Sharper choices: how Australia can make better national security decisions

World politics International relations Relations with China National security Australia

As Australia’s national security environment has grown more complex and competitive, the country’s governments have gradually articulated their strategic response, primarily in the 2016 Defence White Paper, the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper, and the 2020 Defence Strategic Update. In these documents, and in major speeches, Australian governments have adopted four broad strategic concepts: the embattled rules-based order, the return of great power competition, the expansion of grey zone competition, and the increased likelihood of major power war.

There is no master theory that can entirely explain Australia’s situation and guide its decision-makers. A national security strategy is necessary, but its utility will be limited by the increasingly unpredictable course of geopolitics. The strategic concepts Australia has adopted illuminate its interests, objectives, and the types of issues Canberra must grapple with. But these concepts also mask many of the difficult choices Australia will face. Focusing on the paradox of “competitive independence” brings additional clarity to the country’s policy dilemmas but does not resolve them.

Responding to greater uncertainty will require greater case-by-case decision-making. But this does not mean the government should simply muddle through. Rather, it should seek to improve the quality of its decision-making by following through on Australia’s history of imposing more structure on national security decision-making. Acknowledging the complexity of the challenges it faces, the government should more often seek discrete assessments of national security problems to ensure that all relevant dimensions are considered. This would help ensure that Australia’s long-term strategic goals are considered when critical decisions are made.

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