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  • Future Fears : Global Security (Public domain)Source: Public domain
The U.S. and the former Soviet Union were engaged in an international power struggle, with both sides vying for world dominance. For millions of people, the Cold War meant living in the shadow of nuclear war. This threat has now eased, but new challenges have emerged. What risks to our security will the next 40 years bring?
Wolfgang Mueller / SBS Radio

18 Sep 2015 - 4:50 PM  UPDATED 28 Sep 2015 - 3:24 PM


40 years ago, when SBS' first ethnic radio stations began broadcasting, the world was in the grip of the Cold War.

The U.S. and the former Soviet Union were engaged in an international power struggle, with both sides vying for world dominance.

For millions of people, the Cold War meant living in the shadow of nuclear war.

This threat has now eased, but new challenges have emerged.

What risks to our security will the next 40 years bring?

Wolfgang Mueller asks experts to look ahead.

"There's no question in my mind that we're entering an era of growing uncertainty and complexity, and, in some ways yes that makes the Cold War look simple. I think the bad news is that there is an expanding horizon of risk and uncertainty for Australia on the security front."

So says the head of Australia's National Security College Professor Rory Medcalf, who is urging greater political and community unity to help Australia face mounting security challenges.

He sees three potential problem areas on the horizon.

"Challenges to the strategic order in Asia, in the Indo-Pacific, related to the rise of China. It's also challenges to our society, including from terrorism, and it's I guess ultimately challenges to the sustainability of our society, which include the impacts of environmental degradation and climate change."

But why should we bother thinking about security?
We live on an island continent, comfortably surrounded and protected by oceans of water which have long provided a barrier between us and the world.

We maintain a highly professional national-security community, a well-trained military, as well as capable federal and state police forces.

In addition, we enjoy a large degree of social cohesion and strong democratic institutions.
Australia, some might argue, has hardly ever been more secure.

However, Professor Medcalf warns we should not be lulled into a false sense of security.

"There is no question Australia has exceptional strategic geography. We do have a protective 'moat' if you like, but the reality is that in an interconnected, globalised world, no island is an island anymore. I think Australia is going to rely increasingly on its lifelines to the world, its connections with the world, its flows of trade, of finance, of information and of people, and, therefore our interconnection with the world is not only a source of strength but also of vulnerability. So I don't think Australia will be able to safely pretend or imagine that the world's security problems are not our problems."

Australia's responsibility to maintain order already stretches beyond our own borders into the South Pacific, into parts of the Indian Ocean, over Southern Ocean fisheries and all the way to our large Antarctic territorial claim.

It is estimated Australia's national interest covers about 5 per cent of the surface of the globe.

It's a large area of responsibility, which is facing increasing strategic competition from a range of risks, not least, possible home-grown terrorism.

"I think that our security community has to prepare for risks. One is to the resilience and the cohesion of our society. We don't know what the impact of a major act of terrorism on Australian soil would be - we don't want to find out - but I think that one of the reasons for the very strong emphasis on countering violent extremism in Australia recently has been that we can and should be concerned about the damage to the multicultural fabric of our society were there to be a major act of terrorism in Australia."

Professor Medcalf cites China's growing influence in the Pacific as another factor.

"Another source of risk relates to not only the growth of Chinese power, including its military capabilities and the way it uses that power, but also the way other countries react. I don't think there's some grand plan for Chinese aggression in Asia, but the shift in the power balance and the anxieties that causes are going to have some destabilising consequences. So there's going to be a risk of confrontational conflict in our region in the future. "

Melissa Conley Tyler is the National Executive Director of the Australian Institute of International Affairs.

Her non-profit, non-political organisation has been promoting understanding and interest in international affairs around Australia for 92 years.

She says the Asia-Pacific region is a tinderbox of rivalries which could easily flare up and engulf Australia at some time in the future.

"So you have some of the major ones, like US-China rivalry, but you also have China-India, China-Japan, Japan-Korea and everybody in the South China Sea. And what the concern there is that any one of these could have a process where one party makes a bit of an ambit claim, pushes something forward, there is a response, it escalates, and that can turn into open conflict. That, of course, is bad for everybody in the region. Australia, in terms of our security, wants a stable region. We want to be able to trade and get rich. We support a rules-based international order, and that's one of the three core parts of Australian foreign policy since federation."

Despite this assessment, Melissa Conley Tyler rates Australia as one of the most secure countries in the world.

"We worry a lot about our security, we worry that we are not safe, and that can seem strange to outsiders. So if you look at a country like New Zealand, they don't worry nearly as much about security issues as we do. I always think of that as a bit of a paradox that Australia is one of the safest countries in the world in terms of our national security but we worry quite a lot about what the future might hold."

Could fears about our national security be exaggerated?

"It could be. Of course, the difficulty is that it is political suicide for anyone to say such a thing. It's difficult I think for both politicians to communicate and Australians to understand what level of risk there is on security issues."

Melissa Conley Tyler says the major chance to preserve our security as a middle power is to respond well to strategic developments in our region.

She says the best channel is diplomacy, which she believes should be strengthened.

"Diplomacy, is in so many ways, the way you influence the world around you rather than just trying to deter or trying to understand what's happening, and the long-term lack of investment from multiple governments over a long period in our diplomacy makes it harder for us to adapt to events and to secure our future."

Melissa Conley Tyler says building understanding for international events and the place Australia has in them is a cornerstone of peace.

She says that gives the media a central role in preserving our future security.

"If you look at the number of foreign correspondents that Australia has abroad now, it's really quite worrying to see the way that our capacity to educate Australians on foreign events has eroded, and I think SBS can be a part of trying to resist that trend and trying to make sure that Australians are very well-informed on international events."

Professor Medcalf agrees.

He says the media should encourage a cohesive national conversation to help build a broad-based consensus around security issues which will serve to defend Australia's future national interests effectively.

"I think what we want to avoid is silos of opinion, where part of the community is absolutely adamant that for example, counter-terrorism efforts by the Government are really some kind of political plot and are really not in the national interest, while another part of the community is adamantly convinced that anything can be done in the name of security. We need a conversation between these different parts of the community and these different constituencies.  SBS is well-positioned to play a guiding role in an intelligent national conversation around security issues. There's never been a more important time for traditional mainstream forms of media such as radio, such as television, to really try to generate a national conversation that we can all be a part of.  But it's going to be quite a challenge."