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Learning to Act like a Major Power: Australia as a top 20 nation


Just a few years ago a number of books were released which celebrated an ‘Australia moment’, where the nation was in ‘The Sweet Spot’. Today’s book titles, however, seem to run the other way, with one describing ‘how a great nation lost its way’. So let me therefore commend the ambition of Peter Jennings’ recent post on being a ‘top 20 defence player’.

While I strongly agree with the desire for a much more confident role for Australia, I have to wonder about the source of inspiration for Peter’s view. In Peter’s take, being a top 20 nation seems to mean doing the same things but with more resources. It could also be read as trying to emulate the US, but on a smaller scale. Hence the exhortations to take more of a global view and not to take our eyes off remote parts of the world less we need to jump back in.

Yet it’s not clear that’s the right strategy for Australia. After all, why should access to more resources mean that we automatically seek to expand our horizons of involvement? It wasn’t a lack of resources but a lack of specific threats that led to the Defence of Australia policy and that environmental assessment still hasn’t fundamentally changed.

Second, even if we decide being a top 20 nation places upon Australia a higher burden of responsibility, why does that necessarily translate into taking a sustained interest in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and across the vast Indo-Pacific? As Peter notes, we’d need every dollar of that 2% pledge to be able to do that, and it’s not clear what we’re get in return. Would significantly larger Australian deployments in Afghanistan, Iraq or even Ukraine change the likely outcome of those conflicts? Putting it in terms of naked self-interest, if we sent twice as many troops to those conflicts, would the US be twice as willing to protect Australia in a future Asian conflict? I suspect the answer to both questions is no.

Finally, if being a top 20 nation means anything, it should mean having an ability to direct, if not dictate, the security environment of your immediate geography. Australia now has a lot more resources, but we still have to make major trade-offs. We’ll always be a middle power in comparison to those at the top of the charts. Does it make sense for us to move from our past experience of an influence spread thinly across the Asia-Pacific to an influence spread thinly across the Indo-Pacific (or beyond) for twice the price? Why not use being a top 20 nation to consolidate our ability to contribute close by?

That’s why I suspect Peter’s inspiration is our friends in Washington. The US really is an exceptional nation. After the demise of the colonial empires of the 19th century and USSR in the 20th, the US is the only country that truly brings global security issues into its defence planning. That produces an outcome for which Australia should be—and is—thankful, but I don’t know it’s wise for us to emulate that process.

Instead we need to develop our own strategy. When it comes to issues closer to home, Peter and I are in much greater agreement. I strongly agree that Indonesia must be our central focus—and I’d endorse Peter’s excellent suggestion to give ANZAC-class frigates to Indonesia. Moreover, we should seek the capacity to substantially shape the security environment of the South Pacific and Southeast Asia. But that should be about it. That doesn’t mean abandoning the dynamics of wider East Asia, but rather playing a role where it can matter. So, to take a hard case, if we decide supporting the US and Japan against China is the right thing to do in the future then something like creating a ‘distant blockade’ would make sense. Seeking the capacity to ‘rip an arm off’ Beijing wouldn’t.

A constrained regional focus doesn’t mean a slothful one. We could take on some of the provision of public goods in Southeast Asia—which would help lessen the burden on an overstretched US. That’d not only contribute to our security, it’d ensure we’re spending only enough to cover specific tasks and not indulging abstract funding targets. The currency of military strength in the 21st century is still currency. Wealth is the foundation of Australia’s claim to top 20 status and the more we spend on defence the less we can spend on improving prosperity at home and in our immediate region.

If being a top-20 nation means anything, it should mean taking this moment to re-think the major assumptions about how we seek national security. If scarcity drove past defence thinking, then let’s not use this moment of largesse simply to do the same thing but slightly further afield or with slightly more resources. Let’s instead think about a fresh approach—like truly becoming a Southeast Asian power, or developing enough capacity that a potential coup in PNG doesn’t’ keep us up at night. And let’s remember that of the 20 top defence spenders, those in positions 2–19 are almost entirely focused on their immediate shores and neighbours. So while I admire the confidence that drives Peter’s ideas, we should also adopt the wisdom and strength of geographic restraint.

Andrew Carr is a research fellow at the Strategic & Defence Studies Centre, ANU and co-editor of Australian Foreign Policy Controversies and Debates published by Oxford University Press in association with the Australian Institute of International Affairs. This piece was originally published on ASPI’s The Strategist. It is republished with permission.

Published October 31, 2014

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