Australia’s 2020 Defence Strategic Update: no talk of war here

By Mike Scrafton | There is little to quarrel with in Hugh White’s assessment of the uncertainties in East Asia. His counsel to the government on the way forward for strategic policy, on the other hand, is less satisfactory.

To embark on a major expansion of Australia’s military forces is not the way to protect Australia. On the contrary, it is hard to see where engaging in war against China can result in anything but seriously adverse outcomes for Australia.

The way forward is harder than buying rockets. Australia will need to find a way to live peacefully in the Chinese behemoth’s backyard.

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Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne

Australia’s foreign policy: Resurgent realism or the survival of multilateralism?

By Mike Scrafton | Conceptual confusion in thinking about foreign policy is evident as the post World War II era’s structured international arrangements of durable institutions and agreed norms, – designed to facilitate peaceful dispute resolution and cooperation on security, economic and social matters between nations – is challenged by the United States and others.

The indeterminacy over whether a gradual transition from the rules-based order to a degree of anarchy is taking place is generating a certain dissonance in the speechmaking of leading Australian political figures.

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Race is not real: It’s time to stop acting as though it is

By Mike Scrafton | For something that doesn’t exist, race exerts a pernicious and persistent influence on society. Placing people into a racial category, based on observable external features, and then attributing to it holistic ‘cultures’ that determine behaviours or moral character, is not supported by evidence.

But even those who are prepared to go to the barricades to oppose racism perpetuate the notion that race is real. This makes the management of entrenched racism inordinately difficult – but belief in race can be undermined – this is what needs to happen.

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The Australia-India Strategic Partnership: ‘Shared values’ mask the real strategic purpose

By Mike Scrafton | The much-used phrase ‘shared values’ is regularly used as the basis for international relationships and alliances. It can be used to selectively point to values found in political, social or economic ideologies, or in religious or ethical systems – and to divert attention away from substantive issues or conjure up imaginary communities of interest. In the context of the Australia-India Strategic Partnership, does the use of the phrase mask the real strategic purpose of the agreement?

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Sovereignty and self-determination: The wider implications of Israel and the West Bank

By Mike Scrafton | Australia’s Prime Minister recently said that Australia always respects the sovereignty of other nations, and simply expects the same in return. But cases like Kosovo, Crimea, Jammu-Kashmir and Hong Kong illustrate the tension between sovereignty and self-determination – and the significance of precedent-setting. Recognising Israel’s sovereignty over the West Bank requires careful, nuanced consideration. What position will Australia take?

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The Deep State conspiracy theory: Is Trump laying the groundwork for The Great Presidential Robbery?

By MIke Scrafton | Should US presidential hopeful Joe Biden prevail in November, the grounds will have been laid for Donald Trump to cry foul – with the potential for a crisis of political legitimacy. Australian policymakers, struggling with balancing the economic relationship with China and the security relationship with the US, should be following domestic trends in America with nervous apprehension.

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Historical amnesia: Great power behaviour and criticism of China

By Mike Scrafton | Positioning the adversarial relationship with China as one of morally superior western democratic nations in competition with a somehow illegitimate and malevolent China is an exercise in historical amnesia. The democratic United State’s 1890 – 1920 trajectory from western hemisphere state to global power has some economic, military and foreign policy parallels with authoritarian China’s growth in the twenty-first century.

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Eyes wide open, or a blinkered view? The Australia-China relationship in the Antarctic

The recent report ‘Eyes Wide Open: Managing the Australia-China Antarctic Relationship’ contains a lot of information about China’s activities in Antarctica and usefully sets out aspects of the Chinese-Australian relationship.
But are the report’s recommendations a disproportionate reaction to a manufactured crisis regarding China’s presence and activities in Antarctica?

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Rising powers: grand strategies, balance of power and Australia

By Mike Scrafton | Grand strategies are the territory of great powers, while other states see their strategic independence incorporated into another state’s grand strategy. The comfort that Australia embraced while enclosed in an American grand strategy can’t last, and hard choices lie ahead. In the shifting power balance, Australia will need to recover its autonomy.

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Surviving and thriving in the 21st century: the harder reality of humanity’s road to the future

The report ‘Surviving and thriving in the 21st century’ from Australia’s Commission for the Human Future sets out clearly and with insight the major and inter-dependent challenges that will persist beyond the pandemic – including global warming, food insecurity, biodiversity loss, environmental degradation, resource scarcity and wealth inequality. Action is vital, but how to respond seems as elusive as ever.

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Regulation, tariffs and reform of supply chains: neoliberalism under pressure?

By Mike Scrafton | For the moment, reducing reliance on overseas supply chains appears to be a big lesson out of the COVID-19 pandemic. But reluctance to regulate corporate and commercial activity has been a hallmark of governments across the world. Are neoliberal governments capable of reversing the direction they have been taking for three or four decades?

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The dogs of war cry wolf: the post-pandemic China threat

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Peter Jennings and Michael Shoebridge have recently written of a potential military crisis in North Asia, possibly as soon as late 2020 or early 2021.

Amongst other extraordinary measures, Shoebridge calls for the ANZUS Treaty to be invoked, while Jennings calls for the Australian Defence Force to be placed on the highest levels of readiness and for Australian defence expendture to be boosted to around 3.2% of GDP.

Are their conclusions supported by the evidence they proffer?

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Australia’s strategic quandary: political leadership and the abandonment of strategy

Strategy, the link between policy and the battlefield, is now more important than ever.

If there is another great power war, it will be imperative for the political leadership to be clear and definitive about their strategic goals and about what victory would look like – at a time when the range and technological complexity of the weapons systems involved will provide a major barrier to the level of understanding of civilian leaders.

Australia’s strategic quandary emerges from its status as an ally to a great power. If it abrogates its responsibility to set national policy aims by joining in a coalition in which one great power antagonist determines the goals of the war it cannot claim to have a strategy. It cannot claim to be linking Australia’s national priorities to the military actions. Its fate would be in the hands of its great power ally.

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Blinded by ‘the science’: COVID-19 and the authority of science in public policy

There are important distinctions when it comes to the way governments claim to have been ‘guided by the science’ when justifying their approaches to the COVID-19 pandemic. Ministers are not saying they are following a course of action because ‘an experimentally and observationally validated law of nature has been brought to my attention’. They mean that social scientists, based on some assumptions and suppositions, have modelled a range of possible outcomes and produced a number of projections, not predictions.

It is not science but policy, that mixture of ideology, politics, and pragmatism, that the ministers are doing when the choose between the pandemic options.

Governments should not be able to avoid scrutiny and accountability for their actions by leaning on the authority of science.

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A tale of two Americas: Australia’s foreign policy choices post-pandemic

Writing in ‘The Strategist’ (Australian Strategic Policy Institute), Michael Shoebridge rightly points out that how the US rebounds from the COVID-19 crisis will be important for international relations and Australia’s foreign policy.

But his arguments posit an excessively flattering picture of the US and an incomplete view of its history.

It is crucial that Australian foreign and strategic policy-makers have a realistic and unvarnished understanding of how the US might approach the post-pandemic world. For better or worse Australia is tightly bound with the US economically and strategically.

Following the US lead may prove to be the right course. However, good, clear-eyed policy in the post-COVID environment cannot be based uncritically on an illusion.

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Geostrategic shifts in a time of contagion

The COVID-19 crisis will affect the global geostrategic situation in a number of ways: some obvious and some still obscure.

Post COVID-19 economic conditions within nation states and across the globalised world will have shifted; governments will be juggling with the options of austerity policies, tax increases and welfare demands. Liberal and democratic values are likely to have suffered, along with confidence in democratic political leadership. And internationally, competition between political and economic systems might just be heating up.

The future geostrategic situation could turn on whether China or the US bounces back best from the current predicament. The coronavirus could prove to be a test of the resilience and viability of the political and economic systems of the two key states, and reposition their strategic competition.

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What COVID-19 tells us about preparing for global warming

The current crisis tells us some important things. The flaws in the neo-liberal model have been exposed. Democratic politics have been stressed to breaking point. The shocks to the economic, social and fiscal systems required to avoid dangerous climate change are shown to be unfeasible.

Denial, delay, and deflection over the climate science by democratic governments immersed in neo-liberal fantasies has set the world an unachievable target if dangerous global warming is to be avoided.

The extraordinary steps imposed to fight the COVID-19 pandemic are what is needed on a sustained basis if a limit of 1.5°C of global warming is to be achieved. And yet this period of lock-down, self-isolation, social-distancing, and commercial and industrial dormancy has already shown that the measures responsible are imposing on whole societies costs which cannot be borne for long.

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Liberal democracy: the prognosis post-COVID-19

Liberal democracy still has a way to go before getting out of the ICU. Diagnosed with an underlying co-morbidity prior to the pandemic, it will be fortunate to survive without an ongoing need for respiratory support.

Governments have assumed extraordinary powers without a great deal of parliamentary or public debate, or clarity about why those powers were essential, or under what circumstances they will be extinguished.

Many see in the measures the potential for civil liberties and human rights to be eroded and for illiberal and autocratic tendencies to supplant liberal democratic values. The measures’ insidious potential is magnified by the willingness of governments to use questionable behavioural science to shape public attitudes and responses.

The prognosis for liberal democracy post-COVID-19 is not auspicious.

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Capability gaps: Mean dogs and submarines

A new Insight Economics report presents arguments for submarine capability that lean very heavily on a rather fuzzy concept; the capability gap.

Outdated terms-of-art are spread through defence policy unchallenged. They are so common, and have acquired such authority, that the need to define or explicate them is deemed unnecessary. They shut down arguments. However, terms like capability gap carry unexamined assumptions from a time when submarines, P3C-Orions, and minehunters were effective.

In relation to submarines, has the idea of a capability gap become redundant? And does it not seem odd to expect submarines to fill a capability gap in thirty plus years time?

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COVID-19: ‘Dirty hands’ and political leadership in a crisis

A moral crisis arises when the expected outcome of all choices will contravene a moral principle, a personal value, or a social norm. COVID-19 presents such a problem – choice between ethically unpalatable options.

Choosing a mitigation strategy over a suppression strategy strikes a particular balance between expected loss of life and maintaining economic activity. Accepting the real possibility of a greater loss of lives than otherwise might occur has a ‘dirty hands’ feel about it – an example of the challenge of ‘governing innocently’ in a crisis.

The broader lesson for leaders and institutions is the need to prepare themselves not only for rapid action but also for the opprobrium that will come from confronting moral dilemmas.
Governments will face many more unavoidable ‘dirty hands’ type decisions.

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