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A National Strategy of Resilience: Foreign Policy Implications for the Australian Ship of State

Chenjun Wang

As Robert Burns wrote, “The best-laid schemes o’mice and men gang aft agley” (often go awry). This happens more-often-than-not. Resilience as a strategic concept has been used in the oil crisis of the 1970s, 9/11 terrorist attacks, global financial crisis, and catastrophic climate change. The response to the propensity for things to go awry are various forms of resilience. As far as security is concerned, the rise in emphasis on resilience is based primarily on the limitations of predicting and controlling the future – on uncertainties and unknowns. So often the waters ahead are uncharted and the weather is unpredictable for the Ship of State.

The COVID-19 pandemic, bushfires, floods, disinformation campaigns, value chain disruptions and geopolitical uncertainties have led to increased interest in resilience in Australia and elsewhere. John Curtin was responding to a troublesome environment when he wrote his letter to the Melbourne Herald. Australia today faces a more complex socio- ecology, a new national resilience strategy is required in order to reduce – if not eliminate – its vulnerabilities both to natural hazards and to external threats, potential or ongoing, by states, non-state, and transnational actors.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison first mentioned the Government’s intention to build a nationwide resilience strategy in a speech entitled “An even stronger, more resilient Australia”. On 13th May 2020, the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade adopted an inquiry into the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic for Australia. In the final report1 (December 2020), the Committee called on the Australian Government to develop a national resilience framework encompassing risk assessment, risk management, and response and recovery measures in dealing with future crises.

The pandemic highlighted weak spots in systems, where different approaches or further investment could be adopted, to strengthen national and local resilience. It also offered an opportunity to better understand and nurture resilience in an evolving global context. Resilience now appears in multiple discourses in Canberra. Recruitment of the concept of resilience has covered an ever-widening range of critical areas, such as infrastructure, minerals, supply chains, and cyberspace. A nation-wide resilience strategy posits these elements to be part of vulnerabilities of the nation to external factors.

Generally, resilience refers to three levels of capacity. In a conservative scenario, it refers to a society’s capacity to resist unwanted change and retain a condition of equilibrium. In an adaptive scenario, it is a society’s capacity to ensure that its social and economic processes are continually kept in fine fettle to ensure survival of and recovery from shocks and disturbances – in the face of uncertainty and adversity. Through learning, adaptation, transformation and reorganisation, society would effectively absorb changing conditions while maintaining its general structure and functions. In a progressive scenario, a society’s ability to thrive on challenges, through its innovative and creative responses, is prioritised. Such self-renewal processes empower a society.

Forms of resilience strategy may vary with different scenarios. Joseph Nye, the conceiver of the concept of soft power, also coined the term “contextual intelligence”. Contextual intelligence is “the intuitive diagnostic skill that helps policy-makers align tactics with objectives to create smart strategies.” In a personal conversation with his colleague Uri Friedman, Nye pointed out2 that, “with less historical precedent for or understanding” of today’s challenges, “a new dimension of resilience” is demanded. So, what were state actors’ previous approaches to national resilience? And what new dimension of resilience needs to be introduced in foreign policy contexts?

The US, EU, and the UK have been at the forefront of developing national strategies of resilience. Three approaches to the generation of national resilience may be considered – neoliberal resilience, principled pragmatic resilience, and open-ended resilience.

Post-1945 world politics was defined by a US-led hierarchical order with liberal characteristics. Nimble institutions, regulations, legislation and policies were established to serve US-centred international networks. Liberal forms of governments sought to shape the external environment in autonomous and conscious ways. The uncertainties and threats were derived from those who stood in opposition to (neo)liberal deterministic understandings of socio-economic structures. Hence the resilience approach was pre-emptive and prevention- oriented, and aimed to remove future uncertainties. The resources were richly embedded in international institutions and international norms.

The European Union Global Strategy (EUGS) introduced the notion of “principled pragmatism”3 in 2016: “We will be guided by clear principles. These stem as much from a realistic assessment of the current strategic environment as from an idealistic aspiration to advance a better world.” In characterising resilience, EUGS recognises the limitation of (neo)liberal solutions and utopianism, and favours “realistic assessment”. Resilience, according to EUGS, “benefits us and countries in our surrounding regions, sowing the seeds for sustainable growth and vibrant societies.” Therefore, the EU seeks to work with countries that wish to strengthen ties with it, including authoritarian states. Such a resilience-building project is neoliberal in principle and flexible – relying on case-by-case practise.

The UK community resilience framework4 places great emphasis on individuals, communities, and the private sector. As the framework states, “Government contribution to community resilience is not to dictate or measure what is being or should be done locally. Instead, the role is to support and enable local activity by making existing good practice available to others.” To maximise engagement by all parts of the society will be the key element of the inward-looking resilience approach. It posits that the most productive resilience capacity is derived from an open-ended strategy, primarily relying on various actors’ sense of shared responsibility. By encouraging people to think about their vulnerabilities, individuals and communities take up their own responsibilities dealing with the potential consequences of an emergency and society and economic well-being.

Given its multicultural nature and democratic polity, Australia is characteristically advantaged by the third approach. In 2007, Australia 21 Ltd, chaired by Paul Barratt AO, ran a roundtable asking “How resilient is Australia?” It found5 that “official (largely governmental) processes have acted to reduce or limit Australia’s resilience to major shocks, while unofficial (community, private) efforts have worked to increase resilience.” According to Barratt, the subsequent research on examining Australia’s resilience shows the consistency of the result.

Looking forward, there is no universal, one-size-fits-all solution for resilience, as it depends on which disrupting event or future crisis we might face. Australia needs to be resilient in terms of foreign policy challenges through a judicious mix of the resilience palate. It needs to draw on US, EU, UK, and other approaches as fits the context with which it is dealing. Multicultural Australia has an excellent tradition of drawing on other cultures to produce a vibrant mix. It can forge such a flexible hybrid approach in the foreign policy context as well.

The debates on Australia’s international security calculus between the Paul Keating generation of retired ALP political figures, current ALP leadership, and the current Morrison Government, are examples of competing frames of national resilience being interrogated by foreign policy elites. The discourses on “an open, inclusive and rules-based environment”, “democracies and traditional partners”, or “managed strategic competition” would play their own roles in shaping the present policy moment. Whether these moves are “leading Australia into a strategic dead end” or an impressive “contextual intelligence” would be judged and tested when the next storm breaks. A long steady passage by the Ship of State through squalls and headwinds would demonstrate that the resilience strategy has succeeded.


Chenjun Wang is a Ph.D. candidate at MCCALL, Macquarie University, and is associated with the Soft Power Analysis & Resource Centre.


End notes

  1. FADTandglobalpandemic/Report



  4. StrategicNationalFramework.pdf



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