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The Welcome Turn to “Statecraft”

28 Mar 2023
By William Leben
Battleships at sea. Source: pxfuel/

The turn to “statecraft” in the defence and foreign affairs discourse in Australia is a move in the right direction. The risks in an era of US-China competition are real and serious: we need clear and historically grounded language to orient ourselves.

The rise of “statecraft” in Australian foreign and defence policy is to be welcomed. It sharpens and focuses analysis, in the place of a range of conceptually murky and strategically dubious metaphors (hybrid war, the grey zone, and coercive diplomacy) that have proliferated in recent years. The language we use matters.

As other analysts have pointed out, statecraft as a term and concept is now invoked with frequency by senior political leaders in Australia. Within the academic and think-tank communities, statecraft has also gained a renewed prominence.

For instance, a recent report by the Asia-Pacific Development, Diplomacy and Defence Dialogue (AP4D) is centred on the concept. A new University of Adelaide report on Australia in the Pacific uses it centrally, too.

Indeed, Allan Gyngell’s “word of the year” on the AIIA’s podcast at the end of 2022 was statecraft.

This is not to say that the term or the concept is novel. It has precedent in Australian and international discourse. For example, David Kilcullen used the concept centrally in a 2007 article examining the traditions and continuities in Australian defence policy.

So, what is it? Most simply, it is the marshalling of all elements of national power, up to and including the alignment of those elements with viable objectives or outcomes. This certainly includes traditional foreign policy tools like trade relationships, military force, and diplomacy. But the elements and tools of national power are far more numerous than this.

At its most capacious, the term is used in implicit equivalence with grand strategy. In one sense we might say that it is the enactment of those highest-level national goals across various levers of power. As Kilcullen’s article shows, it also fruitfully has space for thinking about the alignments or otherwise between practice and strategic culture, and external and internal policy. Foreign policy that isn’t domestically or fiscally sustainable is clearly a dead end; statecraft is in the orchestration of the whole edifice.

The obvious response is that this is in fact a nebulous and vague shift. At best, a reversion to older language but simply not remarkable. To get to why the turn (back) towards this language is in fact a substantively positive development, we need to turn to some of the comparable jargon.

Three terms or concepts come to mind. The first is “hybrid war.” Hybrid threats also get a look in, usually with heavy reference to cyber weapons. In 2007, referring in significant part to 2006 Israel-Hezbollah fighting, Frank Hoffman wrote that “The state on state conflicts of the 20th century are being replaced by Hybrid Wars and asymmetric contests in which there is no clear-cut distinction between soldiers and civilians and between organised violence, terror, crime and war.”

The use of the term exploded after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, with many analyses attempting to unpick contemporary Russian military thinking.

There is much that could be said about this, but first and foremost, and as John Blaxland, Elizabeth Buchanan, and many others have pointed out repeatedly, thus has it ever been. States and non-state actors will use means favourable to their own advantages and objectives. This simply is not new.

More philosophically, there are deep linkages between various forms of political violence, and stove piping them rarely makes sense. Coups can beget civil wars; state repression, genocide, and ethnic cleansing are related to each other via complex logics, and organised crime is of course deeply political.

The second is “grey zone” or “grey zone activities.” In some uses, this language has simply come to imply or describe actions of competitors that Australia or Western countries writ large find difficult to respond to. A common example is the legal distinctions and authorities tied up in the peace-war binary in some democratic thinking, or the use of civilian capabilities to elide a military response. The objections noted above to hybrid warfare often apply here, too.

This language isn’t completely useless, but we need to pare it down more strictly and simply to refer to a zone, be it legal, physical or otherwise, in which the nature of given activities is difficult to discern or categorise using rigid doctrinal or legalistic definitions.

The third is “coercive diplomacy.” This is the most recent of the jargon. Yet if we understand diplomacy in the context of the full range of national tools, surely it has and has always had a coercive element.

Indeed, in light of an idea like statecraft, this phrase makes very little sense beyond a pejorative and political use to describe the actions of our competitors (never us). For if we aren’t exercising our influence or diplomacy in concert with other aspects of national power, usually implicitly but no doubt sometimes explicitly, what are we doing?

In turn there are three reasons statecraft is preferable.

First, the term makes sense at various levels. In response to a specific problem in space and time, governments usually have a range of response options available to them, which they will duly choose to use in some combination. At the most macro level, governments will also try to ensure that the different elements of national power, across space and time, are working in concert.

At its highest application, statecraft refers to the stuff of prime ministers and cabinets, of course, but the work of orchestrating and aligning national tools is also a necessary craft much lower down the food chain.

Second, statecraft elides any loaded distinction between “us” and “them.” Everyone is trying to execute some form of statecraft, pursuing national ends with whatever advantageous means are available, ideally in a well-coordinated fashion. It looks different in different places; some are doing it better than others.

While there are obvious political reasons for using different labels for similar behaviours, it certainly isn’t analytically useful.

Between it making sense at various levels and at least having the potential to be non-actor specific, it means we can simplify and synthesise our language. We can analytically compare like-for-like as well as legitimately identify where behaviours do differ in significant ways.

Third, it elevates the conversation beyond disciplinary and bureaucratic silos. “Hybrid war” and the “grey zone” dominate specifically in the military and intelligence debate, for instance, but we are better served by language flexible beyond any such bubbles.

There is a tool kit which, subject to laws, ethics, norms and more, should be approached agnostically when we think about responding to challenges. And defence policy, like any other tool, only makes sense if the tools it develops can be matched with the means available in, and ends sought by, the rest of government. As we embark on a historically large expansion of naval capability via AUKUS, this will be more important than ever. And quite aside from any of that, words have critical meaning.

William Leben is a Senior Research Officer at the ANU’s National Security College. The views expressed here are those of the author alone.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.