Q&A: Hugh White - How to defend Australia

30 January 2019

Australia’s defence policy has always been a tight focus for Emeritus Professor Hugh White AO, although he has approached it from many different angles during his diverse career as an intelligence analyst, journalist, ministerial staffer, senior public servant, think-tanker and academic. He spoke to Olivia Wenholz.

“We are living through one of the most spectacular and unsettling shifts in Australia’s international situation since European settlement.”

You’re about to complete a book that is the culmination of years of work, and most of your career trajectory, How to Defend Australia. What’s it about?

I’ve circled around the same set of issues for the past 38 years and never had a job in which those issues were not my primary focus. They are: Australia’s defence and strategic position in the international arena; What’s the transformation of Asia all about? What does that mean for Australia’s security and defence? And what does Australia do about it? The book is due to be published in July and explains how we could defend Australia over the next few decades if, as seems more and more likely, we find ourselves facing a powerful and ambitious China, and America is no longer able or willing to play the role of our ally and protector.

A number of people have written of late about the fact that Australia needs to rethink its defence in these new circumstances. My book will be the first to say in any specific detail what exactly we need to do. Instead of just saying, ‘we need more defence’, it looks in detail at what exactly we’d need our forces to do operationally, what capabilities we’d need, how we could get them and what it all would cost. It’s not a very reassuring answer – it’s pretty scary actually, but at least it’s clear.

I’m trying to pull two things together: big strategic questions and very specific practical, nitty-gritty defence policy questions which are almost a branch of engineering. Along the way I also try to answer a bigger question: How can one think clearly about defence? Defence policy is often very muddy and I try to clarify what threats we are actually trying to resist.

The book explains in some detail what it means to be an island and how to defend it. We can do it if we want to, but it’s going to cost us a lot more than we’re spending at the moment, and we need to make a decision about whether it’s worth it.

The transformation of Asia and issues of Australia’s security and defence are really beginning to heat up, so why have you chosen to transition to Emeritus Professor now?

Well, I’m not retiring by any stretch of the imagination. The issues that I have been working on for the last 38 years have never been as interesting as they are right now, so I’m in no hurry to stop working on them. We are living through one of the most spectacular and unsettling shifts in Australia’s international situation since European settlement. The rise of China is truly an enormous event – it’s happening incredibly fast and it’s happening right now. For me to stop working on it now would be like stopping watching a dramatic TV series just before the last episode – I couldn’t tear my eyes away from this even if I wanted to, and I have no desire to.

You’ve been called a future-whisperer. How do you go about researching and teaching topics to do with the future?

In 2019 I’m taking a break from teaching so I can reinterrogate my own approach to teaching topics to do with the future. I want to work on what’s the best way to help students think systematically about things that are profoundly mysterious. With the future, it’s often hard to make it scholarly. There’s not much data there. You don’t want to be just speculating – you need to be more rigorous and disciplined than that. But on the other hand it’s no good just looking over your shoulder the whole time. What’s happened in the past is not going to tell you much about what happens in the future – well, not everything. You want the past to inform, without constraining. The future is going to be very different from the past, and we need to exercise a bit of imagination.

For example, when China is the most powerful country in Asia – what is it going to do with its power? There’s a big question, and one we’d better think pretty carefully about. But you can’t look up the answer. The best idea we’ve got is the past, to inform how we got here.

What was your motivation to move from policymaking in government to a think-tank and then academia? And how have you found the different communities contribute to public policy debate?

While I loved working in government, I had quite a strong sense in the late 90s that what was happening in Asia, particularly with China’s rise but also more broadly, was so big and would pose such big issues for Australia, that it was going to be hard to be very influential on them from within government.

I felt that it was going to be very hard for government to accommodate and address the challenges posed by the shift in Asia, so I figured that it would be more fun, and I might be more useful, if I were not in government, but rather in a place where I could contemplate and address those bigger questions.

I left the role of Deputy Secretary of Defence to set up the ASPI [Australian Strategic Policy Institute] which was enormous fun. Then I came to ANU to take up what was the only chair in Strategic Studies in Australia at the time and head up the SDSC [Strategic and Defence Studies Centre].

When you came to ANU, you also discovered your love of teaching. What was that like?

Teaching turned out to be an unexpected delight for me. I had underestimated how big a job it was, and how big a pleasure I would derive from it. I had never done that rather magical thing of taking a group of people at the beginning of semester, with 12 weeks ahead of us together, seeing how much difference you could make by the end of the semester. There’s nothing like teaching to require and compel you to really think through what your actual opinion or idea is.

So what’s next for Emeritus Hugh?

I will return to teaching in 2020 and continue researching and exploring issues around Australia’s defence and security. I have two other book projects which may or may not get written.

One is a book about how Asia works as a system. It would go beyond my previous works, building on my course, New Power Politics of Asia, exploring how all the players and components in Asia work and interact as a system.

The second book idea is a history of Australian strategic policy going right back to first European settlement in 1788 and before. We all know about the basics of Australian military history – Gallipoli, the Western Front, Kokoda Track, Vietnam, etc – but I think there is a grand narrative that links all of those together that is a bit more complicated than most Australians understand. I’d like to have a go at trying to tell that story.

This article originally appeared in ANU Reporter

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