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The Tyranny Of Dissonance: Australia's Strategic Culture And Way Of War 1901-2005

Australian Army Soldier Private Malcolm Davis runs to assist casualties during a care of the battle casualty training serial Australia’s Main logistics base in the Middle East Region.
1 February 2005
Dr Michael Evans

This monograph examines Australia's strategic culture and way of war over the course of a century. It seeks to analyse the relationship between ideas and practice and between geography and history in the evolution of Australian strategic behaviour. The study argues that, since Federation in 1901, there has been, and continues to be, a ‘tyranny of dissonance' between Australian strategic theory and its warfighting practice. While peacetime Australian strategic theory has frequently upheld the defence of geography as a foundation stone of defence policy, strategic activity in wartime and security crisis has usually been undertaken to uphold Australia's liberal democratic values and vital political interests. The monograph goes on to explore this paradox through examining the linkages between Australia's political culture, strategic culture and approach to warfighting.

The study argues that, while Australia's political culture and warfighting practice are distinguished by pragmatism, the country's strategic culture has often been overly theoretical and, as a result, has seldom provided a sound guide to military practice in times of war and crisis. Important influences on Australia's strategic culture and approach to war such as the country's liminal geopolitical status, its continental rather than maritime identity, links between foreign policy and defence, and the impact of the ANZAC tradition are analysed in an attempt to illuminate the problem of dissonance.

The monograph then examines how the ‘tyranny of dissonance' between Australia's strategic theory and its way of war was reinforced in the era between 1972 and 1997 by the adoption of a geostrategic doctrine of Defence of Australia. It is argued that a geographically based defence policy was flawed because of its incompatibility with geopolitics, its divorce from fundamental historical lessons, and by a loss of congruence between defence planning and foreign policy interests. These flaws were camouflaged by the bipolarity and relative predictability of the Cold War era.

During the course of the 1990s, however, Defence of Australia geostrategy and operational commitments began to diverge in a manner that could not be ignored. By the time of the new millennium, declaratory strategic theory bore little resemblance to actual strategic practice, as demonstrated by Australian military operations in East Timor, Afghanistan and Iraq.

The study concludes with an examination of how the new globalised security environment of the early 21st century has contributed to the disconnection between doctrine and practice in Australian strategy. The paper argues that, in security conditions characterised by networks, rapid information dissemination and global interdependence, Australia can no longer afford to tolerate a dissonance between its strategic planning and operational commitments. The monograph recommends that declaratory strategy be aligned to real-world military commitments and that, in order to ensure such a situation, defence and diplomacy be closely linked in a ‘strategy of security' or ‘whole of government' approach to security. In an interdependent 21st-century strategic environment, only a ‘whole of government' system is capable of integrating Australia's increasingly diverse, yet interconnected, security requirements.

Last updated
21 December 2017
Army: Courage. Initiative. Respect. Teamwork.
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