Chasing the Norm

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

Category: International Relations

Welcome to my site

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

My latest books are: 

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

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

My latest journal articles are:

Carr, A & Baldino, D. Defence Diplomacy and the ADF: Smokescreen or strategy, Australian Journal of International Affairs (Accepted for publication, forthcoming 2016).

Carr, A. ‘Middle Powers and the US pivot: A collective action problem’, Tamkang Journal of International Affairs, (Accepted for publication, forthcoming 2016).

Carr A & Baldino, D. ‘An Indo-Pacific Norm Entrepreneur? Australia and Defence Diplomacy’, Journal of the Indian Ocean Region, 11 (1) 30-47, 2015.

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

Carr, A & Dean, P.J. ‘The Funding Illusion: The 2% of GDP furphy in Australia’s Defence Debate’, Security Challenges 9(4), 2013.


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


In 2016 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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Direction of War: Contemporary Strategy in Historical Perspective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The China Challenge: Shaping the Choices of a Rising Power

The China Challenge: Shaping the Choices of a Rising Power
by Thomas J. ChristensenChristensen-china

There’s a quite useful series of books called Physics for Future Presidents. Thomas J. Christensen’s The China Challenge: Shaping the choices of a rising power feels something like a ‘China for future Presidents’.

Christensen is well placed to offer such insight. He is a leading scholar on China and US Cold War policy. He also worked in the Bush Administration as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs from 2006-08, focused on China, Taiwan and Mongolia. Given this reputation I had been looking forward to this book for a while.

Christensen’s essential thesis is that while everyone knows about the security problem — avoiding a conflict between China and the US and its allies in Asia— there’s also a governance problem. This one ‘is arguably more difficult to solve: how do we persuade a large but still developing country with a nationalist chip on its shoulder to contribute to the international system’ (p.288).

Where we have a proliferation of theories on how to stop conflict, our experience about how to encourage governance and co-leadership is much thinner. The subtitle notwithstanding, the book demonstrates that everyone should stop thinking of China as a ‘rising power’. It has risen, it is here, and every major global issue requires its support, consent or at least acquiescence. This is not just aimed at nervous westerners. According to Christensen, China’s own sense of still developing is a significant handbrake on its contribution to international affairs

This is a strong and engaging theme, but there’s not much beyond the set up. We get a consistently solid but hardly original or persuasive analysis of the current debates about China and global challenges. If you wanted to know what the general trends of opinion were, this is a good start. But this seems somewhat of a waste given the flood of books and material on this subject, and the opportunity Christensen had given his scholarly and policy basis.

The book also suffers from a somewhat chaotic organisation. We get chapters saying “This time should be different”, then “Why Chinese power will not surpass US power anytime soon” and then “Why China still poses strategic challenges”. These are all interesting, but seem odd ways of organising and developing an argument. It’s only with Chapter 5 that we get back to the set up idea of Global Governance.

The second half of the book is even odder, posing as a potted diplomatic history of China on key issues of US concern such as non-proliferation – especially North Korea— climate change, Iran, Taiwan, and so on. But this ends up overlapping and repeating much of what was covered earlier. This led me to put down the book several times, so my reading took place over a month, with some long gaps in between. But on flicking through it again, I still struggle to see the threads that bind it, and the justifications for telling me about these issues and at this level.

Christensen is a great scholar, but this book feels much more like the former Administration official held the pen. It’s not that important whether he worked for Bush or Obama, rather he struggles to separate US interests from the global governance problems he wants to talk about. There are aspects of criticism of the US — he rightly shows the confused nature of Obama’s approach. But ultimately the book ends up falling between the two styles of analysis. Neither an inside beltway tome with new details about big events, nor an outsiders scholarly objectivity.

Notably, while the book begins by saying the problems are so big, the degree of policy changes it urges for the US are actually rather small and uncontroversial. A little more clarity, a little less liberal idealism, a bit more resilience, and she’ll be right it seems. Christensen seems to believe China will come to embed into the global system in a way that doesn’t fundamentally challenge the role or actions of the United States. It might be that is true, but this book doesn’t properly justify that view. It’s just sort of assumed, as so many Americans do.

The other strange thing about this book is that for someone who has spent so much time in China, and knows the country so well, I never got the feeling of real insight into the place. It’s always China as an object, to be pushed, pulled and directed, but never as a mass of humanity with its own views, needs, desires and emotions.

So, if you want a good overview of the current western debates about China, then Christensen offers a handy primer. But for someone who had the potential to break new ground, this public refresher seems a missed opportunity. It’s unlikely any of the 20 or so individuals running for US President will ever read this. What we need more from those like Christensen who have seen so far, is new and better theory and knowledge to help deal with the problem, rather than primers on what we already know.

Dependent Ally: A Study In Australian Foreign Policy

Dependent Ally: A Study In Australian Foreign Policy by Coral BellBell_Dependent Ally

One lesson I have come to learn in my brief time in academia is that it is not wise to just try and write ‘about’ a subject, with the hope the argument or insights will come later. There’s often a pressure to contribute your name to the current debates, but unless you really have something to say, the result is often more generic, less engaging and less memorable than you’d hope.

This was my surprising reaction to Coral Bell’s Dependent Ally: A Study in Australian Foreign Policy. Widely regarded as the classic work on the alliance, I got the feeling reading it that Bell wanted to write about the alliance (having done so indirectly for much of her career), but didn’t really have anything urgent to say.

The title of the book suggests a demonstration of Australia’s reliance on the UK and US. That is a theme, but it’s assumed as much as argued. Typical of Bell though, this book contains an original take on the issue. Rather than identify the cause of Australia’s dependence in a psychological need for security as the Left argues, Bell places it in the global lot of middle powers in a hierarchical world. Australia contributes to the global balance of power via its connection to the large states.

This asymmetry she seems to argue is inescapable while also far less harmful than many on the left presume. It’s not that the dependence doesn’t exist — as scholars such as David McLean or pundits like Greg Sheridan have argued — but rather it is somewhat harmless. She seems to find it far less interesting than noting internal changes in Australia, an evolution of ideas about its region, identity and capacity. There are occasional moments —1942 & 1963— where dependence emerges but it quickly returns to the comfortable, albeit unbalanced, norm of a smaller country making its own way in the world.

Dependent Ally does a solid job of covering the big debates, drawing out the nationalist threads of rejection, setting in context the moments of followership and poking holes in the common myths of the day — For instance the historical record is clear that Australia pushed the US to deal with Vietnam, a threat of much more direct concern for Canberra than D.C, rather than the other way around.

The final chapter is worth a read in its own right, though all the insights there — the importance of personality to the alliance’s health, the economic and social benefits Australia has gained from migration—seem somewhat unconnected to the historical cataloguing that preceded it. As such, I was left uncertain of what Bell was trying to say. There’s not enough scholarly scrupulousness or punditry passion to really define the book. Bell is consistently engaging, but at a lower altitude than many of her best works. The problem may simply be that of time. The book was published in 1988, and we know far more these days, with much richer archival and historical material to draw on.

Virtually everything written on Australian foreign policy at some point engages with the country’s relationship with the UK and US. In my recent review of the literature substantially on the ANZUS alliance I found more than 350 entries (and I’m still counting). It was perhaps inevitable then that Bell, a fantastic commentator on US policy in the Cold War would turn to how to look at how Washington’s policy has shaped her own country of Australia.

This is probably still the best one volume treatment of Australia’s relationships with its great and powerful friends. But I’d rather read books that either trace one single thread, like David Lowe’s biography of Percy Spender, or that reveal a particular moment in fresh detail, as James Curran does in ‘Unholy Fury: Whitlam and Nixon at war’ (review coming soon).

Trying to say it all, and writing ‘about’ a topic, often means saying nothing much at all. Or not really making clear what you want to say. Either way, this was a surprisingly disappointing read. Though my admiration of Coral in the pantheon of great Australian contributors to the study of world affairs remains firm.

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.

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

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.

From Third World to First: The Singapore Story: 1965-2000

From Third World to First: The Singapore Story: 1965-2000 by Lee Kuan Yew LKY - Singapore Story

I had been meaning to read this book for a while, and after hearing of Lee Kuan Yew’s worsening condition last week I finally pulled it off my shelf. I’m very glad I did.

To be a ‘great man of history’ you usually have to lead a large nation or embody a clear and significant culture or ideology. Lee Kuan Yew did neither, but he was no doubt, a great man.

Lee led a small city state, which both joined and left a larger federation in his time, and was nearly swamped by the much larger states on either side, not to mention Cold War pressures. He was of Chinese ancestry, led a nation with a vocal Malay minority and yet was the so called ‘last Victorian’ in Asia (he was born ‘Harry’ Lee).

The Singapore Story: 1965-2000 begins with Singapore’s dramatic step out of Malaysia and in a very personal way recounts the governance challenges facing the new country. How to get the economy going, how to build a defence force (with a notable cameo from two other beleaguered small states Israel and Taiwan), and how to build a coherent national identity.

Lee presents his approach in relentlessly pragmatic fashion, being swayed by better arguments, or more commonly, persuading everyone else with his better arguments. As such it’s easy to find yourself swept along without taking automatic offense at the anti-democratic or controlling aspects of his policies.

Perhaps most fascinatingly is Lee’s approach to capitalism. While very much convinced of its merits as a necessary framework, he has an alternate approach to the stereotypes of welfare laden Europe or heartless but free America. Lee instituted an early form of compulsory superannuation in the 1960s and soon expanded these accounts to cover housing (Joe Hockey must be jealous), along with medical expenses and other social costs.

This approach of forced savings and government/employer co-contributions is rejected by many free marketers, but if they reject the current welfare model, and want something that can plausibly work towards their ultimate ambitions (low taxes, low debt and a sense of personal responsibility) there’s a lot to like about it. (It’s certainly far more coherent and serious than magic pudding style laffer curves). For the left, these kinds of schemes do offer some challenges, but anything that ensures that we can guarantee long term social support, means tested to ensure that we focus state resources on the most needy is worth seriously exploring.

(This also gives some support to the claim of Adrian Wooldridge and John Micklethwait in The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State – which I’ve reviewed here – that the East has supplanted the West as the locus of re-thinking governance)

But back to the book. After covering the affairs inside the state, the second and longer part of the book details Singapore’s relations with the rest of the world. Southeast Asian and key large states get their own chapters (or several in the case of the US and China) and there’s some fascinating detail about how this city state has tried to avoid being squashed by the elephants around it.

That said, this section does also fall into that trap of other ‘great man of history’ books by detailing the many travels and meetings with dignitaries that your narrator held over the years. After a while, it can drag on, and for the general reader I’d recommend just skimming quickly through. Then again, if Singapore-Thailand relations are your real passion in life, do go right ahead and read it closely.

For few people is the term ‘Father’ of their nation quite so true. According to a friend from Singapore, the sense of loss after LKY’s passing is just like that of a family member’s death. A student of mine currently studying over there reports lines running kilometre after kilometre of people waiting to pay their respects.

Such images might bring to mind the fakery and fanaticism of dictators. And while LKY was happy to use the cane (or detention without trial) to further his cause, he was not just feared but loved. He took a desperately poor ‘tropical slum’ and made it coherent, rich, influential and safe.

A remarkable tale, and a remarkable book. Highly recommended.