Thursday, November 20, 2014

Defence Diplomacy: Is the game worth the candle?

Greetings from the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University where three distinguished speakers are addressing the question: "Defence Diplomacy: Is the game worth the candle?". Professor Hugh White began by pointing out that the British Fleet visited their German counterparts short before the outbreak of World War One. This defence diplomacy did not prevent war. He argued the idea of using the military for diplomacy in peacetime is appealing. This may work at the tactical level, but not higher. Military officers from different nations can more easily work together if they know each other. But Professor White argued that military officers are not highly enough placed for the most important diplomacy.

In contrast Dr John Blaxland argued that 2014 is not like 1918 and that in South East Asia a military uniform opens doors. This was based in aprt on his experience as Australia’s Defence Attaché to Thailand and Burma from 2008-2010. He expressed concern that the Australian Defense Force had been concentrating in the last few years on operations in the middle east and Afghanistan.

Peter Leahy ex-Chief of Army, described how Peter Cosgrove, then military commander talked his way into East Timor as leader of INTERFET. Australia's relationship with Indonesia was strained by the East Timor intervention, be renewed by Australia's assistance for the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake. Peter Leahy jokingly emphasized the need for diplomats in the Asian region to play golf and sing karaoke with their counterparts. Australia's new Landing Helicopter Dock Ships (LHD) were nominated by Peter Leahy as a useful for disaster relief and therefore diplomacy. In my view the primary purpose of the LHDs, for amphibious assault, will not be lost on military personnel of the region. The likely result is that military in the region will scramble to acquire a similar capability and also the means to combat it, using submarines. The ability to equip conventional submarines with lithium iron battery technology derived from electric vehicles, increasing their underwater range by five to ten times, is likely to result in a new arms race (in my view).

Professor Nick Bisley pointed put he was the only speaker who had not served in the military or Defense bureaucracy. He noted that Defence Diplomacy where military provides material aid can provide more short term tangible results than high level diplomatic discussions. However, Professor Bisley suggested that this form of diplomacy has only a limited role.

At question time Peter Leahy expressed concern about Australian military officers and units being embedded in allied forces could become too closely enmeshed in the military operations of that country. One of the audience commented that Australian military attaches were assumed to be spies by other nations. Another question was on how much the military could do in the absence of clear national strategic direction. The New Colombo Plan was nominated as a useful form of soft diplomacy (or the "Reverse Colombo Plan" as as Professor White called it).

This was a fascinating discussion of the issues and a much more comfortable one than the previous frightening previous seminar on Possible Use of Nuclear Weapons in Sino-Japanese War

Papers are available:

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