Sunday 10 Oct 2021 | 20:58 | SYDNEY
Sunday 10 Oct 2021 | 20:58 | SYDNEY

Civilian strategists: What in a name?


Rodger Shanahan


This post is part of the What is 'strategy'? debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

12 August 2011 08:37

This post is part of the What is 'strategy'? debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

It appears my post about civilian strategists brought a couple of these elusive beasts out of the woodwork. And bravo to Crispin Rovere for having a crack at defining what he thought a civilian strategist was. Still, after reading his response and that of Closet Idealist, who didn't really seek to describe what a civilian strategist is, I am still none the wiser.

From Crispin's definition, a civilian strategist weighs up the costs and benefits of military action measured against political goals and decides whether it is worth pursuing. But this sounds suspiciously like what a policy adviser might do. I imagine that someone with aspirations to be a civilian strategist would look at the enunciation and achievement of long-term strategic goals, would examine the manner in which the government should harness the elements of national power and synchronise them to achieve these long-term objectives.

In the contemporary Australian context, and based on my imagining of what a strategist should do, I would argue that we have no such thing as strategists (civilian or otherwise), for a range of reasons that would be worthy of a separate blog post. What we have are plain old, garden variety defence policy wonks — some who have done strategic studies courses, some that haven't, some who are good, and some not so good, just like other areas of the public service. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being good at policy work — the wheels of government would quickly seize up if we didn't produce and employ good policy wonks. 

People often conflate long-term thinking with strategy, but strategists should be much more than simply long-term thinkers. 

They should be looking at multiple lines of operation over differing time periods in order to achieve national aims. It is akin to being able to write a piece of music for an orchestra and then act as the conductor, a difficult task that requires a combination of vision, experience and understanding of how the elements of national power work in an Australian (and possibly international) context to achieve the best effect. I am not sure that Australia's political, diplomatic or security circumstances demand, or allow us to produce these types of people. 

Still, regardless of how many civilian strategists (or mere policy advisers) we produce, the nature of defence planning means that some strategic policy decisions will continue to be done the old fashioned way.

Photo by Flickr user peasap.