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National resilience v national security? Understanding increasingly blurry distinctions

Rising nation-state competition, global and domestic economic headwinds and stagnation, asymmetric threats and environmental challenges are all serving to undermine the traditional understanding of national resilience and national security. Understanding the differences and overlaps of these areas provides an important step for charting a path forward.

Rising nation-state competition, global and domestic economic headwinds and stagnation, asymmetric threats and environmental challenges are all serving to undermine the traditional understanding of national resilience and national security. Understanding the differences and overlaps of these areas provides an important step for charting a path forward.

Across the Indo-Pacific, competing economic, political and strategic interests, designs and ambitions are beginning to clash, flying in contrast to the projections of many historians at the end of the Cold War. 

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Driven by an unprecedented economic transformation, propelling once developing nations onto the world stage, the region, the globe and its established powers are having to adjust to a dramatically different global power paradigm – one committed to undermining and influencing the fabric of Australian and Western democracies.

In this era of increasing nation-state competition, driven largely by the great power competition between the US and China and the subsequent impact on nations, Australia is finding itself at the epicentre of the new global paradigm with unique economic, political and strategic implications for the nations national security. 

However, traditional nation-state competition is not the only national security challenge, as global and domestic economic head winds, non-state actors and asymmetric challenges, including transnational criminal organisation and violent extremists, all serve as equal, yet disparate challenges within the traditional rubric of national security. 

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Indeed, in this traditional concept, national security is best defined by US academic Charles Maier: "National security... is best described as a capacity to control those domestic and foreign conditions that the public opinion of a given community believes necessary to enjoy its own self-determination or autonomy, prosperity and wellbeing."

Nevertheless, the increasing vulnerability and shortfalls of Australia's infrastructure networks, broad sectors of the national economy, environment and the population as a whole all serve as visible challenges to the nation's resilience and capacity to withstand not only increasing global and regional competition, but equally thrive in an age of disruption. 

National resilience, as opposed to national security, takes on a more diverse array of challenges for national political and strategic leaders to accommodate, directly impacting the future stability and viability of nations and populations.

Accordingly, the subject of National Resilience has traditionally focused on the impact of natural disasters and similar national emergencies and the capacity of a nation to survive and thrive post-disaster. 

Australia has recognised this factor, and formed the National Resilience Taskforce in April 2018 under the former minister for law enforcement and cyber security, now Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction, Angus Taylor, with the focus on: "National direction needed to underline climate and disaster risk and improve national resilience across all sectors in Australia."

This taskforce identified key drivers impacting the nation's resilience, including: 

  • Natural hazards are more frequent and intense;
  • Essential services are interconnected and interdependent;
  • People and assets are more exposed and vulnerable;
  • Disaster impacts are long-term and complex;
  • The costs of disasters are growing; and
  • The momentum to address the financial impacts of a changing climate is building.

Overlapping areas of interest

It is clear that given the impact of Australia's cyclical droughts, monsoonal rains and ravaging bushfires, these natural disasters that would traditionally fall under the 'national resilience' category are equally important factors in maintaining long-term national security objectives. 

Equally important factors that traditionally fall under the 'national security' category but would be equally at home in the resilience category are factors like energy, water and resource security, infrastructure and industry development, diversity and economic competitiveness and traditional 'hard power' concepts like defence and intelligence all serve as essential components for a nation's resilience. 

Indeed, Prime Minister Scott Morrison articulated the increasingly convoluted nature of national security and national resilience in an interview with Peta Credlin for Sky News, stating: "When it comes to keeping people safe, it's also about our resilience, our resilience to the environment, the climate we're going to live in in the next 10 years. And I'm sure we'll have a bit of a chat about that tonight. But that resilience, too, whether it's ensuring that our roads are built the right way so they don't get shut down when there are bushfires or ensuring we're addressing hazard reduction as much as we're addressing emissions reduction.

"Because whether it's the resilience of building a road and having clearing around it, which means it's less likely to be cut off in a bushfire, or the way you build a bridge in a particular area so it could not be compromised because of natural disasters, what the building standards and codes are ... You know, in response to disasters, it's not about replacement. It's about building back better with better resilience for the future."

Theoretical v practical: Addressing the disparate nature of individual strategies 

Australia has recently undergone a period of modernisation and expansion within its national security apparatus, from new white papers in Defence and Foreign Affairs through to well-articulated and resourced defence industrial capability plans, export strategies and the like in an attempt to position Australia well within the rapidly evolving geostrategic and political order of the Indo-Pacific. 

Each of the strategies in and of themselves serve critical and essential roles within the broader national security debate. 

Additionally, the formation of organisations like the National Resilience Taskforce, state-based Energy Security Taskforces, and supporting organisations like Infrastructure Australia and broader government departments all serve to provide an intricate, yet competing tapestry muddying the water and decision-making process for political and strategic leaders.  

Each of these organs and constituencies in the form of state and territory governments have their own individual agendas and lobby accordingly for Commonwealth support and assistance, further complicating a national response, hindering both national security and national resilience in an age of traditional and asymmetric disruption. 

Meanwhile, the cohesive, long-term nature of the strategies deployed by the nation’s potential competitors limits the efficacy of these respective strategies and policies when they are viewed and implemented in isolation. 

Defence Connect recently spoke with former Army Major General (Ret’d) and senator for NSW Jim Molan to discuss the importance of developing and implementing a holistic national security strategy. The senator articulated the precarious situation the nation finds itself in, telling Defence Connect:

"We have managed to get away with not having a national security strategy only because we have lived in a tranquil region since 1945. But our strategic environment is changing quickly, and we need to prepare for a turbulent future. Developing a national security strategy would be a vital first step towards building the capacity we need to face the potential challenges that are coming.

"Most Australians can be forgiven for believing that successive Defence white papers, in conjunction with Foreign Affairs white papers and reviews into energy, including liquid fuels, water and food security, constitute a true national security strategy. Unfortunately, without the guidance of an overarching national security strategy, we get lost in the sub-strategies."

Is it time for a Minister for National Resilience? 

The individual nature of the aforementioned respective strategies, combined with the competing interests of the respective portfolios and departments are further exacerbated by a lack of cohesive, co-ordinating authority managing the direction of the broader national interest and implementation of a resulting strategy.

It is important to recognise that this realisation does diminish the good work done by the respective ministers, assistant ministers and opposition representatives.

But recognising the limitations of siloed approaches to the increasingly holistic nature of national security in the 21st century requires a co-ordinated, cohesive effort to combine all facets of contemporary national security and national resilience policies respectively – into a single, cohesive strategy. 

Senator Molan expanded on this, explaining to Defence Connect, “Australia has had one previous attempt at putting a national security strategy in place under the Gillard government in 2013. Although it was a decent first attempt, it has already been overtaken by events. Terrorism was the principal security challenge it focused on, and although the threat of terrorism has not disappeared, other changes in the world are demanding our focus."

Recognising this, Australia’s security and prosperity are directly influenced by the stability and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific, meaning Australia must be directly engaged as both a benefactor and leader in all matters related to strategic, economic and political security, serving as either a replacement or complementary force to the role played by the US – should the US commitment or capacity be limited.

In order to maximise the nation’s position, prosperity and security, is it time to introduce a role of a Minister for National Security or special envoy role to support the Prime Minister and respective ministers, both within the traditional confines of "national security" or "national resilience" like Defence and Foreign Affairs, to include infrastructure, energy, industry, health, agriculture and the like?  

Your thoughts

Australia’s position and responsibilities in the Indo-Pacific region will depend on the nations ability to sustain itself economically, strategically and politically.

Despite the nations virtually unrivalled wealth of natural resources, agricultural and industrial potential, there is a lack of a cohesive national security strategy integrating the development of individual yet complementary public policy strategies to support a more robust Australian role in the region.

Enhancing Australia’s capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability serves as a powerful symbol of Australia’s sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia.

Shifting the public discussion away from the default Australian position of "it is all a little too difficult, so let’s not bother" will provide unprecedented economic, diplomatic, political and strategic opportunities for the nation.

However, as events continue to unfold throughout the region and China continues to throw its economic, political and strategic weight around, can Australia afford to remain a secondary power or does it need to embrace a larger, more independent role in an era of increasing great power competition?

Let us know your thoughts and ideas about the development of a holistic national security strategy and the role of a minister for national security to coordinate the nation’s response to mounting pressure from nation-state challengers 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 This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

National resilience v national security? Understanding increasingly blurry distinctions
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