Threats without enemies: rethinking Australia's security

Edited by Gary Smith & StJohn Kettle
Pluto Press, Sydney, 1992. pp. 332. $19.95 (pb)

Reviewed by Brian Martin

 Published in Social Alternatives, Vol. 12, No. 3, October 1993, pp. 54-55
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Are you looking for an informative and well-argued presentation of the case for reforming Australian 'security' policies that are currently based mostly on military means? If so, this is an ideal book for you. The contributors make sane and sensible comments throughout. For example:

* The debate on Australian 'security' has been hijacked by military perspectives.

* Besides military security, other important dimensions are economic, environmental and community security.

* Changes in international relations since the end of the cold war have important implications for Australian security.

* The Australian government could play a more positive role in the region, especially in relation to human rights and promoting healthier economic development in poor countries.

* Australian military defence could be made much more efficient and appropriate.

The book is a product of the Secure Australia Project, a group of nine people 'dedicated to common security for Australians and their neighbours' (p. 7), and is a successor to The New Australian Militarism (Pluto, 1990).

The quality of writing is uniformly high. The arguments are clear, the examples pertinent, the information up-to-date and the tone usually sober and earnest. There is little passionate rhetoric here. The social concerns of the authors come through in the issues chosen and the arguments made.

The issues and arguments are undoubtedly important. 'Security' in conventional strategic rhetoric means security against military threats, to be deterred or defended against by military means. The purpose of this book is to challenge this rhetoric and to open up discussions of 'security' to a range of wider concerns. Rather than security being an issue solely for military planners, it should be an issue for all people. Furthermore, much more attention should be given to threats -- military and nonmilitary -- affecting indigenous peoples, women, the poor and the exploited.

Although the book challenges the well-entrenched perspectives of military-centred planning, the alternative presented also has its limits. The contributors discussed the book together and many of them commented on each other's chapters. Perhaps this explains why their critique is so cautious. The assumptions underlying the perspective of the Secure Australia Project -- especially those assumptions shared with the military-strategic establishment that is being questioned -- highlight both the strengths and limitations of the critique.

Essentially, most of these authors come across as moderate reformers. They would not be totally out of place as heads of government departments under an enlightened government. Their challenge seems primarily to policies rather than to social and organisational structures. It seems that they would be happy with a streamlined and refocussed Australian military defence system, with much greater government attention and funding for environmental problems, human rights, social justice, conflict resolution and peacekeeping in international affairs. Almost all of this is seen as something to be promoted by the Australian government.

The book seems aimed at decision-makers in government and the intellectuals who might influence these decision-makers. Peace movements are mentioned only in passing, if at all. Nowhere is there a discussion of the dynamics of peace movements or even the decline of the Australian peace movement since the mid 1980s.

Nor is nonviolence given more than a mention, with the exception of Di Bretherton who deals perceptively with violence and nonviolence in everyday life at the community level. Considering the importance of nonviolence in the 1989 revolutions in Eastern Europe -- which created the conditions for a radical reassessment of strategic doctrine -- this omission is surprising. The important roles of nonviolence in social movements, as both method and worldview, and its potential as a long-term alternative to military defence, are not examined. Perhaps this was considered too radical for the target audience. Or perhaps it is simply that the Secure Australia Project accepts the 'need' for military defence, as stated in its October 1992 'call for an inquiry into Australia's security' (reproduced on pp. 331-332).

Few of the contributors give any sustained examination of the driving forces behind war and other social problems -- whether these are taken to be the state system, capitalism, military establishments or patriarchy -- and how to undermine them. The assumption seems to be that good will at the top is what is required to build on the less tense 'security environment' since the collapse of the Soviet bloc. The possibility of a regression to major-power military confrontation is not addressed sufficiently.

Indeed, the overall tone is optimistic. Several contributors make a point of praising Australian government initiatives, for example on chemical disarmament. A more critical approach would have been appropriate on Senator Gareth Evans' initiatives in Cambodia which, some would argue (but not in this book), have aided the designs of the Khmer Rouge. The reform agenda behind the book seems to have muted a really penetrating critique of Australian foreign policy.

Even the book's own basic message, namely that the debate about 'security' should be opened up, is not fully incorporated in all chapters. Gary Smith makes the excellent point that defence doesn't just mean military defence: 'A military planner who seeks multibillion dollar appropriations for defence and security is utilising a discourse which anchors onto basic community values in order to make a sectional appeal for funds.' (p. 26). Yet Graeme Cheeseman's chapter, entitled 'An effective and affordable defence for Australia,' deals almost entirely with Australian military forces.

In summary, Threats without Enemies is a valuable book with a clear aim, to broaden discussion on 'security.' For information and arguments it is excellent, but peace groups and nonviolent activists will need to look elsewhere for insights on developing grassroots campaigns.