Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Presumptive Engagement: Australia’s Asia-Pacific Security Policy in the 1990s

Presumptive Engagement: Australia’s Asia-Pacific Security Policy in the 1990s
by Desmond Ball, Pauline KerrBall-presumptivee

This is something of a re-read. Though an important one having last flicked through it perhaps a decade ago during Uni. This book was written in 1996, but if you updated a few figures (pushing Australia’s Defence budget from $10 to $30 billion, and changing F/A-18s to F35s) you could bring it out as new without any change to the argument.

Desmond Ball and Pauline Kerr outline the wealth of cooperative engagement undertaken by Australia during the 1980s and 90s, and argue that the efforts are too ad hoc and ungrounded in a serious assessment of the precise objectives sought and how the specific policies and activities of the government will achieve those outcomes.

In short, we lacked a strategy. And we still do. If anything the problem is getting worse, with Rudd’s frenetic pace without purpose, everyone’s criminal neglect of DFAT while increasing responsibilities, and the substantial increase in the weight of expectations that defence diplomacy will save us from a US-China war (yeah sure…).

For the reader 19 years later, the assessment must be even gloomer than Ball and Kerr let on. Back in the mid 1990s some of the 34 significant security problems they could identify in Asia were new or emerging. By my quick count at least 30 of them remain unresolved today. And for the authors’ the new track-1.5 & track 2 ventures (meetings with policy makers + scholars or senior outsiders who could speak more freely) such as CSCAP heralded new opportunities for reform. These efforts have not been in vain, but neither have they offered the kinds of breakthroughs or fundamental shifts in attitude hoped for.

Given the age of the book, it’s probably one for the scholar or historian mainly. But still, a useful reminder that few of our major problems are new. It’s just our vanity that today’s problems are inherently different, that the past has little to teach us, and that doing something now is always better than trying to figure out exactly what is the problem and if we even can influence it