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Another front: The growing challenges of political warfare

Political warfare is emerging as another battlefront for Australia to engage with potential 21st century adversaries on. However, Australia, like its major allies, is struggling to counter the targeted and consistent assault on liberal democracy – raising the question, how does the nation respond?

For both the Australian public and its policy makers, the rise of Indo-Pacific Asia is serving to exacerbate Australia's long-term identity crisis while many comparable nations have embraced their geographic position and the wealth of the nation to chart a path towards a clear, concise and considered plan for national development and prestige. 

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Australia emerged from the Second World War as a middle power, essential to maintaining the post-war economic, political and strategic power paradigm established and led by the US. This relationship established as a result of the direct threat to Australia replaced Australia's strategic relationship of dependence on the British Empire and continues to serve as the basis of the nation's strategic policy direction and planning.

Now for the first time in nearly a century, Australia's benevolent 'great power' benefactor, the US, is being challenged by a series of ascending and resurgent peer and near-peer competitors, hell bent on eroding the global order and undermining the economic, political and strategic stability the US, UK, Australia and other allies established throughout the Cold War and into the new millennium. 

Further complicating the geo-strategic, political and economic order is the increasing prominence of unconventional and asymmetric challenges to political institutions, geo-strategic and economic interests through a range of concerted efforts and state-based actors the shift towards 'political warfare' was a key focus for Chief of Defence, General Angus Campbell, AO, DSC at the recent 'War in 2025' Conference hosted by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. 

The adversaries array against Australia and its broader Western allies enjoy a number of advantages, namely the consistency of political leadership, long-term national ambition and a commitment to establish themselves as world leaders. Recognising this, many potential adversaries have sought to leverage political warfare as a potent form of coercion and influence peddling to limit the effectiveness of allied response. 

In the contemporary context, political warfare is defined as using political means to compel or coerce an opponent to do one's will, based on hostile intent it includes the calculated interaction between a government and a targeted audience. The world has seen a number of examples of concerted political warfare in recent years, with even the US potentially falling victim to the hostile action of adversaries. 

Advantage - tyrants 

GEN Campbell identified not only the growing importance of political warfare, but also its invasive nature in his speech, saying, "Political warfare subverts and undermines. It penetrates the mind. It seeks to influence, to subdue, to overpower, to disrupt ... It can be covert or overt, a background of white noise or loud and compelling. It’s not limited by the constructs or constructions of peace or peacetime. It’s constant and scalable, and most importantly, it adapts. Political warfare has a long and fascinating history."

Increasingly, political warfare is being combined with traditional 'hard' and 'soft' power capabilities, including direct action, economic pressure, subversion, espionage, asymmetric warfare and diplomacy Russia has leveraged both its traditional 'hard' power and elements of its 'soft' power to effectively destabilise former-Soviet countries in eastern Europe, while also beginning to apply increasing pressure on neighbouring European nations and powerhouses, including Germany through economic means. 

This emerging 'hybrid' approach to state v state conflict, combined with the differing views of democratic and totalitarian states, is clearly identified by GEN Campbell, who explains, "Those leaning towards utopian democracy generally have a narrow conception of war, and their actions reflect this. Conversely, those positioned more towards totalitarian regimes tend to have a much broader conception of war."

These differing views towards conflict naturally place democracies like Australia at a natural disadvantage, as nations with more totalitarian leanings increasingly view direct conflict as part of the nature of government and achieving national objectives. Additionally, the increasing 'dishonourable' view of political and hybrid warfare dramatically limits the Australian and, more broadly, Western response to adversaries with less moral compunction. 

"This rejection of political warfare has only been reinforced over the last 30-or-so years as we have demanded and expected greater transparency, scrutiny and critique of government. We have embraced our Western virtue and — at the same time — contrasted it with the willingness and increasing ability of other states to control information, people and events," GEN Campbell explained. 

"Typically, these states cluster at the other end of the spectrum: where the people serve the state — as does the law — and all the other elements and institutions of society and state. States with limited or no built-in constraints, and which often rely on deception for survival."

Parry with a national plan and strategy

Traditionally, great powers have been defined by their global reach and ability to directly influence the flow of international affairs. There are a number of recognised great powers within the context of contemporary international relations – with Great Britain, France, India and Russia recognised as nuclear capable great powers, while Germany, Italy, Japan and increasingly Brazil are identified as conventional great powers. 

The majority of these recognised great power nations have a history of embracing a unifying goal, a concept of 'manifest destiny', which plays a central role in directing the political, economic and, critically, strategic and military development of these nations and their position within the international community. 

By contrast, Australia's history of dependence on larger powers has hindered its ability to emerge as a great power. This strategic dependence is further exacerbated by a lack of cohesive strategy and planning for the long-term development of Australia in the new regional and global power paradigm. Responding to this now century-long paradigm requires supporting the Australian public invest in the future of the nation and the role it will play in the rapidly changing Indo-Pacific order. 

Using elements of strength exhibited by potential state-based adversaries, namely the cohesive nature of their national identity – clearly defined, articulated and planed goals further strengthen the domestic resilience in the face of hostile political warfare, while also ensuring that should the unimaginable of direct state v state conflict become unavoidable, the nation and its allies are well positioned to defend against the horrors of global tyranny. 

Whether Australia's political leaders and public will it, totalitarian regimes are becoming increasingly powerful and assertive, challenging the values and virtues for which the West stands. This rise of tyranny requires that Australia embrace what will become an increasingly important role in supporting the maintenance of the post-Second World War political, economic and strategic order the nation is an essential part of. 

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia's future role and position in the Indo-Pacific and what you would like to see from Australia's political leaders in terms of partisan and bipartisan agenda setting in the comments section below, or get in touch with This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Another front: The growing challenges of political warfare
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