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The Australian National University

Defending our interests and a rules-based international order.

Taking in Syrian refugees is one big reminder of Australia's commitment to global order in a post-9/11 world, writes Roryr Medcalf.

Australia is afflicted by parallel monologues on security, when what we need is a national conversation. 

Most of us - and for now there is bipartisanship on this in Canberra - recognise security as the first duty of government.

Without a large measure of security, including in managing borders, it is impossible for a nation to help others in a credible or sustainable way.

Yet s significant minority deploy the term national security in order to deplore it as a political imperative that is somehow the opposite of democracy, of liberty, of compassion.

As a middle power with limited resources, we need to strive towards a high degree of consensus in the way we perceive or respond to what is an accumulation of security risk.

Terrorism is probably not the greatest of those risks in the long run. But it is the most immediate threat.

Whatever criticism may be made about the politics of national security under the Abbott Government, Australia’s recent counter-terrorism strategy document - released by the Council of Australian Governments, Federal, State, Territory, and Local  - was based on the informed advice of security agencies, not on ideology. It is about resilience, not partisan advantage.

And on September 11, it is worth remembering why terrorism is a unique threat.

Beyond the ugly metrics of lives taken and trauma inflicted, terrorism is intended to shred the fabric of two great virtues - trust and tolerance - that go such a long way to defining this nation’s identity and success.

That is why the most pressing national security priority must be to prevent atrocities of a kind that could gravely damage social harmony in a multicultural Australia. What should concern us as much as the next possible terrorist attack in Australia is what could happen the day after.

The question becomes how to maximise the security community’s chance of success in preventing terrorist violence, without neutralising those democratic, inclusive qualities of our society that help give the lie to terrorist propaganda.

The daily reality of interconnectedness – in our lives, in our economy, in our communications - compels us to think about security interests in broad terms. 

The expansive version of national security today includes maintaining the kind of international, transnational and domestic order that serves our interests as a middle power.

To protect and advance such extensive interests - so much larger than our national capabilities - we will need partnerships with other countries.

Those partnerships are reason for Australia to uphold a reputation as a secure, capable, reliable contributor to the international system.

We need to be seen as a country that is serious about protecting its interests and upholding its values - such as a fair go - in the context of a rules-based order and respect for the rule of law.

That is one reason why it is in Australia’s interests to take an enlightened and magnanimous approach to accepting refugees from Syria. This is not at odds with firm policies on border protection or targeted action against the extremists whose brutality so many of those people are fleeing.

The question is how to manage the mix and balance of our commitment to fighting terrorism and stemming the cascade of disorder in the Middle East – including whether and how Australia can achieve a meaningful strategic effect.

Meanwhile, our greatest long-term security challenges may well lie in the geopolitics of our Indo-Pacific region.

A vital interest for us is to preserve a rules-based international order. This is being eroded by the uncertainties around China’s growing power and its affronting, acquisitive behaviour in the global maritime and cyber commons.

That is something that should concern our business community and the public. Tis issue relates not only to the manufacture of militarised islands in the disputed South China Sea.

It also relates to the reported theft of sensitive information from business and government in many countries. There is every reason to assume we are far from immune.

A critical question for Australia, as a nation, is whether we should quietly accept the erosion of the conditions underscoring our security and freedom of action.

Another question is whether our efforts to build a deeper relationship with China should be offset by efforts to diversify our strategic and economic equities in Asia and globally.

Australia has every reason to take the diplomatic initiative in building new coalitions of nations to uphold a rules-based order.

This is not about ‘containing’ China. It is about the prudent strategic behaviour of balancing. Containment is the wrong word, misappropriated from the Cold War. We are hardly seeking to weaken China economically, and we are simultaneously trying to build security understandings with Beijing.

Terrorism and the security tensions around China’s rise are two of many risks crowding our national security horizon. To manage these challenges in the years ahead, Australia will need resilience, partners and an inclusive national security conversation that rises beyond both politics and complacency.

Professor Rory Medcalf is Head of the National Security College at the Australian National University. This is an extract from a speech he will deliver in Sydney today that first appeared in the Australian Financial Review on 11 September 2015 and is republished here with permission.

 

Updated:  9 October 2015/ Responsible Officer:  Head of College, National Security College/ Page Contact:  Web administrator, National Security College