Wednesday 08 Apr 2020 | 23:15 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 08 Apr 2020 | 23:15 | SYDNEY


Hugh White

6 February 2009 09:17

Like Sam, I’ve been struck by Kevin Rudd’s use of warlike metaphors to describe our economic problems, and like him I suspect there is more political artifice than policy analysis in the choice of imagery. International Relations scholars in recent years have amazed themselves by discovering what the rest of us knew all along: if leaders can indentify an issue in the public mind as a national security crisis, it changes the public’s attitudes both to the actions the leaders take and to the leaders themselves.

Ask John Howard. His later prime ministership perfectly displays both processes at work. First, calling something a ‘national security issue’ delegitimizes debate about the government’s policies. Second, it transforms images of the leader from mundane politician to national hero, and shifts the qualities the public looks for from diligence and competence to strength and decisiveness. Look at the way Americans voted for Bush in 2004.

Most importantly, what the IR scholars call ‘securitisation’ (not to be confused with the financial manoeuvre of the same name that seems to have landed us in this mess) encourages bad policy, because evidence, analysis and contestability go out the window in favour of instant action. 

Securitisation may begin as a deliberate political ploy, but political leaders are temperamentally predisposed to believe their own rhetoric, and they easily begin to believe that the crises they are managing are so important that doing something is more important than doing something sensible. Hence the 'Get out of my way, this is too important to think carefully about' tone of the last few days.

I often think of my work as an attempt to infuse into defence and strategic policy some of the orderly, evidence-based policy discipline most often found in economics.  So it’s a bit depressing watching the influence flow the other way. I’ve written about the perils of ‘national security leadership’ at greater length here.

Photo by Flickr user JulianBleecker, used under a Creative Commons license.