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Thursday 24 Aug 2017 | 00:13 | SYDNEY
Thursday 24 Aug 2017 | 00:13 | SYDNEY

Doubts about the new security agenda



2 May 2008 15:24

Regular readers will know I'm something of an enthusiast for what might be called the 'new security agenda'. I'm sympathetic to the idea that we face a number of serious non-military security threats in our future, and that the era of state-on-state conflict may be passing. I also believe that terrorism, in its present form, has been over-rated as a security threat, but that it could metastatize into a far more serious problem.

And yet, columns like this effort from Paul Dibb yesterday, about the need to maintain conventional military capabilities against state-based threats, give me pause*. In part, that's because 'new security' advocates tend to sound a little too sure of themselves when they put their arguments for the decline in 'conventional' war between developed states.

John Robb, whose blog I have recommended to you a number of times, argues in his book, Brave New War, that such wars are now almost impossible because of the risks of nuclear escalation and economic dislocation. Another who questions the relevance of major power conflict is Thomas Barnett, who in his lectures (see the first five minutes of this) has terrific fun at the expense of those who worry that China is building the capability to deny the US access to the Taiwan Strait. 'We can kick anyone's ass', says Barnett, who thinks the real problem is that the US needs to get better at counter-insurgency and nation-building. Martin van Creveld also belongs in this school.

I tend to believe Robb, Barnett and van Creveld are right about the decline of conventional war. But Barnett's wrong about Taiwan: China already has the capability to make any US (and Australian) intervention in a Taiwan conflict too costly. And besides, even if it is true that conventional war between developed countries is dying out, if you were responsible for Australia's defence, would you take that chance?

Dibb's list of regional hotspots is sobering: Taiwan, Korea, India-Pakistan. Not that any of these are existential threats to Australia, but they are enough reason for us to maintain conventional military capabilities rather than convert the ADF into a force focused entirely on counter-insurgency, nation-building and constabulary tasks. Trouble is, can we afford an ADF that does both?

* I leave to one side the rather selective way Dibb quoted Peter Varghese. My interest here is in Dibb's broader argument.

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