Michael Wesley

Reading A Time for War is a bit like watching the middle third of a movie. The reader is left to try to divine the origins of the events described, as well as their likely consequences. Although the essay is very thought-provoking, it is left to the audience to decide whether what Birmingham has discussed is significant and different, or whether rather too much has been made of these developments.

Birmingham lists several recent developments relating to Australia’s armed forces – the increasing frequency of the ADF’s deployment abroad, the emergence of a significant local defence industry, widespread public support for the armed forces and their ceremonies such as Anzac Day, the political kudos gained by both sides of politics for embracing the armed forces, the popular adulation of figures such as General Cosgrove – to imply that there’s something noteworthy going on here. He flirts with two possible negative interpretations, both with a fascist tinge. At one stage he warns that “Liberal societies need to worry not when they are most divided, but when a paralysing homogeneity of thought takes hold,” and uses the Iraq war as an example of how policy not debated leads to disaster. The implication at this stage seems to be that the mass adulation of the ADF may lead us away from our liberal ideals and towards foreign policy disaster. He doesn’t mention that in Australia, as in the US and the UK, the Iraq war was preceded by extensive debate. John Howard scheduled three separate set-piece parliamentary debates on the Iraq war prior to invasion; these resulted not in the rational betterment of policy but in the government’s masterful marginalisation of the Opposition and participation in a deeply flawed invasion strategy.

Next, Birmingham introduces the idea of a “new” Australian militarism, which, when fully developed, results in a society which has “adopted and exalted values traditionally favoured by military organisations, such as regimentation, aggressiveness, nationalism and the glorification of traditional structures … [and gives] an increasing or predominant role to the military establishment in both national and international affairs”. But then he backs away, suggesting that this moment is not yet upon us, as demonstrated by the difficulties the armed forces have experienced in finding recruits.

Birmingham’s conclusion is a brighter one, reflecting the flashes of his own guilty exaltation of Australia’s soldiers and their top-shelf gear. We are seeing “something more than a crude militarisation of Australian politics … [or that] Australian governments will view every threat or problem through a militarised prism … [or that] the Australian people have become more warlike or enthralled by military culture”. Rather, “what it might all mean is that an adolescent, derivative culture is maturing … it may be that Australians have come to a point at last where they feel confident not just of their place in the world but, more importantly, of their ability to act decisively in it.”

Fair enough. But how did we get here, and where will this newfound confidence take us? In breathing a sigh of relief at signs of the “maturation” of Australia’s “derivative and adolescent culture”, Birmingham has to ignore the powerful external forces driving these developments, because one reading of these external forces would be that they demonstrate, once again, Australia’s refraction of Western mindsets and values.

The quickening pace of ADF deployments abroad was less a response to domestic political factors than to a rapid rise in international demand for their use. The end of the Cold War and the first Gulf War saw Australia’s strategic thinking remain firmly in lock-step with that of the United States and Europe: the new, post-containment name of the game was using multilateral coalitions to end civil wars and deter rogue states. More recently, deployments to Bougainville, East Timor and Solomon Islands have similarly followed Western strategic thought: at a time when our Atlantic allies were intervening against human rights abuses in the Balkans, so were we in East Timor; and when the agenda had moved to strengthening failed states, that became our mission in the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea.

There is also a simple explanation for the emergence of a local arms industry that doesn’t rely on dark suspicions of a new militarism. As the world’s thirteenth-largest economy, in an era of rising trade competition and close attention to countries’ technological edge, it would be noteworthy if Australia hadn’t bolstered its defence industries. As the difficulties of the Collins-class submarine showed, it would have been more cost-effective simply to buy off-the-shelf equipment. Nor does it mean that Australia doesn’t source the vast bulk of its weapons from overseas.

Even the “end of Vietnam syndrome” proclaimed early on by Birmingham needs to be seen in the context of a parallel development in America, where the Republican ascendancy between 1981 and 1993 saw a conscious campaign to boost the legitimacy of the military, helped by a series of hammer-and-walnut interventions into Grenada, Panama and Kuwait.

Certainly, Australian forces have performed extremely well. Before Cosgrove, there was General Sanderson in Cambodia. While the US Rangers were being shot to pieces in Mogadishu, diggers were achieving miracles in Kismayu. It is natural that most Australians feel pride when their armed forces do well, just as they feel pride when their sporting teams do.

Looking for the sources of the seeming change in the ADF’s role in Australian society raises questions about both the point of Birmingham’s essay – that there is something significant happening here – and his tentative conclusion, that this represents a maturation of Australia’s conception of its international role and capabilities. A key question here is, if the US retreats back into a second “Vietnam syndrome” after its misadventure in Iraq, while the ADF emerges without a casualty, will the tempo of ADF deployments abroad continue unabated? Or will Australia’s military deployments again follow what America feels is necessary and achievable in upholding international order?

And if Birmingham is right, and we are indeed seeing a maturation of Australia’s conception of its international role and capabilities, where will this take us in the vastly more complex world we are entering? As Australia’s region sees the emergence of two great powers in India and China, neither Western nor allied to the West, each with a distinctive preference for regional order, to what purpose will its capacities and willingness to intervene be put? If the United States opposes a reshaping of regional norms, will this also become Australia’s strategic mission?


Michael Wesley is Professor of International Relations at Griffith University and Director of the Asia Institute there. He is the author, with Allan Gyngell, of Making Australian Foreign Policy.


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 20, A Time for War. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 21, What’s Left?.


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