James Curran Fighting With America: Why Saying No to the US Wouldn’t Rupture the Alliance (Lowy Institute Penguin Special, Penguin Random House Australia 2016 154 pp.)
Adam Lockyer Australia’s Defence Strategy: Evaluating Alternatives for a Contested Asia (Melbourne University Press, 2017, 320 pp.)
Each of these books is worth reading, if you have any interest in Australian defence and security. Both are timely, lucid, scholarly and readable. The first is a handy introduction to current debates about the ANZUS alliance, China and our security, which avoids over heated language and shows a deft familiarity with the scholarly literature. The second is something of a tour de force on strategic thinking as such in Australia. It could have benefited from a little editing to clean up typographical errors and infelicities of expression, but it provides an unusually incisive critique of the history and theory of defence strategy in Australia. It also offers the elements of a fresh approach, against the background of emerging strategic realities.
Lockyer’s book is much the more important of the two. A twice the length of Curran’s book, it covers a great deal more ground. Whereas Curran focuses almost entirely on the history of Australia’s alliance with the United States; Lockyer sets our strategic choices in the far wider context of the great power aspirations of India, Indonesia and Japan, as well as China and the United States. He critically re-examines a hundred years of strategic thinking in this country. He creates an analytical framework for evaluating all the main competing schools of thought on our contemporary defence strategy. He finds all of them wanting and suggests a new defence strategy which has a good deal to recommend it.
Curran’s book is significant because it will enable whoever reads it to put into fairly well-informed perspective the extravagant language we have been getting from a number of our elder statesmen in recent years, to the effect that the ANZUS alliance has reached its use by date, that we should distance ourselves from the United States and move closer to China. The late Malcolm Fraser lobbied for this in his last years and wrote a whole book on the subject. Paul Keating, in his Keith Murdoch Oration in 2013, urged that we cut adrift from the Anglosphere and ‘strike out on our own’ – by making Indonesia our new ‘great and powerful friend’. John Brumby, Bob Carr and Stephen Fitzgerald have been insisting that we now live in ‘a Chinese world’ and need to turn our attention increasingly to Beijing.
Curran’s position, set out very early in his short book, is that we have had our differences with the United States in the past and are likely to have increasing differences with them in the future, especially as regards the rivalries of the great powers in East Asia and the Western Pacific. He does not, however, suggest that we go so far as to break off the alliance in the ill-considered manner urged by Fraser and Keating. What we need, if we are to stake out a new position, he argues, is a better common understanding of the history of the relationship. He quotes Henry Kissinger’s World Order (2014) on the need for security affairs to be grounded in more depth of perspective than Twitter or Facebook – or the impetuous outbursts of elder statesmen. He positions himself modestly, by quoting the respected Australian historian Keith Hancock, from back in 1954, that the historian is not someone who ‘knows all the answers’, but simply someone who ‘has come to grips with a few very difficult questions.’ He urges that we do attempt to do so now.
This stance is refreshing to read in the work of a rising young historian, after the rhetorical excesses of so many much older public figures. Like too many other debates in recent years, the one over the American alliance one risks becoming unmoored from serious thinking about ‘very difficult questions’. Not the least virtue of Curran’s book is that it is studiously non-partisan. There is no shrill invective, rhetorical overkill or ideological cant in it. Indeed, he shows even-handedly how the same public figures who like now to roundly denounce the United States for its ‘foreign adventurism’ have in the past enthusiastically backed American power. Paul Keating declared to Fran Kelly, in 1994, that Desert Storm, in 1990, should not have stopped at liberating Kuwait. It should have gone all the way to Baghdad and overthrown Saddam Hussein. A more partisan book might have passed over such an episode in silence.
Curran concludes his historical reflection with three general observations: that, in the Trump era, we need to disabuse senior US policy makers of the notion that Australian support can be taken for granted; that it is time to re-examine our alliance with fresh eyes in order for it to last well into the 21st century; and that we need to be smarter in our rhetoric and ‘less prone to sonorous declarations of support than to hard thinking informed by a greater sense of history.’ His argument is largely persuasive. If, however, we are to do these things, we need more than the brief historical survey he has provided. We need something like Adam Lockyer’s sustained reflection on our own strategic tradition, the emerging strategic environment and the realistic defence strategy options among which we need to choose.
Lockyer dedicated his book to his father, WO1 Phil Lockyer, who enlisted in the Royal Australian Infantry on 25 March 1970 and ‘now, after four and a half decades of continuous service, is one of the last remaining Vietnam veterans still serving in the Australian Army’. He issued a vote of thanks, in his Acknowledgements, to Professor Alan Dupont, ‘one of Australia’s most prominent defence thinkers’, under whose tutelage, at the University of New South Wales, he did the research that forms the basis for his book. These statements might have signalled a partisan stance, but he is strikingly dispassionate and fair-minded in his overview of the field:
I found myself convinced by Professor Paul Dibb over breakfast, swayed by Professor Hugh White during lunch and persuaded by Professor Michael Evans over dinner. Being pulled in so many directions prompted the central question of this book: how would we know a ‘good’ defence strategy if we saw one?
He offers, in this book, a clear and practical set of ideas about how we might in fact know a good strategy if we saw one. He applies these ideas to the various competing schools of thought, concludes that there is ‘still considerable work to be done to develop a good defence strategy for Australia’; then proposes what he suggests might actually be a good strategy, evaluated against the criteria he has set out.
His argument is refreshing in that it combines history, game theory, geography, geopolitics and economics in an incisive critique of all the contending approaches that have been offered for many years now in Australian defence debates. He identifies these as the Defence of Australia school, with variants espoused by Paul Dibb and Hugh White; the Flexible Deterrence school of Ross Babbage; the Status Quo school, with variants espoused by Michael Evans and Rory Medcalf; and the Security school articulated by Alan Dupont. He finds fault with all of them, including the thinking of his own mentor, Alan Dupont. He then reframes the debate and argues that we need to distinguish between defence of continental Australia as our ultimate strategic interest and prevention of a threat to continental Australia as our primary strategic objective. The latter, not the former, should be what drives our defence strategy, he argues and he sketches out a new approach to how this might be done in the emerging strategic environment.
He calls his new approach a ‘Corbettian maritime denial strategy’, after the British naval historian and strategic theorist Julian Corbett (1854-1922). Corbett differed radically from the famous Alfred Thayer Mahan in arguing that naval force was best used to control sea lanes and blockade ports, rather than to fight massive naval battles to destroy the enemy’s force in being. Lockyer’s argument is that Australia should develop a maritime strategy centred on the Indo-Pacific Arc (across our northern perimeter) and the Melanesian Arc (across the South West Pacific), rather than areas further abroad. Above all, we should focus on denial of control of the Malacca Strait or of the seaways on either side of it to any would-be hegemonic power. Our air and land forces should be configured to support such a strategy, including the development of amphibious assault forces for seizing key chokepoints along such sea lanes in the event of crisis or conflict.
The way in which he arrives at this prescription is impressive. His analytical framework is transparent and his way of assessing the merits of various strategies is a judicious mixture of the empirical, the probabilistic and the game theoretic. The breadth of his reading is outstanding and it is clear that he has read not in order to buttress a preconceived theory, but in order to think more deeply and break new ground. His book is a genuinely thought-provoking introduction to the great strategic debate we have to have. Indeed, there has probably never been a better such introduction.