Making sense of national security

Professor Rory Medcalf AM

This 2022 Order of Australia Lecture by Professor Rory Medcalf AM was presented at The Australian National University on 7 December 2022.

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I too acknowledge the first Australians, custodians of the land where we meet, and pay respect to the elders of the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people.

One of many unresolved questions in this country is how we reconcile our national security narrative with an honest telling of our history.

In a contemporary world where interests, values and national identities are threatened and defended …

… where resilience and resistance are watchwords …

… and where atrocity, coercion and empire-building are renewed threats …

… it is unsustainable that we exclude our own terrible frontier wars from the national security story.

For many years, I’ve been proud to ensure that distinguished visitors hosted by my organisation – from nations as wide afield as India, France, Britain, Germany, America, Japan – have a chance to reflect at the Australian War Memorial. When our full history of conflict and resistance is reflected there, I will be prouder still.

And still on a note of remembrance, I would ask us all to pause and reflect on the memory of three great Australians, lost to us this year, too soon. They were three leaders and mentors, cherished colleagues and friends, who made such invaluable contributions to our national interest: Brendan Sargeant, Margot McCarthy and David Irvine.

Also with gratitude, let me now acknowledge our hosts for this lecture, the Order of Australia Association and of course the Australian National University.

National security involves protecting and progressing our sovereignty, shared endeavours and identity.

And that accords with the founding visions of these institutions. One is a place of knowledge for an Australia finding its way in the world, established for the national interest in the aftermath of the Second World War. The other is a distinctly democratic honours system to recognise Australians for service to their fellow citizens.

You’ve signed up today for a lecture ambitiously titled ‘making sense of national security’. That is easier said than done. Let’s see how far we get.

The National Security College: engaging minds for a secure Australia

I’ve led an institution called the National Security College for eight years now. Helping Australians make sense of security is our permanent work in progress.

It’s time to demystify what we actually do.

The NSC works to develop people, ideas and networks for a secure Australian future.

That means we generate national capability through education, research, futures analysis and policy engagement. Our Charter reconciles academic freedom with the need to understand the priorities of government.

It’s a singular joint initiative between the Commonwealth Government and the ANU, which involves a lot of coordination, creativity and sheer hard work.

Which is why my inclusion in this year’s Order of Australia was also a recognition of the dedicated team at the National Security College, and all who have built our success over 12 years.

We are entrusted by no fewer than 17 sponsoring agencies, from the intelligence community through major security, international and economic policy departments and all the way to the Australian Electoral Commission. It’s the broadest of churches, not exactly dismissible as a conclave of hawks or, to borrow a word from a certain former Prime Minister, nutters.

We’re working with Parliament, States and Territories, the private sector, and international partners.

And we engage with the many parts of the ANU which house expertise on security issues broadly defined.

We’re part of the strong cross-campus network, including nuclear physics, offering support to government on building the skilled workforce the nation will need for AUKUS.

In other words, we’re busy, and we have an energising time when it comes to stakeholder management – a clue to the daunting task of national security coordination in an era of complexity.

Since the College was established by the Rudd Government in 2010, we’ve had the privilege of teaching and developing more than 10,000 officials and security practitioners through our executive and professional short courses.

Our academic program, integrated with the renowned Crawford School, has turned out hundreds of graduates to strengthen the next generation of policymakers and policy thinkers.

Our degrees foster the diversity, breadth of expertise and skills backgrounds, the nation needs. Our students are empowered by guidance from security professionals in partnership with our academic experts.

Our eight annual full-fee scholarships for Women in National Security are making a real difference. I thank the intelligence community, and especially director-general of national intelligence Andrew Shearer, for this initiative which is having long-term impact.

We’ve redesigned our degrees to accentuate knowledge and sensibilities that agencies want from their graduate recruits: policy and political nous, critical thinking, literacy in leadership, crisis management, ethics, technology, geoeconomics, geopolitics, history and law.

Our research, policy options papers, parliamentary submissions and private briefings inform debates and initiatives on such topics as countering foreign interference, economic resilience, Indo-Pacific strategy, alliances and alignments, technology policy and workforce planning.

Our unique Futures Hub, offering contestable analysis and scenarios, has become the core of a nationwide community of practice in preparing for the shocks and opportunities to come. Like much of our work, this is under the Chatham House Rule or in a secure setting. You won’t find it on our website.

On the other hand, our policy work involves contributing responsibly to open debate, translating academic expertise through reports, public events and media, notably our popular National Security Podcast.

We also convene a quiet network of paradiplomacy with Australia’s international partners.

In recent years, we’ve conducted 19 so-called 1.5 track dialogues internationally, bringing together governments and independent experts, sometimes in person, often virtually.

This is about sharing assessments and policy ideas, pushing the boundaries of key relationships, and helping counter disinformation and mistrust.

All of these moving parts of the College cohere around a mandate of national capability uplift, making us more than a think tank. Our mission involves learning, teaching, shaping and doing.

It’s also about building a distinct Australian security culture, one that respects foresight, evidence, consultation and contestability, while ready to make and implement hard choices in preparing the nation for testing times ahead.

Which means that in all our programs we constantly think anew about national security.

What is security?

So what is security? Security is no absolute.

It’s dynamic, in constant tension with other good things people seek in life, such as prosperity, justice, opportunity, community, autonomy, curiosity, certainty, freedom, fulfilment, fairness, risk and respect.

The problem in making security policy is not how to achieve absolute security – the strongest cage, the highest wall, the most fearsome weapon – but rather in determining how much security is enough.

Or how to adjust it to an everchanging horizon of risk, and how to reconcile the tensions or mediate the tradeoffs with other vital goals.

In a democracy, that measure, balance and mediation is the preserve of politics.

That’s why the National Security College next year will begin courses for Parliamentarians, the NS23 program announced recently by the Foreign Minister, Senator Penny Wong, and endorsed by her Opposition counterpart Simon Birmingham.

In crafting policy, security is sometimes too easy, too lazy a label. Its very utility makes it prone to politicisation and abuse, as we saw in the low points of the Federal election campaign.

Security is too easily invoked to justify action, generate division, or suspend debate. We need to rethink security for the wider national interest, and put it into perspective.

It’s hard to define security, but we all recognise its absence.

The artists of the Renaissance, a time of vertiginous uncertainty, told it vividly.

When I’m looking for slides to help my student visualise a world without security I turn to the likes of Bruegel and Durer: intense images of death, famine, war and conquest; of pestilence, fire, flood and storm; the common thread is fear.

Not that we need to look to the past.

In recent years, from Kyiv and Kherson to Kabul and Yangon, from Hong Kong to the Himalayan Galwan Valley, from Wuhan to a thousand corridors of COVID-19 …

… to bushfires right here and rising waters everywhere, our world has seen a chilling measure of insecurity.

Much more so than some of us may have imagined just ten or twenty years ago, when cornucopian projections of free-market globalisation, limitless peace and plenty, an endless holiday from history, were the groupthink of political and intellectual elites.

All that said, there’s still less suffering in the world today than in many ages past: for the past few decades, more people in more places have lived and are living longer lives of opportunity and dignity.

But the better angels of our nature have not decisively won; far from it.

What has changed utterly in our globalised world is that risk is now viral.

As recognised by scholars Ian Goldin and Chris Kutarna in their study of the parallels of the Renaissance and the present day, the special virtues of 21st century civilisation - connectivity, concentration and complexity - have brought a shared vice: contagion in every sense.

Concentration of capability means that individuals can do massive harm: a terrorist or hacker, the ego of an ageing dictator or tech billionaire.

Connectivity means no nation is an island. No person is an island. No island is an island anymore.

For Australia, the gap that matters most is no longer the air-sea gap – the moat around our continent – but the gap between our limited national capabilities and the vast scope and complexity of our national interests, not just sovereignty, but economic lifelines to the world and cohesion at home.

Complexity confounds the old human aptitude for foresight and preparedness. How do you protect yourself if you don’t know from what? Hence the value of the College’s Futures Hub.

A profound difference between now and other times of global strife is the immediate and global awareness of trouble. Bad news instantaneously spreads, distorts, amplifies and goes around again. No matter how bad things are, we’re prone to think they’re worse – which can provoke paralysis and a counsel of despair, the last response we need.

So if a key element of security is freedom from fear, then we’re failing miserably by that measure at least: we’re already well into an exceptionally insecure age. Even the UNDP’s Human Development Report now calls the new normal a world of worry.

So in this world, how to make sense of security?

Let’s go back to those four poor syllables.

More than two thousand years ago, Cicero gave Latin a brand new word, se-curitas meaning literally ‘without care’. He meant it as a state of mind rather than the first priority of the state.

There’s a handy translation modern Australians will recognise: ‘no worries’.

Of course physical danger is front of mind when we think about security. The citizen soldiers of Ukraine can hardly imagine away bombardment and barbarity. They are fighting for their lives. But they’re also fighting for something larger.

The dictionary definition of security as ‘freedom from threat’ is neat but not especially helpful to policymakers – because total freedom from all threats is impossible – and the academic literature on security is useful only up to a point.

Learned writings speak of security as an ‘ambiguous symbol’, ‘an essentially contested concept’, ‘an unacknowledged consensus’.

Security is the first duty of government, yet security need not only be about the state.

In recent decades, definitions of what is being protected have expanded to include every so-called referent object from the individual human being to world order and the global ecosystem.

But only the state combines capability and consent as a forceful sector actor.

Hence if we want practical outcomes we must prioritise national security, including as the essential building block to international security in all its dimensions.

And in making sense of security, we need to get beyond the billiard ball caricature that it’s all about strategic power relativities between nations.

Instead, the heart of security is about understanding relations between the citizen and the state, and how a democratic state can most effectively use its power to protect interests, values and national identity.

In Australia, our security is inseparable from our proud national values and identity as a democracy and a multicultural society, where the rights, freedoms and equal opportunities for all are advanced and respected. When we fail to give all citizens a fair go, our nation becomes less secure. When some parts of the community are accused of not being fully Australian, our nation becomes less secure.

One satisfyingly Australian definition of security is from Allan Behm: the consequence of an effective response to a threat, rather than the absolute absence of a threat.

This resonates with the British scholar-practitioner Sir David Omand, whose extensive work on counter-terrorism helped him define security as a state of trust on the part of the citizen that risks are being managed to the extent that there is confidence normal life can continue.

So security is ultimately freedom from fear. It turns out Franklin Roosevelt had it right, way back in the 1930s. And he was talking about social security – which is fair enough.

Because social security – freedom from want and deprivation and economic uncertainty – prefigured the modern concept of national security.

In the United States, Australia and other democracies, national security was a conscious adaptation of social security – the mobilization of the resources of the state – towards resisting the totalitarian torrent of that era, from the 1930s to the 1950s, whether Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan or the Soviet Union.

Australia’s security opportunity

In other words, the idea that national security is an inclusive concept, encompassing economics, society and the resilience of institutions, is not new at all. It can be owned by any moderate governments of left, right or centre, especially one serious about cross-partisanship and national unity.

And that, I would like to think, should be a familiar message in Australia at this time.

The Albanese government entered the election campaign at the start of this year with a small target policy on national security. That was futile but also unnecessary.

On the one hand, the conservative governments of the previous nine years – notwithstanding missteps and overpoliticisation - had laid many substantial security foundations for Australia to begin preparing for a dangerous future.

Laws criminalising foreign political interference and compelling transparency around foreign influence; stronger protections for critical infrastructure; a national security test for foreign investment; the establishment of the Office of National Intelligence and the Department of Home Affairs; Commonwealth laws to ensure that states, territories and even universities were making international connections for and not inadvertently against the national interest: these were all difficult and necessary things to do.

The Quad and much closer strategic ties with Asia’s two strongest democracies; the audacious AUKUS technology sharing arrangement; the Pacific Step-Up; an Indo-Pacific strategy embodied in the 2017 Foreign policy white paper, 2016 Defence White Paper and 2020 Defence Strategic Update, and initial moves to strengthen defence capability, posture and enablers.

It’s a long list, and to the credit of both sides of the parliamentary aisle, all of it has by and large become part of a new security consensus. For instance, universities have begun to internalise the need to take responsibility for security risks – from cyber breaches to foreign interference and vulnerability to espionage. I commend my Vice Chancellor Brian Schmidt on the leading role ANU is playing here.

Labor ended up supporting the new normal of Australia’s security agenda while in Opposition, and led in some areas, such as opposing an extradition treaty with China. And the Greens took an early stand on opposing foreign political donations and calling for climate policy to be integrated with wider national security.

In any case, national security did end up featuring prominently in the election this year. The major parties contended in furious convergence on the need to resist China’s intimidation and prevent this potentially hostile power establishing a military presence in our Pacific Island neighbourhood.

Coming to power, Labor hit the ground running, demonstrating that respectful diplomacy in our immediate region is not only consistent with protecting our interests, it’s essential to durable strategic policy.

We’re also back on speaking terms with Beijing, but it would be a colossal misjudgement to assume this constitutes some kind of reset or provides a solid foundation for ongoing dependence on China. At best, this is a fragile stabilisation.

Fairly much anyone in the private sector thinking beyond day-to-day revenue is already wargaming the reality that China is now at least as much a source of risk as of opportunity.

The courage and creativity of protestors on Chinese streets in recent weeks is a reminder that whatever the future holds, it will surprise.

Highly plausible China-centric crises in the region – and an assault on Taiwan is just one scenario – would shatter any sector’s brittle business model of reliance on China. That goes for German carmakers and Australian iron ore miners alike - and Australian universities for that matter.

And now all eyes are on the Albanese government for next steps in defence.

There’s the Smith-Houston Defence Strategic Review, expected to accelerate deterrent military power suited to Australia’s vast geography, like missile capabilities.

And we also await the so-called capability pathway for nuclear-powered submarines, announcements due within months.

Presumably the AUSMIN talks this week in Washington are previewing some of this thinking with our ally.

Our new government is trying hard to speak softly. We will soon see if it is genuine about carrying a big stick too.

Towards a national interest strategy

Yet observers make a mistake if they assume that all the security settings of this Australian Government are final or pre-ordained.

Yes, there’s continuity, informed by a recognition that the strategic environment is intensely contested. China’s military modernisation, full-spectrum assertiveness and ambitions for regional dominance are one part of that picture. Putin’s grievous demonstration that war is real, that nightmares can come true, is another.

But we are also seeing hints of a much broader sense of what constitutes security and the national interest. And the reality that, when sorrows come, they come not only in battalions.

The present global policycrisis, as analysed recently by my NSC colleague and incoming head of the Australian Institute of International Affairs Professor Heather Smith, has deep economic dimension.

These include inflation, the cost and supply of energy and food, and worsening inequality within and between nations.

And while some of the aftershocks of the COVID-19 pandemic may be easing – except when it comes to China’s own suppressed reckoning – the same cannot be said of the cascading consequences of the climate emergency. They are just beginning, for Australians and for all.

Meanwhile, other threats to social cohesion, democratic institutions and the multicultural identity of modern Australia may be down but certainly not out: terrorism, racism and conspiracism keep our security agencies very worried indeed.

So a challenge for the Australian Government now is to demonstrate its seriousness about a truly integrated approach to national preparedness and security. Whether our US ally proves reliable or not, our resilience begins at home.

One measure of this new approach would be to develop and articulate a national strategy. A statement to Parliament would be a good start but not enough.

The last formal national security strategy in this country was developed in 2013, under Prime Minister Gillard.

It’s high time for a national security strategy or more precisely a national interest strategy. Several respected voices are making a similar call.

This is an idea we have been testing and developing through our senior executive courses inside the College since I had the opportunity to air it at the National Press Club two years ago.

This could look at how to integrate security with other vital dimensions of the national interest - prosperity, cohesion, sustainability – and with principles of Australian identity: equity, inclusion, dignity and democracy. It should take a long view focused on how these goals can reinforce one another.

For instance, world-class educational opportunities for Australians should be an overwhelming national priority: whether the fundamentals of STEM or the newest technologies, critical thinking and civics or understanding our Asia-centric region of the Indo-Pacific in a changing world. Education is the most profound intergenerational investment we can make in true security.

There are fair arguments against a formal strategy of course. It ties the hands of the leadership, making it harder to change course as events occur, politics shift, or resources diminish.

External voices are wrong to assume that an enormous amount of interagency coordination doesn’t occur within government already.

On China, COVID, supply chains and critical technology: the security and economic portfolios are in constant coordination. The Australian policy architecture is already more connected than in many other democracies: the Secretaries Committee on National Security, National Security Committee of Cabinet, even Cabinet itself with a renewed emphasis on process.

And we’re much better at Federal-State and government-industry coordination on security than in the innocent times of not long past.

All true. But the Canberra security caste should not assume that the broader Australian community sees much or any of this. And times demand we do better.

A national interest strategy should be about preparedness for what we know will be a disruptive and confronting future.

We don’t know what tribulations will come, but we know they will. The true value of a strategy would be a narrative for leadership to ready the whole nation – across political lines, federal borders, the private sector and into our diverse civil society – for the tough decisions they will need to share. It’s about preparing our people for testing times.

The Australian people are witnessing a world of disruption - COVID, climate, great power tension and now military aggression - and they deserve an honest national conversation about what it means for their security.

That means more open communication about this new world of risks and our national choices.

We need a national narrative that reflects the rights and responsibilities of all parts of this country - business, States and Territories, and everyday Australians - in working together for making this country secure, now and for the generations ahead.

For instance, in the years ahead the real risk of strategic confrontation or even war in our region, means the concept of national mobilisation needs to become an accepted part of community thinking, and not some quiet bureaucratic plan that our political elite would rather not frighten the voters with.

The extraordinary speech in Sydney last week by the Prime Minister of Finland was a reminder that some progressive democracies are far ahead of Australia when it comes to thinking about how to share security responsibility across the community.

Finland, population 5.5 million, has a trained military reserve many times the size of our own, a private sector deeply integrated into crisis preparedness, executives and parliamentarians educated in security as a matter of course, stockpiles of medicines and other essentials, a pathway to energy self-reliance and net zero by 2035 built into its societal security strategy.

And it does this with a lively, pluralistic and civilian-led public sphere, proving that for a nation to look after itself it does not need to become Sparta.

Still, it’s a recipe for resilience our political and policy class may be nervous to read.

But I would suggest, for instance, that within the next decade, Australia will not credibly be able to provide for its security without radical changes to our thinking about whose job it is.

I’m hardly the first ANU academic to suggest that it is only a matter time before some form of national service needs to be considered.

This would be nothing like the rightly rejected conscription of 50 years ago, but rather an opportunity to build a national reserve trained and available in the wide range of skills needed for crisis response or national resilience, whether during climate disaster or wartime.

In the private sector and the public service, we should think about national interest responsibilities as more shared and less siloed.

We need a new model favouring career mobility between government and the wider world, so security clearances are transportable, building an expanding reservoir of trusted personnel in business, civil society and academia.

Commonwealth public service careers should become open to permanent residents, in those many jobs not requiring security clearances, enabling a larger pool of Australian citizens to pursue cleared roles. And Commonwealth public service should be a fast track to citizenship.

As for the clearance model itself, it needs to be comprehensively revisited, with a fresh look at risk management and wider acceptance of the life choices and diverse backgrounds of young Australians. The flipside is that the security community owes it to them to provide guidance and pathways to security clearances from an earlier stage, even while at university.

These are just some personal observations of course, and politically may stand no chance of being considered in that initial national interest strategy.

But a prepared Australia will need to make the most of our most valued resource, our people.

The good new words of the national anthem talk about Australia being one and free. In other words, national unity goes hand in hand with sovereignty.

The hard fact is that we are a middle-sized power and that means we need to be efficient and effective: we can no longer waste time and resources by not attempting a strategy, or making the best use of our extraordinary people – the minds we need to engage for a truly secure Australian future.

And that brings me to my own work in progress at making sense of security. For me, security is a state of mind that reduces our anxiety by engaging confidently with risk.

To have a chance of being secure in the long run, we have to accept risk now and pay the price of preparedness.

If as Australians we want to live our ethos of no worries, then our worries are precisely what we have to brace for, whether our leaders are ready to show the way or not.

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