Imagine what we could have bought with the $270 billion the Prime Minister has committed to defence spending over the next decade.
But at least a bigger military can only make us safer, right?
In fact, there is a trade-off involved that goes beyond opportunity cost. It's a mistake to suppose that a more powerful Defence Force is bound to make an unequivocally positive contribution to the national security of its parent society.
Several years ago, researchers designed an experiment called the "Pre-emptive Strike Game". Each player was given a red button and a certain amount of money to start with, and then paired up against an opponent. The pairs were told that if neither of them pressed their button after one minute, both would go home with the full endowment. On the other hand, if one player did press their button, he/she would lose a small amount of their money, but the other would lose significantly more.
Half of the participants pressed their red buttons, even though this cost them. Why? Fear, of course. Even though pressing the button was harmful to these players, inaction carried the risk of substantially greater losses. Those who struck first did so to protect themselves against the worst-case scenario of their counterparty beating them to it, and thus depriving them of even more. The red buttons created an environment in which "defensive aggression" was rife.
What we often overlook is that military establishments are the big red buttons of the international system. They can deter some of our adversaries, no doubt. But they can also unintentionally provoke others by heightening their fears and insecurities.
In this respect, maintaining a powerful military might be likened to openly carrying a firearm into a gathering where some people are homicidal bandits, and others are highly paranoid. Both groups pose a threat, but they have different triggering conditions. The visibility of your firearm might rule you out as a target for the first group, but it simultaneously makes you a target for the second group; the more they fear you, the more likely they are to attack you.
International society is like this gathering; some states are "greedy" while others are "vulnerable". Some look for opportunities to gain and pounce when they find them, while others are concerned about protecting what they have. By massively increasing the size and strength of our military forces, we might deter the former, but we also risk provoking the latter. Militaries can induce the very behaviour they are meant to forestall.
There is no shortage of historical cases in point, from ancient to modern times. In the 2nd century BC, the rapid growth of Carthage's military made Rome fearful that it would be conquered by its old foe before too long. To ensure this would never happen, Rome annihilated Carthage in an unprovoked attack. Fast forward to 2003, when the US and its allies attacked Iraq ostensibly because it was hiding weapons of mass destruction. In these cases, and myriad others in between, one side attacks the other not despite its military capabilities, but precisely because of them.
One might be tempted to interject that our increases in military spending could not possibly provoke such actions, because as the Prime Minister emphasised in his address this week, we not only respect the sovereignty of other countries but champion it. That may be so. But people tend to overestimate the extent to which their thoughts and motives "leak out" and are apparent to observers. Psychologists call it the "illusion of transparency". It means that the peace-lovingness of the Australian government is probably not quite as obvious to other actors in the region as it is to us. And given some of our most recent military misadventures, who could blame them?
The Prime Minister assures us that these increased defence capabilities will help mitigate "the full range of current and future threats" to this country and its interests. Not quite. It does not mitigate those dangers we create precisely by massively expanding our offensive military capabilities in world full of paranoid regimes.
- Ned Dobos is Senior Lecturer in International & Political Studies at UNSW Canberra and an associate director of the International Society for Military Ethics, Asia-Pacific Chapter.