Chasing the Norm

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

Category: International Relations

National Security and Double Government

National Security and Double Government by Michael J. GlennonGlennon - Double government

For many people, US President Barack Obama’s term in office has been a disappointment. Having campaigned on the theme of ‘change’, his foreign policy has closely resembled the second term of the Bush Administration. Why is this so?

It could be Obama never believed what he said, or perhaps he did, but was persuaded in government to stay the course. In ‘National Security and Double Government’, Michael J. Glennon offers a third option, that thanks to the network of national security organisations established under Harry Truman and expanded in size and power ever since (the NSA, NSC, Joint Chiefs of Staff etc), Obama was never really in charge of his government’s policy.

To make clear, Glennon is not suggesting any mass conspiracy. His concern is not about nefarious individuals, but the way a relatively close knit and largely obscure mid-level range of institutions operates to drive policy, often in the face of the wishes of the visible (and publicly responsible) institutions such as the President and Congress.

Borrowing from the great English commentator Walter Bagehot’s analysis of the monarchy-legislative diarchy in 19th century England, Glennon describes this as a ‘double government’. In the case of the US, it is staffed by decent, intelligent and hard working people, but a group which tends to support a certain style of policy (more often military and intelligence than political or diplomatic) and operate without significant oversight, as a way to deal with the nation’s threats. Foremost among them, international terrorism.

Glennon – again never implying a conspiracy – details substantial evidence of the way bureaucratic organisations in the United States, especially the military and intelligence agencies work to shape, subvert or even mislead the leaders of the government in Congress and the White House. Congress is kept in the dark, presidents battle day by day to make the smallest of changes to the course of the ship of state. In turn, the general public keeps blaming the public ‘Madisonian’ institutions the founders established, for a failure that is often tied to the role of largely private ‘Trumanite’ organisations and individuals.

This is a depressing book. It suggests that the War on Terrorism (at an estimated cost of $3.3 Trillion) is starting to feed upon the democratic structure of the US. It suggests a profound institutional failure is underway that will be extremely difficult to fix. As Glennon notes, many of the seemingly ‘simple’ changes, such as greater oversight by Congress or the Judiciary have been tried and continue to fail.

For example, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court approved 99.9% of all warrant requests between 1979 and 2011. To repeat, 99.9%. Glennon in particular notes the co-option of the courts and congressional committees to the public servants they are supposed to monitor. Some of the quotes he provides suggest a serious dereliction of duty by key individuals who, under the honourable motive of trying to protect the country from external threats, have guaranteed harm at home by abandoning their tasks of oversight and providing checks and balances.

The only plausible way forward Glennon suggests, is a revitalisation of civic virtue. A role demanded of the public by Madison, Jefferson and Washington, but since abandoned as Republican ideals gave way to liberal notions which suggest a citizen’s only duty is to abide by the law and pay (minimal) taxes. Representative government, and in turn the bureaucracy that feeds it can not run without an engaged public. Cruelly however, the more the public institutions seem to fail (Congress has an approval rate of 15%), the more the public reduce their attention.

There’s much to recommend about this short book, though it often resorts to inferring and supposing the presence of the network it focuses on, rather than clearly mapping its contours. Perhaps rightly, Glennon doesn’t try and single out specific individuals as the key sources of blame, but nor does he provide enough institutional analysis of what organisations and at what level the network operates at. Strangely this sense is actually deepened by the presence of an interesting chapter looking at alternative explanations for the continuity such as rational actor models, or organisational behaviour etc. This is to Glennon’s academic credit, but I would have liked a little bit more of a journalistic edge, more interviews and clearer descriptions of on the ground behaviour.

I am not entirely persuaded by the final thesis, but I think this is an important read for those interested in how governments manage national security issues, as well as those seeking insight to US foreign policy and the War on Terror. It shows how many of the failures we might easily prescribe to ignorance, incompetence or malevolence, are often best explained by boring but extremely serious institutional failure. The Trumanite network that Glennon condemns are all filled with good people who are desperately trying to protect the US in this era of anywhere, anytime threats. But if this compelling book is to be believed, the state is paying an extremely high cost for their loyalty. New ways are needed, and soon.

Hard Interests, Soft Illusions: Southeast Asia and American Power

Hard Interests, Soft Illusions: Southeast Asia and American Power  by Natasha Hamilton-Hart Hamilton-Hart - Hard interests

The disciplines that study international affairs generally start with a baseline assumption of a rational actor who looks out to the world and coldly calculates national interests, objectives, identifies threats and in turn, fashions a strategy. This picture of a homo strategist however, is a myth.

In this clever book, Natasha Hamilton-Hart examines why Southeast Asian nations tend to support the United States. Rather than simply being a question of objective alignment with their national interests, Hamilton-Hart shows how these calculations are made by a foreign policy community that has its own distinct patterns of thought, standards of information and other social forms that shape their assessment of the world.

Hamilton-Hart’s argument is that it is the material interests of the regimes in Southeast Asia that best explains why these states support the US. The US has often helped these regimes take power, or provided support to those in power. And this, far more than global balance of power questions determines the alignments of these countries or their response to international events. This is both about powerful sources that drive belief and powerful community dynamics that help re-enforce certain beliefs while excluding others.

Now, Hamilton-Hart tends to see much of this reason for supporting the US as somewhat cynical and based on illusions, and to the extent you agree or disagree may shape your view of much of the key data chapters and analysis. I tended to find my enthusiasm for the book waned as it went on. It’s hard to find great evidence for these issues, and some sections seemed further away from the core issues than was helpful. Some of the authors interpretations of the 70+ interviews also seemed less objective than I might have preferred.

But regardless of these quibbles there’s a central methodological insight that is vital here, regardless of your views. Namely, the need to recognise the limitation of the homo strategist model and adopt a more complex way of investigating why foreign policy actors hold the beliefs they do about the world and how those beliefs are developed, tested, re-enforced or challenged within the communities they operate in.

As Hamilton-Hart alludes to near the end, if we accept that there is merit to her judgement that material interests of the regimes in Southeast Asia matter then, there are vital and challenging policy implications.

First, this makes the support of Australia’s neighbourhood for the US much more brittle than it may otherwise seem. Not only could it be pulled away by Chinese (or someone else’s) resources in a relatively straight forward fashion, but because of the re-enforcing dynamics inside the community, mass opinion will barely seem to change until it shifts suddenly and substantially. Second, the US’s challenge is not about re-assurance or deterrence, but on the economic and political side of the ledger, helping to provide sufficient prosperity, regime legitimacy and rewards so that allegiance endures. This doesn’t have to be thought of in a corrupt, feudalist fashion, but you also wouldn’t be totally wrong to see parts of it that way too.

This is an important book. First for better understanding how Southeast Asia actually operates, and for encouraging much more grounded thinking about how foreign and defence policy is developed in the real world and how social forces do so much to shape what is seen and heard. Perhaps my own reaction of doubt is actually just because it forced some uncomfortable thoughts about the limited material I access and just how objective and evidenced based my own beliefs are.

A really good book. More for the scholar or student than general reader, but there’s much to gain for anyone interested in international politics and the future of the US-China struggle for influence in Asia.

Somebody Else’s Century: East and West in a Post-Western World

Somebody Else’s Century: East and West in a Post-Western World  by Patrick Smith Smith - somebody elses

We know Asia is changing materially, but what about mentally?

So poses question at the heart of this fascinating little meditation. Patrick Smith, an American journalist who has lived for decades in Asia approaches the question of the century in a unique and engaging way.

Focusing on China, Japan and India, Smith explores how these societies have dealt with the question of ‘becoming modern’ and the split identity this has forced on them. Western modernity and ‘things’ and eastern history and ‘spirit’. Putting aside discussions of GDP and terms of trade he focuses on how these societies have been molded by their engagement with the west, and now as they grow and strengthen are increasingly seeking to mold themselves. Through many well told stories of travel and conversation, Smith shows how the challenges of remembering and forgetting, building and destroying, separating and combining are occurring in Asia as it throws off a position of identifying itself in split terms or in location to the west.

Smith argues that what we are seeing is not a simple shift of power to the east, let alone the emergence of an ‘Asian century’ but rather an end to the divide of east and west. These countries are not becoming western, nor abandoning the west. They are finally coming to fuse these notions into a more organic though distinctly modern whole. Though as he is quick to point out, the vast challenges facing these three societies are bewildering and while he sees this moment as one of their shift towards something new, he seems to have doubts about the capacity of all of them to realise it.

There are many thought provoking threads in this book, and while Smith covers much, there’s often a charming modesty about his desire simply to explore these issues, rather than declare a particular new epoch or term and claim his spot on the book tour circuit. Indeed, words like ‘meditation’ and ‘essays’ seem to better reflect the nature of this publication. As such, while he seems to pose arguments and suggest answers, I never felt a need to agree or dispute as much as I have with other writers on these topics. Doing so seems to provide little value, rather there’s simply a chance to explore and expand your thinking about the changing dynamics of our world.

Fascinating, elegant and thought-provoking. Well recommended.

The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia

The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia  by Bill Hayton Hayton - South China Sea

Books like this tend to lie right in my sweet spot for social reading. A big current topic, written by a journalist, but one who has taken the time to seriously engage with the academic literature.

This is an excellent read for anyone interested in perhaps the hottest place for modern geopolitics since we all re-discovered Crimea on a map. The South China Sea is where we see the clearest expression of China’s search for a new regional order and with it the region’s response, including of course, the resident non-resident America.

‘The South China Sea’ makes a serious attempt to explore these contested water ways from a wide variety of angles. The chapters on the history of claims for the area, chocked full of absurd figures and ambitions, and the discussion of potential oil and gas resources in the area are excellent considerations. Other chapters, such as on the military dimension or nationalism can feel a bit once over lightly, but they round out the book and will appeal to those who have not been following the issues closely.

The risk with books like this is the desire to justify attention (and perhaps sell copies), leading to an over-estimation of the significance and risks of the issue. Thankfully, this book carefully avoids that. Most likely because Hayton, an experienced author and journalist for BBC changed his own mind as he notes in an endearing section at the end. Initially motivated by a fear of imminent conflict, he now thinks major war unlikely, especially because China would ultimately lose (if not the shooting part, certainly the peace that followed). Though this caution keeps the final conclusions at a moderate to low temperature, there is still much here that will grab the reader and make them think about how many risks there are, how many close calls there have already been, and how significant a conflict really could be.

While I enjoyed and appreciated this book, I did take a strangely long time to finish it. Perhaps that was just the sudden influx of work which has limited virtually all my reading. Or perhaps my taste’s are changing. At times I wished for more substantive analysis and less discussions of fishermen looking out to sea as they had for decades as a way of introducing a new topic.

Still, I think this book gets the balance between journalistic capacity to engage and show you the view on the ground, combined with deep research of the history and wider analysis as you will find in the bookstores. An excellent one volume take on a vital part of the world.

Winning the Peace: Australia’s campaign to change the Asia-Pacific

I’m delighted to announce the release of my next book, ‘Winning the Peace: Australia’s campaign to change the Asia-Pacific‘, published by Melbourne University Press.

 

WTP-Cover

Winning the Peace seeks to explore and explain how Australian governments, during the modern period of Australia’s engagement with Asia (from 1983 till today), have attempted to use their defence and foreign policies to shape the region. While there were certainly times of tension during this period, such as the spikes around the end of the Cold War and during the early years of the War on Terror, the region has been largely defined by peace. Because of this peace and thanks to Australia’s relative size as a ‘middle power’, the government’s attempt to change how other states act and think was not sought through the deployment or use of force but through military and diplomatic engagement and persuasion.

Australia’s smaller size meant it had to be strategic in its efforts. It had to determine which changes were priorities, it had to re-organise and develop its resources, it had to deploy them effectively and efficiently, and it had to be able to sustain the effort in the face of competition and rejection. This book focuses on the three main ‘campaigns’ the Australian government has undertaken since the early 1980s to reshape the Asia-Pacific in pursuit of its national interests.

Table of contents

1  Introduction
2 Conceptual Framework
3 History of Australian Foreign and Defence Policy
4 Australia and Irregular Migration
5 Australia and Weapons of Mass Destruction
6 Australia and Trade Liberalisation
7 Can Middle Powers Promote Norms?
8 Conclusion

Where to buy the book?

MUP.com.au, Random House, Booktopia, etc. Best to order online, paperback or e-book copies available.

 

To mark the launch, I’ll be writing some guest posts on The Lowy Interpreter blog, and having a launch at Parliament House. Full details will be published here shortly.

Why Rudd needs to attend Obama’s Nuke Summit

Via The Lowy’s Rory Medcalf, comes this possibility that Kevin Rudd may miss Obama’s mid April Nuclear Summit:
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The Big Man game: Obama, Healthcare and his Foreign Policy

One of the most long running debates in International Relations is known as the Agent/Structure Problem. It is perhaps best summed up by a famous Marx quote that “People make History, but not in conditions of their own choosing“. Which of these was more important inquiring minds wanted to know. Could great individuals through sheer strength of will and character change the globe, or do conditions need to be right not only to birth & shape the history makers, but to give them space in which to act. In short, what is more important, the agents or the structure in which they operate? This isn’t just a debate about theory, how you answer this question and your assumptions, will drive both both what, and how you study history and International Relations. In the wake of Obama’s health care victory we have to very good examples of authors disagreeing over this fundamental point:

First up Andrew Sullivan, batting for the Agent side (if that sounds a little Matrix-like to you, fear not, individuals or groups are known as ‘Agents’ in International Relations jargon)

“In Barack Obama’s agonising, year-long effort to pass universal health insurance, the latest bump in the road may seem trivial, and the president must surely hope the Indonesians don’t take it personally. At the last minute, he cancelled his trip to the place he grew up in. The visit was actually of great personal importance to him and a critical part of his message that America and a moderate Islam can and will get along.

But he also knows that his clout abroad depends on his success at home. The linkage matters. There is a connection between healthcare reform and the war on terror, and between relations with China and the entire Obama narrative…… A presidency failing at home only undermines Obama abroad. Dmitry Medvedev knows this as he negotiates with Washington over Iran; Binyamin Netanyahu knows this as he stays on the phone with Washington’s neoconservatives, who are promising that if he holds on they can destroy Obama for him; Ayatollah Khamenei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad know this as they assess whether they can outlast this frustrating leader of the Great Satan; the Saudis know this; China knows this”

Batting for the Structuralists is the IR specialist Stephen M. Walt

“Will yesterday’s passage of health-care reform give a positive jolt to U.S. foreign policy? Is Obama the new “comeback kid,” with new clout at home and a more formidable hand to play abroad? Will he now pivot from domestic affairs to foreign policy and achieve a dazzling set of diplomatic victories? My answers: no, no, and no….
There isn’t a lot of low-hanging fruit in foreign policy. He might get an arms-control agreement with Russia, but there aren’t a lot of votes in that and there’s no way he’ll get a comprehensive test-ban treaty through the post-2010 Senate. Passing health care at home won’t make Iran more cooperative, make sanctions more effective, or make preventive war more appealing, so that issue will continue to fester. Yesterday’s vote doesn’t change anything in Iraq; it is their domestic politics that matters, not ours. I’d say much the same thing about Afghanistan, though Obama will face another hard choice when the 18-month deadline for his “surge” is up in the summer of 2011. Passing a health-care bill isn’t going to affect America’s increasingly fractious relationship with China, cause Osama bin Laden to surrender, or lead North Korea to embrace market reforms, hold elections, and give up its nuclear weapons.”

Though Walt is correct that passing health care wont in itself solve any of these factors, I side with Sullivan. As a constructivist afterall I really should. Constructivism is an approach to International Relations which identifies how agents socially construct much of the structures they find themselves in(and in turn their own identity as agents). To take the most well known of examples (and papers) the ‘anarchy’ of the world between nation-states today is as Alexander Wendt claims what states make of it (pdf). That is, how the world is seen determines what is seen. How Obama is seen, especially by the other Big Men of the world is important to what influence and credibility he is likely to have with them. The more Obama is seen as a successful domestic leader, the better he will be as a foreign policy leader.

To cite from a local example, here is Michael Wesley in one of my favourite books ‘The Howard Paradox':

“Over time, [John]Howard has come to enjoy the international aspect of his job. Domestically, those with whom he regularly comes in contact either owe him, resent him or want his job; internationally, he is able to mix with equals who are familiar with the challenges of national leadership, and who can offer observations and advice untainted by designs on his job. In recent years, according to one journalist, Howard has enjoyed the status of being the respected elder statesman in a region that respects seniority’
Michael Wesley, (2009) The Howard Paradox, ABC books

Wesley makes many arguments for why Howard was able to do much better than his critics alleged he would, but that last sentence is perhaps the wisest. By 2002, when his record started to shift in his favour, Howard had been in power 6 years with three highly successful election victories under his belt. To those in the region he was clearly a very capable political operator and not going anywhere soon. As other regional elders like Malaysia’s Mahathir retired, Howard came to assume one of the roles as regional elder statesman.

Obama doesn’t have the same luxury of time that Howard did. The US probably does a disservice by its Presidents by forcing an 8 year maximum, but they do start from a significantly higher platform than anyone else does. Obama, especially as a younger (and lets be honest black) president needs to stamp his international authority and quickly. Being dominant at home doesn’t change the structures that confront him internationally, but a clear legislative victory (and especially one of this magnitude) is likely to send a signal that he is a statesman to be respected and not just a lucky winner of the White House. His party will lose seats in November, but you’d have to be firming on betting that Obama will win in 2012. The message of all this to the Big Men and Women in governments around the world? This man is not weak, impatient or going anywhere. Deal with this man now, as he is only going to get better at this.

Politics is built on many things, ideas, history, geography, economics, and demographics, but it often ends with two big men in a room negotiating how all these factors go together. As Marx said, people make history.

The power of humor: WoT Humor?

An thought provoking and amusing piece from The Jakarta Post:

Do Asians have a sense of humor?
Nury Vittachi
A teacher who wanted only to be known as Man-sir had sent me links to several articles which said the biggest threat to world peace was the culture gap between West and East. “Experts say the best bet for bridging that potentially catastrophic gap is shared entertainment: movies, sport, and in particular, humor,” he wrote.
But that’s the problem. “Westerners consider Asians to be wildly unfunny. And several non-Western cultural groups, such as Muslims and Mainland Chinese, they consider humorless to a dangerous degree,” Man-sir wrote. “We need to prove Asians can be funny.”
Intelligent, sensible people do not waste time on people who insult them. So I dropped what I was doing and phoned him at once. The world’s most pressing problem was a drastic shortage of Islamic humor, he explained. “Locating and distributing this will defuse global tension by showing that Muslims can be funny, charming and self-deprecating.” Thinking about it, I realized words like “funny” and “charming” aren’t used a lot about Osama Bin Laden, the only Muslim most Westerners can name. Man-sir was right about something else, too: Asian comedians are as rare as braincells in the Jonas Brothers’ fan club.

I’ll leave aside the question of asian’s being funny ( Anh Do always cracks me up), but the role of humor as a political weapon is a critical and under-discussed issue in shaping the psychological nature of the war on terrorism. This is something one of my favourite comedians Lewis Black noted way back in 2002: The fundamental difference between the west and its attackers was that we could laugh. We could laugh at ourselves, we could laugh at them, and relief from the burdens of life through humor, and in that we could find perspective. Given our moral descent into torture and the angry stridency that even 7 years later still marks our (esp the US’s) debate on terrorism, it’s worth reminding ourselves of this virtue.
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Facts are sometimes the easiest thing to burn: The Indian attacks and the media

I somewhat understand why the Indian media is so keen to play up the idea that Indians are victimised in Australia. The government is pissed at Rudd over Uranium/NPT, and its always popular to play the nationalist card. What I don’t understand is why the Australian media seems to be aiding them:

INDIA’S high commissioner, Sujatha Singh, will return to Delhi for talks next week amid rising diplomatic tension over attacks on Indian students in Australia. Mrs Singh made a stinging complaint to the Governor-General, Quentin Bryce, over the attacks in Melbourne, labelling Victoria a state ”in denial” over the severity of the problem.
Word of the envoy’s return came after India’s External Affairs Minister, S. M. Krishna, issued a strong statement on the attacks, demanding they be “stopped forthwith”. Mrs Singh will travel to Delhi to explain her perspective on the violence, which threatens to seriously damage relations between the nations.

This sounds like a major diplomatic incident. Especially in an era of easy phone, electronic and video communication, recalling a diplomat to discuss a problem is a gesture heavy with meaning. Indeed my first thought on reading the story was ‘what has set off this new row’ that such a step would be made.

Only it turns out, Singh isn’t heading back because of the attacks, and this is all just routine: (From the same article a few paragraphs down)
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Resurrecting the idea of Humanitarian Interventions

Christopher Hitchens on North Korea:

Here are the two most shattering facts about North Korea. First, when viewed by satellite photography at night, it is an area of unrelieved darkness. Barely a scintilla of light is visible even in the capital city. (See this famous photograph.) Second, a North Korean is on average six inches shorter than a South Korean. You may care to imagine how much surplus value has been wrung out of such a slave, and for how long, in order to feed and sustain the militarized crime family that completely owns both the country and its people.

But this is what proves Myers right. Unlike previous racist dictatorships, the North Korean one has actually succeeded in producing a sort of new species. Starving and stunted dwarves, living in the dark, kept in perpetual ignorance and fear, brainwashed into the hatred of others, regimented and coerced and inculcated with a death cult: This horror show is in our future, and is so ghastly that our own darling leaders dare not face it and can only peep through their fingers at what is coming.

While the Iraqi people have suffered due to the Bush Administrations botching of the invasion of Iraq, it is the people of the world who are still in abject dictatorship which have suffered the most. Designed as a giant confidence play to strike fear and the necessity of submission into dictators world wide, its controversy, bungling and cost have instead given ultimate re-assurance. Among the dead lies the idea of Humanitarian Interventions, a liberal idea of cautious military use to protect individuals, turned into a conservative rock tune of freedom and change by mid-afternoon.

While there were mistakes and setbacks in the 1990’s (in particular Clinton’s and other democratic leaders significant over-estimation of public unwillingness accept the loss of life towards such aims), progress had been made in establishing the idea as a viable policy option, with mechanisms and even discussion of standing forces to be dedicated towards the task rising. But that option has been fundamentally damaged, and the discussion returned to a taboo, both by liberals who now fear the underlying motives of any self-professed moral activity by government/the military and conservatives who either don’t see any rewards (those ungrateful iraqis!) or now out of office have re-found their worry about military over-reach and the power of government to affect societal change.

None of this is to say that we should invade North Korea, or that they’d be free were it not for Bush (obviously not). But the option for policy makers has been removed from the table, and is awkwardly side-stepped when brought up in polite company or the halls of academia and foreign policy commentators. Even now, nearly 7 years on from Iraq, the wounds are still too raw for us to escape the inevitable comparison: If you advocate humanitarian invasion you’re a Neo-Con with hidden imperialist motives, if you argue a better society can be brought about, few see anything but images of suicide bombs and IED’s filling their imagination.

Appropriately implemented Humanitarian Intervention I would argue is a fundamental element of a peaceful, democratic world society. Implementing the norm of Sovereignty in 17th century Europe may have brought us freedom from religious wars (well largely) but we also need to ensure that governments can no longer hide behind the security of their own borders to avoid responsibility for their crimes against their citizens and humanity at large. Many countries make the shift to democracy on their own, but some stubborn few have to be blasted out. Until we can return to a discussion about even that possibility (again in the context of full discussion and needing an appropriate process such as UN authorization) then the oppressed, shrinking slaves of places like North Korea will continue to suffer alone and in the dark.

Transparent Panic

I wrote last year that foreign policy disputes occur through events typically out of the hands of leaders, (ie that Rudd can’t make the 2010 election be about foreign policy in the way he can force a poll on Climate Change), but that rule really only applies to democracies:

Iran’s hardline president has ordered the formation of a team to study the damages the country suffered from the 1941 Allied invasion in order to demand compensation.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Iran suffered immensely after it was invaded by Britain and the Soviet Union during World War II despite its declared neutrality and was never compensated.”A team has been assigned to calculate all the damages (inflicted on Iran) in the Second World War. This will be an invoice they (Allies powers) must pay to the Iranian nation,” he said in remarks broadcast live on state television on Saturday.
“You inflicted lots of damages to the Iranian nation, put your weight on the shoulders (of the Iranian people) and became victors in the World War II. You didn’t even share the war profits with Iran,” Ahmadinejad said. “If I say today that we will take full compensation … know that we will stand to the end and will take it.”
Ahmadinejad also warned that Iran may also demand compensation for the damages it suffered during World War I, the Western support for the former Pahlavi Dynasty and its hostility towards Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

It’s not often you see leaders of nation states come up with such transparent diversionary policy efforts. No money will be paid, no attention (beyond the media hoping like Iran for a conflict) will be given, and this event will be utterly forgotten in two weeks let alone when it comes time to sum up 2010 in late december. But it is indicative of the panic within the Iranian leadership. To be sure the opposition green movement is leaderless, and divided on whether it wants to simply reform the theocracy or really revolt Iran into a new democratic era. However the legitimacy of the leadership is utterly gone.

For all that International Relations is dictated by calculations of material power, (how many nukes does that country have, who controls the military etc), intangibles such as legitimacy are often far more critical over the long term. In the last 20 years democracy rose, communism fell, a wall came down, and the US appeared to be weaken by a bunch of islamic fundamentalists all because of issues of legitimacy rather than any mathematical material calculation of power. The Iranian government has the guns, but it is clearly panicking and will end up selling out its young (as likely as revolution is the dismissal of Ahmadinejad) to keep in power. Long term, it is hard to see how the 1979 Islamic Revolution lasts beyond the next 5-10 years, and that is even assuming they get the bomb.

Bush’s wish to ‘drain the swamp’ with falling dominoes of democracy may yet come about. He may have got much of the implementation wrong, but I think he saw the end game better than many of his critics.

Gillard’s need for an Indian summer

The recent whohar with India over the stabbing murder of Nitin Garg is a class A example of how foreign policy crises shape leaders rather than are shaped by them. Neither government initiated it, and whilst the Indian government is playing domestic populist and airing some grumbles over uranium, it would probably prefer the issue goes away quickly.

Though some like Gerard Henderson seem certain Australia has an anti-Indian race problem (he’d never have said that under Howard), for myself, like most of the community, the idea seems absurd. Indians are long standing residents of this country, who don’t cause trouble, seem closely integrated and love their cricket. There are racist elements in Australia who may target all non-whites, but that’s a far cry from the absolute rubbish being served up in the Indian media scaring many potential students and migrants away from the country.

This crisis however offers a potentially career defining opportunity for our Deputy PM Julia Gillard. While clearly highly competent, there is a perception that she is a little too thinly stretched across her responsibilities. Not only as Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations; Minister for Education; Minister for Social Inclusion, she is part of the governments gang-of-four who decide most policy issues, along with being a very politically important Deputy Prime Minister, and a regular Acting Prime Minister. Errors such as the spending of stimulus money on schools that had one student or were due to close were not errors of judgement so much as of editing. Gillard also needs to get some policy runs on the board given her past golden duck efforts such as Medicare Gold. Fixing the issue now would bring short term political benefit to the Rudd Government, whilst offering a point to be remembered in by colleagues in 5 or so years she begins to think seriously about becoming PM in her own right.

Having introduced the ALP’s new IR legislation on Jan 1, it might be a very good idea for Gillard to drop her role as Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations (and Social Inclusion) and focus on education, starting with international students. The Rudd Government came to office promising an education revolution. Even including stimulus spending, it has barely touched the issue, and this challenge is a perfect opportunity to make some big changes with public support.

As our fourth biggest export industry, worth $16.6 billion, the market for international students strangely came about without much government attention. Indeed it was the neglect (if not deliberate damage) by the Howard government of the tertiary sector which lead universities to seek substantial numbers of full fee paying international students as a way to cover their budget shortfalls. This turned into a boom industry, but it is one that has been badly managed and regulated, with the collapse of four private international student focused schools in late 2009 a too common story.Though already a huge industry, the potential for turning Australia into a SE Asia education hub is enticing.

Not only is this an industry that plays on Australia’s strengths in education, culture and brain power, and not only is it highly lucrative irrespective of global financial conditions, it also delivers key diplomatic and security advantages to Australia. By educating the youth of the regions elite (and up & coming leaders) we gain crucial leverage and understanding throughout the region. In 20-30 years time, these same people will be the business, cultural and political leaders, and their views of Australia will be closely shaped by their time here. A positive view could well be the difference between a key trade contract being awarded or even back channels to avoid war and conflict. That’s not hyperbole, in the case of E.Timor a large reason why there was no firefights between Australian and Indonesian troops was because of the personal links between the two armies, averting conflict.

Immediate action is clearly needed to calm the views of the Indian population in Australia, and the Indian government and media overseas. But long term, serious action needs to be taken to help improve the international student sector, as a starting plank for delivering an education revolution. This would deliver on the Rudd governments promise of an education revolution, improve and reform a key economic industry, and let Gillard and Rudd address an area that is clearly very important to both of them, both personally and politically.

For more on the India-Australia challenges faced, and potential responses, I’d recommend two publications by the Lowy Institute: After the perfect storm: Indian students in Australia by Janaki Bahadur and Troubled waters in need of oil by Rory Medcalf.

Doubting the wisdom of men who stick fireworks in their crotch

I’ve not paid much attention to Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab, the crotch bomber who tried to blow up a flight into Detroit if only because it was a failed attack. That men are out there in the thousands trying to kill civilians of all faiths and creed as part of an anti-modernist religious nihilism is one of the defining but also definable threats of the decade past. All of us over the last 9 years have at some point surely felt fearful of an attack on ourselves and those we love. Whether travelling or simply attending populated areas, the thought has surely creped in. This latest case is no more significant than any other. Only the sensational way in which he was stopped, American right wing demagoguery and a story starved press have caused his actions to be seen as significant. And just as looking deep into the abyss lets the abyss look into you, voices have sprung up in the US demanding that AbdulMutallab be tortured:

Fifty-eight percent (58%) of U.S. voters say waterboarding and other aggressive interrogation techniques should be used to gain information from the terrorist who attempted to bomb an airliner on Christmas Day. A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that just 30% oppose the use of such techniques, and another 12% are not sure.

….The vast majority of Americans have it right: You don’t put an enemy combatant who just committed an act of war into the criminal-justice system — and you certainly don’t give him a lawyer and tell him, “You have the right to remain silent.” You make him tell you what he knows so you can prevent new attacks.

I suspect (hope) the poll’s wrong and that those surveyed didn’t already know he’s already singing to the FBI, but what’s most interesting is the last line, “tell you what he knows so you can prevent new attacks”. Why does anyone think this guy knows anything ?

If the attack had gone to plan AbdulMutallab would be dead today, so why then would Al Qaeda tell him about upcoming attacks? Why would they entrust or even let overhear, sensitive details to someone who was so smart that he was incapable of setting off the crudely made device, and so obvious even his father tried to turn him in? Western special force troops with a decade plus of training and field work are still not told what missions other units are undertaking or if any are operating in nearby battlefields, so why would this guy know anything? What part of ‘terrorist cells working in isolation’ have they not understood as described in the literally millions of articles, journals, books and other publicly available analysis about the threat we are facing?

Richard Reid the failed shoe bomber was caught in December 2001 in a similar way, similarly ridiculed, and sentenced in a civillian court, and is now in jail for life. No different step needs to be taken in this case. Only given that this boys only real achievement was to ensure he can probably never breed again, a future-darwin award and extended mockery are his real reward. Attacks like this will probably occur for the rest of our lives, the only way to deal with it is serious sober police work and humor. I suggest more efforts like those below the fold (NSFW). Happy 2010.

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Making an impact: Middle Powers #1

A key focus of my PhD is on the topic of middle powers, so over a few topics I want to explore the concept and how it relates to Australia.

The concept of ‘middle power’ countries is as old as the middle ages, yet there still arn’t any clear definitions other than playing on the concept of ‘middle’ as in not great and not small. In the 1980’s and 1990’s the term was made popular by both academics and politicians. Academics noted that middle could refer to economic/population size, geographic size or location (such as position between two great powers). Another option was the slightly tautological choice of those countries who didn’t have the physical resources to demand leadership yet still managed to insert themselves into international affairs as significant players (tautological because its a self-selected role, with no clear requirements).

Australia, (along with canada, brazil, israel and india) has been consistently identified as a middle power, going back as far as the 1940’s. The Hawke/Keating government strongly endorsed such an idea. Being a middle power to them seemed to express a significance of power to Australia that could be achieved in spite of our lack of economic/military/material power. The Howard government ridiculed this approach and whilst occasionally using the term sought out slight synonyms such as a “considerable power” whose status as 6th largest in land mass makes us important. But this was a minor debate, largely ignored and inspired by a petty anti-intellectual attack of the howard government on the Keating government’s foundations.

Yet such sideline intellectual spats have a real-world significance. The Rudd government has picked up the term in its documents and self-identification, and scholars have respond. Scholarship on the term middle powers peaked in the early 1990s and has largely ceased since 2000. (save Ping 2004 on south east asia). What’s more while the politicians don’t read such papers, their advisors and the media occasionally do, leading to language such as Tony Abbott’s last week:

Mr Abbott attacked Mr Rudd’s belief he may have been able to influence the outcome of an agreement struck at Copenhagen. ”I think that it was always a great conceit to think that Australia could save the world on its own,” he said.

”The Australian voice should be heard in the world but I think it’s wrong for people like Mr Rudd to imagine that they can be much more than the mouse that roared.”

This is a logical outcome of the Howard Governments abandonment of the term middle power. Yet instead of it leading to a ‘realist’ assessment of Australia’s status, in the hands of Abbott, it seems a requirement to cower and hide our laurels. That Australia ought to recognise and keep to its place in the world in a ‘mouse’ like response to the giants wandering above. Such sentiments are similarly found out on the libertarian fringes of the Aus blogosphere over at catalaxyfiles:

Our Prime Minister has returned from Copenhagen, triumphant in having performed his role as Friend of the Chair at COP15 to almost universal acclaim… Admittedly, the Conference achieved nothing much of substance but we know that the Prime Minister will have done his duty with distinction. Without him it would probably have achieved nothing at all…..
Remember when the Keating government produced a series of policy pronouncements called things like “Working Nation” and “Creative Nation”? My guess is that the Prime Minister might be motivated to add to these with “Good Nation”: a plan to make our country Good, in fact to become the Goodest nation in the world. He will have been inspired by the feeling he got in Copenhagen when a grateful meeting greeted his arrival with a standing ovation: “You are the only one who can rescue this” they cried.

Yet both these responses beg the question : What is the alternative?

Take Copenhagen. It certainly didn’t deliver the response which Australia wanted. But take a look at those countries who were in the final critical meeting: USA, China, India, Brazil, South Africa. Of these countries, only South Africa has a lower GDP, and that liut excludes 10 countries with bigger economies than Australia (and thats including all EU countries as one). So what should Rudd have done instead ? Reticence? Apathy? Denialism (as some of Abbott’s colleagues would have us do) Though he has not the courage nor conviction to take a clear stand on the issue.

What other approach than Rudd’s creative middle power diplomacy would have earned Australia a significant role at the Copenhagen conference? We may not have been at the final meeting, but Rudd and Wong had significant roles both before (as close advisors to US president Barack Obama) and at the conference as friends of the chair and leaders of a country respected for its actions on combating climate change.

Wait. I tell a lie. Had Australia passed its CPRS legislation it would have been a developed country who had committed to wear the economic cost to ensure protection of the environment, yet instead thanks to Abbott’s reticence, the critical bargaining chip that Australia had to play: our ideological commitment was denied to the rudd government for nothing more than a short term partisan black eye by the opposition.

While Downer in 2003 tried to claim that labor was an isolationist party that undermined Australian strength with it’s label of middle power, it’s the conservatives who more often seem to underestimate the position and power of this country. While the support for the USA as a great protector is straight out of a realist IR theory playbook, the unwillingness to challenge any elements within the relationship, and the general reticence or interest in international affairs is a common feature of conservatives in Australia. It was not until the events of East Timor that the Howard Government gained the self-confidence to seriously engage with the Asia-Pacific. It’s first years were halting and unsure, a far cry from the end of the Keating years under Evans, and even Rudd’s confident first term. Realism as a theory of International relations plays a critical role in ensuring countries protect their own survival first, but its rigid hierarchies can lead to countries forgoing opportunities for increasing their wealth or status, roles that can eventually increase their chance of survival.

None of this proves the worth of a middle power concept or a country taking on such a role. But it is a worthwhile starting point noting that the main criticisms of the concept of ‘middle power’ countries are either based around (consciously or not)denigrating the country as a ‘mouse’ in world affairs -whilst denying it useful bargaining chips-, or attacks that simply to mock the idea that anything but powerful a-moral strategies can work in international politics. They are shallow and partisan, and none actually engage the real question of how much influence a country like Australia an have in world affairs.

Next week, I want to engage the views of serious academic commentators such as Hugh White and others on the topic of Middle powers, but given this is Boxing day, it seems a fitting time to throw the first punch in rejuvenating the concept at an academic and public level.

Can Australia play a meaningful role in nuclear disarmament? Pt 1

Water+nuclear+bomb+-+by+AlifaanTomorrow, December 15th, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd will be in Japan with his counterpart to launch the new report of the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament(ICNND). Co-Chaired by Former Keating Foreign Minister Gareth Evans, this report is Rudd’s first (and perhaps biggest) shot at making Australia a key player in ending the proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and planning for their eventual disarmament.

Once the report is out, I’ll do an assessment of Rudd’s approach, but for the time being I want to quickly look at the Hawke and Keating Governments actions on Nuclear Weapons and how they should inform Rudd’s actions.

While the Hawke Government was significantly concerned about the issue of nuclear weapons, it’s power to achieve any change during the cold war was obviously limited (Although this was a period of significant disarmament successes). Instead it set about addressing issues like Chemical Weapons, via a range of non-politicised conferences and workshops, building a coalition of major chemical exporting states, and extensive engagement with expert advisors who could both run the education campaigns, and bring the chemical industry onside for aiding negotiations and export controls. The Hawke Government also managed to sign the Treaty of Rarotonga, or South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone, an approach that has been replicated in Asia, Africa and Central-Asia. Interestingly domestic concern over nuclear weapons peaked during this period (such as the Nuclear Disarmament Party lead by future ALP minister Peter Garrett), however it was largely dismissed by the Government who wanted to continue supporting Americas nuclear shield and related alliance issues.

The Keating Government came to power with the end of the Cold War imminent, unleashing ‘unprecedented and possibly unrepeatable opportunity’ for change in the eyes of Paul Keating. It continued the Hawke governments desire for Australian involvement in stopping the flow of nuclear weapons and disarmament, however there was a more conscious question of identity involved in the governments actions. Keating & Evans wanted Australia to ‘be and be seen to be a good international citizen’, and no cause was more clearly in line with this than preventing the development, testing, sale or use of nuclear weapons. However in 1995 when the French announced a series of Atomic Tests at Mururoa Atoll in the pacific the government suddenly had to make good on its nice sounding words. The actions of the French outraged the Australian population, and little the government did seemed to satisfy the public. In part prompted by recent events, the Keating Government set up the Canberra Commission to report on the elimination of Nuclear Weapons, which the Coalition reluctantly pledged to support if they won office.

While waiting for the report, the Keating Government also participated in an International Court of Justice case on the legality of Nuclear weapons. Represented by Foreign Minister Gareth Evans Q.C, Australia argued that it is ‘illegal not only to use or threaten use of nuclear weapons, but to acquire, develop, test or possess them’. (Evans however, like Hawke before him was careful to argue that any views Australia had should not be taken as offering commentary on the alliance with the nuclear armed USA). The court was not quite persuaded, and in a split decision held that ‘the threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, and in particular the principles and rules of humanitarian law’. However they could not rule on the legality of their use as a tool of survival or self-defense. Little was expected from the case (the Nuclear Weapons powers states would ignore even a unanimous decision against them), but it showed the range of arenas in which the government was willing to act to push their case.

The voters had other issues on their mind and in March 1996 Keating and Evan’s were tossed from office, and the Canberra Commission report emerged into the arms of a very reluctant step-father. The new foreign minister Alexander Downer went through the motions launching the report and taking it to the Convention on Disarmament in 1997, but without strong Australian backing, it was hard for other countries to get excited.

However – The Canberra Commission report of 1996 is still one of the pre-eminent documents on addressing the question of nuclear weapons ever produced. In the coming years it received strong support from India, Indonesia, Egypt, Pakistan, Austria, Sweden and Brazil. To the Nuclear Weapons states, it offered a pragmatic and sensible recognition of their core security needs, to the non-nuclear weapons states it offered a clear draft with viable steps for taking action. The Canberra Commission centered around three main proposals: a cut-off convention; no-first-use agreements; and support for nuclear weapons free zones. Unfortunately without any significant Australian government support the effort spluttered out of energy, and the Clinton Administration, having previously embraced the new found optimism of the post-cold war period was distracted by domestic issues. Still, a look at any of the major commentary on nuclear weapon control and disarmament will show you finger prints of the Canberra commission.

Finally, while the Howard Government effectively ignored their predecessors efforts to eliminate or even reduce nuclear weapons (except in the case of nuclear terrorism), they did recognise one asset in the effort which this country has above all others: Uranium deposits. While Labors internal debate prevents any real use of this resource (even under Rudd), the Howard government realised the role which Australia as a leading world supplier of Uranium could play in both controlling and influencing the way in which nuclear weapons and nuclear power was developed in the world. While still early days, (even they ran into significant domestic complaint), this is an asset which gives Australia a unique strength amongst the many other middle power countries who want to see an end to nuclear weapons. As yet, we have not had either an opportunity to exploit this resource diplomatically, or a government with enough popular support in the area to do so, but it remains a valuable potential.

In re-starting Australia’s efforts towards nuclear disarmament, Rudd showed his strong desire to learn from the Hawke-Keating governments in choosing Gareth Evans to Co-Chair the commission (along with Japans former foreign minister Yoriko Kawaguchi). But as this quick survey shows, it needs to go beyond just Evans. Having studied some of this for a chapter in my PhD, it seems clear that the following requirements of Australia’s promotional effort will have to be in place:

1) The report has to be pragmatic and offer concrete suggestions.
2) It has to bring both Nuclear and Non-Nuclear weapons states along and recognise the different needs of both.
3) The further it can be de-politicised the better. Involving experts (again linked to suggestion 1) is critical to credibility and making it an issue of management and specifics, rather than grand empty principles.
4) The continued activity of the Australian government to push this will be critical. While few doubt the energy of Rudd 24/7, this is something where he may,perhaps, just, see initial results for in his final term. Continued pressure rather than once off launches are key (and why is it being launched during Copenhagen & at the end of the year??)
5) The Labor party will need to resolve division on uranium and seek ways to strategically exploit this resource, or at least let other countries know we could.
6) The US alliance and nuclear shield for Australia somewhat demonstrates Australia’s hypocrisy, however, and this is a big however, our clear understanding of the security needs of nuclear weapons states gives us an increased credibility. Important to all this will be the views and actions of Barack Obama and perhaps even moreso the US Congress. Obama gave a great speech in Prague, but unless he can convince skeptical conservative democrats like Joe Lieberman, Ben Nelson and sees changes to the destructive minority veto of the filibuster, all his support in the world wont see political change. Australia needs to stay in the alliance, and ahead of the US helping to guide its path along, without getting so far away that Obama can’t see our lights.

So, cautiously, we can say that Australia already has a strong reputation as a country that is both serious and committed to address the proliferation and disarmament of nuclear weapons. A serious effort by Rudd, building on this success could return momentum to a path that stalled in the 1980’s & 1990’s. To do that, we need to lead with experts rather than politicians, be relentlessly pragmatic, and maintain a determination to keep at it for as long as it takes.

Later in the week, once i’ve digested the new ICNND report, I’ll come back and discuss how Rudd’s doing on that score.