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 book is: 

Winning the Peace: Australia’s campaigns to change the Asia-Pacific Melbourne University Press.

My latest journal articles are:

‘An Indo-Pacific Norm Entrepreneur? Australia and Defence Diplomacy’ (With Daniel Baldino), Journal of the Indian Ocean Region (published online 16 March 2015).

‘Is Australia a Middle Power: The Systemic Impact approach’Australian Journal of International Affairs 68 (1), 70-84, 2014.

‘The Funding Illusion: The 2% of GDP furphy in Australia’s Defence Debate’ (with Peter Dean) Security Challenges 9(4), 65-86, 2013.

My full academic C.V can be found on the publications page.

In 2015 I will be teaching:

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.

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

Australian Between Empires: The Life of Percy Spender

Australian Between Empires: The Life of Percy Spender  by David Lowe Lowe - Spender

Bob Carr’s central complaint during his time as Foreign Minister (my review of his Diary here) was not the travel, food or company, but a lack of time. 18 months was too short to do anything he moaned. Percy Spender had just 16 months and was the most influential Australian Foreign Minister of the 20th century.

Spender is something of a forgotten figure in Australian history. This is partly because his time at the top was so short, but also because his story runs against the dominant narrative of his era. We think of the Menzies reign as British, cautious and somewhat lethargic. Spender was none of these things.

In this highly readable — albeit academic — biography, David Lowe illuminates a figure who is brash, bold and innovative. Spender was willing to take risks, worked at racehorse pace (often managing a federal parliamentary seat and significant caseload at the NSW bar) and challenged many of the fundamental ideas of his time.

Spender belongs to a significant, though minority school of foreign policy in Australia: The rationalists. This is not to claim a super intelligence. Rather he was guided less by tradition, culture or national pride and more by a nose for where the big geopolitical trends were taking his country and a willingness to embrace them.

Out of his wide reading and early embrace of air travel (allowing multiple quick trips at a time when his Prime Minister still took a month to sail to England) Spender helped form two of the pillars of current Australian foreign policy.

Most famously, he cemented an alliance with the United States, securing something that half a century of Australian leaders such as Deakin, Lyons, Curtin and Evatt had only talked about. This was a singular feat, given the deep reticence in both Washington D.C and Canberra for any such pact. Such was the importance of this relationship, Spender jumped from Foreign Minister to Ambassador to America to help cement the ties beyond what the legal framework assured.

Spender also helped to push and drag a reluctant Australian government towards embracing Asia. As Menzies once mocked him lightly in a cabinet meeting ‘Come on Percy lets have your thesis about Southeast Asia’. While many saw the coming Cold War as requiring Australia to return forces to the Middle East or Europe, Spender helped keep the focus on Asia and combatting Asian communism.

His main achievement in this direction was the Colombo plan. Often seen today as merely a form of student exchange (as its namesake today embodies), it was part of a far grander effort to help build and develop Southeast Asia as a bulwark against communism and as a neighbourly gesture of service to integrate Australia and the developed world into the developing one.

Spender had hopes of becoming Prime Minister, but he never seems to have gotten very close to the big chair. When all hope was extinguished in 1951 his energy soon turned away from federal politics. After just 1 year and 128 days as Foreign Minister (along with Treasurer in the 1939-40 government and member of the War Cabinet and Advisory War Council for the length of the Second World War) he left.

After that he spent seven happy years as Australian Ambassador to the United States and nine less successful years on the International Court of Justice in The Hague. He was and remains the first and only Australian appointee and spent three years as President and chief justice.

We should not be surprised that Spender’s story is unknown today. Most Australian foreign policy history is. To those on the left anything before Gough or even Keating is dismissed as cringe worthy dependence. To those on the right, only two relationships mattered, the UK then US and anything else was somewhat pointless and a waste of time. Spender’s story however shows that there is much to be proud of, and nothing to take for granted in the evolution and development of Australia’s approach to international affairs.

The revival in the last few years of interest in Spender’s story is important not just to overcome a historical ignorance. Spender’s actions matter because his, like our own, was a time of change and transition. He cut through because he was prepared to assess the big changes and push, negotiate, bargain, bully and dream about where and how his country could succeed. Such ambitions and innovations are needed again today, and time once again, is not on our side.

MIKTA, Middle Powers, and New Dynamics of Global Governance: The G20’s Evolving Agenda

MIKTA, Middle Powers, and New Dynamics of Global Governance: The G20’s Evolving Agenda by Mo Jongryn (Editor)Mo - MIKTA

I was recently invited to attend a MIKTA ‘Young Professionals Camp’, leading a delegation of Australian university students to South Korea. So naturally I needed to find out some more about this MIKTA initiative. Despite my work on middle powers, I hadn’t paid it much attention, unsure of what it actually stood for.

After this book and several days of the camp, I’m….still not sure. MIKTA (involving Mexico, Indonesia, Korea, Turkey, Australia) emerged from the sidelines of the G20, bringing together those countries which did not fit the G7 and were not members of the BRICs. MIKTA foreign ministers have now committed to meet 3 times a year, a substantial commitment in their busy schedules. It’s a key concern of Australia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Julie Bishop.

While I am all for more middle power cooperation, and think its significance is substantially under recognised by the wider literature, this is still an organisation in search of a purpose as this book, edited by Professor Mo makes clear. The strength of this text is that none of the authors pretends this initiative is world changing or without challenges. Yet they do see much promise in the platform and offer a variety of ways it could feasibly contribute.

This is very much a book for scholars, and only those interested in these countries, middle powers or diplomacy at that. The chapters by Andrew F. Cooper (author of two classic books on middle powers) and Choi Heenam are stand outs, and there is an intriguing thread in Thomas Wright’s contribution on the need for a multilateral pivot to help re-shape and sustain the international order. But these are all very short chapters, and the lack of a clear thread and history to focus on leaves many having to speculate and write in very general language.

I’m still slightly skeptical of MIKTA. Not of the states, but the notion of cooperating without a purpose. I tend to think middle power influence works best along niche lines, where a specific issue platform and coalition is built. But if this is a way for more countries to see the potential for such initiatives and share the skills they need to lead, then I’m all for it. Whatever it is…

The Korean War: A History

The Korean War: A History  by Bruce Cumings Cumings - Korean War

I recently visited South Korea, and to help orientate me towards this new destination, I headed to a bookshop to help get a sense of the place. I often think bookstores tell much about a country. Are they looking only for their own stories (America) or keen to learn how to engage others (Taiwan), are they focused on escapism (Australia) or do they want to learn how to succeed and get rich (Singapore). These are just one side to any culture, but where else can you directly see what the people want to bring into their minds just laid out before you.

‘The Korean War: A History’ is by one of the best known American scholars of Korea Bruce Cumings and many parts of this book show a fine scholar at work. One fascinating aspect of this book is the focus on memory as part of history. This is currently a major theme in the field, and producing some fascinating work and important insights. Much of what drives us when we invoke history is less the events themselves than our memory of them. Often it’s not so much the act as the memory of it that has so much impact in the world (The Holocaust being a prime example). Cumings argues Korea is not just a ‘forgotten war’ but one we never knew in part because we never wanted to know just what US actions had resulted in and what the US supported ROK government was doing.

But while we can hopefully correct the record about these acts, we can almost never correct memories. Perhaps appropriately, Cuming’s often displays an anger that fits the tragic material that he covers, and which those with deep ties to these threads of history must feel. But angry memories by those without direction connection to the acts often feels alien, especially coming from such a distinguished scholar.

As such, this is often an angry book, and to the uninformed reader in the wider debates – such as myself- it’s not often clear who Cumings is arguing with or why exactly the topics he picks are the best focus as the book jumps around. Towards then end Cumings reveals he is partly angry at the effect of the war on his own country, first in the move away from Keenan-esq containment to military globalism and then the parallels with the Iraq war. But this seems somewhat to downplay the significance and importance of careful contextual understanding which the book tries to begin with and condemn others for not recognising.

One advantage of this anger however is to recognise just how much history the people of East Asia have to chew through (to borrow Churchill’s famous quip about the Balkans). One of the things I find strangest about the IR theory of ‘Realism’ is how often its advocates assume away so much history as irrelevant. For many who look at the relationship between Japan and Korea or Japan and China or Russia and everyone else, there is a sense of ‘just get over it will you’ in realist scholarship. Their grand balancing schemes require everyone else to shift along desired axis, and for some reason all this history stuff keeps getting in the way.

This is absurd for a doctrine which claims to ‘seeing the world as it is’ to be so wilfully ignorant of what actually drives human behaviour. Of course, that’s not true of the original set, your Thucydides, E.H. Carr & Hans Morgenthau. But starting with Waltz and exemplified by the quantitiative turn, the notion of ‘knowing something’ about particular states seems positively unhelpful in their analysis. This is even stranger for American realists, given the see similar historical struggles on a daily basis in places such as South Carolina and Texas where the legacies of the Border Wars and the Civil War still reverberate through American life. You can’t understand the South without understanding the Civil War, but as Cumings points out, a lot of people try and understand the Korean War, or Korea (North and South) today without recognising its civil war history.

While I do try to engage with material that challenges received wisdom, and appreciate the importance of trying to upend dogma, my weathervane for appreciation of this turns on whether I think the author a ‘fair’ judge. At one point Cuming’s argues that a ‘democratic conception of justice is not dignified by assuring ourselves’ that our side killed less than the others. And he’s right. But somehow a lot of this book also fails to try and show they matter equally. While I trust Cumings as a historian he tends to put forward eye witnesses as truth-tellers of South Korean atrocity while questioning deeply official records and histories that look at the North. The book obviously isn’t about what the North did and continues to do, and does not need to repeat it. But it should not feel like it is dismissing it either, and unfortunately too often in my reading, it did.

Throughout the book Cumings wrestles with the notions of memory, but it seems to me his central message is backwards. He praises memory and condemns our forgetfulness. He also directly attaches the party of memory label on the North while tagging the South as the party of forgetfulness. And that may be true, but what if that’s also why the North stays paranoid within its garrison walls, while the South stands fair and free? It may well be that justice to our parents requires memory, while justice for our children requires forgetfulness.

A Coast Too Long: Defending Australia Beyond The 1990s

A Coast Too Long: Defending Australia Beyond The 1990s by Ross BabbageBabbage - coast too long

Like most of my generation I grew up watching Bush Tucker Man. A fun show, with a serious purpose: working out how do defend Australia. While Les Hiddins was the khaki front man, it was the geek squad like Ross Babbage who made the idea a reality.

It might seem a simple idea ‘design your forces to defend the country’ but putting it into practice requires a lot of thought. Especially in a country as big and diverse as Australia. While Hiddins looked at gathering ‘tucker’, Babbage and others looked at the tides, winds, bridges, population centres, and tried to work out how they could help national strategy and force structure.

It is strange to some today, but during the Cold War Australians held a real fear of invasion. We’ve largely discarded that concern now (See the Lowy Poll 2015), but by reading books like this, you can see how authentic such concerns were.

Intriguingly, the two main worries in ‘A Coast too Long’ are ones Australia no longer worries about. The first is nuclear war, a threat that still exists but it is understandable why most of the concern faded with the end of the Cold War.
The second is low-level conflict, a scenario where small groups of elite forces run around the northern territory damaging vital equipment. Think Konfrontasi in Kakadu. This was a real animating concern for much of the 1970s and 1980s, though many debated how to respond.

If just low level coercion, it would be very difficult to get allied support. Likewise Australia’s escalation options would be limited. A conventional strike against the opponents population or resources could seem disproportionate and shift international perceptions of who was the aggressor.

It’s somewhat strange to see such concern, given its absence from contemporary debates. Yet it’s not clear why it’s not a concern. We might think a modern Indonesia wouldn’t engage in such action, but if national relations really degraded (such as if Australia and Indonesia ended up on different sides of a second Cold War), it’s quite plausible.

Another fascinating area is the section looking at the strategic importance of Christmas Islands and Cocos Islands. While neither is worth wholescale defence, they add a lot to current defence capability (increasingly so in an era of autonomous drone equipment).

This is necessarily a book for the scholars and defence nerds. But there’s a lot to learn in this book about the geography of Australia. Just as Bush Tucker man showed the diversity of the top end on the micro scale, there are dozens of maps in ‘A Coast Too Long’ which show the intriguing nature of the country on the macro scale.

It seems that with the 2015 Defence White Paper, Australia is slowly moving away from the Defence of Australia concept. This seems the right direction, but work such as that by scholars like Babbage, Ball, Langtry and others will remain vital if we ever need to defend this long long coast.

No, Minister: So You Want to Be a Chief of Staff?

No, Minister: So You Want to Be a Chief of Staff ? by Allan Behm Behm - No Minister

Many reasons have been offered for why the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government fell short, but fundamentally I believe it came down to a failure of governance. They had smart, capable people, there were good ideas and policies and no shortage of hard work. But they couldn’t put it together in a sustained or effective fashion.

‘No Minister: So you want to be a chief of staff’ helps show exactly what that means. To be clear, Behm’s purpose is not to explain what went wrong, but rather try and show how to make government work, at least from within a single Minister’s office. Behm spends much of the book explaining how he set about his task as Greg Combet’s Chief of Staff, and how he thinks about issues of leadership, management, and building an efficient, trusting, value-driven team.

Behm’s position in the Minister for Climate Change’s office was always something of an oddity around Canberra. As Allan reveals early on, the intention had been for Combet to take over the Defence Portfolio, hence bringing in the ‘bow-tied assassin’* who offered a deep knowledge of the Defence organisation, the public service and a fine strategic mind.

One of the values of this book is that it focuses on the governance of governing. That is, how do you do the job? How do you build and manage relationships internally and externally so that you can achieve what you want to achieve.

That’s a vital issue and one often sidelined in our discussions of why the three baby boomer PMs (Rudd, Gillard and now Abbott) have been collectively viewed as failures. As one perceptive piece in The Atlantic recently noted ‘A great deal of political writing these days is indistinguishable from theatre criticism: Its chief concerns are storyline, costumes, and the quality of public performances’. Behm’s book is a good antidote to that. While there are some amusing character sketches, the weight of the book is on the process of running a government, rather than lumping it all on the ability of the PM to spin their way ahead.

Behm spends a lot of time in this book talking about wisdom, which he views as experience diffused through reflection. As such, he is quite critical of many of the young jocks that often ran the show in the Rudd era, though he is quick to sincerely praise many of the young staffers he personally worked with.

On this score, I must stress that I bear no actual wisdom as to life on the hill. I’ve never worked in a ministerial or political office, though like many in Canberra I’ve wondered if I could endure. But I do have friends and colleagues who have toiled those long hours at a variety of levels, and I’ve read my fair share of memoirs and accounts, so take the rest of this review with that caveat in mind.

One notable theme is the issue of ‘wheel-spinning’: That is, lots of effort for little result. While making no excuses for the long hours, Behm rightly notes how much work seems to be done that doesn’t end up furthering the aims of the government. While it’s something we can all reflect on in our own areas, I admit to wondering about the willingness of so many political operatives to sweat the small stuff. Every issue is treated as fundamental and worth responding to rather than keeping a focus on the larger issues of strategy that ultimately determine elections and legacies. Instead as Behm laments ‘in the current environment, politics is totally preoccupied with and consumed by tactics’.

One other message of the book is the idea of civility as a requirement for the process to occur. Behm stresses the necessity of politics being a hard business and he is happy to criticise individuals and parties he disagrees with. Yet he argues throughout that notions of ‘civility, decorum and respect’ are the functional basis for being successful in the profession of politics. In one intriguing line he suggests ‘a government’s image of competence is not really helped where scorn and disdain replace civility and decorum.’ While we often don’t link the concepts of capacity and civility, the most capable figures I’ve encountered have often been the most civil. It’s those who doubt their ability to perform at that level who tend to be the real scrappers searching for every inch of advantage.

Two final concerns that resonated with me were his concern about the rise of cynicism about and in politics, and the need for clear agreement and articulation of principles before policies are developed and announced. Neither claim is new, but they seem fundamental starting points for constructing a more effective political environment.

While I love a good memoir, I’ve largely left alone the stream of books by the politicians of the Rudd-Gillard era. They are all out much too soon for any real reflection to have occurred. ‘No Minister’ however is the second book by a staffer I’ve read and enjoyed. Given my favourite book on the Keating government is Don Watson’s beautiful ‘Reflections of a bleeding heart’, maybe more encouragement should be made for staffers, rather than their bosses, to pen memoirs and tomes.

Of course, with such a theme, this book will only be read by Canberra insiders, but that’s probably the audience who need to read it most. Highly recommended. As Greg Combet says in the foreword ‘it’s a gem.’

*Behm is famous for his preference for bow-ties. And pleasingly, if you look carefully at the cover, the advisor is also fashioned with a bow-tie.

Clausewitz: A Very Short Introduction

Clausewitz: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions #61) by Michael Eliot Howard Howard - Clausewitz

Hi, my name is Andrew, I study strategic issues, and I’ve never read Clausewitz.

That’s something difficult to acknowledge, though I suspect I’m in much wider company in my field than I fear. Of course I’ve read bits and pieces, chapters and sections that have been relevant to research inquiries, but I’ve never sat down and read it through. I’ve never studied ‘On War’ as a project.

I’ve come to feel that should change, hence getting this very short introduction. I’d normally have hesitated to even bother with a mere long essay, but for the author. Michael Howard is a co-editor on the definitive translation of Clausewitz’s ‘On War’, and the leading strategic scholar of his generation.

That said, this introduction is a little too short. Especially with a work as complex as ‘On War’, Howard barely even bothers to try and walk you through the major sections or ideas. He knows it is not really possible. Instead he tries to highlight and explain, in as clear a language as possible, why this minor Prussian Commander who died in 1831 is regarded as THE greatest theorist of war. A genius regularly compared to Shakespeare or Newton for his ability to grasp the fundamental features of his field.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the book is the concluding section on the reception of ‘On War’ and the legacy of Clausewitz. Freed of trying to provide crib notes, Howard provides a fascinating discussion of the influence of the book on military thinking in the 19th century and into the 20th. For instance, how it was used and misused during the first world war, and whether it can help us understand new forms of conflict like nuclear ‘cold wars’ and revolutionary people’s wars.

Still, this is an odd text. I can see the intuitive appeal behind such a series of books, but I can’t quite tell who the audience would be. For a scholar or anyone with a basic grasp of Clausewitz (enough to want to know more) the book is too short and light to be worth the time. But without such an impulse, why would you want to buy this book in the first place?

As such, it’s probably not worth your cash, though the kind of book you could steal from a friend’s shelf for an enjoyable hour or two on a lazy afternoon.

Red Star Over the Pacific: China’s Rise and the Challenge to US Maritime Strategy

Red Star Over the Pacific: China’s Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy by Toshi Yoshihara & James R. Holmes Yoshihara - Red Star

In Red Star over the Pacific Toshi Yoshihara and James R. Holmes argue that the best analysis of China’s maritime turn in the 21st century can be found in the writing of an American Naval Captain who died in 1914.

Holmes and Yoshihara set out to explore and detail China’s internal debates about naval strategy. Bringing many of these debates to an English speaking audience for the first time, they show how the middle kingdom is thinking about its new role and how prominent ideas are influencing national capability choices.

At the heart of this debate, the authors find the strategic grammer of the American strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan. The book begins with an exposure of his work and his significant influence on Chinese thinking and debates. The book then turns to examine key factors in Beijing’s maritime strategy. This includes chapters on fleet tactics, major capabilities such as ballistic missiles and submarines, and soft power operations.

Combined these offer a fascinating insight into how China’s maritime turn is occurring. Along the way we get discussions of US responses and force posture and the implications for regional and even global security.
The line between ‘strategic studies’ and ‘international politics’ is often blurred in the public literature. In Red Star over the Pacific Yoshihara and Holmes masterfully demonstrate why the former is an important sub-discipline that is worth preserving. They offer history (including a fascinating comparison with another Mahan inspired opponent, Germany), geography, extremely readable analysis of technical capability and balance it all with a judicious strategic analysis that grants due weight to ideational factors such as intellectual debates and culture to provide a compelling analysis.

By grounding the analysis in the strategic studies domains of concepts and capability, the authors go far beyond anything else on the shelves to detail just what China is attempting to do at sea, what it could do, how it will try to do it and what it means for the US and anyone else who may try to shape or resist Beijing’s policy.

The subject matter makes this something of a niche book, but given the quality of the analysis and writing I know many well outside my field who have picked up and enjoyed a copy (the book was published in 2010 though never feels dated). It also deserves to be read given the significance of the issues at stake. The US and China will almost assuredly avoid a land based conflict (a repeat of the 1950 crisis on the Korean Peninsula is about the only plausible exception). But a maritime clash is increasingly possible. More so, maritime strategy and coercion is already a fundamental part of the current strategic competition between the first and second largest economies of the world.

While I dismiss notions of US decline or passivity, and recognise the vast gulf between owning and effectively utilising capabilities, this book still makes for pessimistic reading. China may currently feel hemmed into the ‘first-island chain’ that connects Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines and Indonesia. But with a switch of government in Taipei and authority over the South China Sea, Beijing can flip those barriers into creating a large moat that protects rather than contains China.

That sets the current dispute about the South China Sea in a very different light. Merely grabbing a few man-made islands or small oil fields hardly seems worth the effort. But as part of an effort to fundamentally rechange the regional maritime geography to China’s benefit, it takes on a far greater order of significance. Yet it’s also not clear that current policy alternatives will effectively challenge Beijing or that now is the best time to do it.

I tend to think that Southeast Asian countries are far better placed to dissuade China from such a policy than a clumsy and ill-interpreted effort from Washington. Likewise, the extent to which this change is unacceptable to non-Chinese interests is also not clear. US and Australian safety does not depend upon the waters inside the first island chain, and if shipping and trade is protected – and there’s no good reason it won’t be – then what exactly is the threat worth going to war over? Finally, and as Yoshihara and Holmes clearly demonstrate, even if the US wanted to actively resist China’s maritime expansion, it would be extremely difficult and costly to do so. This is quite unlike Britain resisting Germany before World War 1 and the usual dribble about national character/intent and seriousness that litters these kinds of discussions has almost nothing to do with it.

This is one for the wonks, but that says more about the public’s interest than the capacity of these scholars to write for the public. It masterfully shows what strategic studies is as a discipline, and examines one of the most important global questions of the day. Along the way it helps to draw many of China’s intellectual debates on military issues out into the open, while reminding us that strategy is a domain of ideas as well as weapons. Of concepts and capabilities. Power has its material and ideational spheres and we can only understand just what we are doing, and how we may seek our security if we understand and embrace both parts.
A remarkable piece of scholarship. Give it a go if you can

The Global Village Myth: Distance, War, and the Limits of Power

The Global Village Myth: Distance, War, and the Limits of Power by Patrick Porter Porter - Global village myth

A good academic book will usually have two stories contained inside. First, it needs an academic contribution that helps explore with careful logic and substantial detail a specific aspect of world affairs. The second story is the public/policy implications. That is, an attempt to say why this matters, and how the refined understanding of the ideas and issues in the first story, can translate into a clear path forward that completes the second.

The Global Village Myth is a persuasive, fascinating, important, and extremely well written book. But unfortunately its two stories don’t quite balance each other. The policy story unfortunately tends to dominate the academic one, which in turn limits the power of the analysis, which then constrains the power of the policy recommendations.

Porter’s thesis, and one I broadly accept, is that thanks to globalisation and technology we have seen a consensus emerge that the world has ‘shrunk’. This however has not helped the nerves of security analysts. Rather, the tyranny of distance has been replaced by the peril of proximity. To those who accept this view, security requires a global approach. No threat can be left alone, no bad guy untouched, no distance sufficient to give breathing ‘space’. And so perpetual war needs to be waged to have perpetual peace.

Through three case studies of Al-Qaeda, the Taiwan strait and the rise of cyber and drones, Porter shows that on the ground, distance still matters. In all three cases, the lines on the map are still vital for how the issues will play out. To the extent they are overlooked or downplayed, our ability to sensibly understand and resolve them is reduced. Even in the information age power is still shaped and stopped by geography.

This argument is not just a simple effort to show the map matters. Instead Porter offers a a refined understanding of how space is both material (Oceans and the Himalayas have the own obvious effects), but also constructed (how near is ‘near’, who owns what, how does space shape our perception of location, security, wealth etc). I found this an extremely compelling argument, but I finished this book somewhat disappointed.

Porter rightly focuses on the way actors in the United States understand and adopt this argument (what he terms ‘globalism’), especially ‘liberal’ ideologues such as B.Clinton, Bush 2 & B.Obama (and unquestioned by H.Clinton, Bush 3 and virtually all serious 2016 contenders). But this focus on the US tends to overwhelm and shrink the space for the academic analysis of the concept of strategic space. I never quite felt all the important threads of how geography, ideas and strategy interact were drawn out. Ironically the US focus also underplayed the importance of the idea by downplaying just how globally accepted the ‘globalism’ thesis really is. The US may be an advanced case, but it is far from the only one.

For example: In Australia there seems a real divide between analysts who accept the globalism idea and want a Defence force designed around the threats we face (global). And their critics who want a Defence force designed around the things we want to protect (local). It’s not hard to see many other countries who supported international actions without considering enough how geography will shape their actions. From those who support R2P and humanitarian intervention through to the struggles Russia and China are facing trying to push out the boundaries of their control.

Porter’s concern however is to show why a lack of appreciation for geography has harmed american policy making. As such the over-stretch and challenges of the US end up dominating most of the book. This is an important tale, but one I felt could have been made more powerfully with a slightly greater focus on the academic analysis and if pushed less centrally and consistently throughout. It also risks getting lost in the crowd critiquing current US policy, when it should stand a cut above most of what is out there. It also felt slightly under-done. Given the focus on the US, I’d have been keen to see more policy advocacy rather than just criticism from Porter. As his twitter handle is @offshorebalancer, I kept wondering what some of the implications were for US policy in Asia. Could offshore balancing even work if distance is still so huge a factor (i.e. if the US gave up many of its bases in Asia as offshore balancers want, could the US still have a say in Asia?).

You’ll note my concerns here aren’t actually critiques of the central argument of the book, so take these as the lesser order concerns they are. The Global Village Myth is an important contribution to the Strategic Studies literature. Too many have too readily accepted the demise of geography to great cost. The counter-view however isn’t a banal geographic determinism as some push (See Robert D. Kaplan’s ‘Revenge of Geography’) but rather a recognition that space is both material and ideational and we need a more nuanced and advanced understanding of their interconnection in this interconnected world.

The Global Village Myth is a great read for anyone interested in global politics, especially on the strategic side of the ledger

City Limits: Why Australia’s cities are broken and how we can fix them

City Limits: Why Australia’s cities are broken and how we can fix them  by Jane-Frances Kelly, Paul Donegan Kelly_City Limits

We have become a nation of Two Australia’s. But the divide is not based on class, skin colour, or wealth (per say) but on how close to the CBD you live. Those in close enjoy access to good jobs, access to good services, high house values, higher levels of gender equality at work and lower work-life balance issues. Those further out suffer in all these areas.

This is a fantastic, if scary book. It combines several of the biggest issues of modern Australian life, and shows how they are centrally connected to our cities, and how we are comprehensively failing to address them.

The argument begins by noting that while the knowledge-economy was thought to have enabled us to all work ‘anywhere, anytime’, in fact it has pushed us towards the CBD. Where manufacturing let people live in the suburbs near the big plants, today’s economy forces everyone to head to a central point. So much so that 80% of Australia’s economy now occurs on 0.2% of our land.

But that’s not where the people are. Certainly not those who are new, poor, disadvantaged or just on average salaries. This book, if anything undersells, a story of two Australia’s. And while transport, governance and other concerns are part of the issue, the real culprit here is housing policy.

The pursuit of the Australian dream is killing the Australian dream. By assuming everyone wants a large, detached house in the outer suburbs we have built cities which are increasingly harming our lives and our economy.

We are not building enough houses for people, nor the kinds of houses they want, nor in the places they want. Rich suburbs with access to good services and jobs have become virtual forts, keeping out anyone else who wants to access these benefits. Notably one area the authors do not point the finger at is population growth. The problem is not that we are growing too fast, but that we’re doing such a bad job of managing it that all growth is a problem. Likewise foreign investment is about 1% of the market, so again it’s not the culprit.

Tackling this will be tough. Unlike many other countries, there’s usually no one responsible for an entire city (hence why we should abolish the states, though that’s a topic for another day). Worse, it will require both sides of politics to sacrifice beloved policies. The Right needs to embrace more public transport (especially trains). The left needs to recognise that housing policy regulations are crippling the very ‘working families’ they claim to speak on behalf of. And both sides need to become much much better at engaging with the public to see what they want and find what trade offs they will accept.

There’s much to recommend about this book. In fact, anyone interested in Australia’s politics, economy or social changes should pick it up. Best book I’ve read this year in fact.

Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future

Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future by Peter Thiel, Blake MastersThiel - Zero to One

I tend not to read business books, but Peter Thiel strikes me as an interesting guy, and occasionally dipping into the stream of discussion from Silicon Valley & the business world is helpful to keep your orientation. (The material and voice is Theil’s, Masters helped write it)

If nothing else, I was reminded of Adam Smith’s famous line that ‘People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices’. To Theil’s credit he is entirely upfront about this.

Theil’s philosophy in business is to find the handful of mega opportunities which come from near monopoly circumstances and go all in. Pleasingly, he seems to think such situations come about largely from technological advances where your product is either new or 10x better than the competition, rather than just via lobbying and loopholes. While governments and people like open market competition, business does not, and too many political leaders forget or ignore this.

More interesting to those outside the business world – and I never have been, my 1 year with a private think tank really doesn’t count – is his take on the wider world. He has an interesting chapter on chance and US/China/Europe world views (though it descends to something of a Carpe diem). Likewise the book can serve as a useful push to think clearly about what exactly you do, whether its the best use of your time, how you differentiate yourself from the competition and what you can plan for that leads you where you want to go. All important areas to explicitly think through, even if you have no desire to step into the finance world’s pin-stripe suits. (Or even a t-shirt and jeanes, which Theil rates as the true entrepreneurs wardrobe).

As a palette cleanser between some more serious books, this was an interesting read from someone with a frank and different take on the world. But I suspect the only one who gets rich from the voluminous literature on business and wealth are the authors and publishers. Still, as Lawrence Freedman notes in his master work ‘Strategy’ this is where a lot of the brightest minds of our era are focused, and it serves us well to pay at least some attention to their thoughts

Liberty, Equality and Democracy

Liberty, Equality and Democracy by Chris BergBerg - Democ

As everyone knows, democracy is in a bad state these days. Polls show widespread dissatisfaction with our political system, many would not vote if they didn’t have to and few people seriously engage with politics. Globally, the post-Cold War wave of democracies risks rolling back, while authoritarian capitalists like China seem to stand impervious.

Indeed, it is worse than we think as Berg makes clear. The notion that democracy is a system where people develop considered views and are represented by accountable leaders in a timely and effective manner is shot through with problems.

The temptation might then be to abandon democracy, or at least reduce its scope. Indeed we have already moved well down this path with the growth of statutory independent bodies to make expert judgements on our behalf. This is already common in economics (The RBA or ACCC etc) and becoming increasingly popular as a resolution to health or environmental problems.

This is a grave mistake Berg argues. Democracy is not about good decision making processes he argues. That’s a nice outcome, but the real reason people across time and space have yearned for it —in a multitude of diverse forms— is because ‘it is an ethical claim about the relationship between state and citizen, and about individual equality’.

In other words, Democracy not a mechanism for choosing the nature of our political community but a normative philosophy that takes human equality as its fundamental starting point. Attempts to fix the decision making capacity of democracy that reduce or undermine that basic equality are therefore undemocratic.

Regular readers of my reviews will know I tend to like shorter books. Get into the idea and get on with it. In this case however I couldn’t quite decide if the length was just right or about 1/3rd too short. The book moves at a cracking pace, and while Berg describes and explains very clearly, you need a strong level of background reading in politics and philosophy to truly follow the debate.

That’s not a bad thing, given few would pick up this book without such an interest already, and bulking it out might deter many who would, without necessarily better informing the most likely audience for this book. Still, with a book this ambitious a slightly slower pace might have helped to strengthen its overall effect. This book is planted in modern Australian concerns but bounces from republican England to Poland, Ancient Greece and the Soviet Union with barely a breath.

This is a difficult book to review because it took me a while to work out what it was trying to say, and I’m still not sure I’ve quite grasped it. I spent much of the book thinking that the historical and philosophical analysis of democracy and equality was an intellectual means to make an ideological argument (namely that over-regulation by centralised experts should be abandoned for a more libertarian idea). Only when I reached the end did I realise the philosophical analysis of democracy and its value is the actual point, with implications for modern policy only given brief reference along the way. A stronger editor’s hand by the publishers might have helped bring out a greater clarity as to the focus of the book. (along with removing a handful of unfortunate typographical errors).

Speaking of the publisher, only a PR person could be so unthinking as to put Tim Wilson describing the book as “mischievous” on the cover. Wilson occupies precisely the sort of role Berg critiques, and the mischievous line suggests the serious argument is just a front, undermining the vale of the work from the very start.

Instead of being a subversive attempt to re-define democracy in libertarian terms (as Wilson’s quote implies) Berg rightly notes that there’s space for a range of ideological systems to operate within the democratic equality framework. Unfortunately given the short length of the book we don’t get any significant attempt to explore this in any depth. In particular I would have been interesting to see a greater engagement with what is meant by liberty and equality to help flesh out exactly what was intended. Poking a few mainstream media talking heads is hardly sufficient for such a fundamental re-interpretation of our system. He notes that non-state forces like poverty or racism can damage equality and liberty, but we have to infer where he would draw the line. More so, how might we make decisions about this principle? Will a utilitarian ethics suffice or does this have to be much more absolutist? I suspect many will end up agreeing with the general premise of this book (we’re all good democrats) but without it changing their opinions on specific issues).

There are two notable features of this book that deserve recognition and praise. The first is that Berg is making a libertarian argument for democracy. Though he only briefly alludes to it, many who share his ideology have an extremely sceptical view of democratic society (precisely because it allows public interference with individual liberty). It is therefore very encouraging to see the most prolific and engaging libertarian author in Australia clearly stake his flag amongst the democrats.

The other notable feature is the sheer ambition of it. While there is a voluminous literature on these topics, few try and bring it together in such a publicly accessible form and with as clear a public policy concern. In an ideal democracy, books like this would be common place and widely explored and discussed. In our current environment, it’s far too rare. Whatever your take on the merits of the argument, credit should be given for having attempted the work in the first place.

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Disclaimer – I’m mates with the author.

The Gillard Project

The Gillard Project by Michael CooneyCooney - Gillard Project

It is often noted that the Labor Party sells more books than their opponents. One reason they do is because there is a vibrancy to their work that resonates widely. (well save Wayne Swan’s contributions). Cooney’s ‘The Gillard Project’ helps show why.

Taking us down the path of an ALP speechwriter (whose ground Graham Freudenberg, Don Watson, James Button and others have magisterially illuminated) this is a passionate defence of the life of a political staffer. It fairly drums along, proudly pulling back the curtain to show the resilience and humour that sustained the Gillard Government.

This is also a somewhat grumpy book. For all Cooney’s erudition he doesn’t offer many telling blows against his political opponents (indeed the Liberal Party is virtually absent from the text while the Greens are just occasional subjects of abuse). Likewise the defence of tribalism and unity makes sense when you consider the pressure faced during the mad summer of 2012-13. But it hardly persuades as a long term justification for the ALP’s union links and organising principle. Indeed it somewhat cheapens it. A means becomes an end. A cause established for the ‘making and unmaking of social conditions’ ends up a club seeking merely to sustain itself.

The easiest path in literary criticism is to attack a writer for not writing the book you think they should have written (or would have written yourself if you could). Let me therefore walk the road most often travelled. The segments and glimpses of how Prime Minister Gillard’s key speeches were put together were a highlight for me and I would have loved much more of it.

Cooney could easily defend himself by noting that many others have tried this approach (most recently James Button). But Gillard’s was a government that was centrally criticised for lacking a narrative and widely assumed to be unable to connect to the punters. Cooney himself regularly attributes a ‘failure to sell’ as crippling to a PM he clearly loves.

So, enquiring minds would love to know, how did his words play into that? We get an honourable mea culpa with the problems of the carbon tax label and ‘we are us’ lines, but why didn’t the bigger picture cut through? Can big picture rhetoric work anymore in this social media age? What’s the purpose and merit of speeches these days? Especially when even the author admits many were purposeless or boring.

The same could be said for policy issues. Again, this is a criticism of what I’d like to have read, rather than did read. But Cooney is not just a word smith but a policy wonk. And the two are intimately involved. So in which direction would he like to see the party go?

That said, this is a fun book, which I devoured on a plane flight home. There are enticing sections of high politics in the global capitals along with relaxed Australian larrikinism, punctuated by drinks and laughs at the beach or the PM’s house.

The vibrancy of this book is a celebration of the sheer bloody hard work of countless invisible staffers who carried this government along on their shoulders. Of course like the tragic Greek plays which Cooney has surely read, suffering alone is not enough for redemption. At least not in this world. Few however will read this book and not acknowledge that, at least they tried.

The New US Strategy Towards Asia: Adapting to the American Pivot

The New US Strategy Towards Asia: Adapting to the American Pivot by William T Tow and Douglas Stuart (eds.)Tow - US Strategy towards Asia

What is the value of an edited book? Or perhaps more precisely, how do edited books achieve the most value? It’s a question that has been on my mind recently as I finished my second edited book (this time a textbook) and as I wonder how I can convince myself to read more of them.

In theory edited books are the best of all worlds. Deep analysis across a broad spectrum of issues, in a format that few single authors could hope to achieve. For academics they’re also seen as a quicker and easier way to both produce and consume a careful analysis of an important topic. Like many academic theories however, reality begs to differ.

Some editors manage to get closer to this mean, and William Tow and Douglas Stuart fit in that category. Tow in particular has produced a range of edited volumes in recent years which are fresh and insightful, packed full of great authors and often very well edited. His ‘Regional-Global Nexus’ is a deserved classic. While this book, ‘The New US Strategy Towards Asia: Adapting to the American pivot’ doesn’t quite hit that high mark, it still meets the measure of what an edited book should be.

This collected text works because there is a clear division of labour. It examines how the US allies (and some partner nations) are responding to the US pivot to Asia, and therefore each chapter features an author describing a country where they hold a particular expertise. This enables careful analysis of the main currents of debate (Taylor on Australia), the reception of different audiences (Misalucha on Philippines) and governance choices in response (Jimbo on Japan). Add in a few overview chapters (Tow on the regional order is particularly good) and there is a clear and coherent book.

That kind of neat separation isn’t so easy for many edited books. They lack the clear boundaries of this one (the US pivot to Asia instead of all US policy in the region) or lack clear divisions to split the chapters (for instance one country, one chapter). The best edited books often also have a clear argument, or particular framework for viewing the topic. That doesn’t quite occur here, and often it is those arguments, rather than the deeper empirical detail which provides the most insight and —for me at least— the most ‘sticking power’ in terms of recalling just what the book was about.

Even better, there has been a careful editing process applied to the chapters, ensuring there is not too great a difference in quality between the individual pieces. The editor’s paradox is that 10% of chapters can take 90% of the work, and too many scholars are unwilling to commit to that. As such readers often find these books hard to consume cover to cover, with both subjects and writing quality bouncing all over the place. In this case however the language is easy to read and the standards consistent.

As should be obvious by this point, this is a book for and by scholars. I’d like to recommend it, given how vital the issue is to understanding the world today. But I don’t blame the general public for being just as wary of edited books as most academics are. In addition the $150+ price tag is an extremely high fence that will keep most readers at bay. And that’s a shame, but that’s the story of edited books. As a profession I think we produce too many of them, for too little return. This one however makes a powerful case that when done well, they are worth the effort. For editors, authors and readers alike.

Foreign Policy Making in Taiwan: From Principles to Pragmatism

Foreign Policy Making in Taiwan: From Principles to Pragmatism by Dennis HickeyHickey - FP in Taiwan

In preparing for a recent work trip to Taiwan (my first visit), this was ideal plane flight prep material. Using a good mix of academic categorisation and organisation along with clear writing and good historical details, Hickey provides a strong introduction to Taiwan’s foreign policy.

Perhaps most interestingly, he shows that this small ‘state’ (only 22 countries worldwide formally recognise it) is both shaped by large systemic factors and yet retains a substantial scope for independent action and control over its path. Hickey also demonstrates how democratic governance has brought as many challenges as blessings for helping Taiwan secure its existence in international affairs.

A good primer for those interested in the island’s politics or the way small states try and survive. While I visited several very good bookshops in Taipei, there wasn’t much english language material on Taiwan today and cross-strait relations. If anyone has some good suggestions, I’d be quite keen to hear.