Saturday, March 12, 2011


Possession of a grand strategy is vital.

Nations, as well as individuals, need to understand where they are going.

I'm about to travel to Afghanistan. This column is intended as a 'bridge', moving from the entrails of Australian politics to the broader scope of strategy.


Who would have thought Julia Gillard admired America so much? Or that she thought the conservative Republican President Ronald Regan was such a great man? There’s a lot of re-writing of history going on at the moment. Nevertheless one thing’s become increasingly clear throughout the speeches – there’s not a great deal of thought behind the words. The stress is on keeping everyone happy, before moving right along. In Gillard’s world we’re irrevocably coupled to the US. She’s outsourced our strategy to Washington. The result may be good, but the thought process is worrying.

Everyone has their own grand strategy. It's how we find meaning in life. For some people, it's money. For others, work. In my case it's three wonderful children, a beautiful wife, and writing two columns a week. Kevin Rudd’s was simple: become Prime Minister. He achieved that goal once. Now the rumour mill would seem to suggest that he wants to return to the top job or has extended his ambitions to a UN career. His colleagues volunteer that he should keep his interest focussed overseas.

Gillard once claimed she found fulfilment of watching children learn to read. Given her recent polling numbers it appears that she might soon have plenty of time to fulfil that desire. Tony Abbott, like Rudd once, just wants to become PM.

Whatever you may think about these individuals, they all have crystal-clear ideas about what it is they're attempting to achieve. We might argue about the ideas of how they'd organise the world once they achieved power -- their operational method -- and, more particularly, their way of climbing to the top -- the tactical backstabbing or policy repositioning necessary to achieve the goal. But at least there can be no doubting the relentless focus these people are bringing to achieving their self-assigned missions. My desires, by comparison, appear pretty pedestrian, although I think that's to make a mistake about the way we find (and create) meaning for our life.

Countries, too, have their own grand strategies. These have often involved an individual (or a group of people) attempting to expand their power at the expense of others. It was a fear of this sort of threat that has animated Australian strategy since the colony was first founded. Extremely aware of the fragile, tenuous lifeline binding them to the Empire, the early settlers sought their refuge under the protective umbrella of the British Navy. Then, in the dark days after Pearl Harbor and the fall of Singapore to the Japanese, John Curtin turned to America. At the time it seemed to be a sensible decision, swapping one protector for another. More than 50,000 Australians (particularly aircrew as well as the 9th Division) did continue to fight the Germans in Europe, but the majority of our forces were returned to the Pacific theatre for the so-called "Battle of Australia".

Of course, the Japanese never did actually reach the mainland (although their bombers did, and Papua New Guinea was Australian territory at the time). Whether they actually could have ever invaded Australia is far more doubtful. There were, at various times, more than six divisions (including one armoured division) available to defend the country in 1942 -- as it was, the question never arose. A single battalion of militia (the 39th), later stiffened by regulars, was left to stop the enemy advance on the Kokoda Track. Despite this, the key to the country's security was the US Navy's victory at Midway. This crippled the Japanese carrier fleet and, although this reprieve was not understood at the time, was the end of any direct threat to the country.

Australia's grand strategy remained the same, but our protector had changed. Australian troops were now placed firmly under the command of a US general (Douglas MacArthur) and, over the ensuing decades, were sent to support Washington's global strategy, right up until the invasion of Iraq. Even when Rudd distinguished between the continuing deployment of our forces around Al Muthanna (south-west of Baghdad) and the "good" war in Afghanistan, there was never any real political disagreement about the fundamental basis of the alliance. The differences were around the periphery. They were operational questions about how we could "win" the war.

The question is, now, whether this grand strategy remains viable or, perhaps more specifically, whether it is actually working. Gillard's visit to Washington hasn't provided any illumination on either issue: all we've had is a restatement of the " very close ties" that link Australia and America and a thought-balloon floated about the possibility of basing significant numbers of US forces over here. Perhaps this, as much as anything else, demonstrates the extreme malleability that has now emerged in the one-time activist and now contortionist; the performance-artist formerly known as Peter Garrett. He must be utterly convinced of the extreme naïveté of the Midnight Oil lyrics that he sang with such verve in his youth. Today he's a wealthy man. He certainly had no need of the normal price, of 30 pieces of silver, to change his mind about the value of the US alliance.

As far as grand strategies go, the idea of tucking ourselves firmly beneath the warm blanket of American Security is comfortingly reassuring. There's no need to think too much about any problems, because Washington will think about them for us. It allows Gillard to mindlessly intone her ritual formula that we're in Afghanistan for the long-term while she continues to attend the funerals of diggers. As long as she wraps herself in the flag and the ultimate sacrifice of those whose lives have already been lost, no one can dare question the value of the deployment.

Unfortunately, there is increasing evidence that we're being outmanoeuvred tactically, the operational goals are not being met, and that the strategy were following in Afghanistan is a bankrupt failure. And the cost of the war, although it hasn't bankrupted America has certainly damaged the superpowers standing in the world. Together with the rise of China, India and that other nuclear-weaponed state, Pakistan, it should be obvious that the old days of relying on one mighty country for our security are drawing to a close. The uni-polar moment has passed and it's time, now, to chart our own way in the world.

That’s why Gillard’s trip to Washington is never likely to be made into a film. There’s no narrative, suspense or interest. There is a story to be told about Australia’s future relationship with the world. But no-one’s telling it at the moment.

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