Skip navigation
The Australian National University

New thinking about Australian security.

Australia faces the challenge of identifying emerging risks and the new patterns of cooperation needed to mitigate them.

Below is the edited text of Professor Medcalf's public seminar "New Thinking about Australian Security", delivered in Brisbane on 18 September 2015.

Ladies and Gentlemen

I acknowledge the traditional owners of this land, the Turrbal and Jagera peoples, and pay respect to their elders past and present.

I welcome you to this public lecture to introduce the work of the National Security College at the Australian National University.

Today, it seems fairly natural to talk about something called national security.

Unfortunately, the term ‘national security’ is at risk of becoming easy and divisive shorthand in the Australian public debate.

Its proponents invoke the term to privilege a range of issues - from the prevention of illegal migration through to countering terrorism, building warships - in Adelaide - and explaining the purpose of military operations overseas.

National security, in this view, requires extraordinary measures, a high degree of secrecy, the exercise of executive power, strong funding, and an acceptance of risk and burden in the name of the greater good.

The term’s critics, on the other hand, also find it a convenient and multi-purpose formulation.

Too often, they deploy it to deplore it – to dismiss and demonise the policy measures enacted in its name.

They use national security as a catch-all for policies and decisions that - they claim - should be rejected as a needless affront to civil liberties, humanitarian goals, and the rights and needs of the many to enjoy untroubled lives.

The critics portray national security as a policy imperative that is the opposite of democracy, of liberty, of compassion.

This is a shame, because security is the first duty of government.

And security, including securely managed borders, is essential for a nation before it can confidently and credibly take action to help others.

On balance, it’s safe to assume that national security is a popular catch cry.

Polling, such as by the Lowy Institute, shows solid majorities in favour of such measures as data retention to combat terrorism and of military action against Islamic State.

Even so, significant minorities are broadly uncomfortable with the direction of policy, and understandably concerned when the rhetoric of national security becomes mingled with specific interpretations of Australian nationalism.

So, we have a problem.

We have parallel monologues on security, instead of what we need - a national conversation.

And this at a time when, by any objective measure, there are real and accumulating risks to Australia’s security interests.

And when our expansive national interests in an interconnected world, our lifelines, outweigh our ability to protect them single-handedly.

Of course, in a democracy, it is neither realistic nor right to expect absolute unity of perspective and purpose – even in the face of threat.

Even so, 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 risk.

Terrorism is probably not the greatest of those risks in the long run.

But it is the most immediate threat, and any government would be grossly remiss to not counter it.

Whatever criticism may be made about the politics of national security under the former Abbott Government, it is important that we form our judgments on the basis of actual policy, not on rhetoric.

In my view, it is reasonable to assume that another government in the past two years would have ended up with a similar set of policy measures, even if they might have explained them in a more inclusive and consultative manner.

Proof of this lies in the bipartisan way Australia is learning to approach counter- terrorism and countering violent extremism.

Australia’s recent counter-terrorism strategy document, titled Strengthening our Resilence, was released by the Council of Australian Governments, federal, state, territory, and local. It was based on the informed advice of security agencies, not on ideology or a quest for partisan advantage.

Now it is worth remembering why terrorism is a unique kind of 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 pursuing the prevention of – and building physical and psychological resilience against - the next terrorist plots on Australian soil must and will remain a priority for governments.

Notably, the new Prime Minister’s first briefing this week was from ASIO.

In countering terrorism, there’s little question that counter-radicalisation and showing the hollowness and falsehood of the extremist narrative are essential tasks.

But even the best efforts on these fronts will take patient investments of time and trust.

In the meantime, it is imperative not only to minimise the number of Australians attracted to the terrorist cause – at home or overseas – but to minimise the harm they can do.
Right now 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 terrorist attack in Australia is what could happen the day after? We don’t really know how resilient our society is and we don’t want to find out the hard way.

The question then becomes how to maximise the security community’s chance of success in preventing terrorist violence, without neutralising the nation’s long-term capacity to demonstrate, through its own values, the falsehoods of terrorist propaganda.

It’s fine to criticize counter-terrorism measures in the name of democratic freedoms. But in so doing, it is incumbent on the critics to offer their best ideas on how to reduce the chances of terror attacks, or to acknowledge a willingness to risk those attacks and their impact on the very qualities of social tolerance and trust that they cherish.

But there is also a wider landscape of risk and response that must define Australian security in the years and decades ahead.

I will offer a brief survey of that security environment, and then return to some questions about how best we can manage and moderate its impact.

This endeavour is very much in step with the work of the National Security College, which I have been privileged to lead since the beginning of this year.

The College does not get an enormous amount of press, which is fine because much of our work occurs behind the scenes.

Since we were established in 2010 we have trained large numbers of personnel in the Australian national security community – including civilian officials, defence personnel and police, both federal and state, including from this state.

We do this through short courses that encourage fresh thinking about today’s and tomorrow’s challenges, and build a cooperative, whole-of-government approach to managing them.

We also have a strong and growing academic program, equipping a new generation of scholars, of Masters and PhD students, to think critically and in depth about these issues.

We prepare people for careers as policymakers and practitioners in the security community, or as the informed watchers it needs.

And we are becoming known as a trusted broker for policy engagement.

For instance, this year we have convened a range of government consultations, such as with the business community on cyber security, or with independent experts on the future operating environment for the Australian Defence Force.

All of this is consistent with the nation-building ethos that inspired the founding of the Australian National University.

My commitment to the college as a national institution, and a partnership between the University and the Commonwealth, is that we will foster effective, innovative and inclusive approaches to national security.

This means helping to ensure that the Australian national security community – with its diverse departments and agencies - remains informed, connected and responsive in a world of change.

And to help in that mission we are expanding the college’s engagement with business and the wider Australian community. This is one reason my colleagues and I are here today.

An essential step in thinking about security is to have a clear sense of what we are seeking to protect.

To repeat, security is the first duty of government.

But the security of what?

The answer has changed before and will no doubt change again.

There is a rich debate about what precisely are the national interests, and national values, that require protection and advancement in the name of security.

As for Australian governments and their officials, at least since Prime Ministers Rudd and Gillard, and probably well before that, they think about our security interests as very broad indeed.

This is not – in my view – an indiscriminate ‘securitisation’ of every issue imaginable, simply in order to justify secrecy, spending and special measures.

That said, yes, a few fewer flags around the place won’t hurt, if the aim is to create a more inclusive community mindset around security.

Accepting a broad and encompassing way of thinking about our security is not meant to marginalise other issues or to unduly alarm us for political reasons.

Instead, it is what most of the population has come to expect of government in handling the uncertainties and complexities of a globalised, connected world.

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

National security is no longer the simple formula of last century, when it was mostly about protecting sovereignty from foreign attack or subversion.

It is now about more than protecting territorial integrity or individual Australian lives.

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 - a country that cannot simply advance its interests through influence, coercion and force.

It is about preserving national freedom, including independence of action, societal cohesion, and a democratic political system.

To protect and advance such extensive interests - so much larger than our national capabilities - we will need partnerships with other countries including, but not only, our ally the United States.
A connected world places a premium on partnership – among nations, with the community, and the private sector.

Those partnerships are in turn reasons 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, upholding its values - such as a fair go - in the context of a rules-based order and respecting the rule of law.
Such international credibility as a security partner – credibility, reliability, reputation – is a national interest in itself.

It is also a precious national asset. And the best way to preserve a reputation is to take action when it proves warranted.

That is one reasons why, for instance, 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 forceful, targeted action against the extremists whose brutality many of those people are fleeing.

How can we manage the mix and balance of our commitment to fighting terrorism and stemming the cascade of disorder in the Middle East? This includes whether and how Australia can realistically achieve a meaningful strategic effect. That is the question, not whether we have right or reason to contribute in the first place.

Meanwhile, our greatest strategic challenges are very much in the realm of geopolitics closer to home, in our Indo-Pacific region.

They are related to changing balances of power, the use of force, and the way in which planning for our future may be frustrated by the interests, concerns and destabilising behaviour of other states.  That is what strategy is about.

A vital interest for us is to preserve a rules-based order internationally, especially in our vast and dynamic Indo-Pacific maritime region, which is the new global centre of economic and strategic gravity.

This is the very order that is being eroded by the uncertainties around China’s growing military power and its patterns of affronting, acquisitive behaviour in the global maritime and cyber commons.

That behaviour is something that should seriously concern our business community and the wider public, not just our professional security caste.

This issue relates not only to the manufacture of militarised islands in the disputed South China Sea, or displays of power intended to shake confidence in the system of US alliances upon which regional order has relied.

The problem also relates to the widely reported theft of information from business and government in many countries. It has reportedly occurred on a massive scale in the United States. There is every reason to assume that we face this risk in Australia too.

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

Or, if we need to call out the concerning aspects of China’s actions beyond its borders, why will later be any better than sooner?

And what are we prepared to do, beyond words?

Another question is whether our efforts to build a deeper and durable economic and political relationship with China - with all its own internal uncertainties - should be offset or indeed more than 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 powers to uphold a rules-based order in the region. Alongside the US alliance, we are right to be strengthening our security ties with the likes of Japan, India and Singapore – and to be looking for every opportunity to do so with Indonesia.

This is not about ‘containment’, the word often used by Chinese commentators to criticise the hardly offensive idea of other countries talking to and cooperating with one another.

It is about the perfectly normal strategic behaviour of balancing. It is about hedging against adverse future contingencies, however unlikely they may seem.

And interestingly, whatever media speculation there may be about our new Prime Minister’s views on China, hedging is a strategy he has previously and publicly endorsed.

Hedging does not mean positioning ourselves half way between China and the United States. It means guarding against bad possibilities – that a powerful China may use its power in ways contrary to our interests, or that stumbles in China’s rise also bring risks and uncertainties.

Containment is entirely the wrong word for this prudent balancing strategy. Containment is a word misappropriated from the Cold War, when the US and its allies sought to weaken the Soviet Union including by hurting it economically.

Australia and its partners are hardly seeking to contain or weaken China economically. We are connected with China economically and through society, and we are trying to build better security understandings with Beijing.

Of course, we should have balance and options in our strategic settings.

In a complex, uncertain, deeply connected world, vulnerable to shocks that can cascade rapidly across borders, our watchwords need to be resilience, adaptability and diversification.

Incidentally, these same principles ought to be applied to future defence planning - which is a reason why paying multi-billion dollar premiums to build warships and submarines in Australia could well prove to be a misplaced priority in national security terms. Simply put, building them in Australia will cost many billions of dollars more than building them elsewhere.

That money could be put to other purposes that would be good for national security but also for national wellbeing more broadly. For instance, it could go a long way towards investing in new defence capabilities and technologies – in space, cyber and unmanned, autonomous systems – to ensure we are at the winning edge of disruptive change.

Or some of that money could go towards building national resilience, competitiveness and wellbeing in ways that would contribute to security as a side-effect to other priorities, such as investment in education and infrastructure.

Instead, we’re seeing the wrong kind of bipartisanship on this issue. By all means, our future Navy ships and submarines should be fully sustained in Australia – and that itself will generate jobs.

But national security and the national interest do not seem to be paramount considerations in the debate at present.

Either way, Australia needs to be braced for strategic shocks in our Indo-Pacific region - and as a nation we will not be able to hide when they occur.

Geopolitics is back. And this is not just about rise of China, it is about the attitudes and actions of other powers too, Russia, Japan and India among them.

Of course, the idea of a strategic breakdown in Asia, and the possibility that we might ever find ourselves in a confrontation with our largest trading partner, is deeply uncomfortable for many Australians.

We would rather not think about it.

But what we cannot avoid thinking about on a daily basis is domestic security. A vital interest for us is to preserve the trust and tolerance that underpin our multicultural society.

This is the very cohesion that is threatened by those who would spread fear and cruelty in the name of the misnamed Islamic State.

In such a way we are understandably becoming more like some of our Asian neighbours – treating the prevention of domestic disturbance and communal strife as a security priority of the highest order.

Another interest we have become accustomed to upholding is in stability in our neighbourhood of the South Pacific, a region with disturbing trendlines in governance, human development, environmental pressures and crime.

The relative success of Australian interventions in East Timor, Bougainville and the Solomon Islands has created a burden of expectation – that we will always be the security provider of last, perhaps even first, resort, whatever our  problems internationally or at home.

This is an expectation we will need carefully to manage in the years ahead, including as the future of Bougainville is potentially reopened around an independence referendum in the years ahead.

Some other major concerns are justifiably becoming entwined with national security.

Prominent among these are the preservation of the conditions for national prosperity and wellbeing, such as the security of our energy supply lines and the protection of critical infrastructure.

Australia’s security is now entwined with its lifelines: flows of trade, investment, information and people to and from the rest of the world.  No island is an island anymore.

There seems an alarming lack of awareness in the wider community about our profound and growing dependence on cyberspace, not only for information and communication but also to sustain our material wellbeing.

The internet is now the internet of things and on its way to becoming the internet of everything.

Yet the dependence of our real economy, our real society, our real polity on the digital economy is yet to translate into a truly concerted national effort – involving comprehensive coordination among the private sector, state governments and the Commonwealth – to secure this critical interest.

Our future wellbeing, including economic competitiveness, rests on ensuring a national cyber-security edge.

Politics and culture mean that security debates related to terrorism and extremism are going to be divisive unless handled with exceptional sensitivity.

Cyber security, on the other hand, seems an issue ready-made for national consensus and big initiatives to anticipate and minimise future risk.

Here we have a security issue ready made for a government focused on innovation, the future and our national competitive edge.

Here is a security issue that is about unity and partnership, with a lead role for the private sector.

A national cyber security strategy should involve major investment in the cyber skills our banks, telecommunications providers and security agencies increasingly need.

That is why the government’s whole-of-nation cyber security review this year has been an important process, and one that unfortunately tends to receive much less media attention than steps or missteps on counter-terrorism and border protection.

It is to be hoped that the new Prime Minister, with his well-known focus on and knowledge of matters to do with communications and innovation, will recognise the finalisation of a cyber strategy as an urgent priority.

To recapitulate: Australia’s security interests are large and growing, our security capabilities are not keeping pace and there is a premium on partnerships to guard our interests in an uncertain world.

Those partnerships need to be with other nations, with the private sector and across the spectrum of the Australian community – hence the need for national security leadership focused on mobilizing greater unity through levelling with the public and explaining the challenges.

As a nation, we need a capacity constantly to refresh and improve our thinking on how global trends will intersect with our interests.

Those trends include the security impacts of such diverse yet interacting phenomena as disruptive technologies, social media, demographic change, resurgent nationalism, religious identity, energy demand, resource pressures, environmental degradation and climate change. And yes, the effects of climate change are a national security issue.

The most innovative thinking on these issues will not come from government or intelligence agencies alone. The shape of the future is a mystery, not a secret that can be crafted, stolen or protected.

So an institution like the National Security College, at the crossroads of academia, the public debate and policy, is well-placed to convene the creative and inclusive conversations about strategic foresight that Australia needs.

The challenge is to identify emerging risks and the new patterns of cooperation we will need to mitigate them. Now is a time for new and inclusive thinking about Australia’s security. Thank you.

Download (PDF)

 

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