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The danger in getting defensive

Former PM Paul Keating says a defence policy is not enough on its own.

Former PM Paul Keating says a defence policy is not enough on its own. Photo: Glen Campbell

It's been a long time since I've added to this blog. I've been busy.

Defence Minister Stephen Smith is much in the news these days - touted as a potential replacement PM for the embattled Julia Gillard. I'm going to leave that speculation aside, but a little snippet from the Strewth column about Smith in today's Oz caught my eye.

Smith, who was foreign minister under Kevin Rudd, told an audience in his home town of Perth that he often gets asked about the difference between the two jobs.

''It's quite easy,'' he said. ''Being defence minister is foreign policy but with assets, cash and capability."

Doubtless this was a throwaway line to lighten the mood, and close followers of Australian diplomacy will be aware of regular complaints about poor resourcing of the Foreign Affairs department - a point taken up by by DFAT chief Dennis Richardson and forcibly made in the Red Book advice to Kevin Rudd after the last election.

But if Smith has actually made something of a Freudian slip - betraying a thought that defence policy is the way to achieve foreign policy goals - well, it's time to sound the alarm.

Let's leave it to Smith's old boss, Paul Keating, to explain why.

''A defence policy is not enough on its own,'' Keating told a Perth audience, in 2009. ''It has to be woven into a view of the region and that view can only be encapsulated within a foreign policy.

''Too often, Australia has created problems for itself when its defence policy has gotten ahead of its foreign policy; Vietnam and Iraq are prime examples.''

Keating's concern was the ''ambivalent tone'' of Australia's Defence white paper, which had been released a couple of months before.

And it was the approach to China that most concerned Keating. The defence document failed ''to give us an indication as to whether it foresaw the growth of China’s military capabilities as a natural and legitimate thing for a rising economic power or whether, to the contrary, it was something we should regard as a threat and for which we should plan''.

''The fact is,'' he went on, ''Australia does not know and cannot divine what sort of new order might obtain as Chinese economic and military power grows in the face of relative American decline.  And complicating that assessment, China rising in the company of other rising regional powers.

''A region of this kind might turn out to be as peaceful and as prosperous for Australia as the one we have had since the end of the Vietnam War; a place where all powers have a role and where Australia is open to have whatever relationship it wants with any of them.  But then again it might not turn out like this.  The region may become more problematic.''

So by all means, he concluded, have contingency planning in defence policy against adverse circumstances. But with foreign policy, look out for the opportunities.

''We must always be outgoing,'' Keating said. ''We must be alert, dextrous and positive: never defensive.''

It's a speech Stephen Smith would do well to read again.

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7 comments so far

  • The ADF has failed in its mission, as Australia resources are already predominatly controlled by foreign powers. Not the ADF's fault, just our short sighted political system. Besides that we have no control over our borders. Have to admit though Keating is just spades ahead of any political leader going around on either side of the fence at the moment. The only one with an inkling is Turnbull

    Commenter
    Get Real
    Location
    New England
    Date and time
    September 02, 2011, 2:10PM
    • @ Get Real. Did you check whether your first and second sentences were consistent? You don't need to answer that, and I'll tell you why. You ignorant, ignorant git. The ADF's "mission" has nothing, repeat NOTHING, to do with any form of ADF agenda. The ADF is controlled by the government. To suggest otherwise is to have the view there is some form of coup d'etat in Australia. The ADF has no autonomous power to define a policy mission. So, to put it plainly, I find your complete ignorance of what the ADF does mind boggling (and I'm not a member of the ADF for the record). And as for the second part concerning "controlled by foreign powers". Are you even an Australian citizen with even the slightest understanding of what the Australian government policy and ADF mission profile is? Ah...now I see. A Keating fan...enough said. Don't write garbage like that if you can't take having it thrown back at you when you're utterly wrong.

      Commenter
      What the?
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      September 02, 2011, 3:26PM
      • @What the?
        Where do you read that "Get Real" thinks the ADF is NOT controlled by the government...?
        You say you are not a member, wish you were may be?
        And then the old chestnut about being a Keating fan, if you could get out of your warren, travel outside the country and talk to people, you would find out that good old Paul is the only one, repeat, the only one in the last 50 years (I won't even go further than that...) that "registers on the screens".
        But may be you prefer your prime ministers to be much shorter and wear yellow and green track suits. Each to their own after all.

        Commenter
        Jean-Luc
        Date and time
        September 02, 2011, 6:44PM
        • Couldn't China's growing militarization be both a legitimate thing for a growing economic power and a potential threat. One does not automatically rule out the other. The problem with defense white papers is that they always get blindsided by reality. Nobody telegraphs and aggessive intention 10 years in advance so that it can be prepared for. That would be the height of stupidity. Followed only by planning your defence needs on that basis.

          Commenter
          Thoughtful
          Location
          Sydney
          Date and time
          September 05, 2011, 4:40PM
          • It is quite simple. Australia is a very large country with very few people, a long way from anywhere of importance. This makes Australia both impossible to invade and impossible to defend. So we don't really have to worry too much about defending ourselves from an invasion, and I think that this is what most people think of when they think of "defence". We do, however, have some valuable (and vulnerable) assets, like the gas reserves on the North-West Shelf and our southern fisheries and it may be necessary from time to time to defend these with military force. As Keating points out, military defence is only one part of the national security mix. Our diplomatic corps is far more important to our security than any number of submarines, Joint Strike Fighters or Abrahms tanks. And this is why HV (Doc) Evatt should be celebrated as a national hero. His pivotal role in the establishment of the United Nations transformed Australia from a discarded colony to a significant international player and put as at the centre of efforts to ensure security and stability for the citizens of all the worlds nations. Another hero, Gough Whitlam, defied political correctness and engaged Australia with China and the rest of South-East Asia. And Keating himself, with his advocacy for the establishment of APEC, extended this engagement. It is easy to make the mistake of believing that the secret of defence is more military power. The US, unfortunately, is experiencing the downside of this approach at the moment (they're broke). Diplomacy and positive engagement with our negihbours will keep us safer than any army possibly could.

            Commenter
            v
            Date and time
            November 03, 2011, 2:31PM
            • @Thoughful: This is why the ADF employs intelligence analysts. Their job is to watch the conduct of foreign powers and identify behaviours that may constitute a future threat to our security. It is also why progressive Australian governments favour positive engagement and diplomacy. The simple fact is that if we were attacked by China, there is very little that we could do to defend ourselves. Australia is too large and too far away from anywhere of importance to defend, but these traits also make it impossiuble to invade.

              One thing is certain: simply following along on the coat tails of the US as it embarks on its disastrously inept military adventures is unlikely to enhance our security and may well threaten it. We should concentrate our military defences on our strategic, offshore resources and redirect much of the military defence budget into civil defence. Quite a few Australian citizens have been killed byu natural disasters in Australia over the past few years, but it is difficult to remember the last time an Australian citizen was killed on Australian soil by foriegn military agression (you have to go all the way back to the bombing of Darwin, Broome etc by the Japanese during WW2).

              Commenter
              v
              Date and time
              November 03, 2011, 2:57PM
              • Get real,

                You are right - politicians and leaders like Keating don't come along every day. He is still the only one of our past Prime Ministers who could be called a "great leader" in the mold of Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela or Fidel Castro. And don't worry, those of us who are capable of reading AND UNDERSTANDING, can see that your first and second sentences are perfectly consistent. The primary purpose of the ADF is to defend Australia's strategic resources. As you point out, most of our strategic resources are already controlled by foreign corporations and in this sense, the vast somes of money spent on military defence over the decades has been wasted. But the thing is, you can't defend these vital resources through military force because the greatest threat to them is commercial, no tmilitary, in nature. The proposed resource rent tax will be more effective in defending our national interests than any number of submarines or theoretically airworthy US figher jets. And the really good thing is that this sort of defence cost us nothing, in fact it will bring us extra income by using our mineral wealth to fund development in other areas of the economy,. And, of course, the brave action of QANTAS pilots, who are taking a stand against the theft of our national airline deserve the support of every loyal Australian.

                @What the: hatred and small-mindedness are neither attractive to observers or of benefit to the hater. These forums are meant for grown-ups who have the maturity to debate issues without throwing gratuitous and clumsy insults. I think that you have some growing up to do.

                Commenter
                v
                Date and time
                November 03, 2011, 3:47PM

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