The questionable ethics of Australia's defence

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Defence White PaperVarious criticisms have been made of the Defence White Paper. One interesting criticism is the notion that defence planning should be based on a thorough analysis of the likely strategic environment in the coming decades. Planning must be based on such assumptions so that policy can be directed towards valid aims.

Apparently the major assumption behind the Government's priorities is a perception of growing Chinese domination of the Asia-Pacific region.

It is interesting, however, that no consideration seems to have been given to the ethical assumptions behind Australian defence, and to questions such as the kind of defence Australia can justly employ, what sorts of weapons and personnel this kind of defence requires, and in what circumstances the military should be deployed.

Before Labor's election in late 2007, Kevin Rudd expressed some interesting ideas about Australian politics. One was that the Australian electorate approached the Labor Party as though it were a Babushka doll.

A Babushka is a Russian doll traditionally built in multiple sets fitting one inside another. Rudd envisaged the outer layer as international security built upon the US alliance.

According to the Babushka theory, voters needed assurance about Labor's support for the alliance before they would even consider the inner policies on other matters such as management of the economy, social welfare, health, education and the environment.

The current emphasis on China suggests the Government is addressing a change in underlying policy. Rather than emphasising the importance of the US alliance, it is arguing that Australia needs to be self-reliant. This change of posture seems both to be correct and to contain the potential for efficient planning.

Whenever ethical use of a military force is considered, the notion of defence always implies 'self-defence'. While any state would be grateful to receive assistance in an emergency, the idea of external protection has obvious problems, not least of which is the potential for loss of sovereignty.

So, even though the White Paper proposes increased defence spending, if self-reliance is achieved then the policy does appeal on ethical grounds.

The US alliance has involved Australia in too many disastrous enterprises with flimsy justifications and little public support, All Australians should welcome an approach that ensures future Governments can make decisions based on consideration of the circumstances and not be tied to courting favour with a great power.

But while the White Paper has some encouraging aspects, the ethical underpinnings of Australian defence have barely been considered. There has been no community debate about the ways in which a military force can be used morally. This is just as important as predictions about the strategic environment.

There has been a vacuum in this area of policy. The Anzac tradition is so sacrosanct that it is rare for anyone to question matters of defence lest they be thought unpatriotic. It seems a matter of national identity that we lurch from one crisis to another, and young people line up to pay the price for lack of forward planning.

Because defence involves great secrecy, many people, for lack of information, simply trust governments' decisions in this area, even though they are cynical about government motivations in most other policy areas.

Ironically, when a crisis occurs, thousands of Australians express opinions about defence ethics. They march to object to participation in wars and to dissociate themselves from such commitments. Debates then rage in parliaments, the community and the mass media.

In these circumstances, meaningful dialogue is unlikely because critics of current policies can do little more than react to the agenda set by government.

When troops are being committed discussions about defence paradigms are esoteric and barely relevant. Debates centre around the current emergency and not the larger questions. Once troops are in action, many Australians postpone their dissent on principle so that the troops can feel supported.

Paradoxically, when the emergency is over, the media seems to have little interest in continuing discussion of community attitudes to defence.

Australia should be self-reliant in defence but not to the exclusion of the possibility of multilateral cooperation. While a just defence posture might require Australia's military force to be able to operate at some distance from this country, we need to have a thorough debate about the basis of deployment.

The military should be used only for reasons of self-defence and when operating under clear United Nations mandates. It should not be exploited as an agent of political ambition. These are debates we have not had. We need to have them as soon as possible.


Tony SmithTony Smith holds a PhD in political science. He has taught at several universities, most recently at the University of Sydney. 

Topic tags: tony smith, white paper, defence, us alliance, china.community debate, just war, self-defence

 

 

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Existing comments

Very interesting article, Tony. Unfortunately the majority of population in any given country tend to be reactive, just like you observed in Australia. Inherent trust, then protest if they don't like what is being done in their name.
Dewi Anggraeni | 05 May 2009


There is another reason to be cautious over the budgets Defence allocates to itself, which is the extent to which military power is used to reduce the need to engage politically and diplomatically.

Bob Hawke on coming to power opposed his party in talking directly with Indonesia. The outcome was (at least for a while) a better relationship between our two countries.

The cost of real and effective engagement between nation's leaders is far less than the money we spend on military budgets. The issue of the willingness or capability of our political leaders to conduct such engagement is a matter for the ballot, not the budget.
Richard Wilson | 06 May 2009


Damn fine article Tony,
I suspect that you don't get interviewed on the media about things political because you inspire questions that the media would not like to hear an answer to.
Fiji and China... pawn in the chess board that is the pacific. Usa is the boa constrictor .. china the victim?
Neil Castles | 06 May 2009


There is another reason to be cautious over the budgets Defence allocates to itself, which is the extent to which military power is used to reduce the need to engage politically and diplomatically.

Bob Hawke on coming to power opposed his party in talking directly with Indonesia. The outcome was (at least for a while) a better relationship between our two countries.

The cost of real and effective engagement between nation's leaders is far less than the money we spend on military budgets. The issue of the willingness or capability of our political leaders to conduct such engagement is a matter for the ballot, not the budget.
Richard Wilson | 06 May 2009


I endorse Dr Smith's call for debate on the ethics of our strategic policy and that it is difficult to stir media or public debate until we face the reality of committing troops abroad. The last good public debate was on the Iraq commitment and, as the then national president of the RSL, I was pleased that it took the lead in insisting on a stronger UN mandate, even if that did not eventuate.

In a 40 year military career, I often despaired of the lack of meaningful public discussion of the ethics of our involvement in war. White Papers are unlikely triggers for ethical debate because they look to the development of forces beyond the time frame of current or emerging threats.

Yes, the military should only be used for self-defence but that is no simple proposition. Is our commitment to Afghanistan for Australia's defence or to curry favours? Is being prepared to protect our sea lanes with the latest submarines and destroyers defensive in nature? Should we have a stronger capability to intervene in our region with expeditionary forces to keep the peace?

Debate on ethics is especially important because the world's population is set to increase by some 40% by 2050. That will create frictions and dilemmas beyond anything in our past experience.


Major General Peter R Phillips AO MC (Retd) | 10 May 2009


Babushka is Russian for grandmother. The doll of which you speak is called a 'Matryoshka' doll.


Marko | 15 May 2009


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