Dealing with Reality Shock: Refocusing on the World We Have Rather than the World We Wish We Would Have


2017-08-21 By Robbin Laird

During recent conversations with Ross Babbage in the United States and then Australia, we discussed the dynamics of change in the global environment and the challenges posed to the liberal democracies by the illiberal powers.

Ross is a well-known and well regarded Australian strategist with significant government experience. He is currently CEO of Strategic Forum in Canberra and also a Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington D.C.

From the Cold War, to the Post-Cold War to the post-9/11, to the post-globalization to the new phase of global development, the liberal democracies face a new set of challenges.

In my own view, the post-Cold War period has seen the rise and growth of a belief in the democracies similar to what we saw in the 1890s in Europe, namely, intensified global interactions leading to globalization which leads to peace and progress.

Even shocks like 9/11 have been put into the globalization mold as the “global terrorism threat” which of course requires the civilized states to band together to provide a global solution which enhances their own close working relationships.

But in the midst of all of these developments something akin to the 1930s has emerged in which a range of illiberal powers, with little in common with one another, are all playing off of the liberal democracies to augment their own power.

And those liberal democracies are looking less like the “we all work together” folks in High School Musical.

As Europe, the United States, Australia and other key liberal democracies sort out how to work together in the world which we have whether than the world we might wish for, how can we generate a more realistic set of policies to deal with the threats and to enhance cooperation among the liberal democracies, even as those democracies develop their own identities in ways where commonality is not a given?

Ross Babbage: “A key issue is that our governments need to be much more frank with their publics and  with one another about the emerging major power threats.

“Our governments and the agencies around government are not talking enough to our local populations.

“And that’s having a big impact, because the media are not forced to lift their game and report in any depth the clear and present dangers the new global challenges pose to the democracies.

“Nor is the public having to face up to some of the big challenges. Our governments and strategists are not doing a great job in basically explaining what’s going on and preparing their publics for the range of actions that may be required.

Babbage went on to discuss the nature of the challenges as he saw them.

“We are not facing one-off problems. The challenges we now face are multi-disciplinary.

“They’re much more complex, and we haven’t prepared our societies to cope with them.

“And if we don’t, we won’t be able to marshal the full range of resources necessary to deal with the challenges we now face, the Western alliance will be further weakened and the democracies will be far more vulnerable in future crises.

“The bottom line is that we need to generate an effective mix of economic, information, geo-strategic, immigration, legal, cyber and counter-leadership measures as well as the more standard diplomatic, military measures to defend ourselves effectively and put these nasty guys back in their place.”

We then discussed the nature of the challenge posed by the illiberal powers.

“If we focus on the Chinese and the Russians, they’ve had a substantial level of success in the last decade because they’re applying many more instruments of national power in a focused way and taking greater risks to achieve strategic success.

“They are applying economic tools, information warfare tools, geo-strategic tools, espionage, cyber as well as diplomatic and military tools, working within the liberal democracies to influence public opinion and coerce governments and they are doing so within integrated strategies.

“And even if they themselves are rivals, they are playing off of each other’s efforts to create a learning curve with regard to how to enhance their power at the expense of the liberal democracies.”

“In contrast, the liberal democracies have yet to recognize neither the true nature of the challenges nor the need to enhance their arsenal of integrated tools to deal with them.

“And notably, governments are not focused on the internal challenge which the penetration of the Chinese and Russian operations into European, American and Australian societies is posing.”

And here there is a clear parallel to what the German government did in the run up to World War II in terms of augmenting their domestic influence in France, Britain and other European societies.

“In spite of leadership differences, the liberal democracies have far more in common than they differ. There is also a generational challenge. Since the end of the Cold War, the stark contrast between democratic and authoritarian values have not been as clear to our publics, especially to our younger people.

“Yet the Chinese, the Russians, the North Koreans and the Iranians, just to mention the most prominent authoritarian powers, have little in common with our values. We are paying a big price for not highlighting the true nature of the illiberal regimes to our publics.

“Recently, the Prime Minister of Australia, despite his difficult initial discussion with President Trump, made it clear that the North Korean threat to the United States and Australia created common cause and the need for a common response.

“The fundamentals of the ANZUS alliance remain as relevant as ever. The PM was very clear that a thuggish regime with nuclear weapons threatened our way of life.

“We need more recognition of this and preparation for the contest and conflict starring us in the face. This is the real world; not the world we wish we were living in.”

“Part of the problem here, in my view, is that we have not done a good job of telling our publics about the appalling track record of the Russians, and the Chinese, and the others.

“There are some notable exceptions.

“For example, a really good series of reports on ABC Australia in June highlighted the Chinese penetration of Australia, their cyber operations, their attempts at bribery and corruption and the threat which these operations pose to Australia.

“This series triggered further press reporting and to government decisions to review policies and legal frameworks to deal with the internal espionage, cyber and broader challenge posed by the Chinese and others.”

“There is, however, a long way to go. We need to focus much more strongly on the global competitors who don’t share our values and who are working actively to damage us seriously or bring us down. We need to make our own public’s aware of what’s going on, but also project information and other operations back into the counties that are dominated by these kinds of regimes.

“We need to be more realistic about the global environment we’re in and more active in developing and implementing powerful countermeasures, so that we don’t end up with a repeat of the 1930’s.”

Babbage closed by arguing that changes within government to shape more multi-disciplinary and well-coordinated tool sets and actions were required.

In many senses we need to recreate twenty-first century versions of the multi-disciplinary defensive and offensive capabilities that the Western democracies built and refined during the cold war.

Effective adaption to deal with the markedly different range of threats we now face is urgent and will require strong national and international leadership. The sooner we see concerted allied action to re-build effective multi-disciplinary and cross-alliance defenses the better.