The changing nature of the global order, particularly in the Indo-Pacific, and the apparent willingness of potential adversaries to use economic, political, military or asymmetric strength to coerce nations, destabilising the international order, should be the core focus of Australia’s approach to developing a national strategy, writes former naval officer Duncan MacRae.
In the wake of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s ‘War in 2025’ conference last week, the topic of a national strategy was further advanced in Defence Connect’s analysis of the impact of ‘political warfare’.
Inspired by the conference’s address from the Australian Chief of the Defence Force, General Angus Campbell, AO, DSC, the resurgence of political warfare and the threat it poses to Australia frames the article’s suggestions as to what can be done to respond. While in the given context the suggestions are indeed sound and add to the mounting argument for a concerted national strategy, two key themes stood out which warrant further scrutiny.
The first of these is the term political warfare. While no doubt calling to mind Russian influence in US elections and the Ukraine, Chinese coercion of Australian politicians and the Iranian proxy war in Yemen along with a host of other events, any thought that this form of warfare is somehow new or indeed unique is to cast aside significant swathes of world history for the sake of some catchy new nomenclature (asymmetric warfare anyone?) intended to hide the fact that the West is so far failing to understand and adapt to an evolution of world affairs.
While conceding that these examples may differ markedly from traditional warfare under the umbrella of Clausewitz’s “war as a continuation of politics”, interference with or attempts to change or influence the political scenery of another country has been a component of grand strategy for centuries. Indeed, GEN Campbell conceded as much, noting political warfare’s “long and fascinating history”.
What is different today is that Western nations predominantly, particularly the US and including Australia, are on the losing side of the ledger. Having discarded their political warfare stocks in the afterglow of the victory ultimately secured with the fall of the Soviet Union, those countries with a greater respect for the value of patience and historical study, such as China and Russia, continued to develop and utilise the political tools while also successfully adapting modern technologies to provide themselves with new means by which to execute their strategies.
Conversely, as GEN Campbell also notes, those predominantly democratic countries who have rejected the effectors of political warfare have increasingly hamstrung themselves when faced with challenges from totalitarian regimes or indeed non-state actors. While proclaiming ever louder a need to defend our way of life, we are no longer willing to take the actions necessary to satisfy that objective.
The development of a national strategy is certainly one way in which we can look to rectify this deficiency, albeit we are late to the geopolitical party. However, our efforts to construct an effective strategy will be stymied if we fail to correctly understand the realities of what is the second theme to be considered. In the vast majority of analysis and innumerable statements from Australian politicians, any new strategy is currently set within the context of protecting and maintaining the extant global or regional order.
That the current world order is one which satisfies the ideals of the recent past and pays no attention to the realities of the inevitably changing geopolitical future appears to be lost in the noise.
As so eloquently and forthrightly detailed in his masterful 2002 work The Shield of Achilles, revered law professor and strategist Philip Bobbitt makes it clear that we are now in a stage of dramatic constitutional change that is only the latest part of a cycle that has been ongoing for centuries. Marked by ‘epochal wars’ and their associated strategies, Bobbitt shows how victory in these wars sows the seeds for the next war and also drives the changes to the constitutional order that must accompany them. This then is the nature of the change that we are in.
Our strategies can no longer look to the templates of the nation-state when the problems we are attempting to resolve belong to the age of conflict among market- and virtual-states. Certainly, Western nations can and should seek to retain some if not many of the morals and values of the nation-state but they must recast them in the context of the emerging global order so as to avoid the weaknesses of our current systems and allow proper pursuit of new strategic objectives in a new constitutional order.
What this new strategy will look like is not yet clear, but it is likely to be overwhelming and ultimately devastating on existing paradigms. Events such as Brexit and the wider unrest within the EU construct as well as the decline of US hegemony in global influence can be identified as harbingers of this change. It follows too that a new national strategy for Australia will not be solely focused on military or political affairs, but must also include social and economic adjustments to achieve holistic objectives.
As an undertaking, a national strategy will demand broad and long-term thinking along with resolute leadership. By recognising and accepting the need for change and correctly understanding the context in which the changes are taking place, we can minimise the disruptions and best position ourselves in the new order.
Duncan MacRae is a former naval warfare officer with over 20 years’ experience. He is currently an independent consultant and freelance writer.