Making big policy in defence

Defence is high policy. Or is it? That question is at the core of Wayne Mapp’s defence review.

Most often “defence” is parked in talk of weapons, platforms and personnel. That keeps it safely out of polite society. So polite society keeps the defence force hungry: a guard dog it has to have but keeps in a kennel in the yard.

Helen Clark’s governments threw the dog some scraps and tried some genetic engineering, to turn it from guard dog to friendly neighbourhood mutt. Instead of fighting wars, the army (which was made top defence dog) was to do peacemaking and peacekeeping –“civil assistance”, as the Returned Services Association called it in 2005.

That is, it was turned into a (mostly peaceful) weapon of foreign policy. Clark’s swift commitment of the SAS to Afghanistan helped rebuild the goodwill in Washington she had shattered with the anti-nuclear policy in the 1980s.

That factor is at the core of John Key’s likely recommitment of the SAS to the Afghanistan morass. He wants the United States in a free trade area expanded from the P4 (Brunei, Chile, New Zealand and Singapore). The two are not directly connected but showing willing helps. (Not showing willing in George Bush’s coalition of the willing in Iraq did not help.)

Key justifies the recommitment also on grounds of worldwide terror. That qualifies Clark’s presumption of the distance of tyranny. He fights in Afghanistan to lessen danger to New Zealanders. The death of a New Zealander in the recent Jakarta bombing, though not directly connected with Afghanistan, helps make his point.

Key also knows that the Americans initially made a mess of the Afghanistan campaign. An article in the July issue of Foreign Affairs notes that because the Americans, relying on raw power, did not bother to learn that “one of the rules” of 30 years of war in Afghanistan is “side with the winner”, they locked up some potential converts in their torture prisons.

Now, the article argues, they have understood they need to demonstrate that the Nato force is the winner and to capitalise on that to draft combatants to the Afghan government’s side.

To do that requires more fighting troops at the very time some contributors, sensing defeat, are looking for the exit door. Hence the request for the SAS. Hence Europe’s development of specialised, fast-reaction “battle groups”. Reconstruction teams are not enough.

Afghanistan and Iraq illustrate a dilemma facing the defence reviewers, one highlighted by visiting Oxford University war academic Hew Strachan in the annual Kippenberger address last week: do they organise to fight in big wars or for “stabilisation” operations — a world war or an Afghanistan — or do they organise for both with a “balanced” force, a concept abandoned here in 2000?

Strachan said only the United States can organise for both: “Generating the skills for ‘small wars’ while keeping the practitioners of ‘major war’ in business … assumes massive resources”. Instead, he argued for “flexibility and adaptability” — a “unitary”, not a “binary” view of war.

Leading Australian defence academic Hugh White puts it in these strategic terms: what is needed for stabilisation and intervention, which we do all the time and which is becoming more specialised; and what do we need to do in case Asia’s decades of stability come to an end?

That focuses us on China.

One view of China’s rise is that of Robert D Kaplan, the Atlantic Monthly’s national correspondent, writing in 2005: “Whenever great powers have emerged or re-emerged (Germany and Japan in the early decades of the twentieth century), they have tended to be particularly assertive — and therefore have thrown international affairs into violent turmoil. China will be no exception.” This view is widely held.

An alternative view, also widely held, is that China’s priority is prosperity and that its route to prosperity is in large part through good international citizenship, as it has demonstrated over the past 20 years, during which time it joined the World Trade Organisation. It will want order, not adventure. Mapp has an optimistic view of China of this sort.

But that “order” will be one in which China is the primary power in Asia. That means China will not readily accept over the decades to 2035 — the horizon for the defence review — continued United States dominance in its region. How will the United States — and Japan and in time India — respond to China’s ascendancy?

And how will we? And what if Australia takes a different tack from New Zealand? What might that entail for the close trans-Tasman cooperation Mapp wants and which is necessary to react to potential chaos in the Melanesian Pacific (a breakdown in Fiji, for example)?

These are big questions. They are questions on which there has been a deafening public silence from foreign affairs and defence officials and limited public analysis by academic and other defence watchers. It is a silence the review has the opportunity to end.