Towards a new Australian security: Speech by Professor Rory Medcalf

17 March 2015

The good news is that a large measure of consensus and bipartisanship has long existed, for instance on the importance of the US alliance.

The Australian National University was established with an unashamed nation-building ethos. The goal was a world-class research university in the Australian national interest with, in the wake of the Second World War, a weather eye on our security.

Just over five years ago the National Security College was established in a similar spirit.

I look forward to building on its record and the founding achievements of my predecessor, Professor Michael L’Estrange AO.

My commitment to this important national institution is that it will foster effective, innovative and inclusive approaches to national security. This means helping to ensure that the Australian national security community remains informed, connected and responsive in a world of change.

Part of this involves challenging the security community, and the wider community, to think and think anew.

But why think anew about national security? Australia, some might argue, has hardly been more secure.

In a world of transnational problems, we have the singular geopolitical advantage of an island continent. Our region is relatively prosperous and peaceful. We have vast natural resource deposits and a developed economy that has undergone decades of growth. We have high per capita wealth and a resilient, multicultural society.

Above all, most of us have known perpetual peace: freedom from conflicts, external or internal; freedom from fear.

Perhaps we 21st century Australians are so fascinated with the centenary of ANZAC precisely because so few of us have direct knowledge of war. The Second World War, which scarred many Australian families, was a lifetime ago.

For most of today’s Australians, the only prolonged experience of any kind of armed conflict on our soil – the warfare with and massacres of the first Australians - is even harder to imagine still.

Looking to the present or the future, many of us seem to presume that whatever threats there may be today, or whatever challenges may lie ahead, they will not fundamentally harm the democratic, comfortable Australia we know.

That is presumably because either the dangers are not our problem, or we are sufficiently prepared for them.

Certainly Australia has a highly professional national security community. Relevant agencies and departments, not to mention the Australian Defence Force and Federal Police, are substantially resourced – most of them much more so than even just a decade ago.

They attract good people: talented, educated, dedicated. This community is better ‘joined-up’ or connected, and thus better managed, than ever – with collaborative leadership guiding operational coordination in real time, informed by intelligence services at home with the need to share. Recent improvements to the counter-terrorism machinery attest to this. Federal and State, experience is shared and lessons learned.

Nor does Australia’s national security effort want for high-level political attention.

Moreover, whatever our own capacities, we benefit from a military and intelligence alliance with what remains the world’s most formidable power, the United States of America.  

Given all of this, why bother thinking much about Australian national security? Why, in particular, should we try to think about it anew?

The short answer is that today’s and tomorrow’s Australia faces an era of change, uncertainty and fragility.

Our horizon of risk is expanding.

Critically, the gap that matters most to our security is no longer the so-called ‘air sea’ gap that has long provided a moat between Australia and the world. It is, instead, the gap between our national interests and our ability to protect them. That gap is large and it is growing.

And in a world of rising complexity, interconnectedness and – above all – uncertainty, the need for us to be prepared to make hard decisions in order to protect those interests will likewise keep growing.

What are those interests? For a nation of 23 million people, Australia’s interests are unusually extensive. Just consider the scale of not only Australia’s vast territory but our broader land and maritime jurisdiction, which combined make up five percent of the Earth’s surface.

Australia benefits from an exceptional degree of connectedness with the world. This brings with it a reliance on rules, order, the global commons and flows of trade, finance, information and people. In turn, these national strengths bring with them interests that are vulnerable and need to be protected.

A contemporary definition of Australia’s interests goes far beyond the obvious priorities of protecting the physical security of citizens, sovereign territory and resources.

It also includes such aspects as maintaining national freedom, including independence of action, societal cohesion and a democratic political system. Australia will need to maintain the conditions for prosperity too, including secure access to energy supplies and international markets.

Overarching all of these imperatives, Australia will need to work to protect and advance a stable and peaceful regional and international order.

Of course, hypothetically, some future Australian Government could try to diminish the way it chooses to define national security interests. For instance it could try to wind back our accumulated sense of responsibility for parts of our wider region – such as governance and order in the South Pacific, Indian Ocean search and rescue, Southern Ocean fisheries protection, or activities in support of our large Antarctic territorial claim. That would make Australia a very different and insular kind of country, and in the long run less secure.

Instead, our interests are likely to remain extensive. To protect and advance them, we will need partnerships with other countries.

Those partnerships in turn are reasons for Australia to uphold a reputation as a secure, capable, reliable partner in the international system. We need to be seen as a country that is serious about protecting its interests, in the context of a rules-based order and respect for the rule of law. Such international credibility as a security partner is both an asset and a national interest in itself.

When these extensive national interests are considered alongside patterns of change and risk in today’s world and projected global trends – such as outlined in the bracing future-scanning reports of the US National Intelligence Council – one thing becomes clear.

The burden of security risk on Australia’s national interests is accumulating.

So we need to constantly refresh our thinking on how global trends will intersect and interact with our interests.

Those trends include the security impacts of disruptive technologies, social media, demographic shifts, resurgent nationalism, resource insecurity, environmental degradation and climate change.

More immediately, among a widening array of risks, the most obvious include the following three.

First: coercion, and risks of miscalculation and conflict escalation, in our region of Indo-Pacific Asia. This relates especially to how China is using its growing power and how other nations respond. Strategic competition and conflict in Asia directly challenges our security and economic interests.

Second: gradations of aggression in other parts of the world, notably by Russia. Despite the horror of the shooting down of MH17, Australia cannot afford to concentrate our limited security capabilities for long on the Ukraine situation. However, at least on this issue, we are one country that can afford absolute frankness in our diplomacy.

And third: violent extremism and jihadist terrorism globally and at home. I will return to this in some detail.

Australia’s region is becoming more central to global power balances and strategic tensions. Powerful economic connections are making this the era of the Indo-Pacific.

The patterns include East Asian powers’ deep and growing dependence on Indian Ocean sea lanes as well as on Australian resources for trade, development and energy. This is about keeping their populations’ satisfied and their societies stable, increasing the chances that the Asian Century will remain on a positive path.

Such economic and societal patterns have strategic consequences. Witness the fast emergence of China as an Indian Ocean naval power, with submarines in Sri Lanka and warships exercising close to Australia’s Christmas Island.

As the successful and simultaneous visits last year by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping spectacularly confirmed, Australia’s region has found us, and there is no turning back.

Here, with the Indo-Pacific, we at last have a definition of our principally Asian region that automatically includes Australia. The downside is that this makes the region’s tensions our problem too.

Regional power balances are changing with China’s rise and rapid growth, year-after-year, in military spending. Such change could encourage risk-taking by some states, whether by China as it asserts its new strength or by others as they seek to set boundaries early in this new ‘Great Game’.

Yet being closer to the world’s economic and strategic centre of gravity makes it impossible for us to treat these unsettling regional security dynamics, such as in the South and East China Seas, as if they were purely someone else’s business.

We are far from helpless. The idea that our strategic weight – in its broad sense - is insufficient to have any impact on regional order is outdated and exaggerated. Australia can contribute to regional order and security, including as part of the emerging ‘balance of credibility’ or ‘balance of uncertainty’ that will be critical to deterrence and stability as Chinese power grows.

We need to think harder about how best to make this contribution. This includes how to encourage other regional powers through our own example or through forming creative and functional ‘middle player’ coalitions with such Asian security partners as Japan and India.

Our central Indo-Pacific geography, our advanced maritime capabilities, our interoperability with the United States and our regional surveillance advantages all provide an edge here.

It is false to suggest that our alliance with the United States comes at the expense of Asian partnerships or of pragmatic multilateral diplomacy –these approaches can be mutually reinforcing.

The presence of US Marines in Darwin is already proving of benefit to Australia in engaging third countries in training, as confirmed by a three-nation army exercise last year involving China.

There is also scope for us to work much more with China as a security provider in the region – as the search for the MH370 airliner demonstrates. The need to find ways of working with China as a security partner will intensify as Beijing extends the pursuit of its Indo-Pacific economic and strategic interests through the so-called Maritime Silk Road initiative.

The challenge is to ensure that closer cooperation with China does not come at the expense of our US alliance or of regional solidarity in upholding the right kind of regional order. That is one that recognises China’s legitimate interests while also upholding rules and discouraging coercion.

We need to be realistic about the potential as well as the limits of security cooperation with China under conditions of regional mistrust.

Navigating these complexities will require much better resourcing of defence engagement or what might be called ‘defence diplomacy’ – and that is not a contradiction in terms. This side of our defence policy has been treated and resourced as a third-order issue, an afterthought, for far too long.

In all circumstances, we will need to work smarter – combining diplomatic and security capabilities – precisely because our relative regional weight could decline as other Indo-Pacific powers increase their own through sustained economic growth.

These do not just include China. They include Indonesia as well as India. We will want to focus on partnership with these powers while maintaining a sense of proportion and national self-respect. True partnership works when others respect our interests and recognise that working closely with us is not about doing us a favour – it is in their interests too.

In this, we should see technological change as involving more opportunity than risk. Disruptive technologies will alter calculations of military advantage – so we need think anew about how to be on their right side.

Australia has unique opportunities – a combination of technology, geography and the US alliance – to keep and even sharpen its edge in areas like surveillance and intelligence.

We need to be willing also to invest considerably more in emerging capability areas like space, cyber and autonomous or at least unmanned systems, which suit the characteristics of our geography and small but educated population base.

Australia needs to be unsentimental and unapologetic about seeking and maintaining asymmetric security advantages in an uncertain region.

After all, to reiterate: our energy, information, trade and human links with the outside world make today’s Australia a vibrant, prosperous place – but also make it vulnerable.

Thus, for instance, many Australians, including our business community, are becoming aware of the ease with which cyberspace can be used for disruption and espionage by foreign entities. This should be of greater concern to the Australian public than Australia’s own existing or proposed security measures, such as in the area of data retention. 

More Australians are also becoming concerned about the vulnerabilities of our seaborne energy supply lines and our frankly frugal stockpiles of liquid fuels, far below the 90-day oil stock obligation we have signed up to under the International Energy Agency.

The need to build energy resilience is emerging as a national security priority.

Hence the appeal of ideas like converting metropolitan transport fleets to Australian natural gas to reduce acute dependence on diesel imports.

All the risks and vulnerabilities mentioned so far suggest that the number and kind of security contingencies that could affect Australia’s interests will grow in the years ahead.

Australia’s own security will require a willingness to make judicious and meaningful contributions to securing our lifelines to the wider world.

Australia will need to protect its sovereignty, provide security in a troubled immediate neighbourhood, and contribute to the security of the broader Indo-Pacific region and beyond.

This will sooner or later involve questions about whether Australia alone can always be the security provider of last – and sometimes first – resort in the South Pacific and Papua New Guinea. A future security crisis across PNG could overwhelm our capacity to respond.

To recapitulate: Australia’s interests are large and growing, our sovereign security capabilities are not keeping pace, so there is a premium on partnerships to guard our interests in an uncertain world.

New threats have not replaced old ones but joined them on a crowded horizon.

We cannot protect our interests alone, yet to have the best chance of building and maintaining the partnerships we need, we must also have the credibility that comes with doing our best to provide our own security.

The concluding question is, then, are we really doing our best? It can be argued that Australia continues to fall short of its potential as an effective security actor.

We are still in transition from the Australia of the past few decades: a country that has relied for its security primarily on the combination of a stable global and regional environment and a less demanding US ally.

Now the strategic environment is less stable and the ally more demanding, yet frustratingly less than clear about its own strategy or priorities.

Added to that, our own ability to set security priorities is being dispersed by worsening dangers of terror and radicalisation at home and worldwide.

Of course, a national security statement focused exclusively on terrorism is a misnomer. It is obviously incomplete.

Amid entirely justified present-day fears, we must not lose sight of truly strategic risks. We do not want to find ourselves in a grand replay of the post-9/11 years.

For at least five years after 9/11, a policy emphasis on terrorism, Iraq and Afghanistan by America and its allies made it harder to anticipate or respond to the way China’s rise would affect Indo-Pacific regional stability. We can’t afford that again.

But how, then, to set priorities? For instance: how to prioritise the immediate security threat of terrorism, the wider strategic problem of the changing Indo-Pacific Asian order, and dealing with longer-term trends like the security repercussions of environmental pressures?

The simple answer is that we need a layered response that deals with each problem on its own time-scale. Nor should we imagine that all these risks exist in parallel worlds. They interact in ways we are just starting to understand.

A common thread is the way in which they threaten order. And improving our ability to respond to one challenge – through demonstrating seriousness of purpose, building national resilience and forming security partnerships – can help to some degree in responding to others.

In acquiring our own new security capabilities, we need to be constantly looking for flexibility and adaptability.

Like it or not, devoting substantial resources to national security, broadly-defined, will need to be an accepted part of the Australian policy landscape for as far ahead as we can see.

In all, this is hardly a context in which we can afford our national security debate to become politicised, whether on counter-terrorism, the alliance, the rise of China, the development of major capabilities such as submarines, or how to cope with a troubled neighbourhood.

We need a maximum of political consensus on these issues.

The good news is that a large measure of consensus and bipartisanship has long existed, for instance on the importance of the US alliance.

And some of the partisan divides of the past are withering away. Notable among these is the increasingly artificial debate between a narrow ‘Defence of Australia’ (DoA) concept, formerly associated with Labor, and a far-flung expeditionary approach to military force posture, associated with the Coalition.

The more accurate and contemporary way of thinking about Australian grand strategy is the idea of securing our lifelines to an interconnected world – or at least making a serious contribution to the security of those lifelines.

The idea of securing our lifelines in an uncertain world is, apart from anything else, a way of calling time on this weary ‘expeditionary-versus-DoA’ contest.

But a country of our limited capacities cannot afford to be complacent about consensus. It needs to be renewed with each generation.

And there is a hidden fragility, a potential fragmentation of public opinion and political views, across much of the national security, defence and foreign policy agenda – for instance on the best ways to respond to terrorism or to strategic change in Asia.

How cohesive is Australia on matters of security, really? What do young Australians think about these issues?

In a nation where now more than one in four of us was born overseas, with major cities where that number is now one in three, what do first and second-generation migrants think about national security issues? There is a growing body of research in these areas, including some polling data, but there is a need for more, and for deep analysis.

More Australians from more places – including East Asia, South Asia and the Middle East – will mean a much more complex mosaic of views about security issues than Australian Governments have needed to relate to in the past.

This will make national consensus-building on security harder. It will also make it more necessary.

How will any societal shifts in attitude about security and external policy translate into political party platforms or the views and stances of parliamentarians?

After many years in which very few Australian politicians had any direct experience of the defence force or other areas of national security, their numbers have started to grow. That is a welcome development. It would be simplistic to assume that this will translate into uncritical political support for the military, and nor should it.

It would also be good to have a clear sense of what different political forces, such as the Greens, are proposing as practical alternatives to existing national security policies.

What we cannot afford is any further politicisation of the national security debate – not just on the part of the government of the day, by but any side.

Thus, for instance, the acquisition of the next submarine, and for that matter the one after that, needs to based coldly on ensuring the best capability and our ability to sustain it, as well as cost.

That includes the multi-billion dollar opportunity cost – the other security capabilities or social programs we subsequently would not be able to afford – from a political decision to accept a massive ‘made in Australia’ or ‘made in South Australia’ price premium.

Of course, politics is not the only part of the national security house we need to get in order.

Australia cannot afford for national security to be solely the interest of a professional, Canberra-based security caste which, confident in the knowledge that it is striving for the national interest, just expects the rest of the country to let it get on with the job.

The national security community needs to accept that intensive, sophisticated public consultation and outreach will be a constant requirement and a priority for policymaking.

It is not window-dressing or an afterthought or a box to tick. It is core business and we need to keep trying to do it better.

We have to work much harder to ensure that the security debate in Canberra is recognisable to the wider population – and is recognisably in their interests.

That is a necessary and achievable task, because, like it or not, national security really is becoming everyone’s problem. That is why it must now be a national priority to ensure that no part of the community feels like it is being treated as the problem.

For instance, we should not be critical of a whole community, Muslim Australians, based on the actions of a tiny minority of misguided individuals.

Those are not originally my words, but those of former ASIO head David Irvine, who I am pleased to announced today is joining the National Security College as a Visiting Fellow.

The need to ensure that national security policy is owned right across Australian society is also why the government is correct to seek to connect citizenship with responsibility as well as with rights.

Incidentally, on the eve of the centenary of the Gallipoli landings, there is a good case for more to be done to associate Australia’s ANZAC history with civic values of citizenship and responsibility rather than with heritage.

There are many in the community who seem to think that national security is not their problem, or indeed who think that national security policy is the problem – an unwarranted affront to liberties, a sinister political trick, or a diversion from other government priorities in tough fiscal times.

Those who sincerely hold such views need to be willing to suspend preconceptions or posturing, and engage in a first-principles conversation.

This would be an open-minded conversation about how best to preserve the security and cohesion of the society that has offered levels of political freedom, personal opportunity and physical safety that most of humanity has never experienced.

As some have observed, the national conversation about security is so far not a conversation at all: it has been a case of very different constituencies and communities talking across one another.

In addition to its core work in training government officials and providing academic education, the National Security College will contribute to that conversation. We are proudly part of a leading research university, so much of that contribution should be through rigorous and independent research. Our researchers hold diverse views, and express them.

We will also be a platform and convener for constructive dialogue and discussion, with the national interest at heart.

One way to get the national security conversation on a more fruitful path is to recognise that Australia’s security problem requires multiple responses over multiple time-scales.

On terrorism, there’s little question that counter-radicalisation and showing the emptiness of the Islamic State narrative are essential tasks. But even the best efforts on these fronts will take time and trust-building.

In the meantime, it is imperative not only to minimise the number of Australians attracted to the terrorist cause – at home or overseas – but to minimise the harm they can do.

Right now the most pressing national security priority must be to prevent further atrocities of a kind that would damage social harmony in a multicultural Australia.

The question then becomes how to maximise the security community’s chance of success in preventing terrorist violence, without poisoning the nation’s medium and longer-term capacity to erode the appeal of terrorist propaganda. It is not a choice. Both are priorities.

Thus it is incumbent on the critics of counter-terrorism measures to offer their best ideas on how to reduce the chances of further terror attacks – or alternately to acknowledge a willingness to risk those attacks and their potentially dreadful impact on Australia’s core qualities of social tolerance and trust.

A new and inclusive Australian security approach must extend to other risks as well. It will involve a recognition that we need to face multiple challenges at once, some that can be met or deterred or limited by principally military means, others that cannot.

A new Australian security will involve a recognition that seeking to mitigate or adapt to the security implications of challenges like climate change is not an alternative strategy to ensuring we have a leading-edge military designed to guard our interests against a breakdown in an uncertain Asian strategic order. Again, we need to do both.

The time-scale is not the same for every threat. That means we cannot be complacent about supposedly old-fashioned state-on-state coercion in the present just because we are mindful of environmental pressures in the future.

Ultimately, a new and inclusive approach to Australian security requires that as a nation we step up our efforts to engage and employ all the qualities we have – advanced technology, strategic geography, a strong ally, promising partners, a private sector increasingly conscious of security, an educated population and exceptional cultural diversity.

Thus the fact that the Australian Defence Force and other policy and security agencies are lifting their game in ethnic and gender diversity is good, but not good enough.

To match the new shape and potential of Australia’s dynamic society, patterns of recruitment and employment in the security community need fresh attention.

Cyber capabilities, for instance, could well be a natural fit for a new kind of reservist. A national cyber security reserve, involving creative work arrangements and flexible exchanges with private industry, would transform traditional notions of what soldiering is about, and what new generations with new skills can do for their country.

Just as Australia’s political and social history has been about increasing inclusion, so too is inclusiveness the essential quality of a new Australian security.

That is, inclusiveness in several ways:

  • a wide, inclusive definition of national security interests;
  • an inclusive understanding of the means by which we need to protect and advance those security interests;
  • and an inclusive, flexible mobilisation and marshalling of our diverse national assets – people, the private and public sectors, geography, technology and partnerships, both with other countries and with the private sector.

Security is the first duty of government. Even so, the idea of new and inclusive Australian security may be open to the accusation of, to use the academic term, ‘securitising’ issues rather too much. But such are the times we live in, and such is the challenge ahead.