Thursday 02 Jul 2020 | 13:20 | SYDNEY
Thursday 02 Jul 2020 | 13:20 | SYDNEY

Further (mostly trivial) thoughts on the NSS


Sam Roggeveen


5 December 2008 13:07

The Prime Minister's National Security Statement (NSS) has come in for plenty of stick. Hugh White had the ouch-iest line: 'if committees can make us safe, then we're going to be a very secure country indeed.' As other critics have said, the document is unimaginative and lacking in policy grunt. I was also disappointed in the rather token mention of resilience, but I applaud the promise of growth for the Department of Foreign Affairs.

Perhaps some of the disappointment from pundits is brought about by the fact that they are already very familiar with the key themes taken up by the NSS. But as Graeme Dobell noted, the rhetorical shift away from a terrorism-above-all approach is significant. National security pundits may have made this shift years ago and others never accepted the rise of terrorism as a strategic threat in the first place. So they might regard Rudd’s reordering as uncontroversial and even commonplace. But the public probably doesn't see it that way.

With the serious policy questions out of the way, some more trivial observations about the NSS. First, it bears all the the marks of Rudd’s limp, lifeless rhetorical style. Some particularly egregious examples of this sludge:

Our’s must be an integrated approach based on a clear-sighted view of our long term national security interests. Australia must be clear in its analysis of the threats we face, actively manage and address those threats, as well as seize the opportunities we have to enhance our overall national security environment for the future.

First of all, what's with the apostrophe in that first word? Second, 'clear-sighted' (and its cousin, 'clear-eyed') is one of my most hated foreign policy cliches. It implies unsentimental realism by suggesting anyone who disagrees is a misty-eyed idealist. Then there's the promise to 'actively manage' security threats. Pray, how would one 'passively manage' them? (Update: On another reading, I'd add that 'enhance our overall national security environment for the future' could easily be cut back to 'enhance our national security'.)

What is meant by national security? Freedom from attack or the threat of attack; the maintenance of our territorial integrity; the maintenance of our political sovereignty; the preservation of our hard won freedoms; and the maintenance of our fundamental capacity to advance economic prosperity for all Australians.

Tacking 'hard won' in front of 'freedom' seems so ritualised and empty that it risks becoming the opposite to what is intended, a tribute to our war dead. And one has to ask what work 'fundamental' is doing in this passage. Would this phrase be any less clear if he had just referred to our 'our capacity to advance economic prosperity'?

Moving on, have you noticed Rudd likes 'the long term'? It appears 17 times in this speech, and twice in one sentence:

Over the long term, climate change represents a most fundamental national security challenge for the long term future.

And now for my favourite bit of sludge:

We must not silently allow any incremental erosion of our fundamental freedoms.

Again with 'fundamental', which appears eight times in the speech and which (I guess) is employed here to add gravitas, though nothing would have been lost by leaving it out. Then there's the hilarious redundancy, 'incremental erosion'. As Jack Nicholson said when Tom Cruise asked him about 'grave danger', is there another kind?

Some of Rudd's assumptions deserve questioning too. Let's start with why the PM thinks Australia needs a regular NSS:

The global and regional order is now changing so rapidly that we must continue to reassess our evolving national security needs.

Really? What's the evidence that it is changing any faster than before? He contradicts himself too, saying later in the speech that the 21st century carries the 'potential for fundamental change in the global order' (my emphasis). Either way, it's a good example of the parochialism of the present. Come to think of it, so is this:

The security environment that we face today and into the future is therefore increasingly fluid and characterised by a complex and dynamic mix of continuing and emerging challenges and opportunities.

Can you think of a period in the last 100 years when an Australian Prime Minister could not have made this statement? It's pure verbal polyfilla.

On Southeast Asia, Rudd says:

This diverse range of countries will, over the long term, experience continued economic growth, development and improving governance.

I assume he's right, but I also hope he's not staking our future on it. It's a big bet.