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 & Ball, D. eds. A National Asset: 50 years of the Strategic & Defence Studies Centre, Canberra: ANU Press, 2016.

Carr, A & Wallis, J. eds. Asia-Pacific Security: An Introduction, Washington D.C: Georgetown University Press, 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. ‘I’m here for an argument: The cost of bipartisanship in Australian defence and security policy’, Australian Journal of Politics and History, 2016 (Article accepted for publication 20/06/2016)

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. ‘Muscling up to the World: For constrained democratic leaders, foreign policy is another country’, Meanjin Quarterly, 74 (4), Summer, 132-139, 2015.
My full academic C.V and links to other papers can be found on the publications page.


My teaching includes:

Australian Strategic 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. These days this website serves as an online home to my publications and is mainly updated with book reviews.

I can be contacted at

The Wealth of Humans

avent_wohThe Wealth of Humans: Work, Power, and Status in the Twenty-first Century by Ryan Avent

The ‘current affairs’ shelf in bookstores is one of my favourite sections to browse. Though the topics are broad, the formula for the books is narrow: find a topic (big & well known, obscure but undervalued), synthesise 3 key themes, and add a subtitle such as “How XX can change the world”.

The Wealth of Humans by Ryan Advent will likely end up on the current affairs shelves in most book shops. But it’s an intriguing contribution that tries to break out of this simplifying formula.

This is a book of parts. I underlined hundreds of sentences, even whole paragraphs while reading through. Yet I’m still not sure what I’ll end up retaining from it. In its broad scope and focus, this book reminded me most of Tyler Cowen’s Average is Over. Though without the pity summaries and lasting analogies (freestyle chess) which help to leave an imprint in your memory long after the specific sentences have drifted out.

There’s nothing automatically wrong with a book lacking a clear central message. Indeed, I’m concerned by a publishing industry which regularly publish books of pure sloganeering over substance. Authors seem obsessed with naming and claiming terms to describe the world’s phenomena. A trend which has led to abominations of language such as ‘Chimerica’ and books as unreadable as ‘Hot, Flat and Crowded’. Where every second page contains the sentence ‘this is a phenomena I like to call…’. Yuck.

Advent, a writer for The Economist —which he reminds readers slightly too often—tries to provide a tour of the broad thematic changes of the global economy. Like Cowen and others in the genre, technologic change, especially robotics and AI plays an import role in the story. But Avent also wants to tell a story of the changing nature of commercial value. Where 80 percent of a firm’s wealth historically came from its machines and mortar, today just 20 percent does. The rest is captured by ‘social capital’. The idea’s, culture and networks which are championed and challenged by the digital revolution.

Part of the book is an exploration of how these forces are changing global and economic structures. Where technology enabled some poor countries to become part of integrated supply-chains (such as China), the trend towards social capital now risks their exclusion. Both because the savings of offshoring are shrinking, and because the real value is now far more concentrated in the rich world.
Both of these trends spell grave challenges for labour. A global abundance of workers compared to work is holding down wages, exacerbating low global demand and risking political upheaval and revolution. As such, in fits and starts, The Wealth of Humans’ seeks to argue that politics fundamentally needs to recognise and solve the redistribution challenge these trends will require.

Avent doesn’t embrace a specific policy agenda. He sees merit in ideas like a universal basic income, in greater immigration from poor countries to rich ones, in increasing labour’s bargaining position and in ripping away the exclusions and barriers that distort the housing market in particular.

His reluctance to claim ‘one weird trick to fix the global economy’, appropriately fits the nature of his analysis. At its best, the book helps to show just how complex the economic challenges of the early 21st century are. There are no simple villains or heroes here. Stories of evil neoliberal bankers or overspending governments may work well at Sanders/Trump pep rallies, but barely scratch the surface for developing a coherent rhetorical and policy response.

Instead, the real value of this book is not in trying to simplify, but in reminding just how many big themes there are that need serious public attention. And while the ranks of citizens who browse the current affairs section of bookstores is declining, works like this give me confidence that there’s still hope for the serious public analysis and debate the challenges of our time require

Most Blessed of the Patriarchs

“Most Blessed of the Patriarchs”: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination by Annette Gordon-Reed, Peter S. Onufgordon-reed_patriarch

Let us count the ways in which thou art blessed. For Thomas Jefferson, this injunction could take all night. For the book Most Blessed of the Patriarchs: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination it is unfortunately a much shorter task.

Thomas Jefferson is a charming and contradictory figure. An ‘American Sphinx’ as one biographer described. I’ve probably read a half dozen books on Jefferson over the years in a bid to understand him; such that this task is ever possible. So I was excited to get a copy of this book, given the reputation of the authors and the advanced praise for this book.

What I find most interesting about Jefferson is clearly not what the authors do. To me, he is a man of philosophy, prose and politics. All three are occasionally illuminated through this book’s lenses of his role as a patriarch. This book brings together the latest research on Jefferson, showing just how much new we have learned in recent years. But less engagingly, most of this has to do with the more mundane aspects of Jefferson’s life.

Personally, I find his relationship with Sally Hemmings, a slave girl and half-sister of his late wife quite uninteresting. I read biographies to learn about the unusual and historic. That an old slave owner found comfort in and had children through a slave he owned is neither. It was common for the time, and such behaviour is common across time.

As such, it was mildly interesting for the first 100 pages or so to see this relationship —if such a word can be used given questions of power and consent— brought into the light. Annette Gordon-Reed won a Pulitzer Prize for her earlier works demonstrating the truth of these ties. This was important for revealing a little bit more of his contradictory nature. But in Most Blessed of the Patriarchs, it seemed like the book’s authors couldn’t find an appropriate balance in trying to discuss Jefferson’s many sides.

The book is nominally about his approach to home life, and the importance of having a domain he was master of, in shaping his world view and life. Thus many topics such as his daily routine, the construction of Monticello and his views on gardening (much more negative than commonly presumed) are discussed.

But few of these topics get the space they deserve, before the subject gets dragged back to his ties to Hemmings and the unwillingness of his white family and white Virginia to recognise them in any way. Often this occurs with little warning, with book jumping around, going back and forth, rather than methodically trying to peel back the layers.

The chapter on Jefferson’s time in France is a welcome exception, giving the period a sustained analysis. They reveal how Jefferson’s embrace of French society, and his role as advocate for America helped him see what was most distinct and valuable about America, its people, environment and culture.

Many of Jefferson’s biographers write huge tomes in the hope that the sheer space they cover will provide a large enough net to snare their slippery catch. Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter S. Onuf make do with just 320 pages, and at times you feel they have indeed brought some of the real Jefferson to the surface.

But just when they do, they let him return to the depths he found of most comfort, with ponderous and repetitive writing. Or rather, overwriting. The authors seem unable to simply state that Jefferson tried to be a good host. Instead they must tie it to the contradictions of human society and his vision of a grand American republic as an inspiration for all mankind.

For those fascinated by Jefferson, there is value in this book. The parts have value, if more than the sum. The authors are masters of their fields, and learning the latest discoveries in the scholarship is engaging. But its gems are hidden by waffly language and a confused focus. The task of trying to fully count Jefferson’s many blessings and oddities therefore continues.

Engaging the neighbours

Engaging the neighbours: Australia and ASEAN since 1974 by Frank Frost 

Eengaging-the-neighboursngaging the Neighbours: is the definitive history of Australia’s attempts to work with and through ASEAN. An institution often mocked for its style, but which has been critical for the security and prosperity of the region.

Australians often describe their nation as facing a choice between its security and economic partners. Yet as Frank Frost details, for everything but the risk of a major power attack on Australia, ASEAN is Australia’s main security partner. Whether the issue is regional conflicts, keeping the major powers from competing in Southeast Asia, irregular migration, drug smuggling or terrorism, ASEAN has been the vehicle for Australia to find security in Asia and with Asia.

At times, Australia has been the ‘odd man in’, pushing for change in a way the rest of the region was not comfortable with. Sometimes our patience has been rewarded, such as with Australian contributions on the Cambodian peace accords or the creation of APEC. At other times, such as Kevin Rudd’s ill-fated Asia-Pacific Community proposal, the divergence has been a source of embarrassment for Canberra.

Many ascribe significant cultural differences to explain the halting and sometimes difficult relationship between Australia and Southeast Asia. But the differences are just as vast within ASEAN as they are between it and the land down under. More important than issues of language or what novels each society reads, is the political culture they adopt. That is, how does politics operate, how are decisions made, divisions resolved and minorities treated.

Australia’s political culture is firmly in the adversarial, legal, majority rules western model. ASEAN’s style can seem at times the reverse of that. Consensus is the order of the day, norms and traditions dominate laws, and the 80% saying yes often have less power than the 1% who says no.

Frost reveals how ASEAN and Australia have managed to forge a very effective partnership. The overlap of interest is real, and while this does not mean they will automatically or easily cooperate, both are pulling in roughly the same direction. Despite occasional public rhetoric to the contrary, there is a hunger and opportunity for an Australian voice in the region. But how it is given, and whether it is done with an awareness of what is already underway is often key.

In Rudd’s case for instance, the mandarin speaking diplomat showed both a lack of knowledge of Southeast Asia, and a lack of care for their concerns. In 2008 he proposed a new multilateral forum in a region already feeling overburdened by them. He talked of emulating the European Union, despite the obvious horror this would cause. And he proposed his forum without any prior consultation in a region whose leaders don’t like surprises.

If only he had consulted Frank. At the time, Frost was still working in the Parliamentary Library, as Senior Foreign Affairs Analyst and Research Director. Frost’s style is very readable, but it carries the legacy of a career in the bureaucracy. It is very straight down the line, and researched as carefully as any book can be.

This can lead to an occasionally dry style, but anyone wanting to pick up this book to know about ASEAN Australia relations can take great confidence that anything they later cite or quote is accurate. As the journalist Graeme Dobell recounted in his launch speech, he tried to encourage ‘Less facts, more Frank’ to Frost while the book was being written. In a few spots he clearly succeeded.

There are therefore important insights by the author on the importance of mutual ideas of ‘region’ in shaping the way Australia and ASEAN interact. Equally, Frost demonstrates that Australia needs to show a genuine concern for the problems faced by Southeast Asian countries, and can’t just engage whenever Canberra has its own problems to solve. Finally, as many have argued elsewhere—including yours truly— Indonesia is the gatekeeper for Australian initiatives. With Jakarta onside, Canberra’s ideas will be given a fair hearing. Without it, the task is extremely difficult.

The question is increasingly asked whether Australia may ever become a member of ASEAN. On this, Frost’s conclusion seems a clear no. At least for the foreseeable future, they are too different, and the costs for Australia in particular outweigh the benefits. But even as an observer sitting outside the core mechanisms, Australia’s security and well-being is intimately tied to ASEAN’s.
Understanding exactly how this relationship has developed is therefore vital for everyone interested in Australia’s place in the world. In just 200 tightly written and extensively documented pages, Frank Frost has provided an invaluable account.

(P.s As an ANU Press publication, while hard copies are for sale in bookstores, a free PDF version is available on the publishers website).

Why the future is workless

Why the future is workless by Tim Dunlopdunlop_workless

It’s 9:29pm on a Friday night. I’ve had dinner, watched a movie, and finished a glass of wine. And yet two minutes ago, I sat down at my computer and checked my work email.

Everywhere we look, computers are changing the face of work. We are plugging them into existing machines so they can drive themselves. We are custom building machines to enable them to manufacture everything from iPods to houses. And mere software itself is replacing human workers, spitting out stock reports or providing medical advice.

According to Tim Dunlop, there are three ways we as a society are responding to this change. The ‘Business as usual’ school of thought recognises the change, sees there’s a profit to be made from it, and hopes that our historical experience —where machines create as many jobs as they consume— will hold. The ‘Back to the future’ school by contrast pines for the industrial era, rails against ‘neoliberalism’, and want protectionism and a large welfare state to manage the disruption.

Neither is that attractive or coherent as a world view. Instead, argues Dunlop the future needs to be ‘Workless’. In this engaging and accessible book, Dunlop argues that we need to fundamentally re-think how society is organised if we are to manage and indeed benefit from the radical changes occurring in who does the labour of our society.

The link between technology and the organisation of society is one that has long been recognised —just ask yourself why you live in a city but your great great grandparents may not have. As the machines change, so must we. The heart of Workless is Dunlop’s argument for two essential political adjustments to smooth the transition. One material, the other moral.

First, he strongly endorses a Universal Basic Income. Showing the results of trials around the world, of emerging scholarship on the idea, he argues that only through such a scheme can we provide a financial floor which sustains those who will lose part or all of their work to computers. That is, between 40 and 70 percent of us if the predictions are true.

Second, he wants society to abandon its ‘work ethic’. The notion that anyone who doesn’t work is a bludger, that work is what ought to define us and our value. Wrapped into this is a somewhat erratic argument against neoliberalism and the cost of economic reforms of the past thirty years.
As much as I really wanted to love this book, it is this second theme that I struggled with. In part because I have a more pro-free market and optimistic outlook than the author. But more so because even with a UBI and robots everywhere, I still want a human society which is ambitious, that strives, that builds and creates anew.

Ironically, it was a book Dunlop draws on early on in his analysis which began to pull this thread loose for me. Dunlop draws in the work of Hannah Arendt to make the important distinction between ‘labour’ —menial tasks required for survival— and ‘work’, meaning the higher level acts of creation and destruction which define human achievement.

Dunlop only makes occasional reference to what humans would do in a society where all questions of labour were handled by machines. Like Arendt, he makes occasional reference to the ancient Greeks, recognising that on the back of slave labour, they made astounding advances in astronomy, mastered mathematics, and created the foundations of western philosophy, science, art, governance, theatre and history.

But, in a point I’m sure Arendt liked to stress, these were not people without a ‘work ethic’. On the contrary, they were fiercely competitive, willing to publicly condemn those who did not live up to their social ideals. They were not a people who allowed public retreat to the comforts and indulgences of home. You lived your life in public, and were judged for it. They created the Olympic Games precisely to judge who was the strongest, the fastest, the bravest, and the best among them.

So following Dunlop, I agree there is a need to radically rethink our society in light of the technology of change, and I am increasingly willing to support a UBI as a minimum first step. But following Arendt and the Greeks, I want to preserve a deep ‘work’ ethic in our society.

Let us leave labour to the machines, and free men and women to throw themselves wholeheartedly into their own work. Into creating art, building communities, starting businesses, designing and refining ideas and participating in public governance as a genuine and ongoing act of citizenship.

Not only do I find this a more invigorating vision of society than the one Dunlop implies, I fear his anti-market tangents in the book will unnecessarily alienate many potential supporters to his ideas. That’s a shame. This is a bold and engaging book by one of Australia’s best thinkers, and it tackles one of the fundamental questions of our time. SoWorkless is an important contribution, but the task of working through the social changes of the digital revolution is only just beginning

Culture of Complaint

Culture of Complaint: The Fraying of America by Robert HughesHughes_Complaint

The 1990s are back. In music, fashion, and it would seem intellectually as well. Our politics once again involves anti-globalisation anger and demands for recognition and respect for culture. The daily contest is once more dominated by the ‘sterile confrontation between the two PCs – the politically and the patriotically correct’.

While Robert Hughes’ Culture of Complaint was published in 1994, much of it feels very current and relevant. Some of the names (Jesse Helms) and controversies (Piss Christ) may have drifted from the collective memory, but the central absurdities of both the left and right remain. Twenty-four years on, Hughes efforts to skewer them is still compelling.

The book is effectively three long (55ish page) essays. Originally given as lectures, and then magazine articles, they were later fleshed out for formal publication. At times this enlargement process has left more fat than muscle, with meandering personal anecdotes and tangents laid out before the business of the day is directly addressed. This is a common flaw of the modern essay form, and while Hughes is among the finest writers Australia has ever produced, even he can not escape its indulgent structure.

What struck me most while reading this book —albeit not a point I think Hughes was trying to make — was the sheer irrelevance of criticism. Hughes outlines the right’s criticisms of the left, the left’s criticisms of the right, and provides his own broadsides against each. Yet, virtually every defect and flaw he notes in the practice of these ideologies in the 1980s and 1990s remains in our own time. In many aspects they have worsened, with the modern right less tolerant of the culture of others while the left today is less tolerant of its own.

The failure of criticism to affect change is particularly a problem for the left which seeks ‘progress’, yet seems obsessed with criticism as a vehicle for change. Without a clear ideology or picture of what it wants to achieve, the left has substituted a focus on identify and striking at what it wants to remove. This is most clearly seen with language where removing offensive words is inexplicably treated as a serious effort to change people’s social conditions. Yet as Barbara Ehrenreich — who has done much to show just how tough the social conditions of the poor and dispossessed actually are— puts it ‘verbal uplift is not the revolution’.

By profession, Hughes was a ‘critic’. Where his criticism is strongest is where it is not simply undermining the shibboleths of others. While his political attacks often seem to rest uneasily on an implicit preference for common sense —as if that was always obvious— he stands firm and proud upon the mountain top of ‘elitism’ when critiquing the art world.

With such a foundation under his feet, a position from which to identify not only what is wrong but to encourage what is best, Hughes’ art criticism is sharp and insightful. The point of art he charges is not supporting difference, but work which look for ‘real excellence’. Work that ‘in aesthetic terms [will] challenge, refine, criticize or in any way extend the thinking of the status quo’. His willingness to stand firmly for elitism gives true power to his critique of mediocrity and expression in art.

The culture of complaint Hughes identifies throughout this book is still very much with us. About the only absurdity of the 1990s that seems to have disappeared is the confessional talk show. Yet it was not through criticism of this bad TV that today’s excellent range of dramas and miniseries came about. Criticism is necessary, but it is also ultimately hollow unless it is just as grounded in a sense of what is right, as of what is wrong.

The ultimate problem of our culture is that few in our politics seem to have much if any sense of what is right. Of what ought to be. And so they, like their 1990s predecessors endlessly peck at what is easily identified as wrong. This may drive ratings, but ultimately leaves society spinning on its heels. Escaping the pull of the 1990s will therefore require moving beyond mere criticism to the active effort of building anew towards something of ‘real excellence’.

Destiny of the Republic


Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard

James A. Garfield is the type of US President known only to people who want to win Trivial Pursuit. But Candice Millard’s Destiny of the Republic makes a very good case for why the man and his times are not something we should ignore so easily.

As good as many US presidents have been, the era around the Civil War – with one standout exception – produced a lot of dullards and duffers as presidents. Either too willing to indulge the slave holders in the South, or too captured by the corruptions of the North, the second half of the 19th century is a somewhat sorry period in US governance.

While an assassins bullet denied Garfield the time to make a mark on history (he served just 4 months in health, and lived only 3 more as an invalid), he had all the qualities to launch an industry of biographers. Born in deep poverty in rural America, he ran a school, worked on the canal boats, fought in the Civil War, served in the House of Representatives for nine terms, and won the Presidency without actually seeking to be the candidate or campaigning.

As Millard engagingly describes, Garfield attended the 1880 Republican Party Convention as a nominating speaker for John Sherman. When 36 successive ballots couldn’t decide between Sherman, Grant or Blaine, delegates swung behind the man who delivered the best speech of the convention, James A. Garfield. James was somewhat shocked by this turn of events and promptly returned to his native Ohio. He spent the next few months speaking occasionally to visiting groups from his front porch, and otherwise minding the farm. Surprisingly, at least to modern audiences, he won.

Most tantalisingly, Garfield seemed well ahead of his time on race relations. Millard’s book is not a careful academic study, so take these comments with caution, but Garfield seems to have fundamentally recognised (where many would not) that the freedom of African Americans required direct action to improve their social and economic status, not simply the removal of their chains.

The colour and enjoyment of this book is therefore twofold. The first, is the tantalising ‘what if’ of had Garfield lived. The second, is the story of the doctors who ensured he did not.

Much of Destiny of the Republic is concerned with the medical practices of the time, and the botched, backward and bewildering medical practices which were administered to the dying President. Thanks to heavy professional discipline, new ideas from Europe about bacteria and the need for sterilization were rejected out of hand. Instead, these doctors —with the best of intentions — often saw their hands as perfectly suitable instruments to try and feel around inside the President’s wound searching for the bullet fragments.

With a nobleness of character that seems out of this world, Garfield seemingly accepted without complaint the myriad of tests, treatments and ignobility’s of medicines sorry record at the time. Millard’s damning conclusion is that had Garfield received no medical help, he would almost surely have survived. Many Civil War veterans of the era walked around with bullet fragments inside them, and the nature and location of Garfield’s wound was such that a full recovery was very possible. His cause of death instead was infection and disease, introduced by the doctors who were sent to save him.

This is a gripping story, and Millard’s prose flows beautifully, effortlessly carrying you through a rather depressing era. Garfield’s assassin, Charles J. Guiteau is a strange figure, sane and yet clearly out of his mind. A loner and loser who expected to be given the Ambassadorship to Franc. When refused, he decided to help the party by ‘removing’ the President. Another fascinating cameo of the story is Alexander Graham Bell, who set to work designing a metal detector to find the bullet. Bell’s machine worked, but the lead doctor was so convinced he knew where the bullet must lie he refused to allow Bell to search beyond a limited area.

Along with the insights into a forgotten President, the real lesson of this book is a reminder of just how far medicine has progressed. True, it has not always been in neat linear steps. Yet the difference between the conditions of a President in that era, and a pauper in our own are staggering. There are only a few places on earth in the early 21st century which don’t enjoy a standard of medical care far above that consumed by the wealthiest of the late 19th century. That is too easily forgotten, yet truly remarkable.

Destiny of the Republic is extremely easy to read, and yet its simplicity belies a powerful message. A forgotten leader of noble character. A chance at progress denied by random violence. And the steady, sustained march forward of science and medicine. There’s nothing trivial in such knowledge.

The Elements of Eloquence

The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase by Mark Forsyth
Generally, it’s not the done thing to be laughing while on a plane trip. And doing so with a book on the English language in your hand is especially frowned upon. But such were the circumstances I found myself in last week when devouring this brilliant little tome.

Each of the 40 or so chapters is only a few pages, but that is all that is needed for the author to outline dozens of rhetorical techniques and show how they are integral to many of your favourite lines, from Shakespeare to Katy Perry.

Forsyth explains why ‘Bond, James Bond’ works (it’s a diacope), why the repetition of words at the start of each sentence captures attention (the power of epistrophe), and why epizeuxis is the real estate agents’ best friend (location. location. location).

As a particular emphasis, Forsyth shows how Shakespeare practices and improved on these techniques across his plays, and what makes some of his best lines tick (‘to be or not to be’ gets its power from the symmetry and repetition of ‘to be’ rather than simply as a rhetorical question). He also adds in little asides, such as noting that for absolutely no good reason at all, all adjectives in English have to be in the order of ‘Opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose Noun’. Hence why you’ve never read about a ‘great green dragon’ (as seven year old Tolkien once tried to describe).

While this is a bleary and badly written review, I found myself adopting a handful of techniques from Forsyth’s book in a speech I gave a few days after reading the book. Not in a forced “can I be clever” way (though I’m always open to such illusions), but in a “oh if I move this to here, or repeat that there, the paragraph will work much better). Small edits that aid eloquence.

Strongly recommended. If only to dispel the idea that learning how language works should be boring.


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


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.