Re-Thinking Australia’s National Security Strategy – Lessons from the 1930s for the 2030s

By Anne Borzycki

With the 2030s firmly within the defence planning horizon in Australia, and in the absence of a national security strategy, perhaps it’s time to look back to the 1920s and 1930s for guidance and inspiration about how to manage the total security of the nation.

During the 1920s the rise of Japan was preoccupying the national security discussions within the Australian Government.

There were concerns about what this rise could ultimately mean for Australia.

Should a pre-WW1 alliance arrangement be reinvigorated in light of Australian and Japanese tensions over racial discrimination policy?

Did Australia need to view Japan’s expansionist aspirations as an actual ‘threat’?

Should preparations be made to ready the nation to counter any Japanese ‘expansionism’?

How should the trade relationship be balanced in the context of strategic tensions?

What role would Britain play in the Asia-Pacific region?

Interestingly, these same issues and challenges are being discussed today in Australia: simply replace China for Japan, and the US for Britain.

By the 1930s the situation in Europe, and events unfolding in Asia (particularly Japan’s seizure of Manchuria), triggered a step-up in the rhetoric and policy considerations about Australia’s national security.

The public debate involved not only the political leadership of the time, but intellectuals and businessmen.

A notable businessman of the era who contributed significantly to Australia’s capacity to prepare for the coming conflict was Essington Lewis, the managing director of BHP.

Lewis believed in the importance of learning the latest techniques and developments in the iron and steel industry and regularly travelled overseas in his quest for business excellence.

On his way to Europe and the USA in 1934, he passed through Japan with a view to inspecting their steelworks.

When the Japanese were reluctant to share information with him or show him their steel-making facilities, Lewis became concerned and concluded that war with Japan could be imminent.

On his return to Australia he urged the government and industry to prepare for war.

And he also took action himself:  establishing large stockpiles of raw materials, co-founding the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation and establishing munitions annexes at the steelworks.

When war eventually began, Essington Lewis served first as business consultant to the Department of Defence and from May 1940, as Director-General of Munitions.

He therefore had the same access to the War Cabinet as did the Armed Forces heads.

As a businessman, and civilian, he wielded enormous power over many industrial elements essential to the war effort.

The BHP website notes that during the war, and regardless of the challenging roles filled by Essington Lewis in support of the Government, he refused to be paid for his work.

How many business leaders today would have the foresight of Lewis and then take the lead in driving a national security agenda?

Naturally BHP would have benefitted from Lewis’s decisions, but in my view that does not diminish the significance of the actions he took.

The wartime environment inevitably enabled government and industry to work together collaboratively and cooperatively.

National survival was at stake, and it was understood by all Australians that a whole-of-nation effort was the only option.

At the political level, the War Cabinet and War Advisory Council comprised such diverse government and civilian entities as defence, treasury, trade, customs, foreign affairs, labour, social services, health, home security and the postal service.

Is this cross-government cooperation and collaboration, the government and industry relationship and a whole-of-nation effort regarding national security and the national interest simply an artifact of war?

Is it outdated and perhaps unnecessary in a globally connected world that is essentially ‘at peace’, despite the pockets of unrest and rebellion?

Many argue that what we are experiencing globally in 2019 is indeed a kind of ‘war’ – cyber attacks on infrastructure and democratic political systems; trade tensions; vulnerable supply chains; fracturing societies; insecurity and inequality; a climate crisis.

If we accept that we are ‘at war’ right here, right now (and I support this proposition), what is needed to make Australia resilient and secure?

At a lecture in October 2019 commemorating the legacy of Essington Lewis, Rear Admiral (Retired) Kevin Scarce observed that the strategic challenges facing Australia were more than military in nature: cyber threats, super power rivalry, terrorism to name a few.

RADM Scarce further observed that Australia lacks ‘an integrated, holistic approach to these real threats’ and that ‘the time has come for the nation to bring together its separate Defence, Home Security and Foreign Affairs Planning approaches into a single, integrated, national security strategy’.  He added that what is needed is a fundamental review of national objectives.

Simply put, a review of what Australia actually wants for itself as a nation, and for its citizens, is the first step towards understanding the component elements of a national security strategy. 

To be secure and resilient means that government, business and civil society can withstand shocks to the systems that support the Australian way of life.

The Australian Minister for Defence, Senator the Honorable Linda Reynolds CSC, spoke to the Hudson Institute in Washington DC on 1 November 2019.

During the Q&A section of her presentation, Minister Reynolds noted that in supporting regional stability and security, Australia had taken a whole-of-government approach, because the challenges in the region could not be addressed by the Department of Defence alone.

She makes a very good point with this observation.

The world has become more challenging, and the threats to security and sovereignty havebecome more pervasive and pernicious.

The interconnected global economy is delivering prosperity, but it also makes nations more vulnerable.

Australia, at the end of a very long global supply chain, is perhaps even more vulnerable than most.

It is therefore unfortunate that the whole-of-government approach taken today to assist Australia’s regional allies as they navigate future challenges, and as was so effectively employed during the Second World War, is not a feature of Australian government planning in 2019.

How can the Australian government understand and manage the interconnected elements of national security (for example the economy, infrastructure, industry, maritime trade, energy, environment, defence) without a whole-of-government approach?

This whole-of-government approach should be integrated under a national security strategy.

A crucial consideration in the development of the national security strategy, and one that would be dear to the heart of Essington Lewis, relates to sovereign capability.

Australia was able to respond quickly to the changes in the strategic environment in the 1930s because an indigenous industrial capability existed which was supported by a skilled workforce.

The globalised, just-in-time, interconnected economy of 2019 has eroded the resilience Australia had in the 1930s.

The strategic and economic challenges facing Australia heading towards the 2020s and 2030s are not dissimilar to those facing the nation almost 100 years ago.

And while parallels can be seen, the global political and economic systems have changed dramatically.

Australia has prospered by the changes to these systems, but the price has been a loss of sovereignty.

What would Essington Lewis do today to respond to the challenges that Australia now faces?

A realistic assessment of the minimum sovereign capability needed to ensure resilience and security, within the framework established by a national security strategy, would give him a good starting point for action

Anne Borzycki is Director of the Institute for Integrated Economic Research – Australia and a former Air Force Group Captain.

Editorial Note: The history discussion at the beginning of this article on the military-political challenges facing Australia during the 1920s and 1930s, was drawn from a paper by Neville Meaney published in 1996.

Entitled Fears and Phobias: E.L Piesse and the problem of Japan, 1909-1939, it is part of the Occasional Paper Series by the National Library of Australia.

Image courtesy of Marko Mikkonen on Flickr.