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Being fluent in the language of coercion

Chinook helicopter on flight deck of RAN LHD with flying Chinook in background

The dawn of a new financial year brought the release of the 2020 Defence Strategic Update (DSU) and its companion, the 2020 Force Structure Plan. Released as a ‘guide for our nation through one of the most challenging times we have known since the 1930s and the early 1940s.’ The DSU dictates adjustments to Australia’s strategic defence posture to tackle a scale of regional change described as the ‘most consequential strategic realignment since the Second World War’. While the ‘C’ word of 2020 must sadly be COVID-19, it would appear ‘coercion’ is firmly establishing itself in the Australian public’s strategic lexicon. ‘Coercion’ or its derivatives were mentioned 11 times in the 2016 Defence White Paper. Moving forward four years and you will find the same term included 12 times in the Strategic Update, a document one third the size of its 2016 relative. 

It’s not just the increased use of the word ‘coercion’ that is of interest, but how it is framed. In both the White Paper and Strategic Update, ‘coercion’ is typically couched in two ways: first, as nefarious actions by an actor pursuing illegitimate ends. Next, as actions where Australia is the recipient but never the initiator of such behaviour. In both documents the Australian response is to counter these acts by deterring the coercer. This article is the first in a series that will survey the role of deterrence within Australia’s strategic defence posture for the Indo-Pacific century. Given the Strategic Update’s repeated use of ‘coercion’ and ‘deterrence’, some clarity of their relationship is warranted. 

Deterrence as a concept has an enduring presence in both the family of public White Papers and their precursors, the formerly classified Strategic Basis Papers. And yet, while our current public documents don’t explicitly state as much, Australia has and continues to invest in a Defence Force that allows it to coerce others. This is not because Australia’s defence policy is duplicitous or nefarious, but rather that coercion and deterrence theories are inextricably linked. Defence policy cannot choose between figurative threatening spears and protective shields.

Threats are a feature of coercion and therein deterrence, and they need not always be of a military nature, as the exchange of threats between even the strongest of contemporary allies demonstrates. US Secretary of Defense, Mike Pompeo, made it very clear of potential consequences for trusted allies like Australia, if certain security thresholds were compromised through Victoria’s engagement with China’s Belt and Road Initiative: ‘we simply disconnect, we will simply separate’. This, less than a year after he and his Australian counterpart, Senator the Hon Marise Payne, ‘agreed that our alliance today is more vital than ever’.

Accepting this national strategic narrative, one can be excused for thinking ‘coercion’ is merely a slogan for bad, while ‘deterrence’ is one for good. It is particularly interesting to consider, as this framing contrasts with the embracing of ‘grey zone’, a term selected to cover an assortment of ‘military and non-military forms of assertiveness.’  While Canberra’s Defence culture lauds those who make the complex simple and the simple compelling, it is worth pausing to consider these terms beyond the language of our public documents, lest it lead to simplified strategic design. As former Australian Defence Secretary Sir Arthur Tange observed, ‘[m]uch defence policy lies in the mind; and what may seem no more than a slogan can be made a powerful directing influence on more material matters.’ If this is in fact a possibility, we ought to draw back the curtain of public rhetoric to fully understand the complex and nuanced relationship between coercion and deterrence. 

To paint it anecdotally, the relationship between ‘deterrence theory’ and ‘coercion theory’ is as genetic as that between child and parent. And much of our understanding of ‘coercion theory’ in the post-World War Two era is the result of work by American economist, Thomas C. Schelling, who during the Cold War encapsulated his thoughts on the power to hurt through armed diplomacy in, Arms and Influence. ‘Coercion’, as US Army War College professor of history and national security, Tami Davis Biddle, points out, was Schelling’s ‘overarching category encompassing both ‘deterrence’ and ‘compellance’. ‘Compellance’, seeks to ‘force action through fear of consequences’ while its sibling, ‘deterrence’, ‘prevent[s] action’ through ‘fear of consequences’’. 

In a recent article for the Texas National Security Review, Biddle re-introduces ‘coercion theory’ to practitioners to ‘clarify, systemise, and make readily accessible the language of coercion theory.’ Biddle’s own introduction posits while coercion theory ‘is one of the most fully developed bodies of theory in the social sciences’, it is ‘less well understood by practitioners, especially those in the military.’ She further suggests ‘military practitioners are often instinctively wary of it’ as, ‘military professionals are not entirely comfortable with violence as a bargaining process.’ If Biddle’s hypothesis is even somewhat accurate in a US setting, it’s reasonable to think it may apply to Australian Defence practitioners. 

In his 2004 book, Deterrence, Professor Sir Lawrence Freedman declared ‘Deterrence is a coercive strategy’ not because it is wicked but because ‘It presumes that the opponent will retain a capacity to make critical choices throughout the course of a conflict.’ The very existence of roles being played by both sides is what contrasts ‘coercion’ from ‘brute force’, the latter being concerned with strengths, the former primarily with interests

Noting the Strategic Update acknowledges ‘Regional force modernisation has resulted in the development and deployment of new weapons that challenge Australia’s military capability edge’ it remains clear that if Defence planning is to ‘shape Australia’s strategic environment’ it must think in terms of our interests and the interests of others. Designing strategies of shear strength will become less feasible both in a practical balance of forces sense, and moreover, from a nation that aspires to be a “responsible” and “worthy” member of the international system. If, through diplomatic engagement, armed or otherwise, we fail to protect our interests through consent strategies (the absence of threats), and if the behaviour of others risks our ‘security and independence’, Defence must design strategic options offering Government room to escalate and issue overt threats with purpose.[1] In doing so, Australia will be ‘setting boundaries for actions and establishing the risk associated with [the] crossing of those boundaries.’ Or in other words, setting the conditions to deter on a foundation of coercive strategies.

These foundations can be found in the Strategic Update and were emphasised during the document’s launch when the Prime Minister indicated capability adjustments ‘must be able to hold potential adversaries, forces, and infrastructure at risk from greater distance.’ While being a generalised threat, it is a clear statement of the nation’s intent to enhance what Schelling described as ‘latent violence’; ‘violence that can still be withheld or inflicted, or that a victim believes can be withheld or inflicted.’ It indicates the Government’s willingness to inject its own brand of uncertainty into the minds of others, choosing the time and place of its own lethal punishment, to address what Australia has assessed as increasing regional anxiety.

Schelling, among others noted uncertainty’s role in enhancing the effectiveness of deterrents. He also acknowledged its presence in ‘Violence, especially war, is a confused and uncertain activity, highly unpredictable, depending on decisions made by fallible human beings...’ If Tange’s observation that ‘[m]uch defence policy lies in the mind’ is true, then Defence’s minds must be fluent in the language of coercion theory, lest we reduce Australia’s capacity to bargain on peaceful, or if necessary, violent terms.


[1] Alan Renouf, Former Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (1973-6) said of Australian Foreign Policy objectives: ‘The first objective of Australia’s foreign policy should be to preserve the country from attack and from the threat of attack…A complimentary objective should be to safeguard Australia’s independence as a sovereign state.’  

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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