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Defence debate: The centrality of self-reliance

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COMMENTS

17 April 2009 14:22

This is the sixth contribution to our debate on Australia's defence policy which started here. Here are parts two, three, four and five.

It’s hard not to feel a bit sorry for Mike Pezzullo. With the imminent release of his White Paper, he was probably rather enjoying his new public profile as Russell Hill’s hard-man, a role recently ascribed to him for circumventing the starry-eyed forecasts of Australia’s intelligence agencies, and for shrugging off the US defence establishment’s current preoccupation with small, strategically inconsequential wars.

That is, until Wednesday, when Hugh White made some very substantial revisions to his judgements regarding Australian defence capability. Using the same concentrically hierarchical strategic objectives that he outlined in the 2000 White Paper, Hugh has called Pezzullo’s hand and, it seems, raised him at least six submarines, one hundred Joint Strike Fighters, and four army battalions — requiring a perpetual increase in Australian defence expenditure to around 2.5% of GDP.

There’s a lot to like about Hugh’s latest formulation, but its greatest strength is the degree to which it restores to prominence the principle of self-reliance as the fundamental basis of Australian strategic policy. By meeting three basic criteria, such a posture promises to insulate Australia from the most serious risks arising from the decline of American hegemony:

1) It would improve Australia’s capacity to manage the adverse effects of regional instability and strategic competition, which will become more probable and intense as American hegemony devolves into a more precarious balance of power system;

2) It will give Australia more latitude to dissent from American policies that do not accord with Australian interests and at a time when strategic divergence is more likely and the consequences of entanglement, especially in a rivalry or war with China, more dangerous; and

3) It will better enable Australia to defend itself against any hostile major power, and at the same time hedge against the possibility that the US, in circumstances where its freedom of action is constrained, might be unable or unwilling to honour its commitments to Australia.

The historical salience of ‘great and powerful friends’ in Australian strategic policy has meant that self reliance has never been a natural inclination for Australian policy-makers. Even its elevation to prominence in the 1970s and 1980s occurred under the reassuring conditions of American hegemony.

It is worth remembering, however, that it was Canberra’s inattention to the decline of British hegemony in the 1930s and 1940s that left Australia exposed to the most acute strategic crisis that it has ever faced, inadequately prepared for its own defence and confronting a hostile major power.

We got lucky on that occasion, but should a similar situation arise in a few decades time, without a more self-reliant strategic posture — something at least approximating Hugh’s proposal — there is little reason to expect an equally serendipitous result.

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