Saturday, February 21, 2009

Analysis and the sin of Hubris

Two of the postings below - the one about drawing analogies from history, and the one about ‘great betrayal’s’ in history - came to mind when I spotted an article by Michael O’Connor in the November 2008 Quadrant Magazine called Faith, Hope, but not much Charity.

The article, which assesses Australia’s treaty partners in defence terms: makes a good point (which I have been baiting New Zealander’s with for years): when it comments that New Zealand has given up on self defence, and restructured its military forces for police action only in the immediate region. Their preference of course, is that their limited military budget be expended on small-scale, and easily quantifiable tasks - such as propping up collapsing civil order in Pacific island nations. As a result, the capacity of the military forces to engage in any serious war fighting has been largely abandoned.

The justification to this, in the minds of New Zealand’s political leaders and population, is that they have no serious need of military forces. They are relying on their big neighbour and good friend to look after them. As one New Zealand Prime Minister apparently commented to Michael O’Connor, “as long as Australia is secure, New Zealand is secure”.
This has an amusing correlation to my point made in the posting below, about 'great betrayals'. Australian politicians in the 1920s and 1930s frequently convinced themselves and their electorate that they could undercut defence spending, because Australia could not be threatened as long as Britain was secure.

As World War II reveals, when you’re great and powerful friend is busy fighting for its life, it cannot always guarantee the complete security blanket that you have been looking forward to. The screams from Curtin’s government about betrayal when it proved impossible to hold Fortress Singapore (the word ‘fortress’ being political speak, whereas the correct military term was ‘naval base’ Singapore): being a classic example of attempting to hide your own guilt by denouncing the behaviour of others.

It will no doubt be amusing, although somewhat terrifying, if and when the New Zealand politicians and population discover that a future major conflagration in the Asian Pacific area leaves Australia just a little bit too over committed to provide the security blanket that New Zealand feels it deserves. I expect that after the next war, pompous and fatuous New Zealand politicians and historians will express bitter complaints about Australia’s ‘betrayal’ of New Zealand.

O’Connor does not reveal which Prime Minister made the comment to him, but it he has all the hallmarks of ‘bread and circuses now, let the future take care of itself’, that has been the home stomping ground of New Zealand and Australian Labor Party politicians for the past century. (Which is not to say, that leaders from other political parties have not been equally willing to play the same game occasionally, even against the long-term tendencies of their own parties.)

New Zealand’s head in the sand attitude is only a small part of the article. It is however, reflective of the strong historical analysis that makes the bulk of the article. By contrast, the analysis of possible future threats in the article is somewhat less convincing.

Australians have long had a weird fixation on potential threats from countries that we do not understand, while completely underestimating the threat from countries that we believe (until too late) that we can take the granted. This goes right back to the Russian invasion scares at the time of the Crimean War while we ignored the Americans – until commerce cruisers actually arrived in our largely undefended ports during their civil war. Then we had the ‘yellow peril’ threat (where Britain’s modern looking ally Japan was, at least part of the time, on our side). Later Indonesia, as it attempted - in its own view - to tidy up its post-imperial borders: also managed to look like a threatening expansionary power to many Australians. Was Indonesia ever a real threat? No. Is it? Not really (at least not at the moment). Now the big boogie man on the horizon is China, which many people see as a great power, the great unknowable threat, of the future.

There are two problems with the China threat concept. The first is the obvious one, which is nonetheless completely ignored by many military, political and economic analysts, who you would think would have more sense. The most basic glance at the results of China’s one child policy should reveal to anyone with even a passing knowledge of the concept of demography, that China is going to get old before it gets rich. You do not need to go as far as the sort of analysis which led Hitler to believe that Germany must attack the Soviet Union in the early 1940s, when Germany is early 20s manpower peaked, rather than leave it until later when the Soviet Union’s available manpower would climb rapidly. You just need to accept that a modern industrial economy does not function particularly well when the number of retired people starts becoming too excessive a burden the number of workers.

The second problem is less obvious, but carries even more convincing weight. We saw in the last century, the outcome of a monolithic state-controlled superpower – the Soviet Union, trying to supplant a sometimes chaotic but usually vibrant free-market democracy – the United States. So what do you imagine will be the result, when a monolithic state-controlled China battles for supremacy with a sometimes chaotic but increasingly vibrant free-market democracy like India?

20 years ago, while undertaking a scholarship at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at ANU, I drafted a paper on India and the Search for Great Power Status. Even then India was greatly expanding its military forces; interfering in the internal condition of states such as Sri Lanka; and threatening to intervene, if necessary, in the internal affairs of its ‘near neighbours’… “such as Kenya and South Africa” (Quote by the then head of the Indian Navy). Those who have a hard time imagining military aggression by states such as India, should perhaps take a quick glance back at the Falklands War, which was started by an unstable government trying to distract a lively population with what it imagined would be a quick and easy victory on a popular issue.

The point was eloquently made by another article in the same copy of Quadrant by Paul Monk - How to think about Strategic Futures. He quotes several writers, such as Philip Bobbitt and Philip Tetlock, who reinforce the point that too much human planning is based on blindly accepting comfortable assumptions. “ The dominant danger, Tetlock concluded, regardless of the methodology we adopt, is hubris: the close mindedness that leads us to dismiss dissonant possibilities too quickly, or not see them at all.” (Quoted from Monk's article.)

Whether we are looking at perceived threat in the future, or justifying our own failings in the past, far too many of our politicians, historians, economists, and military thinkers, slide far too easily into hubris.

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