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Australia's defence and security needs a holistic approach for the 21st Century

By Graeme Cheeseman - posted Thursday, 15 November 2001

Australia’s politicians and their advisers seem very content with our present defence policies and prescriptions. The government’s latest defence white paper was described by the Minister for Defence as the most comprehensive reappraisal of Australian defence capability for decades and by one commentator as the best white paper yet.

I would argue that there is still some way to go before such judgements can be applied. As described below, our policy-makers need to adjust the way they view the world and how they conceive of the concept of security. They need to reorder Australia’s current defence and security priorities to better reflect our new national, regional and global realities. They need to change how some of their objectives are being pursued. And they need to make some adjustments to Australia’s present inventory of military forces and capabilities. And they need to make some adjustments to Australia’s present inventory of military forces and capabilities.

Australia’s defence and security planners view the world around us through the relatively narrow lens of power-politics’ realism and respond accordingly. Yet we live in a number of concurrent worlds – not just the system of autonomous states favoured by those in defence. These are an international political economy in which multinational companies, international financial institutions and regional organizations are the central actors, and geo-economics rather than geo-politics is the key currency of power and status; an expanding world society with growing international norms, rules and institutions; and an emerging global community or global commons whose borders are increasingly porous to the ebb and flow of people, goods, ideas and lifestyles.


Viewing the world from these different perspectives provides additional and more comprehensive answers to the key questions of who or what needs to be secured, from what and how. Australia’s defence and security planners need to expand their existing concepts of security to encompass economic, social and environmental as well as political and military considerations.

To fully understand and be able to respond to the challenges and opportunities before us, they need also to think in human and global as well as national security terms. People and the planet on which we live should be the primary referents of security in the 21st century, and human and global security should be the keystones of Australia’s foreign and defence policies.

According to the 2000 defence white paper, Australia’s current defence objectives are, in order of priority: 1) ensuring the defence of Australia and its approaches against direct military attack; 2) fostering the stability, integrity and cohesion of our immediate neighbourhood; 3) promoting stability and cooperation in south-east Asia and help make that region resilient to hostile military incursions; 4) supporting the United States in maintaining strategic stability in the wider Asia Pacific region; and 5) contributing to the efforts of the international community, especially the United Nations, to uphold global security.

The structure of our military forces continues, in theory at least, to be determined by the first and second of these objectives (I would argue that it is also heavily influenced by the fourth objective). These require that Australia maintains high-technology military forces capable of deterring or defeating a conventional military attack against our shores. These same forces would also be used where appropriate and needed to meet the other objectives listed.

The white paper’s objectives and prescriptions are at odds with our evolving national, regional and global realities. Australia has never been seriously threatened militarily and is unlikely to be so for the foreseeable future at least. While we may not be subject to major military attack or intimidation, we are being daily confronted by a range of non-military risks and pressures that could undermine our security by threatening both our livelihood and our way of life. These existing sources of insecurity include drug trafficking, organised crime, international terrorism, the illegal importation of animal and human diseases, population migration, the poaching of fishing and other stocks, and the cumulative effects of continuing salination and other environmental pressures.

As the white paper acknowledges, most countries in our immediate region are experiencing serious political, social and economic problems that, if not resolved, could lead to a breakdown of society and further violence and conflict. While such developments are unlikely to translate into any direct military threat to Australia, they will have a significant impact on our security through such mechanisms as the flight of capital from our region, enhanced refugee flows, market reductions, and the need for greater economic aid and military and non-military assistance.


Again, as the white paper acknowledges, while the prospects of interstate wars within our wider region and beyond remain, they are neither the only nor even the most important causes for concern facing the international community today. Of more importance is the increasing incidence of intrastate violence and conflict in such places as West Africa, the Balkans and the former Soviet Union, the various ‘manufactured risks’ and ‘threats without enemies’ that are increasingly global in scope and beyond the capacity of individual states to control or resolve, and an increasing economic divide occurring both within and between countries across the globe. As Richard Falk describes, in this last regard we are seeing the emergence of a form of global economic apartheid that is being driven by a system of ‘predatory globalisation’ that includes little or no normative agency.

Offsetting these causes for concern, however, are various causes for optimism. These include the growth in Europe and elsewhere of economic and broader multilateral security communities and frameworks, the emergence of a global civil society, the revitalisation of the United Nations and its constituent bodies and associated norms, the willingness of the international community to work together to deal with a range of common problems and risks, and the gradual spread of a ‘culture of cooperation’ among key global actors and elites.

Australia’s defence priorities need to be adjusted to take account of these emerging realities. Our first priority should be to help our neighbours in need and to assist the international community in dealing with the various causes for concern detailed above. In a rapidly globalising world, the problems of others are our problems and we need to work together to resolve them. We should, of course, seek to continue to protect ourselves against threats to our own security and well-being but these efforts need to be directed more towards existing rather than imagined threats and adversaries.

A third priority should be to help enhance the various causes for optimism just described. This would be achieved through both declaratory and operational means where the former would include elaboration of the kinds of values and principles that determine how we might organise and live our lives as both national and global citizens. In the latter case, Australia should seek to work with others to achieve a more humane, empathetic, equitable and democratic system of global governance, one that champions human emancipation and diversity, emphasises cosmopolitan over communitarian values, and promotes the ideals of world community, human needs and environmental sustainability.

The reordering of Australia’s existing defence priorities and the emphasis on new security rather than traditional defence roles and responsibilities will require some adjustments to Australia’s existing defence force structure. In essence, Australia needs to enhance its capacity to engage in multinational peacekeeping and peacemaking operations as well as to conduct various non-traditional security tasks or so-called military operations other than war.

This will require an increase in Australia’s land forces, coastal surveillance and protection assets and strategic lift and logistics support capabilities, and a consequent downgrading of those forces required for high-intensity coalition warfare (strategic strike aircraft, ‘blue water’ naval forces, heavy tanks and artillery, and so on).

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About the Author

Dr Graeme Cheeseman is a lecturer at the School of Politics, University College, Australian Defence Force Academy.

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