Thursday 14 Oct 2021 | 19:43 | SYDNEY
Thursday 14 Oct 2021 | 19:43 | SYDNEY

Smith vs Varghese? Not so fast


Rory Medcalf


1 May 2008 16:43

Paul Dibb sets out in today’s Sydney Morning Herald to depict a clash of views on Australia’s strategic outlook, pitting Foreign Minister Stephen Smith against the Director-General of the Office of National Assessments, Peter Varghese. The Minister is portrayed as elevating the importance of non-traditional security challenges like climate change; the head of Australia’s peak strategic analysis agency as focusing on the risks from competition among powerful states. Professor Dibb concludes that the latter view is right, the former is wrong, and Australia must not 'allow our advanced conventional warfighting capabilities to be sacrificed on the altar of the trendy, so-called new security agenda'.

There is both less and more to this than meets the eye. Professor Dibb’s article quotes from a public speech on Australia’s future strategic environment, given by Mr Varghese last December. I encourage readers to make up their own minds by reading the speech in full (pdf). But first, run through this alternative set of equally selective quotes, which could provide the basis for a rather different (though similarly one-sided) interpretation of a very comprehensive presentation:

Australia does not face any direct threat to its territorial integrity. Our continental geography and maritime approaches give us great strategic depth…

…of the many instances where Australia has participated in military conflict, only once – in 1942 – was it in direct defence of Australian territory. In all other cases it reflected either a defence of principle or a calculation that Australia should help defeat a threat before the threat defeated Australia…

Globalisation certainly won’t abolish war – but it does raise the cost of war and can thus act as a deterrent of sorts.

…military power now is mainly though not exclusively for coercion, status and operations other than conventional war, including support for nation-building.

Terrorism will stay a destabilising force globally for at least a generation. It will be a danger to Australian and allied nations, a challenge to the authority of many governments, and a disruption to the patterns of trust and openness that globalised economies need.

China has an advantage and a shackle earlier rising powers lacked: its rivals have deep stakes in its economic success – and it can’t, for reasons of internal stability, afford to disrupt a world economic system which is generating wealth and opportunities for its people…

…the US is set to retain its strong engagement and strategic presence in East Asia … the US alliances with Japan and Australia will continue to anchor Washington’s East Asia Strategy.

 …[ Southeast Asia’s] weaknesses will still cause more trouble than its strengths.

Fast environmental degradation and natural disasters, along with pandemics and economic crises, are possible systemic shocks which military capabilities can’t do much to prevent.

From these points, one could build quite a reasoned case for an Australian national security strategy based primarily on tackling transnational security issues including terrorism, while becoming somewhat relaxed about risks of direct military attack or coercion – after all, economic interdependence and the US alliance are going to remain big strands in  our national safety net, aren’t they?

Except I would be remiss to overlook one quote which deserves a whole chapter of national security policy unto itself:

...we should expect the world to 2025 to face strategic shocks.

No country, even one as secure as Australia, can afford to be complacent about its security capabilities, including the traditional kind. But the argument that our primary security concerns in the decades ahead will stem from powerful states throwing their military weight around is far from settled. And I suspect Messrs. Smith and Varghese were as puzzled as I was to see themselves being set against each other in the peculiar Colosseum of this year’s Australian Defence White Paper debate.

(Full disclosure: I was a senior strategic analyst at ONA from 2003 until early 2007.)