Understanding “strategic culture”

| April 3, 2024

In late 2020, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that the Australian national anthem was going to change. Instead of “for we are young and free,” it became “for we are one and free.” As proponents of the change noted, the idea of Australia as a “young” nation ignored the more than 65,000 years of history of the First Nation’s people. Even modern Australia, with distinct and continuous forms of governments and state identities since the early nineteenth century, doesn’t seem quite so “young” anymore.

What is the weight of this history when it comes to making foreign policy? That is the fascinating question at the heart of Michael O’Keefe’s new book Australian Foreign Policy: Relationships, Issues and Strategic Culture. O’Keefe addresses this through the concept of “Strategic Culture,” the notion that states have a distinct set of identities, traditions, habits, and common ideas which are shared by a population over time. The idea itself emerged in the 1970s as a way of understanding how the Soviet Union was attempting to implement its nuclear deterrence, recognising that what was “rational” or “efficient” to US analysts and officials did not fit actual Soviet conduct.

This great insight, that people see the world in different ways, was of surprise to precisely zero historians or anthropologists. Still, for the political scientists, Strategic Culture has since become a valuable tool for exploring themes of continuity and change inside nations.

Why, for instance, do we see similar patterns emerging across very different historical and strategic eras? Why do nations shift rapidly at some moments, while at others they seem utterly incapable of reform? And how meaningfully and accurately can we identify these practices – as something akin to a national “vibe,” or could they be turned into a quantifiable tool for systematically studying, even predicting, state behaviour?

O’Keefe’s work is the first claimed book-length study of this concept, as it applies to Australia, though there are a number of important book chapters and journal articles on the topic. For instance, Michael Wesley in 2000, Michael Evans in 2001 and 2005, David Kilcullen in 2007, Ben Eltham and Alex Burns in 2014, Peter Dean in 2016 and, more recently, Kate Clayton and Katherine Newman in 2023.

Given the broad lens of strategic culture as a field, the nature of these pieces varies widely. Dean’s chapter provides the clearest introduction to the literature while offering a pluralistic account of competing groups of thinkers who work within the alliance tradition (such as a regional or global focus) as well as those who stand outside it, such as the armed and neutral school. So too Wesley, Eltham, and Burns offer variations on the idea of distinct sub-cultures in Australia who seek influence.

Other scholars prefer to seek a unifying theme that captures Australia’s approach to the world. Evans and Kilcullen wrote during the “War on Terror” era and emphasised the importance of expeditionary operations. In the current era, Clayton and Newman have positioned Australia as a “settler colonial” state, drawing on nineteenth century attitudes to explain twenty-first century military decisions, such as AUKUS.

The big advantage of a book-length treatment for O’Keefe is that he is able to go far beyond any other author in terms of areas covered, and the opportunity for depth. The book features two chapters on each of Australia’s major diplomatic relationships (with the United States, China, Japan, Indonesia, and the South Pacific), as well as chapters on key themes such as development assistance, climate change, and asylum seekers.

O’Keefe is keenly aware of the limits of singular explanations. As he rightly points out, early on, a key advantage of the strategic culture lens against systemic international relations paradigms, such as realism and liberalism, is that it is focused “on accurately depicting the messy reality of foreign affairs in a particular state.” And he stresses regularly that “Australian policy-makers habitually […] respond with strategies that involve a pluralist Liberal Internationalist, Realist and Strategic Culture response.”

There is, at times, an impressive level of detail for a single work. The diplomatic relationships are each explored through two chapters, a historical background, and a contemporary assessment. The book draws on a wide range of sources, with plenty of tables, maps, figures, and pullout boxes for key details. It has clearly been a work of many years labour to draw it all together. The thematic chapters are particularly rich. In an era where many academics are hyper-specialised, it is welcoming to see a big and bold assessment that ranges so widely.

This is indeed a bold work. For despite the stress on a pluralistic approach, O’Keefe’s analysis revolves around the claim that Australia has a “highly militarized strategic culture” based on a handful of “core beliefs characterizing Australia’s strategic culture,” including “geographic isolation from Anglo-American culture and alienation from Asia; exaggerated threat perceptions sourced from Anglo-American culture and centred on Asia; a sense of indefensibility arising from geography and demography; [and] a fear of abandonment by Anglo-American allies in the face of indefensibility from a threatening region.”

To help show the exaggerated nature of Australian threat perceptions, the author offers a detailed praise of the 1986 Dibb Report, arguing that its “rational approach to planning” was “unpalatable” in the face of Australia’s “exaggerated threat perceptions [which] remain a persistent and distinctive element of Strategic Culture.”

Indeed, the Dibb Report still makes startling reading today with its opening sentence that “Australia is one of the most secure countries in the world.” However, a decade earlier, the 1973 Strategic Basis Paper (declassified in 2009) had assessed that “Australia is at present one of the most secure countries in the world.” While a decade after Dibb’s landmark study, the 2000 Defence White Paper also argued “Australia today is a secure country.”

O’Keefe observes that there was a “dramatic rise in the tempo of military operations overseas and in defence spending” in the late Cold War and post-Cold War era. It is also true that the Australian Defence Force was very busy in the 1990s. However, does this fit with what is commonly meant by a militarised, threat-exaggerating culture when most of their missions in this era were peacekeeping efforts, at the invitation of either the United Nations or regional neighbours? As for defence spending, it steadily declined from 2.5 percent of GDP in 1986 to 1.82 percent in 2008, against Dibb’s report which assumed annual growth of 3 percent

What was perhaps most surprising in Morrison’s 2020 change to “Advance Australia Fair” was that it showed real empathy to a group who saw Australia so differently to him. Rightfully, the First Nations did not like being told their nation was “young,” and for a moment Morrison acknowledged that others within Australia had legitimately different views worth listening to.

Understanding a country as diverse as Australia requires an empathy for why people may legitimately seek other approaches to the ones you prefer. Unfortunately, that aspect is missing in this account. Scholarship, which lacks empathy for how others in different eras or positions of responsibility tried to act, will always struggle to provide a compelling account of how policy is made. As such, despite the significant effort put into this volume, we are still awaiting a good book-length treatment of Australian strategic culture.

This review of Michael O’Keefe’s Australian Foreign Policy: Relationships, Issues and Strategic Culture (Bloomsbury, 2023) was published by the Australian Institute for International Affairs.