I see with a certain wry humour that the authors of WP2009 have found it necessary to devote an entire section to justifying geography as the fundamental shaper of WP2009’s strategy and force structure.  

Wind back to the Defence Update 2007:

Australia’s national interests are not spread uniformly across the globe, but nor do they decline in proportion to the distance from our shoreline. For the foreseeable future, we can expect there will need to be a Defence focus on security in both the Asia–Pacific and the Middle East for the reasons outlined earlier: the Asia–Pacific is our neighbourhood, while our strategic interests are vitally engaged in the Middle East. (Defence 2007, p28)

This statement was a direct counter to the DoA doctrine, which saw geography dictating how Australia would structure and deploy its forces—and by extension, exert its power and influence in the world. 

That’s not to deny geography is a factor, even a significant factor, in shaping Australia’s strategic posture, reach and capability.  To argue otherwise would be foolish: we are constrained by a physical world. 

But geography is not the only factor, and its strategic relevance is moderated by the interplay of other factors (for example, technology, economics and other human institutions).  In a dynamic, interconnected world, where globalisation and technology are increasing the capabilities and reach of state and non-state actors, geography is increasingly less a determining factor of national interests and responses, including the application of force.

So what does WP2009 say?  Amongst other points,

Taking a geographical approach to our strategic interests is not to ignore any of this – it is simply to recognise that, all other things being equal, our capacity for influence and our imperative for action are going to be a function of proximity. (Defence 2009, paragraph 5.24)

Ah.  But ‘all other things’ are never equal—that’s a false premise and hardly the grounding needed for a sound strategic policy. 

Other factors—and especially strategic interests in a dynamic security environment—demand flexibility of response, and adaptability of that response to change.  DoA denies Australian policy-makers that freedom of action, limiting what Ashby calls ‘requisite variety’ (Ashby 1957), by pinning all on geography and a maritime response.  Overly constraining the means by which an actor can respond to, or pre-empt, change in pursuit of its interests makes that actor more vulnerable to change in the environment.  We need a broadening of the diversity of tools, frameworks, and capabilities available to government—including diplomatic and aid—not a narrowing in scope, form or application.

At times—and often, given our interests and national character—it will be better to act far away for strategic effect, rather than stay home to no strategic benefit.  Denying policy-makers the strategic analysis, judgment and ability to act relevant to their age and context serves no good end. 

A white paper should provide the basis for strengthening, not retarding, enablers of future options, as well as providing for a force capable of reach, lift, strike, ground operations and support in distant arenas, when our national interests and strategic judgments dictate.

References 

Ashby, W. R. (1957). An Introduction to Cybernetics. London, Chapman and Hall Ltd.

Defence (2007). Australia’s National Security: A Defence Update 2007. Canberra, Commonwealth of Australia.

Defence (2009). Defending Australia in the Asia Pacific Century: Force 2030. Canberra.  

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