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The Australian National University

We need a wider security ethos for the world of 2015

The Anzacs will always be an inspiration, but modern Australians have to deal with a much more complex strategy equation than the one in 1915.

Rory Medcalf

The HMAS Australia

The Prime Minister's invocation of the spirit of Australian and New Zealand soldiers of a hundred years ago may be meant to inspire national unity and purpose behind the latest deployment of troops as trainers to Iraq. Mr Abbott has called them "splendid sons of ANZAC".

But Australians should be wary of easy parallels between the complex national security challenges of the 21st century and the baptism of fire that was Gallipoli in 1915.

The original ANZACs are rightly remembered for such qualities as "perseverance, selflessness, courage and compassion" to use to the PM's words – to which we might add egalitarianism, improvisation and a deep sense of duty.

But they were also woefully underprepared for what they were sent to face. In modern parlance, they were poorly enabled, through inadequacies of command, communications, intelligence, logistics and strategy.

So, there are plain limits to what their experience can teach us about how or why to wage the struggles of today and tomorrow. In 1915, government judged that the best way for Australia to ensure its security was essentially to show up, and be prepared to endure grievous sacrifice.

Crowded risks now

In 2015, our horizon of risk is much more crowded and bewildering. We face an era of exceptional change and uncertainty. The challenges include tensions between powerful states, new patterns of terrorism, the emergence and use of disruptive technology, resource pressures, and a near-perfect storm of stresses on the global rules-based order that has served us well.

To all of this, any smart security response requires exceptional agility and adaptability, which will put a premium on knowledge, technology and community engagement as well as old-fashioned courage and discipline.

A new approach to security must involve a more inclusive, united approach from our diverse society, including from the private sector and the many communities that make up multicultural Australia.

By all means, we should keep striving to recast the ANZAC message to be more about the citizenship and responsibility of all Australians than about the heritage of some. Yet, this can only go so far towards building buy-in for a shared ethos of national security.

The government must also be willing to communicate frankly the practical realities of Australia's increasingly uncertain security circumstances.

Capacity dwarfed by national interests

Even more so than a century ago, our national interests dwarf our capacity to protect them on our own. Just consider the scale of not only of Australia's vast territory but our broader land and maritime jurisdiction, which combined make up 5 per cent of the earth's surface.

 Australia benefits from an exceptional degree of connectedness with the world. This brings with it a reliance on rules, order, the global commons and flows of trade, energy, finance, information and people. Our national strengths, the conditions of our prosperity, rely on lifelines that are vulnerable and need to be protected.

Our country will need to work to uphold a stable and peaceful regional and international order, while working to protect its sovereignty, the physical safety of its citizens and its democratic system based on tolerance and trust.
To protect and advance such wide-ranging interests, Australia will need security partnerships with other countries, especially its alliance with the United States. Those vital relationships, in turn, are reasons for Australia to uphold a reputation as a secure, capable, reliable partner in the international system – a case for judicious deployments to collective international efforts like the fight against Islamic State.

We cannot protect our interests alone, yet to have the best chance of building and maintaining the partnerships we need, we must also have the credibility that comes with doing our best to provide our own security and protect our lifelines to an interconnected world.

Strategic competition

Among a widening array of risks to those lifelines, the most obvious include strategic competition in our Indo-Pacific region as China grows in strength and asserts its expanding interests while other nations' anxieties rise and and power balances respond.

At the same time, expectations on Australia as the main security provider in its troubled South Pacific neighbourhood have not gone away.
Our ability to set security priorities in dealing with these regional challenges is being dispersed by real and worsening dangers of terror and radicalisation worldwide and at home.

This confusion of challenges requires a sophisticated effort to build a new and inclusive national narrative around security and resilience.
Instead, there is a hidden fragility, a potential fragmentation of public opinion and political views, across much of the Australian security, defence and foreign policy agenda – for instance on the best ways to respond to terrorism or to strategic change in Asia.

More Australians from more places – with more than one in four of us born overseas – will mean a much more complex mosaic of views about security issues than Australian governments have needed to relate to in the past.

This will make national consensus-building on security harder. It will also make it more necessary.

Professor Rory Medcalf is Head of the National Security College. This article first appeared in the Australian Financial Review on 22 April 2015 and is republished here with permission. Image: By Allan C. Green 1878 - 1954 (State Library of Victoria [1]) via Wikimedia Commons.


Updated:  22 April 2015/ Responsible Officer:  Head of College, National Security College/ Page Contact:  Web administrator, National Security College