a vehicle for schooling Australians on their naval past. The visuals at the fleet review — not just the ships in the harbor or the fireworks in the sky, but also the displays documenting RAN history — are highly effective both at inspiring and at educating. I've learned a lot. But cultural maintenance can't be a one-off thing.

The RAN leadership and its political masters must come up with outreach programs designed to instill a deep-seated conviction that the sea is important, that shipping routes must be defended, and that naval power is central to Australia's ability to play a part in regional affairs commensurate with its prosperity, its political stature, and its moral stature.

This project, then, is about more than simply imparting factual knowledge. It involves convictions. It involves shaping people's worldviews. What should such programs look like for Australia? That's not for foreigners such as myself to say. This is a challenge which requires, at the outset, understanding Australians' perceptions of their maritime context and grasping that shaping those perceptions is no small, nor temporary, task.

Knowing the sorts of messages that resonate with Australian society, and grasping that this is a leadership challenge that never ends, are my two bits of advice.

Image courtesy of the Royal Australian Navy.

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