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General Sir David Richards’ Chatham House speech touches on a number of themes that should have been inculcated in the Australian Defence White Paper.  These are not new themes, even in the Australian context; they include some of the thinking behind the Defence Update of two years ago.

Richards says

…our generation is in the midst of a paradigm shift, is facing its own ‘horse and tank’ moment if you like, born in our era chiefly but not exclusively of the global revolution in communications and associated technology. The result is that the way even state on state warfare will manifest itself has changed fundamentally.

He argues that ‘conflicts with dissatisfied and violent non-state actors are here for the long term’ and while the British Army, at least, is okay at fighting such wars, it needs to get better at doing so.  State-on-state warfare is likely to remain a possibility, but it’s shape and nature will change, becoming more like the current wars against insurgents, proxies and non-state actors: there is a ‘virtuous congruence, between non-state and inter-state war’.  Like US Defence Secretary Gates, he argues for a better balance: conventional capability should not be abandoned, but nor should it remain the predominant shaper of capability:

…an intelligent opponent will not be impressed by capabilities which can readily be made irrelevant through the adoption of asymmetric tactics or technology….Those who seek to continue investment in traditional forms of conflict at the expense of the new fail to understand the degree to which inter-state dynamics have changed since the Cold War.

Afghanistan he sees as a ‘non-discretionary war’.  In this I tend to depart a tad from his thesis: the larger trends and dynamics, which Richards himself has touched on, should not be obscured by a focus on Afghanistan. Patrick Porter (who provided the lead on the speech) also notes the doomed-if-we-do-and-doomed-if-we-don’t nature of the argument over Afghanistan.  Not only should we rethink warfare, but rethink what constitutes success and failure—at the strategic level these are not always, and rarely over the long-term, defined in purely military terms.

One of the inherent problems with the Government’s national security agenda is its shopping list approach to national security.  Phenomena, both social and natural, are lumped in together.

Yet many of the problems now described as national security concerns are, at their heart, governance issues.  True, at one end of the spectrum—failed and failing states—governance and security are inseparable.  And policy-makers should always be aware that bad decisions have consequences for the safety and security of their citizens and the strength of their society.  But that’s what good governance is.

Securitising governance issues, rather than strengthening the government’s ability to respond and deal with them, can actually detract from national strength and security.  Securitising issues implies new rules and behaviours and measures of successful outcomes must be applied.

It redirects efforts to a more nationalistic approach, risking a bunkering mentality.

It implies supra-national problems can be solved by securing borders, favouring a garrison mentality.

It can become a self-referential practice—disease, for example, becomes a security issue not because a threat exists but because disease itself is presented as a security threat.

It is a reflexive response to the complexity of globalisation, rewarding inward-looking behaviours and controls as substitutes for government’s inability to tackle multi-dimensional trans-national phenomena.

And it rewards urgency—if it’s considered a security issue, it must be dealt with quickly, regardless of the cost—over the slower, much less sexy, evolution of institutions, people and societies.

These behaviours and understandings all distort measures of good governance.    Often the easiest and quickest response needed to ‘secure’ Australia is the one prioritised…and then the government’s attention moves on to the next urgent ‘national security problem’ competing for attention and resources.

Rather than securitising disease, for example, through prioritising border controls—an immediate and tangible response—more effort should be made to invest in the (long, slow) research needed for the new generation of antibiotics (for example), the (long, often slow) improvement of conditions, public health and alert systems in countries where pandemics are most likely to emerge, and the (long, often arduous) strengthening of international co-operation.

And surely climate change—predictions of imminent disaster, as per The Day After Tomorrow, aside; they rarely if ever match reality—can be handled through civilian planning and good governance rather than a fall-back to a short-term military ‘operational planning’ approach, as implied through use of a national security lens.

Similarly, responses to natural disasters—bushfires, for example, are frequent events in Australia—should be undertaken good, tested systems informed by research and reviews of best practice and past experience.  Where disasters exceed the bounds of those systems, then the military may have a role as part of disaster relief.  Again, a matter of good governance, not escalation to national security significance.

And so on.  Rather than indulging in hyperactive redirection every time a crisis hit, rebadged as a National Security Issue, it seems we’d all do better with a Bex and good lie down.

There is some good work being done coordinating national, state and territory systems, especially under the COAG process.  But few—there are some—good solutions are top-down, especially when they focus on control and are distant from the point of application or the communities concerned.  Much better to smooth the way, open debate and loosen controls, allowing new solutions to emerge bottom-up.  That will improve the chances for adaptation, rather than bearing the costs of imposition.

Bringing back the notion of public service as a virtue is hard in a short-term, media-driven, 24/7 world.  Still, resurrecting good education in the basics of a complex, modern Western society, including the trades, governance, systems administration, and IT and infrastructure development and management certainly couldn’t hurt and—who knows—may even help prevent some of those crisis, or possible crisis, flagged by the government.

And we need to think more rigorously about national security, and develop a much less flabby concept that lends itself better to understanding the relationship between issues, prioritising resources and developing sound governance.

Or why we need to pay more, not less, attention to non-states actors.

This post started a while ago as some thoughts about Kilcullen’s book, The Accidental Guerilla, and Australian strategic policy.  But I found I kept returning to some key themes bigger than either.

Let’s start with WP2009.  Its authors remain confident in the continuing ability of nation-states to shape international order:

We have a strategic interest in preserving an international order that restrains aggression by states against each other, and can effectively manage other risks and threats, such as the proliferation of WMD, terrorism, state fragility and failure, intra-state conflict, and the security impacts of climate change and resource scarcity. (Executive Summary, p12) 

Moreover, they believe that non-state actors—Islamic terrorists—will have strategic effect only when they gain WMD, weapons currently the preserve of nation-states:

Despite its potential to cause mass casualties and catastrophic attacks on infrastructure, Islamist terrorism will continue to have inherent limitations as a strategic threat. Terrorists will keep aspiring to develop or acquire chemical, biological, radiological and even nuclear weapons. A WMD attack by a non-state actor in the coming decades cannot be ruled out. (4.49, p38)

However, there are three distinct trends that counter WP2009’s confident view of the continuing dominance of nation-states and their ability to solve the problems of international security.

First, there’s the fraying of the Westphalian-dominated international system, as many accepted norms and even institutions are losing both currency and their constituency.  The United Nations is struggling, as is NATO, for example.  And the cases of both North Korea and Iran show how difficult it is to achieve a consensus on strong action when states, let alone non-state actors operating within a number of states, actively seek WMD.  It’s far from clear that there is any consensus on appropriate new security institutions for the future—though the Proliferation Security Initiative may be such a one

Second, there is the reduced leverage of nation-states over international order, as argued by Kilcullen and a range of other analysis including Cooper and Bobbitt, as mentioned.  A key lesson of the post-2001 world is that nation-states are ill-equipped to deal with non-state threats—whether accidental guerrillas, loosely condoned hacker groups, proliferation networks or Islamic terrorists—yet deal with them they must to retain to retain their integrity and security as nation-states.  There is, however, the problem that the apparatus of nation-states tend to focus on the apparatus of other nation-states; they are ill-equipped to recognise or understand behaviours and effects outside that realm.

Third is the rise of statelessness, best expressed in Grygiel’s recent paper.  Possession of states is no longer the necessary goal for non-state groups. Globalisation and the spread of civilian and military technologies now enables non-state groups to pursue their goals unimpeded by the security, politics and governance that come with state responsibilities.  Stateless groups don’t want to take over and control territory—a Westphalian definition of strategic threat—but they are more than happy to deny states the ability to control territory and to pursue their interests, and to limit states’ behaviours through a range of other means, not necessarily reliant on possession of WMD.

The changes in the international environment over the past few decades, often ‘black-boxed’ as ‘globalisation’ has generated a substrate of communications, financial flows, ideas, peoples, technology and material that have allowed non-state actors an effect disproportionate to their apparent size.  Concurrently, these changes have rendered nation-states less an integral entity, defined primarily by geographically and a largely homogenous population, and more a diffuse if still roughly bounded aggregation of rules, populations, organizations, financial trades, cultures, interactions and, yes, physical presence.

It is true that nation-state warfare remains a possibility.  But it is equally true it should not be the only–not even the primary–focus of strategy or determinant of force structure.  Bobbitt again

“We’re not thinking [at all]. We’re going off unreflectively with the habits of mind that were quite successful for us in the struggles of the 20th century. Understandably, we are reluctant to abandon those habits. My fear is that it will take some catastrophe to shake us out of our complacency.” 


Bobbitt, P. (2002). The Shield of Achilles, Knopf.

Cooper, R. (2004). The Breaking of Nations. London, Atlantic Books.

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

Etzioni, A. (2009). “Tomorrow’s Institution Today.” Foreign Affairs 88(3).

Grygiel, J. (2009). “The Power of Statelessness.” Policy Review April-May 2009(154): (accessed 6 May 2009).

Kilcullen, D. J. (2009). The Accidental Guerilla, Oxford University Press.

I’d come across Ushahidi in the usual fashion: sideways, slinking through other people’s links.  Actually, it was this post on the Ushahidi blog that I’d come to see, about swine flu and emergency information patterns.  I was interested in what Erik Hersman, one of the founders of Ushahidi, about the pattern he could see in how the information developed as the crisis progressed:

  • First, we see an inordinate amount of traffic on the social networks (Twitter, Facebook, etc).
  • Second, the aggregators step in to gather the data into one place.
  • Third, we see visualizations (maps and graphs).

Obviously this differs considerably from the conventional top-down command and control model envisaged by government.  And it takes advantage of the many ‘eyes’ that are on the ground when and where the crisis in happening, not relying on collection by officials and formal analysis by a office located faraway from the crisis.  Because the information is online, it can be analysed by many, rather than a few.  That’s not to say official expertise is not valuable or necessary–but it ‘slots in’ at the aggregator level, to help shape rather than dictate.  Institutions–particularly bureaucratic organisations–are slower moving than the flash collection, speedy analysis and distribution of information enabled by the internet.

And then I found that Ushahidi was more than a blog musing on such technological developments, but an organisation putting together a system for such collection, analysis and distribution of emergency information (yes, another TED Talk):

(having trouble embedding the video: the link above will take you there)

What struck me was the simplicity, especially the conceptual cut-through–the appreciation of the mobile phone as the default device and of the role of the people on the ground as both collectors and receivers of on-the-ground information.

Imagine how differently information could have been collected and warnings sent out during the February bushfires in Victoria had such a paradigm, and system, been in place.  

We don’t need more heavy, slow and distant organisations to come out of the current Royal Commission and follow-on deliberations.  We need the Ushahidi model.

Urban Cartography is one of those uber sites: simple idea; very cool; and prompts you to think about the world differently.  Oh, to be able to draw and present complex ideas simply.  

 Speaking of which, this is a very cool map:

 Getting to this map took me three jumps, and each had its take on the map along the way:

  • The original posting wonders why Milan and Warsaw were relatively immune from the plague.
  • One step, Leonardo Monasterio suggested the city authorities walled in houses with the plague: brutal, but apparently effective.
  • Two steps back, Paul Kedrosky notes the spreading bands of the plague’s progress—given technology and globalisation, the nature of spread would look very different today.  And of course it’s harder to wall people into their houses.
  • Three steps back, Global Dashboard adds a point from one of the commenters: the role of plague in terms of redistributing wealth.  

Also from Urban Cartography is this:

Useful as a remedy to anyone weary of that concentric circles map.

CDC Swine FluI’ve been getting most of my news on swine flu from either the WHO or the US Center for Disease Control (CDC).  Both are easily accessible, informative, reliable. 

It’s worth noting the  various forms of social media CDC is using to spread the word:

  1. Updates from the H1N1 page haven an RSS feed.
  2. Frequent updates are spread using Twitter.
  3. Video updates are posted using podcasts.
  4. Image sharing on the CDCs Flickr site.
  5. Buttons for your website.
  6. Information sharing on MySpace‘s e-health page and daily strength group.
  7. Updates can be shared using several different services (Google Reader, Bookmarks, Delicious, Facebook, Digg, etc.).
  8. e-Cards to send by email to family members and friends to remind people to wash their hands.
  9. Agencies can embed a flu widget on their page.

Now that’s soft power.  Nice, informative site, too, with maps, Spanish translation available, guidance, lots of links targeting different groups and concerns.

Read the rest of this entry »

The following is from New Scientist, and shows the time taken to travel from a small city by land or water:

it's a small world

it’s a small world

It’s useful, too, for showing the main sea traffic, and in particular highlighting the arteries of world trade, across the North Pacific and North Atlantic, and through the Suez Canal, past the Horn of Africa, across the Indian Ocean, through the Southeast Asian archipelago, the South China Sea and into the East China Sea, Yellow Sea and the Sea of Japan.

August 2020