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Australian Journal of Defence and Strategic Studies

AJDSS Volume 2 Number 1


National security, information and ideas: Time to think about ideational power

Michael Hatherell, Katherine Mansted and Jade Guan

To cite this article: Michael Hatherell, Katherine Mansted and Jade Guan, 'National security, information and ideas: Time to think about ideational power', Australian Journal of Defence and Strategic Studies 2, 1 (2020): 125-137,

Published online: 21 August, 2020


In the fictional world of Christopher Nolan's epic 2010 film, Inception, technology exists that allows one human to enter the dreams of another. Specialists in entering dreams are hired to conduct various forms of espionage, using the dream world to access the secret information of their targets. Yet the team assembled in the film is asked to do something that some of them believe to be impossible—to place an idea within the mind of a target. This notion of 'inception' not only gives the film its title but also a key source of dramatic tension. The main character, Cobb and his team must work out how to introduce a compelling idea without the target being conscious of the intrusion. To achieve the mission, the team must make the target believe that the idea came to them organically. The team's expert in forgery, Eames, captures the difficulty of doing so: 'You need the simplest version of the idea in order for it to grow naturally in your subject's mind. It's a very subtle art'.

Inception provides a powerful metaphor for thinking about the difference between information and ideas in a fast-changing strategic environment. While access to and control over information has been a priority for militaries and defence departments for some time 1 , there is a need to better understand the cognitive dimension of conflict and competition. For this reason, contemporary analysis of concepts like political warfare, information warfare and strategic narrative has begun to focus more on the role of cognition, ideas and narrative. Australia's head of information warfare division, Major General Marcus Thompson, divides his concept of information warfare into technical and cognitive elements. 2 And, studies of changing technology, like Sanger's Perfect Weapon and Singer and Brooking's LikeWar, have heightened attention on ways in which digital systems might be weaponised to impact not only flows of information but also the beliefs that we hold. 3

While specialists have a good sense of the challenges faced in the ideational realm, the role of ideational power is yet to feature in broader discussions about how to defend Australia and advance its security interests. In War College curriculums and strategic discussions, analysis of the 'I' component of the 'DIME' framework (shorthand for the diplomatic, informational, military and economic aspects of national power) frequently focuses on protecting the confidentiality, integrity and availability of information—often in reference to a specific operational theatre or political event such as an election. Much less attention is paid to the nature of the ideational realm, how ideas form and influence beliefs and behaviours through time, and what it means to protect or influence ideas. We argue in this commentary that defence and national security professionals must combine concern for the role of information with an appreciation of the impact of ideas. Humans do not have a simple relationship with information. Instead, the contemporary scientific literature on human cognition demonstrates that we extensively filter information through our own beliefs. The dream-infiltrating specialists of Inception understand that their objective cannot be achieved just by sharing deceptive information. Instead, they need to construct a powerful idea that will be processed by the emotions of their target and change the target's behaviour. Cobb's team are not practicing 'informational power' in the way that we typically understand it: they are employing something that could be better thought of as the power to influence behaviour through ideas, or ideational power. After exploring this concept, we sketch some strategic and ethical questions that can inform our study of the ideational realm.

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1 John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt, eds., In Athena's Camp: Preparing for Conflict in the Information Age (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 1997),

2 Marcus Thompson, 'Information Warfare—A New Age?' (speech transcript) iWar Five Eyes Principals Forum (Joint Capabilities Group, Department of Defence, Canberra, 31 October, 2018),

3 David E. Sanger, The Perfect Weapon: War, Sabotage, and Fear in the Cyber Age (New York: Broadway Books, 2018); Peter W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking, LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018), 154.