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Reader ripostes: Centralisation of security policy

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COMMENTS

9 January 2012 09:17

Two responses to Andrew's post on PMs and the national security apparatus. First Alex Burns and then Peter Layton below the fold:

The Rudd Government's related foreign policy achievement was its 2008 National Security Statement which promised a regular NSS and budget. The Gillard Government has not acted on this promise. The missed reform opportunity was to develop a comparable mechanism to the US Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act (1986) which has mandated the White House's regular NSS to US Congress. Rudd's National Security Adviser had a coordination role but never the power of its US equivalent or the National Security Council staff.

It is still unclear (to me) how the NSA role also interfaces with Office of National Assessment responsibilities for whole-of-government estimative assessments. Whilst Rudd had operational problems, as an ex-diplomat he understood the need for NSS reform; the need for a whole-of-nation grand strategy; and (possibly) the budget and resource allocation issues. He acted on a decade of national security debate, to move beyond the Howard Government's emphasis on counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency and effects based strategy.

PM&C may not be the appropriate vehicle for (centralised) grand strategy formulation. But devolving these responsibilities back to the Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade and Defence Department won't necessarily help, either.

DFAT remains underfunded for the diplomatic and economic challenges ahead. The Defence Department's Force 2030 White Paper (2009) continues to be debated and until Rudd's NSS in 2008, the Defence white papers were de facto national security policy. With the exception of the 1986 Dibb Review and the 1987 statement, the Defence white papers have not fully addressed grand strategy conceptualisation. Both departments pursue their respective interests and instruments of power at the expense of a coordinated grand strategy, and at the risk of institutional capture. In contrast to the Goldwater-Nichols Act reforms, Gillard's current (in)actions on the NSS, NSA role and annual national security budget suggests a different conclusion: strategy drift.

Peter Layton:

Andrew has nicely observed that the immediate bureaucracy that serves a Prime Minister needs to be shaped according to that PM's management style to be both effective and used. While embedded in a very different governmental system, the history of the National Security Advisor position across successive American presidential administrations also bears this out. (May I suggest David Rothkopf's 'Running the World' as a good read on this.) Andrew notes approvingly that a return to decentralization appears underway. This may be a good thing but it comes at some costs, even if these may not be readily apparent.

The main issue is that the major lesson learned by some in the first decade of this century — and in parts of the last — was that national security was best conducted as a whole-of-government, whole-of-nation affair. Decentralization of policy making and a return to leaving such matters to just a couple of the big departments risks losing this.

With the best will in the world the big departments left to themselves will treat their individual needs as their first priority, especially in times of austerity. In such an environment, departmental insularity and a fixation on preserving the status quo may well prevail. The national security policy at the highest level may then simply be the sum of the various department's desires.

This may not be a bad thing. If the government has a declining interest in national security then specialization and retention of expertise at the departmental level may be appropriate, keeping things going until some future time needs a national approach. Moreover, the sum of many different departmental desires may have within them something that is useful to a future government in the future that eventuates. If that sounds like leaving national security matters to serendipity it is, but such a reliance on simply reacting to events as needs be with whatever is available has some benefits in an uncertain world. It is also not uncommon. Lord Salisbury in 1877 near the high point of the British Empire observed that 'English policy is to float lazily downstream, occasionally putting out a diplomatic boathook to avoid collisions'.

Salisbury's quote though also raises questions about unthinkingly or unknowingly embracing through decentralization such an event-driven, reactive approach as a national security policy — whose stream, taking the nation where and how fast? There is much, much more to all this as there are many implications and ramifications, but too much space has already been taken. Choosing a centralized or decentralized approach to national security policy making should be carefully thought about before rushing back to the decentralized recent past.

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