Rising powers: grand strategies, balance of power and Australia

Does Australia need a grand strategy? The Australian Defence Force leadership will have military strategies worked out for various contingencies. But what is the broader national context in which the employment of military power would play a part?

There is no generic template for formulating a grand strategy, and each contender to the label is different. Grand strategies are the territory of great powers. In Comparative Grand Strategy: A Framework and Cases (2019), the editors ask ‘whether other states, beyond great powers, have the institutional and material resources to create and implement what amounts to a grand strategy’.

Grand strategies are the territory of great powers. They are multi-faceted, address domestic and international matters, appear organic in development, and have long timeframes. The key lies in the capacity to build the power to shape the international environment.

For B. H. Liddell Hart, grand strategy was the higher ‘wartime strategy’ that marshals national resources ‘toward the political ends of any given war.’ John Lewis Gaddis’ better formulation is that, ‘grand strategy need not apply only to war and statecraft: it’s potentially applicable to any endeavour in which means must be deployed in the pursuit of important ends’. The key lies in the capacity to build the power to shape the international environment.

When, in the face of a threat, a consensus coalesces among national elites on the need for a new national direction, a grand strategy can emerge. The catalyst is often a tangible threat that will expose the state to serious, or even existential, danger. Grand strategies are multi-faceted, address domestic and international matters, appear organic in development, and have long timeframes.

In America, by the end of the nineteenth century many politicians, newspaper editors and the general public had accepted that the US must take its place among the great colonial powers in its own interests. This conviction was not to be found in a single document but is evident in a series of policies and acts that amount to a grand strategy.

The US acquired Spain’s Caribbean and Pacific territories in the Spanish American War, and then built the Panama Canal to facilitate trade and the passage of naval vessels between the two oceans. Aware that Germany and Japan had become significant sea powers, under President Theodore Roosevelt the US Navy grew to be second only to that of the British Empire. The US’s transition to great power status wasn’t closely scripted but the steps were taken consciously.

Japan in the nineteenth century provided a second stunningly successful implementation of grand strategy. The Japanese observed how the colonial powers had imposed the treaty port system on China, and how China had been humiliated in the Opium Wars. After Japan was forced to open its own ports in 1854, and to accept extraterritoriality and foreign control of its tariffs in 1958, a group of Japanese soldiers and statesmen recognised the need to adopt a radical grand strategy.

The Meiji generation transformed tradition-bound Japan into a state with a modern industrial economy, western-styled political and civil administrative institutions, and a formidable standing army and navy. By the early twentieth century they had occupied the Korean Peninsula and defeated the Russian Navy in a sea battle that shook comfortable European notions of superiority. The Meiji grand strategy was ambitious and multipronged, and saw Japan rise to a dominant military and economic position in Asia for half a century.

NSC-68, NATO, the Marshall Plan were key planks in the US grand strategy to contain the Soviet threat and compete with it ideologically, economically, and militarily. The emergence of two superpowers meant the rest of the world effectively became elements in their competing grand strategies.

During the Cold War confrontation, Eastern European states were part of the Soviet Union’s grand strategy. Likewise, the European NATO states, Japan, Korea and Australia were similarly elements in the US’s grand strategy, and their national strategies were subsumed. For a while, the power of the US to shape the international environment was unparalleled. 

Deng Xiaoping’s plan for China to reclaim its place as a great power after the century of humiliation and the era of Mao was another grand strategy that was captured in broad principles and non-specific objectives. It was specific enough to provide direction to subsequent Chinese leaders but flexible enough to allow for subordinate strategies like the belt and road to be incorporated. 

Like Japan, China’s grand strategy in the twenty first century has seen some significant borrowing for radical domestic reform from potential competitors in liberal market-driven western states, while retaining important cultural and political traditions.

Japan, the US and China had the potential to be great powers. In their national interest they were forced by threats to realise their economic, political and military potential. Other states, even some relatively powerful, saw their own strategic independence incorporated into another state’s grand strategy. That is a distinctive characteristic of a grand strategy.

Australia has been a small component in the US’s grand strategy since the 1950s. The comfort that Australia embraced while enclosed in an American grand strategy can’t last, and hard choices lie ahead.

Australia has been a small component in the US’s grand strategy since the 1950s. However, it’s arguable whether the US still has a grand strategy. It is perhaps on a long slow decline. The comfort that Australia embraced while enclosed in an American grand strategy can’t last, and hard choices lie ahead.

As the US strategic umbrella withdraws, those states whose strategic autonomy has been curtailed will be forced to chart their own course. Europe is already confronting the prospect of a withdrawing US, albeit tentatively.

It won’t be a grand strategy that Australia needs. Australia lacks the great power potential, and therefore the military and economic heft to shape the international environment. But Australia will need to position itself among the reordered constellation of great powers and their grand strategies. In the shifting power balance, it will need to recover its autonomy.

It is time Australia stopped reflexively looking to the US for its cues: it’s time for Australian governments to stop confusing the acceptance of a minor role in the US’s web of faltering alliances with having national policies of its own.

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