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Secretary's address to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute

Michael Pezzullo
Department of Immigration and Border Protection
Strategy: Questions of Method

11 July 2017
Checked against delivery

My talk tonight – the refined title of which is ‘Strategy: Questions of Method’— is deliberately intended to be quite dry and very theoretical.

I will focus this evening on questions of method in relation to national security policy-making and strategy, and if you think that what you hear this evening represents a prescription from me on any matter of actual policy you have obviously misunderstood me.

Policy-making and strategy do not lend themselves—in my view—to the application of deep historical perspective, explicit philosophical frameworks, or coherent strategic concepts. Its practitioners have the necessary bias towards pragmatic action, as the aim of policy and strategy is to secure objectives through action.

Historical perspective, philosophical frameworks, and strategic concepts are, however, the very things which are required to help us navigate the tangle of events, risks, and trends that we perceive, often dimly, as we peer into the clouded haze of strategic uncertainty that is ‘the future’.

Effective policy-making and strategic practice should generate properly evaluated courses of action to deal with the clouded haze of the future, and best practice and process here assists us to avoid reckless action on the one hand, or paralysis and strategic immobility on the other.

Now, it is often said that policy has to be evidence based – for instance, relying on experimentation, survey and research, while at the same time avoiding the impression that this process is like the discovery method of the natural sciences – but policy, of course, involves a constant play of vision, values, imagination, and normative assumptions, which in our system ultimately have to be resolved through the democratic process.

Now, policy and strategy in the external domain is quite different from policy and strategy in the domestic policy domain. Not completely dichotomously different, but sufficiently materially different to make this following observation.

In areas such as immigration, health, education, aged care, taxation, and the like, you find policy areas which lend themselves to the evidence-based policy-making model of which I referred earlier. Now, yes, values and ideology, of course, play their parts but the levers here are quite different. They are more readily to hand in the relatively structured system of the nation-state.

External policy and strategy, however, requires statecraft. Yes, evidence does exist in the form of intelligence, open-source reporting, analysis by think tanks—and I acknowledge, of course, the fact that I’m in one this evening—ASPI—who just today have produced an excellent report on the rise of Mexican drug cartels and their influence on Australian society and security—and other forms of academic research. But it’s not as though we can readily run, by way of a trial, an evidence-based approach, for instance, to freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, perhaps hoping that no one will notice while the trial is run, tested, and evaluated.

I draw, for these following insights, principally on Niall Ferguson’s excellent first volume of his Kissinger biography – if you’re interested, Kissinger, 1923 – 1968: The Idealist. This deals with the period of Kissinger’s career prior to his appointment as the National Security Advisor to Nixon after the 1968 election. Kissinger, through his work as a scholar in the 1950s and 1960s, had come to judge that the operation of the US policy machine was absorbing far too much senior executive attention and energy. Decisions were avoided until they appeared as conflicts within the interagency process, which then called for urgent action and the establishment of consensus, often in an environment of hardened institutional positions.

Senior executives, he found, did not spend enough time in policy planning, which necessarily involved conjecture about the future, and the consideration of hypothetical cases – essentially “what if” exercises. And at the time, in the 1950s and 1960s, he was particularly focussed on the evolution of the doctrine that we today call mutually assured destruction and the flexible use of nuclear weapons, and the role of conventional forces in a nuclear era. He relied on conjecture, which he said is central to the practice of policy making and strategy: an ability to project beyond what is known with very little to guide policy-makers other than their convictions, their historical perspective, and the strategic concepts that they bring to bear.

For Kissinger, what he called the ‘spirit’ of policy—following the Hegelian use of the term ‘spirit’ in this sense—and that of bureaucracy, were diametrically opposed insofar as the essence of policy is contingency. It is historically self-aware. It realises that it is part of historical processes, whereas that of ‘bureaucracy’—to use Kissinger’s phrase –is its quest for closure and certainty, often without historical reference points. Absent a coherent framework and a sense of historical context and consequence, activity in this realm can be sometimes mistaken for meaningful action, he said. An orderly procedure should be seen not as a chief purpose of government, but its indispensable aid.

From his work we can derive the following insights: policy-making and strategy are based upon a series of often unexamined assumptions which tend to be so axiomatic that they are not thought to be worth stating or examining critically. However, in my contention, following Kissinger’s work before he became National Security Advisor, we must constantly ask ourselves these questions: are the structural features of the international system, and deep historical forces—expressions of which are often embedded as unspoken influences in our strategic discourse—changing in ways which render those axiomatic assumptions invalid? The policy-maker and the strategist have to be self-aware, critically attuned, historically minded and not slaves— if I can paraphrase another great scholar, Keynes—to defunct thinking.

Now, there is a paradox here, in that often those who—notwithstanding their enthusiasm, their professionalism and often very high intellect—have the time and responsibility to examine an issue in detail are not always necessarily equipped by temperament, experience, or world view to engage in exercises of conjecture, risk calculation, and options formation, which present real alternatives for decision-makers to consider. Often, the options generated through the staff process simply involve recommendations to engage in further observation of the problem at hand, more research, more staff work and more meetings. Conversely those charged with making decisions or advising them directly and who have to balance interests, calculate risks and rewards, judge the legitimacy of action and the likely efficacy of the employment of national power—these are all elements of statecraft—are often not graced with the time and the space to reflect meaningfully on these questions. We are just simply too busy.

We need to ensure, in my view, that there is a close realignment with the staff process, which has the benefit of time and space, and the decision process, which often does not. My inclination, in fact, is to trust staff officers to range more widely and to mentor them in terms of how to do this best, to encourage ‘what if’ thinking and exercises—for example, through scenario-based planning and red teaming work—to empower the staff process, and to render it safe for such conjecture work.

We should stress test the assumptions of policy and strategy. We should look at low likelihood but high consequence events. Policy is not just simply a recitation of talking points. Nor is strategy lurching from meeting to meeting without a clear sense of purpose, and without clear engagement with the historical process of which you are a part whether you like it or not, and whether you recognise it or not. It is important in the staff process to avoid risk aversion by punishing non-conformity in terms of career incentives and disincentives.

Let me momentarily digress in terms of my own lived experience as the Deputy Secretary of Defence between 2006 and 2009. There was an inevitable focus on matters to do with operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and East Timor. I was part of that process and necessarily so. But while today it is commonplace to focus on maritime strategy and naval modernisation, with a justifiable and welcome focus today on programme management and project delivery—it was not commonplace then. Many, in fact, were keen to reorientate defence strategy and force structure towards counterinsurgency and land warfare, especially in the Middle East. The White Paper process in 2009 in fact had to challenge much contemporary orthodoxy on the basis of conjecture and calculus around strategic risk.

The result was the Defence White Paper of 2009, of which I was the principal author and the lead public servant in terms of coordinating its preparation. It represented a very significant return to strategic geography as a basis for defence planning and force structure, but with quite different assumptions about the prospects of major power conflict and the nature of defence Australian contingencies, as they were called, in comparison with the White Paper that Paul Dibb put together in 1987.

In my view—of course I would say this—the calculus was well-judged. But of course that should be tested; perhaps something that we’ll do on the tenth anniversary of that White Paper. And I have to acknowledge of course that the thinking in that White Paper has subsequently further evolved in two subsequent White Papers – one brought down by the Labor Government and one brought down by the Turnbull Coalition Government. And especially in the Defence White Paper of 2016, which, in a very welcome way, dealt with programme funding and the delivery gap that had emerged in relation to the force structure.

Let me turn to one of the central conceptual frameworks that I believe a strategist needs to employ: geostrategy. This isn’t just about atlases or globes, although I have to disclose that these fascinated me from a very young age and I was always pouring over atlases and globes wherever I could find them.

From a relatively young age, I immersed myself in the works of Alfred Mahan on sea power and command of the oceans; Halford Mackinder, who of course wrote about the geography of the Heartland of Eurasia; Nicholas Spykman, a long forgotten—a now forgotten strategist of the 1940s—who built on Mackinder’s thinking in terms of the Rimland Theory of peripheral power around Eurasia and implications for the US grand strategy. Hardly anyone quotes these works or indeed, reads them. Although I’ve had the benefit of forcing myself in terms of discipline in my time and preparation for tonight’s lecture to re-read a number of their works, including copies that I’ve had for many, many years.

These three gentlemen—geostrategists with very different starting assumptions—all came to view that land powers isolated from the sea in Eurasia were set in an ongoing struggle with maritime powers that sat outside of Eurasia. When I was growing up as a teenager reading these works—I had a very boring teenage period, I can assure you—in the 1970s, the world in fact, felt like a geostrategic place. There were geostrategic blocs. Of course, the Soviet Union still existed; there was the Cold War; there was what we today have perhaps forgotten but in those days were very alert to: the central balance of power; there were proxy wars in Indochina, southern Africa, the Middle East, including in Syria in 1973 that almost led to superpower conflict; and of course then the emergence of détente.

The Soviet Union, we know now, but perhaps did not recognise then, was an ‘incomplete superpower’. That is indeed the title of Paul Dibb’s masterpiece: a book that he evolved from his PHD thesis into a book of that title. And Paul cast a very different intellectual framework over the evidence that he ascertained for his PHD, and engaged in conjecture about the sustainability of the Soviet model and the actual state of the central balance that underpinned the Cold War.

Then of course in the 1990s we saw the end of the Cold War. History, Fukuyama said, had ended; and geography seemed to have lost its power—or so we thought. In this new global order, economics prevailed. Globalisation, of course, is an economist’s paradigm—and a very useful one. The paradigm, of course, not being a framework of the false thinking, but a framework for organising information and perspective. But it is not a strategist’s paradigm.

A strategist has to be concerned with the spatial distribution of power and the order thereby produced. In the post-Cold War epoch—the era of globalisation of the early-1990s—we saw an expanding cooperative order of states, who were observing common rules enmeshed in a growing collective economic system. Trade, capital and investment flows were starting in earnest after the fall of the Soviet Union; trade in services were booming; technology transfer; building of global supply chains truly across the globe; energy and resources linkages, similarly; the emergence of global connectivity through the internet; and of course explosion of global labour pools.

All of these networks, flows and pools expanding across the sphere of the Earth, limited we thought, only by externalities and variable development trajectories—externalities such as sovereign risk and trade barriers. With this promise of prosperity was coupled with a promise of the forswearing—we thought—of war and conquest, and the spread of democratic systems of governance. There was an emphasis on the notion of the global community and multilateral problem solving and cooperation regarding failed and fragile states, terrorism, disease, climate, resource scarcity, transnational crime, global financial imbalances.

Underpinning this epoch – the post-Cold War epoch – was uncontested US primacy, western philosophical ascendency, a reduction and indeed elimination we thought of ideological conflict with the ascent of both democracy and the victory of the liberal capitalist system. We made an assumption that the tragedy of great power politics – to quote the title of Mearsheimer’s landmark book of 2001 – had somehow vanished.
Great power politics had somehow vanished. And our evidence for this: integration of Russia and China into the global order, for instance, their ascension into the WTO—all very welcome developments. The world we thought was being filled in to the outer edges of the map, with the exception perhaps of some ungoverned spaces where Al-Qaeda of course, was germinating and breeding in the 1990s.

Now, this view of the world—which is valid in many respects—is not grounded in geostrategy, or the deep structural features of the international system, or the historical evolution of the global order. Has geography really been negated? Has the world really been filled in? What if the 1990s model of the global order did not in fact represent the end stage of history?

Of course, academic research more recently would suggest that US primacy is becoming more contested, that there is a re-emergence of ideological divergence, that there is a return of great power politics. It has a rather 19th century feel—the modern international environment. Not necessarily, and thank God, the decade of 1904 to 1914, but a 19th century feel nonetheless; including the return of competition and the risk of confrontation on the Eurasian periphery.

Now, what if the Eurasian land powers, to quote, or to reference those three geostrategists that I mentioned earlier, are in fact developing the economic and strategic leverage to take fuller advantage of their internal continental position? In the grand sweep of history since the 18th century, maritime powers – which tend to be liberal democracies with strong navies (first the British Empire then the US operating from a strategic citadel in the Americas, both with the mightiest navies that the world, respectively on those two epochs, has ever seen), contained land powers through hedging strategies: which included coalitions with so-called Rimland states—there I’m referring specifically to Spykman’s use of the term Rimland—engaging in confrontation and war only as a last resort. In the Napoleonic wars, hedging and containing through the long peace of Europe between 1815 and 1914, and then of course having to intervene in the Eurasian strategic system in the First and Second World Wars, and then separately the Cold War.

What about now if Eurasian land powers are using geoeconomic power to create a continental trade investment, and transportation and infrastructure system, linked to new supply chains, new resource and energy chains, often tracing ancient trading routes. They are using sovereign wealth funds and state owned enterprises to underpin their strategic plans, girded by maritime trading links and port access and investment agreements, building their strategic presence—including militarily – engaging in fleet building, and maritime projection beyond the Eurasian littoral across potentially vulnerable sea lines of communication. And engaging with those Rimland states through partnerships and/or strategies aimed at achieving at the very least their acquiescence.

What about if, in this era, the land powers are challenging the maritime states, and resisting the rules and imperatives of the global order? This changes the strategic calculus for all actors. Are we seeing the emergence of—to quote Mackinder’s phrase—the heartland coalition, whereby the resources and capacity of continental Eurasian powers are combined for the first time in global history with oceanic power projection and presence. This surely would be the most consequential geostrategic, and therefore geopolitical, question of the age.

Now, is this a bad thing? Continental power dynamics have since Napoleon’s days, as I posited earlier, pose a central challenge to global order, with the power relationships in the Eurasian strategic system playing themselves out internally, as well as in reaction to the maritime-based power interventions of first the British Empire and then the US—and we experienced a bloody century of conflict as a result.

Perhaps the unifying tendencies of sea-borne trade and the freedom of navigation at sea, opens states to ideas, to innovation, to capital, to the movement of people and democratic practices. Perhaps all that went wrong in the last decade of the last century was calling the ‘end of history’ too early. Perhaps we called it a century or two too early. Perhaps what we are witnessing is the long birthing period of the ‘end of history’ that Fukuyama spoke about.

Let me briefly turn then to history. I dealt with geography, which is about space; now let’s deal with history, which is about time.

History looks orderly, but only in retrospect, when you know the ending before the beginning that could have been known to the historical actors. Revolutionary moments or periods of significant discontinuity appear to contemporaries as a series of unrelated upheavals or events. But the headlines of the day are always expressions and symptoms of deep seated historical forces and structural factors, whereby the stresses of those various forces work against each other and cause fault-lines to come apart.

Let’s look back a century to 1917—a 100 years ago this year. Have we really seen the orderly playing out of historical forces according to some pre-ordained plan? Think of what was happening 100 years ago. The First World War was approaching its denouement; the Bolshevik Revolution, soon to have its 100th anniversary, and the spread of communism was just coming into view.

Following that, the rise of the far-right and fascism, the Treaty of Versailles, and the connected failure of the Wilsonian vision and the League of Nations. The Second World War, the Cold War of which I have spoken. The fall, then, of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, and the purported end of history that I’ve mentioned, and since that period of the early 1990’s, the return of geostrategic realities and great power dynamics – all in 100 years.

We can only ponder this evening what the world will look like on 11th July 2117, when a baby girl born tonight will be celebrating her 100th birthday. As she looks back on her 100th birthday, what will the story of her century—2017 to 2117— look like? I hope it is better than the picture we look back on.

Let me finish these remarks, then, by pulling some of these strands together and examine the role of agency in history. What we think of as international ‘rules-based order’ that I have touched on, is itself-historically rooted, and it’s the outcome of agency in the face of the contingencies, in this instance of the late 1940’s after the Second World War, when the US for the first time decided to entrench its forward presence around Eurasia, faced with an existential threat from the mightiest land power that a maritime power had ever faced—and this was before the Soviet Union has acquired its nuclear weapons in the 1950’s. It decided very consciously to embark on building a pattern of alliances with Rimland powers. It had decided that this was less than the cost of likely future interventions—the First and Second World Wars being the bloody manifestations of those interventions.

Go back and read Nicholas Spykman’s book of 1942, America’s Strategy and War Politics, and you will find the blueprint for everything that transpired after 1946 in terms of American strategy. It started, of course, with Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech in 1946 in Missouri, and the Truman doctrine articulated 1947, the building of the NATO alliance, which went far beyond a minimalist position which would have involved the US simply establishing within UK a forward operating base and closing the Greenland-Iceland-UK gap to Soviet naval penetration into the Atlantic. They went far beyond that. They also engaged in building peace with Japan and eventually an alliance and you saw, of course, the emergence of the alliance system in Asia. You saw the maintenance of preponderant US naval power. They did not de-mobilise their navy after 1945, as they did in the 1920’s. The world would look a very, very different place today, if you did not have a 300-ship US Navy.

We saw, also, the expansion of US capital investment and economic assistance, coupled with the internationalisation of US production. Global trade and investment systems were built almost from scratch, with the Bretton Woods institutional agreements in 1944, the formation of the GATT—the General Agreement and Tariffs and Trading in 1947—and the announcement of the Marshall plan to rebuild Europe in 1948. This resulted in a global order, a rules-based international system that has had legitimacy for 70 years to the extent that it has accorded with the interests in Europe and maritime Asia, who could have confidence that the order and its rules would be enforced by US primacy and power, especially its military posture, its alliances, and its economic relationships, and the US has had to act as the indispensable nation in this system.

Now, I have spoken extensively this evening of structural factors and historical forces, and I have said that we do not often recognise the true world historical turning points and pivots. But I would instance, to go back to one of my earlier examples—the role of the individual in shaping and indeed bending history. And I produce as evidence for that contention the rise of Gorbachev in the late 1980’s. His rise did reflect deep structural forces that were at play within the Soviet system, which were not necessarily readily apparent or comprehended within the strategic constructs and the paradigms of the time, notwithstanding the excellent work by Professor Dibb on the incomplete superpower thesis.

None of these forces take away Gorbachev’s agency, the choices that he made and the risks that he took. This evening I have mentioned a number of statesmen; Churchill, Truman, Marshall, Gorbachev and I would add Reagan. What is the role then of agency, in this grand sweep of history which seems to be, when you take a step back, dictated by these deep structural forces and stresses? Well statecraft can shape history rather than being carried along by it. We’re dealing here with an eternal struggle between contingency on the one hand and inevitability on the other hand. There are interplays of the choices we make and the historical forces that we confront. We make our own history but not as we choose and we are not free of the circumstances with which we are faced.

The lesson I would contend of US policy in the late 1940s that I’ve touched on this evening which lead to the establishment of the international rules-based order, the US policy in response to Gorbachev’s ascendancy and the demise of the Soviet Union and the creation of the end of the Cold War period which laid the foundations for the New Order that I described earlier, shows one thing, that agency comes into its own at revolutionary points in history or points of massive discontinuity.

It’s unusual for a serving Commonwealth Secretary to quote—approvingly—Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, but I will on this occasion. Lenin famously said; ‘…there are decades where nothing happens and there are weeks when decades happen’. In the space between the force of history on the one hand and the realm of choice where women and men make the best choices that they can in circumstances which are never of their own making and acting always without complete information—in that gap lies strategy. The task of the strategist and the policy maker who is advised by the strategist is to uncover the future to take maximum advantage of opportunities, or to mitigate risk and avoid future harm, or to exploit the weaknesses of an adversary or a competitor, or to act across a range of these objectives in various combinations. The challenge is to grasp changing historical circumstances and to shape new and emerging trends to our will as best as we can.

When we are confronted with profound structural changes in the international system in the global order, essential elements are often in flux simultaneously and destabilising factors compound the adverse effects of all other factors. This is when statecraft of the highest order is required: an accurate and unvarnished appreciation of those historical forces in the structural problems of the international system in order to inform action. To quote another Kissinger reference approvingly – the title of his 1961 book on US foreign policy challenges; The Necessity for Choice, we have no choice other than to make choices. Even the choice to do nothing.

I’ll conclude with some observations if I may that attempt to pull these themes together, particularly regarding the relationship as I see it between power, order, the rule of right and rules. Power is a function, as I have said this evening, of the structure of international system and deep historical forces. These forces generate an order of express and implied balance of forces. In turn this order generates legitimacy, again express and implied, as might needs to have an identified relationship with right, without which others will seek to resist coercion, building their own alliances, partnerships and capabilities to counterbalance the coercive  actor. And finally, legitimacy generates rules. The rules are the operating system which represent codified norms which connect back to power, because in the end rules have to be enforced.

Thank you.