Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Welcome to my site

I am a Research Fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University.

My latest books are: 

Carr, A & Wallis, J. eds. Asia-Pacific Security: An Introduction, Washington D.C: Georgetown University Press, (forthcoming 2016).

Carr, A. Winning the Peace: Australia’s campaign to change the Asia-Pacific, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2015.

My latest journal articles are:

Carr, A. ‘The politics of the 2016 Defence White Paper’, Security Challenges, 12 (1), 1-17, 2016.

Carr, A. ‘The Engagement pendulum: Australia’s alternating approach to irregular migration’, Journal of Australian Studies, 2016 (Article accepted for publication 03 March 2016)

Carr, A & Baldino, D. ‘Defence Diplomacy and the ADF: Smokescreen or strategy’, Australian Journal of International Affairs 70 (2), 139-158, 2016.

Carr, A. ‘Middle Powers and the US pivot: A collective action problem’, Tamkang Journal of International Affairs, 19(2), 53-88, 2015.

 

My full academic C.V and links to other papers can be found on the publications page.

 

My teaching includes:

Australian Strategic & Defence Policy –  Masters Unit (STST8004), Graduate Studies in Strategy and Defence, ANU.

Australian Foreign and Defence Policy – Masters Unit, Australian Command and Staff College.

Research Supervision – PhD, Masters Sub-Thesis, Honours levels. Topics for supervision include: Middle Powers, Australian security and defence policy, Asia-Pacific Security.

 

This site began life as an outlet for political blogging while a PhD student. I’ve had to give up blogging given my other publishing tasks, but I have left the archive up for those interested. These days this website serves as an online home to my publications and is mainly updated with my book reviews.

I can be contacted at Andrew.Carr@anu.edu.au

Game Plan: The Case for a New Australian Grand Strategy

Game Plan: The Case for a New Australian Grand Strategy by Ross BabbageBabbage_game_plan

You may not know the author of Game Plan, Ross Babbage, but you know his work. The ‘Defence of Australia’ policy was built by many hands, but in the words of Des Ball, Babbage was the ‘conceptual leader’. In ‘Game Plan: The case for a new Australian grand strategy’, Dr Babbage signals his view that defending Australia now requires a new set of overseas hands, primarily from the United States.

Babbage’s strategic evolution has been a long time coming. His PhD thesis, dozens of papers, chapters and books such as the widely acclaimed ‘Rethinking Australia’s Defence’ and ‘A Coast Too Long: Defending Australia Beyond the 1990s’ were key contributions to the development of Australian defence policy from the 1970s to the early 2000s.

To be sure, the US alliance was always a vital part of this policy. It was ‘self-reliance’ not ‘independence’. But the weight was on Australia to show that it was up to the task of its protecting its front yard. While Paul Dibb, Richard Brabin-Smith and others fleshed out the force structure details, Babbage, Ball and others drove the conceptual debates, along with bouncing around the Northern Territory identifying how the terrain could be protected and the best technology for doing so.

Even as Babbage began to move away from this approach — as did many of his peers in the era of globalization and international terrorism— he kept a core focus on Australian capacity. His controversial 2008 paper ‘Learning to Walk among Giants’ and subsequent ‘Australia’s strategic edge in 2030’ report became known as the ‘Aunty Jack’ strategy. To protect the country, Babbage argued Australia had to be able to “‘rip an arm off’ any major Asian power that sought to attack Australia.”

In Game Plan, however, Aunty Jack has put away the boxing gloves and moved permanently in with Uncle Sam.

As far as I can tell, gone is any reference to a major offensive capability. And while Australian capacity is a vital concern for Babbage, it is in the context of a regional build up, and one thoroughly integrated with US weapons systems, supply chains, intelligence and command and control mechanisms.

There are many who have advocated for greater cooperation between Australia and the United States, and the greatest strength of Game Plan is the flesh it puts on those bones. It offers detailed ideas that are often fresh and engaging. These include proposals for becoming a regional intelligence hub (particularly for maritime domain awareness), creating an Australia–US Strategic Planning Group, greatly increased US basing in Australia, and building an Indo-Pacific training ground, using Australia’s vast spaces to help train partners and allies such as Singapore, Japan and Indonesia.

On one level, I’m not surprised the offensive capacity has been scaled back. It drew significant criticism, was extremely expensive, and probably more show than substance in terms of the overall design of the ADF. But as my own thinking has evolved, I’m somewhat disappointed as well. There are many ways to defend Australia, and the loss of the one figure clearly advocating a strong counter-punch as a deterrent seems a loss to the debate.

The absence of this controversial idea, may also explain why Game Plan seems to have sunk so quickly. Outside a Paul Monk column which describes it as ‘well received in senior military and security circles and deserves to be widely read and discussed’, I’ve seen precious little discussion of it. Which is also a reflection of just how little debate and discussion there is of Australian defence policy issues, despite the obvious challenges and the scale of resources government policy involves.

Game Plan also hurts its own cause with its approach. At just 100 pages and put out by a minor publisher, it’s a difficult book to lay your hands on. And for the informed reader who makes the effort, a lot of the book is extremely general and introductory in tone. As if it might serve to introduce people to the idea that there’s a country called China with a growing military, and a country called the US which people have some doubts about, and maybe we should modify our current policy approach in response.

These concerns aside, Game Plan is a useful contribution to the debate. Probably one more for the specialists. Credit should also go to Menzies House and Connor Court for publishing it. Here’s hoping for a dozen more from them, as many hands are needed for the heavy conceptual lifting to raise Australian strategic policy to the level it will need to confront the coming challenges.

Dereliction of Duty

Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam by H.R. McMasterMcMaster_duty

In Dereliction of Duty H.R. McMaster provides a devastating portrait of an administration which stumbled evermore into a war it had no interest in and no understanding of.

McMaster’s central concern is to show the decision making processes that pre-determined a US loss in Vietnam. He begins with John F. Kennedy’s administration showing how its personnel (such as Secretary for Defence Robert McNamara), its structures (ad hoc, personal and without formal committees) and its key ideas (via the experience of the Cuban Missile Crisis) were dysfunctional and yet adopted by Lyndon B. Johnson.

On top of this, McMaster adds one more biting critique: That LBJ never wanted to go ‘all the way’, but rather saw Vietnam as a distraction and impediment to his re-election and domestic policy agenda. In McMaster’s view, Johnson was weak and insecure and only concerned with his popularity. This led him to sideline the key office supposed to advise him on military affairs: The Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS).

McMaster’s anger at Johnson and McNamara is well justified. McNamara for instance treated the use of force as an act of communication but, as far as the author shows, seems to have paid almost no attention to thinking about how the enemy would understand his ‘messages’. When extensive US military war games suggested the ‘gradual pressure’ strategy and selected bombing campaigns would not cause the North Vietnamese to halt their actions, McNamara simply ignores the advice.
The ultimate failure of process in McMaster’s view is that the civilian’s ignored the professional military advice which could have saved them from their folly. Yet, as clear as it is that the civilians failed (and indeed lost the war), it’s not clear that the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) advice was better, or just different. This is a distinction McMaster never seriously addresses, and it undermines the book.

For the first 1/3rd of the book, McMaster’s handling of the JCS reminded me of the role of a chorus in a Greek tragedy. They are brought on stage to critique and condemn the hapless ‘suits’, but are not part of the action itself. McMaster intends for us to think McNamara’s view of warfare as a form of communication must be flawed by regularly comparing it to the JCS’s belief that warfare is about the destruction of the ‘enemy’s will and capability’. But as strategists such as Sun Tzu and Clausewitz have shown, defeating the enemy is rarely the primary concern of the conflict. Indeed McMaster makes the same point indirectly at the end when he critiques LBJ and General Westmoreland’s emphasis on simply ‘killing Viet Cong’.

As the story progresses, the author turns his criticism towards the military, but only on the grounds of their actions (such as failing to stand up to the President), not whether their advice had merit. When that advice is —by the author’s own acknowledgement— both heavily biased by their service identities and not based on a clear understanding of the war, one has to wonder its value. When combined with figures such as Curtis LeMay whose answer to every problem was the same “overwhelming airpower” (if not nukes), the reader can be forgiven for wondering whether such advice was rightfully sidelined.

Analysis by McMaster of the content of their disagreements could have helped clarify the respective merits. Most notably, while the JCS wanted rapid escalation, the administration feared this would bring China and Russia into the conflict. It would have been extremely useful to see McMaster engage the scholarly literature and assess who had the better understanding of the wider context of the conflict. No definitive answer can be given for such a counter-factual, but surely historians have insights into how Beijing and Moscow were thinking during this period and whether they would have engaged in Vietnam in the way China had in Korea a decade earlier.

Maybe this is asking too much. The book is a very impressive piece of scholarship for its ability to piece together the evidence to show who said what to who, who had read which memo, who had responded in time and how the overall thinking of the administration evolved. But McMaster seeks to argue that not only was the process dysfunctional, but the strategy was as well. And while bad strategy often leads to bad strategy, the quality of the latter can’t really be understood without the wider context. As such, the book’s unwillingness to analyse the JCS’ ideas, relatively mild treatment of Kennedy (who left 16’000 military ‘advisors’ in Vietnam), lack of detail about the nature of the North Vietnamese, and role of regional players such as China becomes problematic.

While ultimately this is a flawed book, I think the author’s title is not putting it too strongly. There was indeed a dereliction of duty by the President, his Secretary of Defence and wider administration. While I think the book is too light on the military, the failure of both process and strategy ultimately rest with the President.

If I had been in the office of George W. Bush in October 2001, or Obama’s in November 2008, this is the book I would have recommended that they read. While the military can be just as wrong as anyone else on matters of strategy, I have come to agree with Hew Strachan (and thus McMaster) that we have sidelined the military’s perspective far too much in our recent conflicts. They are neither seen nor heard in our debates about war and peace. We therefore run the risk of repeating LBJ’s folly

Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities

Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities by Martha C. Nussbaum
Nussbaum - Notforprofit

One of the main arguments of our era on behalf of public funding of education is the economic benefit it will produce. In the current 2016 Australian election, the Labor Party has argued its education spending policy will add up to 2.8% to growth. US President Barack Obama made a similar case a few years ago that ‘For every dollar we invest in these [education] programs, we get nearly ten dollars back’.

In ‘Not for Profit: Why democracy needs the humanities’, Martha Nussbaum argues this is a fundamentally impoverished view of the role education plays in the functioning of a democratic society. Instead she provides a compelling ‘manifesto’ for a larger role for humanities (arts, literature, world history, religious studies and economic history) in the education of democratic citizens.

Nussbaum worries that in many countries around the world, and increasingly in the West, a ‘teach to the test’ model of rote and repetition seems to be gaining control. Professional skills are the demand, and opportunities for play, curiosity and questioning authority are reduced. While a digital world does require specific skills in science, maths, and technology, I would agree with Nussbaum that such skills will not solve or even salve our contemporary problems unless accompanied by an education in philosophy, politics and history.

It’s easy to see why centre-left parties have however moved to argue for the economic benefits of their desire for higher education spending. They must feel this is sometimes the only safe ground on which they can defend anything anymore. But it’s a poor argument any way you look at it. The economic benefits are likely to be far less than claimed —especially if diverted into the ‘fads’ of the day— and because very few voters will thus conclude that the left are strong on the economy because of this argument.

This is a slightly strange book. The title suggests a much more post-captialist mumbo-jumbo style than it actually offers. And at times the argument could have been prosecuted much more strongly. While I agree with Nussbaum’s arguments on the need for empathy and imagination through teaching art and literature, the most invigorating part of this book for me was the focus on Socratic dialogue. Explored via the work and careers of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Johann Pestalozzi, Rabindranath Tagore and John Dewy, Nussbaum argues that reasoning, debate and argumentation are foundational skills in the citizen body for a democracy to survive.

I’ve long admired the notions of civic republicanism with the emphasis on having citizens who are expected to participate in the decisions of a society, being both trained to engage, as well as having the responsibility to do so. This is a tradition which has been perhaps richest in the modern world in America —a self-proclaimed republic— and Australia.

Chief among its 20th century advocates is a man many have mistakenly seen as a one-sided liberal or conservative. Instead Australia’s longest serving Prime Minister, Robert Menzies was —as a colleague and I have argued — a civic republican at heart.

Menzies worried in his own day that if ‘‘our view of education is ‘how much can I get for myself out of it . . . in terms of financial advantage or social position’ that we shall see the material advancement of the nation matched by moral decay, and ultimately destroyed by it’’. Universities thus had the role and honour of training ‘‘the recognition of values which are other than pecuniary’’. (quotes from article)

Rather than treat education as economics policy —as many critics believe liberal capitalists must do— Menzies firm support for liberal capitalist economic measures to grow the economy provided him with the resources and space to fundamentally expand the university system in Australia and stress the importance of civic virtue.

Nussbaum has since provided an afterword to ‘Not for Profit’, written two years after the books’ initial 2010 release. In it she relates the global response to the book, and her travels since, including to places like Australia. While she is reassured that liberal arts courses remain vibrant in the USA, she worries that Australia is one of the weakest western states for this style of teaching. Not just because of the funding issues, but more fundamentally due to culture:

“Australia, like Britian, has long thought of education as commercial and instrumental, and there is a further issue in that profoundly egalitarian society: people have grown used to thinking of the humanities as elitist” (p.153)

Returning to a democratic citizenship model — with a commitment to equality and the questioning of authority — is thus a move Nussbaum feels may have a fundamental appeal in Australian society. Indeed we already know it does, given the long and proud history of civic republicanism in this country.

It would be tempting therefore to conclude with another kick at our politicians for their misguided notions. But ultimately, the education and democratic training of a nation is far more reflective of the community than its leaders. So rather than bemoan today’s small politics which is a consequence of a shrinking notion of democratic citizenship, let me pledge here to encourage its return wherever I can.

In my own behaviour in the public space, in the behaviour I encourage to my classes on Australian foreign and defence policy at University and over the coming years in the behaviour I teach my son. A commitment from us all to do so, would truly be to our national profit.

China’s Future

China’s Future by David ShambaughShambaugh - China

Why does the public taxpayer fund academics? The answer is so that scholars can write books like this.

While increasing numbers of social scientists believe that we need to study the human world as we do the physical – dispassionately, microscopically, and numerically -Shambaugh’s book is an important demonstration of the public value of scholars.

In this short and easily readable book, Shambaugh argues that unless the political system of China is reformed, the economic and social systems will stagnate and ultimately collapse. He is forthright in his view that only by moving to a more open political system, will China be able to achieve the economic reform it needs, and in turn avert the social and regional crises that seem to loom.

Shambaugh identifies four possible pathways for China. These are Hard Authoritarianism (the current path since 2009), Neo-Totalitarianism (the direction many fear Xi is taking the country), Soft-Authoritarianism (the 1998-2008 path) and Semi-Democracy (think Singapore but with Chinese characteristics).

Across four major chapters, the author reviews the economic, social, political and regional position of China. As one of the Wests’ leading experts on China with dozens of books under his belt, each chapter is a strong summary of the key issues, core trends, and major debates and issues at the heart of the policy and scholarly debates.

In each chapter, Shambaugh returns to his four models and assesses how they would help or hinder China in addressing the almost overwhelming problems it faces to move from the middle income trap to a truely 21st century economy, to manage its internal harmony, declining demographics, struggle to create public institutions like the rule of law and geopolitical challenges.

While keeping the book short was a necessity, I would have liked to see more by Shambaugh on the problems a more democratic (and thus populist) China could pose. Particularly in the international sphere. No doubt the author could reply he didn’t do so because the semi-democracy path seems the most unlikely of the four today, but given it is where his sympathies most clearly lie, a reckoning with its own problems would have been welcome.

This book doesn’t separate the dependent, independent and intervening variables so as to make a specific scientific claim about China’s future. That outcome is of course unknown and unknowable. Yet so much of our public debate, policy choices, spending and prognosis for the world is based on having a sense about what the answer is. Getting the answer wrong would cost more than the total education budget for the United States this century. In providing four decades worth of experience to help inform readers, Shambaugh is proving the public have gotten value for money from their investment in scholarship.

Talking To My Country

Grant_Talking

Talking To My Country by Stan Grant

The ideal book review is written by someone who knows more than the author. They set the story in context, they point out missed connections, and tie it to a broader story. This is not one of those reviews. I know precious little of what Stan Grant speaks, and understand even less. Not only in the history spoken of, but in some ways how the author connects to that history is also foreign to me.

Talking to My Country is part memoir of his family, part plea to understand what his people have been through. Early on I found myself somewhat arguing back, treating this as a politics book and looking for him to provide policy answers. But the quality of Grant’s writing soon calmed that impulse and by the end, I was grateful for having had a chance to simply listen to the experiences of his family and how he and his people have felt about Australia.

What fascinated me most in this powerful book was the relationship between the author and history. Grant escaped Australia for many years, yet felt compelled to return and re-immerse himself in the culture and history of his people. He knows this history is painful and enraging, and yet feels it vital his son truly understands. He feels Australia has moved on, and yet incidents like the booing of Adam Goodes make him fear nothing has changed. And despite being a highly successful man of the world, he finds himself in the land and practices of his family long before.

Grant’s desire to escape is perhaps the one thing I best understand. In the face of generations, centuries of hurt and humiliation for indigenous people, who wouldn’t want a future elsewhere? You don’t have to be in pain to take that approach either. For children with even a reasonable start to life, the future is often the only focus of merit. It represents an opportunity to make something of yourself, to create an identity and record worthy of respect. To be free of history is both the desire of those most weighted down, and those most at liberty to wander.

And yet, for those who have suffered from history, it is precisely that weight which many find salvation in. Grant tells a remarkably similar story to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. Both describe a youthful journey of finding an identity through an wholehearted embrace of their people’s history.

One example of this, though one I found slightly confusing on a personal level, was Grant’s story of his great-grandfather. Bill Grant was a man of whom he knows little except that he lived out his days ‘on a mission set up to ease the misery of the remnants of the Wiradjuri; now homeless and adrift in his land’. Grant visits the site of the mission and discovers ‘In a small book listing the names of the people of Bulgandramine mission I found something else,something that makes sense of the life I have lived. It connects me to my love of words and stories. In this book there is a listing for Bill Grant. Next to it is one word: storyteller.’

Grant is a hugely successful figure. He has worked as a leading figure in Australian newsrooms and across the globe, and is a giant of his industry. When he raised the possibility of running for political office, no one doubted that he could do it, and do very well at it. So why does he feel his life did not make sense before (or perhaps makes more sense now) when he discovers that an ancestor was also a storyteller?

Grant is not alone in valuing a connection between the tendencies of those in his family tree with his own. Many across the ethnic and cultural spectrum do the same. But I am not one of them. My grandmother tells me we are related to A.B Facey (author of “A Fortunate Life”). But I don’t feel this says anything about whether I can write, or my love of writing. I feel that information tells me nothing about me, yet for Grant a similar piece of information is vital to him.

Grant comes closest to explaining the importance of his connection with history when recounting his return to Australia, after his time at CNN and struggles with depression. “Sadness” he says “has always felt so much more familiar and so it is safer. We can live in its confines…Hapiness feels like giving in, it feels like surrender. Happiness feels like the past is over and done and I am not yet ready for that” (p164). Perhaps this gives some insight. I still don’t quite understand, but I feel I can better empathize thanks to Grants efforts to try and explain.

Like any true journalist, Grant’s writing is best when grounded. As we get closer to today, invocations of people and pain become all the more poignant and powerful. The story of his grandfather the war veteran humiliated on ANZAC day is particularly moving. Returning to his parents the second time around, deep into the book, we get a much more complete sense of their struggles, from the hard early life, through to small humiliations like being ignored for service in a café last year. There is a pounding rhythm to Grant’s writing, that when focused on specific people and moments, provides a pushing, breathless beat that has real power.

I don’t know enough about the history and situation of the indigenous people of Australia. In truth, part of me doesn’t want to know, given the terrible statistics and sense of hopelessness of seeing real change anytime soon. But perhaps more important than the general public knowing the numbers is that our society develops a greater empathy and sense of understanding of what this ancient culture has gone through. And the fact that after 115 years of history in the nation which claimed their lands, they are still trying to find a voice and be heard.

The Evolution of Everything

The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge by Matt RidleyRidley_evolution

Evolution has always been a subversive idea. Order from chaos, progress without direction, design without a designer. But are humans the last word in natural evolution, or do their societies represent the evolution of evolution; from the biological to the ideational, cultural, and technological?

This is the argument at the heart of The Evolution of Everything by the science writer Matt Ridley. Not only has life and the universe evolved, so do humans over time. These same basic laws of bottom up, spontaneous order are to be found — and celebrated — everywhere. The book argues that what both explains the human world, as well as creates the best of it, is evolutionary. What is bad or harmful, is attributed to command and control attempts, from creationism to communism.

The book works through 16 chapters, each ostensibly focused on a topic such as Morality, Technology, Education, Population, Religion, Genes and so on. Each chapter is packed with different ideas and arguments, bounding around the topic in an always entertaining fashion. The first part of the book which tends to focus more on science or broad social dynamics (morality, culture etc) is especially engaging.

In one fascinating section, Ridley presents a view of humans as sites of ongoing evolutionary competition, as their genes, impulses, histories and circumstances dramatically shape their behaviour. So much for free will it seems, at least in its populist sense. He also rightly challenges the idea of ‘great men’ of history, whether pointing out that many, many ideas are developed simultaneously around the world, while many celebrated world leaders often simply got out of the way of big changes, rather than being the cause of them.

At the half way mark, I was starting to recommend this book to my friends. The compelling idea within is that if you accept evolution in nature, you should encourage it in civilisation. Focus on open, competitive systems. Look to social norms rather than coercion, and have confidence in innovation and creativity as natural byproducts of humans left to live their own lives as they choose. An unrestrained society is a more moral, prosperous and interesting place.

The problem is that as the book moves evermore from science to social science, this thread goes missing. Or rather, Ridley switches from arguing for a pro-evolution explanation, to arguing against management and direction. While these notions are opposed, they are not exclusive. But this distinction often seems lost, and with it an analysis of the role of evolution in human practice. So instead of offering an easily told but important tale of how governance has changed, been tested, failed, adapted and improved over time (and thus perhaps why we should seek further innovation), we get a somewhat banal attack on government as resistant to change, unable to provide services and generally inclined to authoritarianism. Likewise instead of discussing why technology and innovation is our best answer to climate change, we get a lukewarm dismissal of modern environmentalism as a kind of religion.

As Ridley gets out of his comfort zone of scientific issues, the chapters get weaker. Topics bounce around far more, assumptions are less clearly identified and debates and opposing views more quickly dismissed. In one notable case on page 238 the author jumps uses a study of the evolution of social norms in prison to state that “in other words, government begins as a protection racket”. Quite how this study proves this, I never could understand. Worse, we have significant evidence for how government and states have formed, none of which Ridley seems to have engaged (See Fukuyama’s latest 2 volume on Origins of Political Order tome at the very least). Instead Ridley seems to dismiss all government as simply a form of domination forced upon us at the expense of our development and wellbeing.

The Evolution of Everything also seems remarkably unwilling to confront exactly what evolution is or means. We get virtually no discussion of the way it transmits or operates outside of biological environments. And little mention beyond the noble failures of entrepreneurs of the costs of evolutionary change. Instead, when the development of ideas about human eugenics and survival of the fittest is raised, it is done so to lay the entire blame at the feet of those who believe in government and command and control. Certainly in the application of these abuses government mattered, but it is ridiculous to ignore the logic which motivated these movements. Confusingly Ridley also spends time condemning the British willingness to ignore the potato famine in Ireland even though the ‘we shouldn’t interfere, let god sort it out’ logic was directly shaped by competitive, anti-statist notions.

It’s not that we can’t embrace an evolutionary approach because of these downsides, but rather that an honest and ultimately more persuasive analysis of these ideas would confront, accept and discuss remedies head on. Ridley like many libertarians is quick to say he wants government and social aid, while spending most of his time saying how terrible it is and never drawing clear lines for how to do it with the least harm.

Ultimately, I agree with most of this book. At its best it speaks of a philosophy that operates with human nature rather than against. One that celebrates human flourishing and works to remove any barriers and impediments that stand in its way. But too much of this book puts aside discussing the way evolution operates, and instead tries to attack what the author sees as some of the main barriers to it. All are well-known, and the book lands few if any telling blows against them.

That makes it a frustrating read. I enjoyed it, I am glad I read it. I just wish it fulfilled its promise more effectively so I could recommend it more widely. Ridley is not the first to apply evolutionary ideas to human society, so in the spirit of this book, I hope that maybe those who come after will be more adapted to the task than he was.

The Future of Strategy

The Future of Strategy by Colin GrayGray - future of strategy

At the end of a distinguished career, professors sometimes write ‘a history of my field and its future’. This can be a fascinating and vital genre. At its best it engages the public, distils decades of learning and directly engages the most important issues of the day. At worst, these books do little more than summarise an author’s past thoughts (see Henry Kissinger’s World Order). Colin S. Gray’s The Future of Strategy walks both sides of this divide, but the effort, for author and reader alike is worth the toil.

Clarity of focus is one of Gray’s enduring strengths as an analyst. He is one of most relentless brushclearers in the field. He consistently tries to strip empirical reality back to its most base generalizable theory. In just 117 pages he has boiled down his life’s work to a few key themes: the need for a general theory of strategy, the universality of strategic practice and the ahistoric challenge of nuclear weapons.

Gray’s focus on developing theory is important in a field which often takes its claim to intellectual rigour as self-evident. Too often has the romantic allure of change (technology, ideas) and influence (providing analysis those in charge want to hear) caused theory to be left behind. That said, readers without the wider context of his work could question if a little too much brush has been cleared in this book, leaving a field slightly too barren for fertile development.

The heart of The Future of Strategy is the claim that strategy has a future. Gray believes his discipline will endure because he views strategic practice as a universal part of human experience. He brushes apart the objection that the word ‘strategy’ was only used in its modern context from the 1770s onwards. Instead Gray insists the practice of strategy — namely the search for security, the setting of policy via politics and the aligning Ends, Ways and Means to achieve this— is found in all times and places. While this claim is asserted more than demonstrated, I strongly agree.

To deny strategy had existence before we had a word for it, would be to suggest our ancestors had no capacity to think in terms of cause and effect. Or any desire to use violence or the threat of violence to achieve political aims. Yet such themes are vibrant in the works of ancient Generals such as Thucydides and Julius Caesar. A sceptic could put this down to modern translation error but that still does not explain the feints, deceptions and coordination of action found within the pages of these classics. War has never been merely politics by other means. But nor has war just been war. It is always undertaken for an objective beyond its own boundaries, and that aim is almost always a political one.

It may well be that earlier eras understood the calculations of strategy very differently, but I wouldn’t assume a universal approach exists even today. Groups who are deeply motivated by religion may consider their prayers and faithfulness a strategic act. A practice that can help swing the chance of battle in their favour through God’s protection. By comparison Chinese or French armies do not see any value in prayer as a way to improve their chances on the battlefield.

As has been widely remarked, despite its universal practice, formal scholarship of strategy remains a largely anglo-american practice. What is interesting is just how significant the anglo part of the field still is. Of the handful of truly world-class strategic writers, you’ll find three British authors. Hew Strachan, Lawrence Freedman and Colin S. Gray. And that sidelines the doyen of the field, the now retired Sir Michael Howard. This concentration is remarkable for a country seen as in decline, unable or unwilling to use force (the recent vote to join the campaign against ISIS notwithstanding). It may be this is a random occurrence or perhaps the last generation of significance, but with UK strategists like Theo Farrelly and Emile Simpson still early in their careers, the long term influence of British strategic thinking seems assured.

There is however a downside to this cultural continuity as Gray recognises. In one of the most fascinating sections, he argues ‘We strategists have tended to stick more or less closely to what can best, if unflatteringly, be seen as a tribalist tendency…we discover only a modest cannon of classic and more popular texts’. This is not unusual, but where other fields like Philosophy begin their discussion with Plato, Kant, and Nietzsche, strategic studies almost seems to find its end within the pages of Thucydides, Mahan and especially Clausewitz. As if nothing beyond these good books is needed to interpret modern events. Gray challenges this with his desire to build new theory, though even he still makes sure to pay homage to the ‘masters’.

The Future of Strategy may not be the deepest or most original work in the field or even of Gray’s prodigious output. But I still found myself underlining lines on nearly every second page. Old thoughts were put in clear and direct ways, perfect for citing later. Thus, as a stocktaking effort if nothing else, there is a great value in reflective assessments from those who have achieved so much for so long. We should therefore be thankful when today’s giants take a moment to pause and clear some space on their shoulders. So the next generation may stand firmly atop, and look afresh towards the distant horizons.

The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century

The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century by Steven PinkerPinker-Sense of style

I went to a grammar school. Which naturally means I am quite bad at doing grammar. I can even mangle the very word grammar, replacing the last a with e. I have always loved playing with words, but the constraints that formal education demands have always felt too restrictive. Why can’t I spell crunnnch with three n’s? That’s how it sounds! And why can’t I start a sentence with and?

In The Sense of Style: The thinking person’s guide to writing in the 21st century Steven Pinker tries to sort out what we truly know about good writing. While much of our common wisdom is wise, there is much that you and I heard from our teachers which should be discarded.

Across 300 easily read pages, and six distinct chapters, Pinker wanders through how we think in and through English and how to use it more effectively. Most importantly, he shows that while it makes sense to choose some options over others, it is convention and convenience that should guide us. The human mind shapes particular choices to be more effective, but it is human society which ultimately determines the merits of our language.

This refreshing approach allows Pinker to defend some old wisdom while pulling apart others. He encourages infinitives to be split and mounts a convincing defence of the humble ‘the’ through its power to offer a sentence breathing space. Likewise, passive voice, which research has shown to aid a reader’s memory is also offered renewed praise.

This is where Pinker, a psychologist and linguist from Harvard shines as the author. How we think and the way language shapes and is shaped by thought have always been central to his work. Pinker shows time and again an interest not just in words as words, or thoughts as thoughts, but how they are connected.

His scientist’s eye for cognition and language is also smoothed by the clear sense of play which infuses the book. It starts with the book’s title. Having a sense of style is important, but there is sense in having a style that aids communicate. The frequent use of humour in the form of classic errors “Rachel Ray finds inspiration in cooking her family and her dog” break up the analysis and let the mind rest.

Early on in the book Pinker implies that a reader’s inability to follow is the writer’s fault. So let me attribute two issues which, with his injunction in hand, I can clearly lay at the foot of the Harvard-professor-as-writer, rather than this Canberra-lecturer-as-reader.

For those who have not followed some of his earlier work, the use of tree strings can seem a complication without much contribution. I have a vague memory of them from his earlier works like The Language Instinct but still found them difficult to learn from. Maybe more visual readers will gain more than I did. Still it is remarkable that encountering these strings was about the only time I had to ask myself ‘Do I really understand this’.

The other concern I had was that after 187 delightful pages of analysis and discussion, the book switches gear to become a list of 100 common problems and rules. While Pinker continues to rebel against the forces of pedantry, the change is still jarring. It almost felt like a different book, as if I’d been tricked into reading a style manual.

The advantage of this easy to look up section however is that I’ll now leave a copy of The Sense of Style close to my desk for future reference. Rather than sending it back to the shelves to gather dust, the book has gained a second life beyond the reading. In turn this ensures the book will be far more visible to those I work with, which is a subtle but genius act of marketing by the author if intended.

I should end by noting it has been more challenging than usual to pull this review together. Not because I have difficulty organising my thoughts about the text, but because I was much more (greater? further?) self-conscious about the quality of my writing. The first page of “The Sense of Style” says ‘credible guidance on writing must itself be well written’. While Pinkers’ work easily meets this test, does this also apply to those who are claiming to have read it?

To write badly so soon after digesting it would suggest a lack of attention and care on my part. If I’m reviewing a book of history or politics, then displaying a mastery of the dates and names I’ve encountered within its pages takes next to no effort on my part. But displaying a mastery of language after reading about good writing?

So in the tradition of cautious writers everywhere let me acknowledge the help Pinker has tried to provide my penmanship through his excellent little book, recommend you also seek out his help, and declare him free of any responsibility for the errors in this review and any future ones to come.

The Evolution of Strategy: Thinking War from Antiquity to the Present

The Evolution of Strategy: Thinking War from Antiquity to the Present by Beatrice HeuserHeuser - Evolution of strategy

“War. War never changes”. So begins the latest hit video game Fallout 4. In reality however, war has changed immeasurably.

Examining 2000 years of warfare, with an emphasis from the age of Napoleon to the early War on Terror, Heuser shows the evolution, change, and variations of strategy and conflict. While bloodshed, suffering, fog and friction are common of every conflict, the how, where, when, and why of war has as many fashions as well…fashion.

Heuser’s concern is how people have written about and talked about the use and management of war and violence. Treating this entire field as focused on ‘strategy’ is a methodological risk. Most people in history haven’t used the term ‘strategy’ as we understand it today. While we should be careful not to put new words into old mouths, this is a risk worth taking.

Evidence of strategic behaviour is common across all human history and all human cultures. Even if our ancestors would not have used the term, they were undertaking the same essential task as we do today: Thinking about how to manage and use force to achieve political ends. And if we are to understand our challenges, we need to learn how those before us overcame theirs.

To manage an intellectual history of this scope, Heuser identifies five broad areas, bookended by analysis of the use of the term ‘strategy’ (from the Greek ‘stratagos’ meaning a General), and a fascinating discussion of the long term trends and future challenges.

Heuser merges the period from covering Antiquity to the Middle Ages, covering issues such as leadership, moral, mercenaries, sieges and technology. The book then explores on the Napoleonic era and the development of ideas of total war. She highlights a ‘Napoleonic paradigm’ focused on decisive battles, and increasingly the targeting of foreign populations as a constant from the late 18th century till the advent of nuclear weapons in 1945. Forces such as the development of the modern state, technology, nationalism and Social Darwinism all contributed to this trend. The outcome was a shift from a war where people could sit on the hillside and watch during the American Civil War, to a world where civilians were the target of war.

Total war, pitting the entire resources of the state against an opponent in a struggle for survival found its apotheosis in the Second World War. Many expected its appearance during the Cold War, and its core ideas such as aiming for decisive, unconditional victories still drive many modern militaries, particularly the USA.
Following this analysis, and in line with the chronology, though more thematically organised, Maritime Strategy, Airpower and Asymmetric conflicts are explored. These chapters are useful to show just how new many of our ideas about warfare are, and how important technological change has been to dramatically shaping its nature, focus and use.

This is a long book, with a lot of history to chew through. While consistently solid in its prose, some of these areas can drag for the non-specialist. Or seem not deep enough for those with something of a background in the area. It’s useful to know some of what Thucydides, Jomini, Mahan, Corbett and other ‘masters’ of strategy thought, as Heuser tends to try and spread around her focus, showing the wider context of the debates and spread of ideas about war through (largely European) societies.

A highlight is the concluding section on ‘The quest for new paradigms after the world war’. Here the narrative seems to slow down, trying less to highlight all the major debates and authors. Instead it trace just a few ideas and pulls them apart. You hear more of Heuser’s own views through this section, which is to be appreciated, and reminiscent of the historically grounded essays of Hew Strachan’s Direction of War.

It’s a truism that general fight the last war AND that they are obsessed with how new technology makes all past experience obsolete. As Heuser masterfully shows, there have always been historically grounded and material/technologically oriented schools of thought about strategy. Its use and application has always been a debate, wrapped up with our notions of ethics, technology, geography, identity and logic. Strategy changes because war changes. Notions of linear experience might work for a fictional video game, but reality is far richer and more varied. The catch – and there always is one – is that to make sense of this change, we need to know what has stayed the same. If you can work your way through Heuser’s volume, you’ll be well on your way to separating fact from fiction.

The Direction of War: Contemporary Strategy in Historical Perspective

The Direction of War: Contemporary Strategy in Historical Perspective by Hew Strachan

IStrachan- Direction of War work at a ‘Strategic & Defence Studies Centre’ and like to use the word strategy. But I confess to not being really sure what the word means. In this confusion I am not alone.

In The Direction of War: Contemporary Strategy in Historical Perspective Hew Strachan (pronounced ‘strawn’) examines the ‘lost meaning of strategy’. Today most government departments try to be ‘strategic’ as do businesses, health coaches, schools and caterers.

This is a far cry from what the term classically meant. Strachan compelling argues that for 18th and 19th century thinkers such as Clausewitz and Jomini, strategy meant ‘the use of the battle for the purposes of the war’. This was the notion which World War One generals carried with them into the conflict. The change in meaning occurred after World War Two and with the rise of the nuclear age.

No longer could states use battles for war, because war could no longer be risked. The total war of Hitler, Stalin and Hirohito was too high a burden, and nuclear weapons made conflict seem cataclysmic. As Bernard Brodie famously wrote ‘Thus far the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them. It can have no other useful purpose’. Ever since, Strachan laments, strategy has been broad, grand, and banal. It covers peacetime and war, economics and policy and is thoroughly confused about its purpose and role.

Through a series of thematic essays Strachan traces this change and the harm it has done to our modern understanding and use of war. While total wars between powerful states have thankfully paused, warfare continues in a variety of forms.

In one fascinating chapter, Strachan highlights and critiques the emergence of the ‘operational’ level. This is a domain of thinking that had not existed in the past and represents an attempt by the military to recapture that original element of strategy — and their control of this highly valued term.

While Strachan rightly attacks the sloppy thinking and misuse of the term strategy, I admit to still being unclear exactly how he thinks we should use it. Perhaps a re-reading would help. This is a detailed, analytical book that weaves its way to a conclusion rather than setting out easy to follow guideposts. As a series of reprinted and updated works from other contexts the book is coherent but not comprehensive.

If I have caught the thread, Strachan believes that strategy should not be thought of as a constant but a discussion. An intersection between policy (what the nation wants) and tactics (the use of force by the state). In the middle, and negotiated between those with responsibility for policy (the politicians) and tactics (the military) is strategy.

Where we have gone wrong is to try and split the term. So the relationship between policy and strategy occupied the West during the Cold War, leading to meaningless Presidential rhetoric about a “forward strategy of Freedom”. At the same time, the operational concept only looks at the relationship between strategy and tactics. This ignores the purpose of fighting and confuses military concerns with the resources and approach of the nation undertaking it.

Strachan also usefully highlights the temporal shift in our thinking about strategy. Instead of a discussion between past and present it is now between present and future. As a historian who resents this shift, he lays blame for this change at the feet of two groups.

First theorists from the Navy and Air Forces who either don’t have much of a history to draw on. Or who believe their machines sufficiently different and perfectible in the future as to be ‘revolutionary’. The other group is political scientists, particularly those after WW2 who Strachan believes got lost in abstract game theories and formal logics that ignored actual human conflict.

In The Direction of War, Strachan judges strategic studies a very troubled discipline. He demonstrates it is confused about its key terms, divorced from its origins, and subverted in its purposes. At the heart of this is the inability of many in the discipline to shake the romance of World War Two. That is, wanting to plan for, discuss and debate grand strategy in total war scenarios without being sullied by looking at the actual occurrences and use of strategy in mundane, limited, and localised conflicts today.

There’s much to this. We have a generation of Western leaders who think every crisis is Munich, and Churchill is the only model of good leadership. And this generation, in war and peace has been terrible at using force to support national interests. Too willing, too reticent. Too fearful, too hubristic. And rarely clear minded in why and how the conflict will serve their nation. But we can’t just blame the leaders. Those who advise and write on these matters need to also take responsibility.

This is a slow read but a valuable one. There is wisdom on every page, but not every page seems to take you in the same direction. The essays wander through history, shift to theory and then back again. Unsurprisingly for a Professor at Oxford, European and especially British experience is the go-to, though Strachan does an admirable job of providing as much information as you need to understand the reason why he is raising each example.

Ultimately, I still feel some confusion about strategy. Restoring strategy to its original meaning seems an unhelpful move. It would seem to exclude many critical peacetime choices, such as the development of alliances and much of defence planning (do we build ships to defend the air-sea gap, or land forces to be interoperable with coalition partners overseas?).

The present wide use of the term also suggests a need for a term that helps us connect policy and action to secure the nation and its interests. Thanks to Strachan’s consistent effort to demand clear, historically grounded thinking I now feel I at least have a firm foundation upon which to build my own views

Restless Continent: Wealth, rivalry and Asia’s new Geopolitics

Restless Continent: Wealth, rivalry and Asia’s new geopolitics by Michael WesleyWesley_restless continent

If you go into a good bookstore these days, the international politics section is bound to be focused on ISIS/Terrorism, and the rise of Asia. Meanwhile, survey show 40% of US international relations professors consider Asia the most strategically important region for the US today, with that number jumping to 66% for those looking twenty years ahead. Both data points may seem surprising given Asia has been at peace for forty years.

Why the interest in Asia? Michael Wesley’s excellent new book Restless Continent: Wealth, Rivalry and Asia’s new Geopolitics, gives four big reasons for this focus: Scale, muscle memory, pride and location. In short, Asia is bigger, has stronger states, greater pride and more important location than any comparable region in the world. And Restless Continent is as good an explainer of the key trend and challenges as you will find on the bookshelves today.

This is a foxes’ book. There’s no big “one trick you didn’t know to explain the world” claims here. Rather dozens of trends, forces, and processes are highlighted to build an insightful, complex and even contradictory picture of Asia, as fits the actual diversity of the region.

This is a significant achievement for a book which is written for the general public (published by Black Inc). Wesley has a mature writing style that comfortably balance speaking to the public while drawing on the academic books and articles which offer detailed insight into specific issues. Not many can pull this off so well, so it’s worth highlighting.

Restless Continent focuses on three key areas, economics, politics and geography. Along the way themes of interdependence, colonialism, civilisations, hierarchies, and strategy are explored. The section on economic interactions – such as global production sharing, regional infrastructure and energy arteries, along with the way humans think about and engage geography are particular stand outs.

There’s a sense balance in the analysis that recognises the way the big trends and key actor’s concerns intersect. In some instances cooperating, more often contradicting, yet the implications are still unknown, if not unknowable. For instance, urbanisation is the force that has driven Asia’s economic rise and taken an average of 1 million people out of poverty every single week since 1990.

Yet this same process also increases the pressure on often weak states to deliver services and maintain public legitimacy. Urban based insurgencies are the nightmare situation for any military, yet 1/3 to 1/5th of the urban population of the region is packed into slums, with governments increasingly worried about the implications.

What I particularly liked about Wesley’s approach to Asia is that it is not just about China. As important as the Middle Kingdom is, he gives the other states their due. Indeed, his conclusion seems to imply it is the choice of the mid-sized countries, whether to follow or resist which will the key ‘choice’ of regional leaders.

Wesley defined Asia in its broadest sense ‘from the Pacific to the Mediterranean, and the Artic to the Indian Ocean’ (p.63). He argues that this is both more natural given the regional patterns pre-colonialism, and irresistible in an interconnected world. Yet while there is occasional discussion of ‘West Asia’ (Iran, Israel, Persian Gulf etc), the book tends to focus on the sweep from India, through Southeast Asia up to North Asia. Indeed Wesley seems to admit the need to subdivide, separating a Northern Tier of Central Asia, Russia and Mongolia from a Southern Tier which is the main focus of the book.

If I did have one major disagreement, it was with Wesley’s argument that ‘all policy – what governments are able to do within but particularly beyond their borders – is enabled or prevented by an underlying distribution or structure of latent force’ (p.126). This is a common view, and since Thucydides and Machiavelli political science has always tried to look at the power behind the throne, the steel inside the velvet glove. Yet I think it’s far too simple, if not outdated an explanation of Asia today.

The evolution of the region has been far from pre-determined by the distribution of force. While the US has championed many of the current rules and structures, it achieved much of this by negotiation, compromise, and traditional diplomatic politics. There is no evidence the region simply rolled over to accommodate it. Likewise China is not finding the running all going its way as its capacity for force grows. The most notable thing about the South China Sea is how much trouble the emerging giant is having trying to achieve its will against much smaller countries such as Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan etc.

The rules of the region are at essence negotiated. Military power helps countries seeking to shape those rules, but so does legitimacy, diplomatic skill, coalition building and the capacity to mount a persuasive argument. Wesley’s claim to see a substructure of force underneath that determines ‘all’ behaviour, also seems to contradict the important focus he places on psychological factors such as identity and history as key shapers of the relations between countries in Asia.

This criticism aside, I’m slightly surprised this book hasn’t had a bigger reception. Wesley is a charismatic speaker and engaging writer, with a significant CV and recognition around Australia’s corridors of power. The lack of one “big trick to understand Asia” probably hurts the PR pitch, but makes for an infinitely more engaging and interesting book.

While most US IR professors see Asia as the most important region, it is notable how few work on it. And fewer still among those can translate the work of their field into publicly engaging prose. Michael Wesley is one of the rare few who can do both. Restless Continent is therefore self-recommending.

* Disclaimer – Michael Welsey is Director of the Coral Bell school of Asia Pacific Affairs at ANU, within which sits the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre where I work.

Australia’s Second Chance

Australia’s Second Chance by George MegalogenisMega_Aus_Second_chance

In the field of ‘big-picture’ books by journalists about Australian politics, Paul Kelly is the hall of famer who still rightly claims attention. But the rising star is George Megalogenis.

Megageorge as he is widely known has recently produced two important books. The Longest Decade told the counter-narrative story of the similarities between Paul Keating and John Howard. So good was it that I believe Paul Kelly paid it the ultimate compliment by trying to write the same tale in his own The March of Patriots. Megalogenis then returned the favour by retelling the story of Kelly’s The End of Certainty, examining and advocating for the liberalisation of the Australian economy in The Australia Moment.

In Australia’s Second Chance Megalogenis has again set out for new territory, arguing that Australia’s prosperity and success depends not just on being an open country economically but an open country for migrants. The book shows that Australia was and always has been a nation defined by migration. This, alongside the question of population is a central element of the nation’s success.

In telling this story, Megalogenis usefully brings to popular light the role and status of the Irish and Chinese during the gold rush era, the link between the 1890s depression and the White Australia policy, and the efforts from the 1940s onwards to try and open up the country again to migration. The writing fairly clips along, and he helpfully doesn’t just focus on tired moments like Eureka and Gallipoli but tells of a steady clear narrative showing the vital importance of migration for national prosperity.

In writing a neat history however, Megalogenis’ work can sometimes imply a deterministic history. Much like his excellent, The Australia Moment, the outcome of any particular moment seems obvious and even necessary. The heat of conflict, the division, the possible alternatives are tamped down so as to clean up the narrative and progress the story. The end result seems somewhat bloodless. I found this more concerning in his earlier book ‘The Australia Moment’, because it seemed to imply there had once been an era where reform was easy and popular. But there’s a trace of it here too in ‘Australia’s Second Chance’.

The book is split into three sections. “The Rise” is Australia’s relative openness as a colony. “The Fall” charts the nation turning inwards against the Chinese on the gold fields, through the depression the 1890s, the establishment of White Australia and the muted 1920s. Finally “The Return” covers the post-war boom and through till today. All three sections are handled well, with the extended coverage of the early pre-WW2 years an important, and too often overlooked element of the nation’s story.

While this organisation makes the books purpose clear, you wouldn’t exactly know it from the title or cover design. Instead we get a book pitched as ‘What our history tells us about our future’. Likewise the introduction sets out as if it is just a simple retelling, only cryptically noting in one line ‘the thread that connects the past to the present and future is the ongoing conversation between those who came to these shores, and those who received them’. It may well be that this is simply the act of the publishers, who might (perhaps rightly) believe that such an approach would help entice a wider crowd, and lower readers’ guards given the controversial and tired nature of the issue.

But I suspect it was, at least partly deliberate. The bargain journalists tend to enter into when they write books is that they will focus on telling what has happened, but will hold off from looking ahead to say what should happen. By keeping to history re-examined, not a future imagined, they maintain their status as objective observers. Yet, Megalogenis is not afraid of making strong judgements on what was the right policy in the past. And in this case, he clearly passionately, and personally believes that Australia needs to much more fundamentally acknowledge and engage with migration.

While I was already a convert to this argument, I think the message in ‘Australia’s Second Chance’ is important and true and needs to be widely read and debated. It could also be made in stronger generalised terms. There is a vast literature on immigration and economic performance that could have been drawn upon to show that it’s not just because of our history that we should welcome immigration. It’s a general truth that immigration has many net positives for economic development. This literature is relatively easy to access and explain for a public audience, and gives us important guidelines for trying to work out how to achieve the best results in the future.

As such, given Megageorge’s reputation and track record, it would have been nice to see him wade into the ‘big Australia’ debate and argue clearly what Australia should do in the future. To stake out a position and help drive the national conversation about our relationship with migration and population. That’s a higher degree of difficulty, especially given the desire to remain an independent journalist. But get it right and it really would knock Kelly off his perch.

Between the World and Me

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi CoatesCoates_between_world

After finishing Between the World and Me I had to force myself to consciously exhale. So sublime in places is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ prose that I had often been holding my breath as I read.

This is not the type of book I would normally read. A memoir of a young New York writer, discussing race relations in a foreign country. Normally I have far more interest in people, as a group and movement, than specific persons. Yet I’d encountered Coates blog over the years, and had a respect for his pen and mind. Given the reception of this book, I wanted to give it a go. I am very glad I did.

This book doesn’t try to transmit knowledge about what happens to black men in America today, so much as attempt the much harder task of giving wisdom about what it feels like. The book is a letter from father to son. A warning of the fear that constant destruction of black bodies and black lives is the ethos of his time and the world he has brought him into.

Fear drives much of Coates views. Fear of the streets, of the schools, of police, and of ‘those who call themselves white’. Much of the backdrop for the book is the spate of police killings of young black men. Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Michael Brown, Eric Garner. These are just the well-known few, amongst a sea of young men destroyed.

Once the narrative begun, I was glad to have recently read Radley Balko’s excellent ‘Rise of the Warrior Cop’ to give some context to the racing pulse Coates feels near the authorities. Coates does not blame the individual officers for their deaths, but a system which he feels sustains itself upon their destruction.

Many will detect a hatred in his views. And they will then be bewildered by the positive reception of this book. What they miss —as does the author himself I believe— is that this fear is not just a black endowment but a human wellspring. This is not to pretend some banal equality of circumstance or dismiss the true record of suffering. But rather to suggest the power of his prose is not just to recount what happens to black people, but to identify how people necessarily feel in a hostile, unjust, meaningless universe. It is indeed far worse for some, but Coates is wrong to believe whole classes and races have managed to escape it.

I often read to get something out of a text. New knowledge, acquaintance with a passing stream of thought, simply to say ‘yes, I’ve read that’. But after just a few pages of this book, I realised I didn’t want to get anything out of this book. I just wanted to read and keep reading. Like the late Christopher Hitchens, Coates is a writer I enjoy for the sheer joy of their words, irrespective of the meaning they were trying to convey.

What I got out of this book was therefore not knowledge. Rather it is a greater sense of empathy. I choose that word deliberately. I do not feel sympathy, or pity for Coates. I do not feel compassion, as if his suffering is my own, or that I am responsible for alleviating his burden. Rather, I feel the boundary of my acceptance of behaviour has been pushed wider, my all too human desire to criticise weakened. Not to pretend he or ‘his people’ are innocent, but that such catch all terms as ‘guilt’ and ‘innocence’ are creations of an abstract world of perfect rules and unconfused hearts and heads.

One of the most compelling sections for me was Coates description of his education. One that did not happen in any school room, and only occasionally involved paid instructors. Rather it was via books and conversations, new experiences and a relentless curiosity. Many will recognise his search for historical figures ‘to put in my trophy case’ as he puts it. A desire for narratives and stories that might help justify his life, his colour, his identity as worth something. As if the success of past black figures redeems or sanctifies those alive today.

Yet, like the section on fear, this too is an emotion felt across the spectrum. Millions have flocked to places like ‘Ancestor.com’ and the archives of their family, hoping to find a power in their name and blood line that might give significance to their own beating heart and flesh. It is however an escape, much like that offered by religion. Ultimately for Coates, both are unsatisfying.

Coates world view is instead much more grounded, giving the book a material essence that is far more powerful. Rather than acknowledging suffering then pulling away to discuss solutions or salvation, he stays with what it means for people. Real actual people. Not ‘slaves’ but the enslaved lives of individuals. Not trend lines, generations and other abstractions that we talk about. Rather the confusion, pain, and death of specific human beings. All with similar fingers and toes, pimples and pupils, and heads and hearts like our own.

Ultimately, I found myself rejecting Coates pessimism and lack of hope. I look at the history of the world, and for all the misery of now, I can see that while yesterday was worse, tomorrow will be better. But I appreciate his honesty in challenging this assumption. In a lunchtime interview with the Financial Times, Coates sets out his approach: “His job, he says, isn’t to prescribe policy; it’s to push more Americans to live in truth. “If we can act with consciousness, even if we can’t fix everything, that would be a monumental improvement.””

This is a powerful book that grabs like a fish hook and is difficult to dislodge from the mind till you have closed its cover. At its best, it reminds that politics and morality can only be generalised so far. That these are imprecise forms of understanding that abstract out the real lives and actions of people with breath in their chests. Empathy can only take us so far, but fresh paths require fresh lungs, and in Ta-Nehisi Coates, there is a strong new heart at work.

Two Futures: Australia at a Critical Moment

Two Futures: Australia at a Critical Moment  by Clare O’Neil, Tim Watts Oneil_Watts_two_futures

A few weeks ago, Australia’s Minister for Arts gave a lovely little speech about books and politicians as writers. In it he said:

“The current crop of my Federal Parliamentary colleagues has produced a superabundance of books. Admittedly, most belong either to the category of rather dull and worthy policy blueprints for Australia’s future, of the kind rising backbenchers are wont to write to advertise their intellectual wares; or memoirs of the “where did it all go so wrong – it certainly wasn’t my fault” variety”.

Given the timing, I suspect Brandis had Two Futures in mind with this line. For all the proliferation of blame sharing memoirs —particularly from the previous government— there are very few real policy blueprints around. Mark Latham made his name by writing them, and Cory Bernardi has tried the same — though I regret reading the former, and won’t read the latter.

Two Futures by Clare O’Neil and Tim Watts is therefore to be welcomed as a relatively rare break from the pack. Both were elected in 2013, but are already well regarded by insiders. Their book justifies that by trying to think through six big issues Australia must manage: Democracy, Inequality, Technology, Climate, (Economic) Growth, and The World.

Wisely the authors avoid prediction —save for a slightly odd concluding chapter which contrasts two futures —and focus on the key trends in operation today. They try and gather a reasonable factual basis and look ahead to what this might mean for the country in 2040. In turn they set some general policy principles to help take advantage of the opportunities and alleviate the challenges.

The simple fact that economic growth and foreign/defence policies were included as standalone chapters should be strongly applauded. Most Labor/left policy books I’ve encountered downplay these topics. Indeed many party figures would rather never talk about these issues, seeing them as unwinnable for the left, lacking any vote changing issues, and less appealing than safe ground like health or education. I think such a view is both cowardly and wrong, so I’m glad to see O’Neil and Watt face these issues directly.

The foreign and defence policy chapter* starts with a largely standard analysis of the trends. But its conclusion that we should think of Australia as a Southeast Asian power is something I strongly agree with, and very much welcome as a contribution to the debate. I suspect many in the public will like it as well.

The economics chapter however felt like it was the most difficult for the authors to write. It’s more descriptive, the arguments less well connected, the policy prescriptions less specific. There are more appeal for independent experts —especially the Productivity Commission— to provide the answers via reviews and reports. The chapter also quickly moves onto issues of education and participation. The authors embrace the liberalisation of the economy over the last thirty years as fundamental to national prosperity, but where it goes next is not really engaged head on.

The stand out chapter for me in many ways was on Democracy, which I think addressed some quite fundamental issues in a frank and honest way. It also offered the most innovative and specific of the policy proposals in the book. The climate and inequality chapters were interesting mostly for their different tone. Both try to look at the opportunities and get perspective on the challenges. This is a welcome break from the moralising, pessimistic admonition that for many on the left is their standard rhetorical approach. It also helps that these chapters in particular and the book overall is well written with some clever turns of phrase.

Our now former Minister for Arts might be right to note the way such books are often used to help advance careers more than debate. But Two Futures is a book that seems genuinely interested in ideas, and one where the authors have done their homework, drawing from scholarly material and reports to develop those ideas. For this reason, the sheer exercise alone strikes me as something to be encouraged, whatever the merits of any individual chapters or policy proposals. If more backbenchers took up the task, Australia’s future in 2040 would look far brighter indeed.

*Disclaimer – I had a chat to Tim about the production of the World chapter, though the ideas and arguments in it are entirely his and Clare’s.