Australia’s defence in an age of empires – an unready nation
Empires break rules

Remember Genghis: empires don't fit in to existing orders - they smash them. We're in an age of want to be authoritarian empires.

Written by

Lesley Seebeck

Is Australia ready for conflict in an age of empires?

Briefly: no.

Australian strategy and policy, most recently articulated in the National Defence Strategy (NDS), is solidly grounded in the post-World War II, even post-Cold War, Westphalian world view.  It is dominated by nation-states, rational actors that abide, broadly, by an international rules-based order.

That’s understandable: it is the world that policy and decision-makers know. The problem is that we no longer live in that world. 

We are arguably seeing a resurgence of empire. Putin, for example, makes it very clear that he aspires to reclaim the Russian Empire of Peter the Great. But more than simply a miscalculation resulting from the grandiose dreams of its leader, Russia—and China—clearly see the proper ordering of the world as rather different to the Western Westphalian, rules-based order, model. 

Andy Marshall, the famed head of the Pentagon’s Office of National Assessment, recognised that culture has a deep, lasting influence. Different cultures lead to different kinds of organisations, different world views, different relationships between superiors and subordinates, and differing behaviours. 

What could that mean for world ordering? 

We are used to thinking of the fundamental strategic challenges as being between competing national interests, between capitalism, the ‘West’, and communism, ‘the East’. That’s a legacy of the Cold War. 

The legacy of the Westphalian system is that of the sovereignty of nations—expressed in terms of political control, territoriality and external recognition. And those are all managed through what we know as the international rules-based order. 

But this world order is being fundamentally contested by a different, arguably, older one—which has its roots in the landmass of Eurasia, rather than the maritime outreach of Spanish, British, Dutch and American expansion and hegemony. 

In her book, Before the West, Ayse Zarakol argues that we need to understand the earlier, then-dominant definition of sovereignty, and so world order, shaped, disseminated and embedded by Chinggis (Genghis) Khan. The Chinggisid model comprised highly centralised political control, ambitions of a universal sovereignty, and a dynastic legitimacy based on world conquest. 

There is no straight line, but the antecedents of Russia, China, and Iran may be found in the successors to Chinggis’s empire. Nor were the transformative effects of Chinggis’ model restricted to his Empire; they can be found, for example, in the Timur Empire, the Mughal Empire of India, the Ottoman Empire and even amongst the Hapsburgs. 

What does this mean for Australia’s strategy? 

We cannot assume that the current tumult is but an aberration, and that the rules-based order on which our defence and foreign policy rest are ongoing. The evidence is that they are sorely eroded. 

Australia—along with other like-minded liberal democracies—is in a competition with empires for an understanding of and shaping of the world order. There are several consequences that follow.  Let me draw four.

First, empires seeking to reorder the world will not be deterred by the threats, promises, behaviours, etc, that would deter us—a post-Cold War, Westphalian democracy. That makes the calculus of the NDS’s deterrence strategy—strategy by denial—considerably harder.

Second, in the mind of an emperor, there is no ‘regional balance’, as referred to in the NDS—only borderlands.  There may be temporary balances with other empires—in which case, borderlands are quite likely to be bloodlands, continually contested.

Third, an empire based on asserting its universal sovereignty has no time for the ‘international rules-based order’, the norms, laws, rules of others—as we can see in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, in China’s creeping usurpation of other states’ territorial claims in the South China Sea.  And that also has implications for the Geneva Convention, for example.

It’s an historical anomaly for a great power like the United States to accept the kind of restraints on its behaviour in place through its shepherding of the global international order of the last 70 decades. And even then, the United States has at times broken those constraints. Authoritarian powers are highly unlikely to accept any such ties that bind, making resurrected calls for China to be a ‘responsible stakeholder’ in the existing order poorly founded.

Fourth, the current authoritarian empires—Russia, China—have real issues with succession. If the effects of the Chinggisid concept of world order are as persistent as Zakarol argues, the death of the protagonists may well spur greater, not less disruption, as claimants will seek legitimacy through conquest.

In short, we are in a very different world, with different strategic assumptions and drivers, to that of the NDS, and Australian foreign and defence policy more generally.

There are no sidelines in a global reordering. The NDS is a document out of time and out of place. There is little sense of urgency or of the immensity of the likely challenge at hand. And that, too, is reflected in the paucity of funding and impetus for reform and uplift given Defence. 

White papers—the NDS is not truly a ‘national’ defence strategy, or the ‘national’ is at least redundant—even as they come and go, matter. They reflect Australia’s understanding of the world and its shaping. They signal intent and commitment. And they are critical for the legitimacy required in a democracy for defence and defence strategy, and the military task. The 2024 NDS unfortunately—let’s hope not tragically—falls short.