Does Australia need thinking ANZACs?
27 Feb 2014|

Ngunnawal elder, Aunty Agnes Shea conducts the Welcome to Country ceremony held at the Australian Defence College, Canberra.

In a new book (and recent excerpt), James Brown argues that the Australian defence organisation is fearful of what today’s ANZACs might say if they were allowed to. This means that ‘one of the ADF’s defining traits is a lack of professional debate’. He considers that militaries improve and are more likely to be operationally successful through being self-critical, and that the profession of arms is enhanced by free-wheeling debate and discussion. This thought comes from notions of a market-place of ideas, where the best and strongest thrive, and the rest expire. This liberalist concept contrasts with authoritarianism, where all are compelled to conform and be amenable team players.

James’s constructive criticism of today’s defence force is powerful but I would like to discuss a somewhat contrarian position tangential to his argument. From my narrow perspective, I think James may be onto something concerning the last decade or so but I don’t think it was necessarily as prevalent before then.

An example: in 2004 a working paper of mine published by the RAAF’s Air Power Development Centre was reported in The Australian. While it’s true my Army boss got nervous, the Defence Minister’s staffer quickly assuaged internal Defence worries. He advised that Senator Robert Hill saw the paper was clearly labelled with a disclaimer that this reflected a personal view not the formal Departmental position so why was anyone concerned? A typically small-l liberal approach. By contrast, James writes that when something similar happened to Albert Palazzo in 2012, a car and driver was dispatched to his workplace to bring him immediately to Defence headquarters for questioning and rebuke. (The matter continued later on the Lowy blog and here).

I think this is a reflection of our era. James quotes the famous Anglo-Australian General Sir John Hackett: ‘When a country looks at its fighting forces, it is looking in a mirror. What a society gets from its armed services is exactly what it asks for, no more or less’.’ If the Australian defence organisation doesn’t hold critical thinking and new ideas in high regard, quantitative data suggests neither does its parent society.

ASPI was understandably delighted to be recognised as a world-class, globally respected think tank in the 2013 Global Think Tank Report, but hidden within this is something more general about Australia. The survey looked at some 182 countries. Australia has 29 think tanks, meagre by world standards and not numbering anywhere near the top 25 nations.

Middle-power countries broadly similar to Australia like Canada have 55, the Netherlands 57 and Spain 55. Australia would have 88 think tanks if we held the world’s 12th spot as we do in terms of size of economy. Instead, South Africa (economy #29) fills the 12th think tank spot.

It seems that Australia as a society is just not as interested in policy-focussed research and analysis as others are. In this view the Australian defence organisation simply reflects Australian society rather then being anything unusual. The creation of ASPI by the Howard Government in 2001 to advance the defence debate is instead the outlier.

Interesting maybe, but so what? Arguably, Australia has done just fine without much of this particular kind of thinking. Greg Sheridan writing on the same day as James’ excerpt is dismissive of those who want grand strategies devised by the thinking classes and instead argues that Australia needs to be tactically nimble and adroit. He advocates a policy of opportunism where political leaders take advantage of sudden events and new situations to advance Australia. Opportunism requires having the means available to react in a timely manner but leaves the ends, the objectives, to others. Greg would see Australia exploiting other’s grand plans, considers John Howard did this, and believes the current government will also.

In so doing, there’s no real need for much of the kind of critical, creative thinking that James advocates. The others that we batten onto can provide most of the required intellectual effort. While opportunism will likely involve providing operational level forces—21st century ANZACs—to be part of other’s grand strategies, the higher level thinking about how to employ our forces is really in the domain of these others. While some may be unhappy with this, it seems to be the approach used in Vietnam and Iraq and probably Afghanistan. And doubtless some will say at Gallipoli as well.

James could be correct that Defence has developed an institutionalised disdain for critical debate and the market-place of ideas but this may both reflect Australian society and the policy of strategic-level opportunism that has been embraced. Australia has needed few deep thoughts in this field of endeavour and so has developed such a capability to only a limited extent. The nation relies on others to fill the intellectual gap arising. We’ve out-sourced and off-shored the problem, if you will.

But that’s looking backwards. Will the future be such that opportunism is as useful an approach as in the last ten years or so? Opportunism exploits others, but they might be going somewhere we don’t what to go. Their objectives may not be ours. David Hale’s recent paper on China thinks this might be true of America’s future approaches, and argues that Australia will need to become more imaginative and innovative in managing its future. If so, the defence organisation can certainly change and be as it was in earlier times. Last decade’s ADF hierarchy is retiring, and the new generation could choose to allow the critical debates and the free flow of ideas James advocates. Time alone will tell if such deep thoughts are both needed and allowed.

Peter Layton is an independent researcher completing a PhD on grand strategy at UNSW. He has been an associate professor at the US National Defense University. Image courtesy of Department of Defence.