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Learning from history: Some strategic lessons from the ‘forward defence’ era

By Peter Edwards

Australia is currently engaged in a major reassessment of its strategic policy. Those in and around the policymaking process are trying to define the nation’s core values and interests, to identify the most likely threats, and to frame a strategy that will best protect and promote our national security. This is happening at a time when many defence budgets are severely constrained.

There are questions about the allocation of roles and resources between the military, diplomatic, intelligence and other agencies. As a lively debate in the ASPI blog, The Strategist, demonstrated, there’s much discussion about the nature and meaning of strategy, and where strategic planning’s to be found in the governmental structure.

The paper places our current position in the history of the major phases of Australian strategic policy since Federation. It then examines one of those phases—the years from about 1950 to 1975, when Australia’s strategic concept was often summarised as ‘forward defence’. It also assesses the way the government handled commitments to three conflicts in Southeast Asia; the Malayan Emergency, Indonesian Confrontation and the Vietnam War. It then draws some lessons that remain applicable to our current challenges.