Chasing the Norm

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

Category: Book Reviews

Welcome to my site

I am a Senior Lecturer at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University.

My latest books are: 

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

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

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

Selected recent journal articles are:

Carr, A. ‘Issues in Australian Foreign Policy: January to June 2016’, Australian Journal of Politics and History, 62(4), 592-607, 2016.

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

Carr, A. ‘The Engagement pendulum: Australia’s alternating approach to irregular migration’, Journal of Australian Studies, 40(3), 319-336, 2016.

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

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

 

My teaching includes:

Australian Strategic Policy –  Masters Unit, Australian National University.

Australia’s Strategic & Defence Policy – Masters Unit, Australian Command and Staff College.

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

Postwar

Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 by Tony JudtJudt_Postwar

These days, most mentions of the post-war order in Europe seem to involve death. Either from the passing of the last historical links —such as Helmut Kohl this week— or references to the expected demise of the order’s signal creation, the European Union. Yet its achievements PostWar, as this remarkable book make clear, must stand as one of the great achievements and celebrations of life.

Spanning 60 years, 50 countries and 40 plus hours of audio book, Judt’s masterpiece is one of the most deeply impressive and insightful books I have ever encountered. The language is crisp and short. The knowledge broad. The humanity deep. This book renders the complex, chaotic but ultimately inspiring history of Europe into a compelling single account.

This is a long book that took me a few weeks to get through, in burst of 20-40 minutes while travelling. It’s also a subject which I have only limited knowledge and background on. Yet I never felt lost or overwhelmed with details. The book follows a rough chronological organisation, while following thematic movements across countries and periods. At each point there are insightful asides, both of the characters and circumstances, but also the broader nature of human society and order. Read the full article »

Why I Am Not a Feminist

Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto by Jessa CrispinCrispin - Feminism

Jessa Crispin is not a feminist. She’s a socialist. Or a communitarian conservative. Or at least an anti-capitalist. It’s important you know what she’s against, and how radically she is against all of it. The system is fucked you see, and therefore we should throw it out and start again.

And that’s really about it for this long essay (you’ll finish it in an hour or two). For all its rage it’s directionless. It’s a critique of both feminism and the wider society of the west, but in trying to pull down everything and everyone, it ends up saying little and is likely to affect nothing.

Crispin’s analysis takes as a starting point a view common to many on the left: That injustice does not occur in isolation, but is a result of multiple factors which intersect. That’s an important insight. Issues are related, poverty, race, gender, sexuality, geography, age and other factors are often related and analysing or fixing any one instance of injustice can require understanding others as well. Read the full article »

Independent Ally

Independent Ally: Australia in an Age of Power Transition by Shannon TowTow-independent-ally

The most common perception of Australia’s alliance with the United States is one of dependence. This is both the folk tale heard in pubs and the title of the most acclaimed academic study of the alliance – Coral Bell’s Dependent Ally. In Independent Ally Shannon Tow takes careful aim at this perception, puncturing it thoroughly. This book is therefore a valuable contribution to understanding the scope, flexibility and constraints of Australian foreign policy over the twentieth and into the twenty-first century.

While the folk tale image of dependence has been critiqued widely, this book tackles the harder task: academic assumptions of dependence. Tow notes that ‘power transition theory and alliance theory both suggest that the more a junior ally values its alliance, the more likely it is to want to preserve the alliance by presenting itself as a loyal ally and by eschewing ties with a rising power or another external power’. Across six case studies, she shows that Australian diplomatic history reveals a starkly different pattern. Read the full article »

American Ulysses

American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant by Ronald C. White Jr.

White_Ulysses

When Ulysses S. Grant died, Fredrick Douglas described him as “a man too broad for prejudice, too humane to despise the humblest, too great to be small at any point. In him the Negro found a protector, the Indian a friend, a vanquished foe a brother, an imperiled nation a savior”. In American Ulysses, Ronald White sets out to justify this eulogy and succeeds magnificently.

Though overshadowed in life and death by Abraham Lincoln, it was the partnership of these two men which saved America, physically and morally. Lincoln set the principles and provided the enduring words, but it was Grant who put it into action. As a Union general in the Civil War, and US President he did more than any other man to end slavery and make good the nation’s promise of freedom in the years after.

Grant’s reputation, then and now has not always been strong. His military prowess is admired in Staff Colleges, and parts of the literary establishment recognise the eloquence of his memoirs. But in popular lore he was a failure before the war, a drunk during it, and a corrupt naif as President afterwards.

In this sympathetic, but not hagiographic, biography, White challenges all these claims. He shows Grant as a quiet, humble and cautious man. One who took well until adulthood to find his own views on slavery, often sitting quietly before his anti-slavery father and later pro-slavery father-in-law. It was not until he commended the entire Union army that that he would find his voice, and purpose. Though in the charming customs of the day, he would be twice elected President to achieve these goals without ever directly campaigning for it.

Grant certainly came from poor stock. His was a leather tanning family from out west, who lucked into sending their first born to West Point. Grant’s career in the Mexican War was honourable though undistinguished. He would later struggle with the boredom and isolation of peacetime service, likely turning to drink. He resigned rather than face disgrace, and would struggle for years as a farmer, having to accept work in his father’s shop to sustain his growing family.  Read the full article »

The Road to Character

The Road to Character by David BrooksBrooks_road

I initially picked this book up as something of a palate cleanser, after a series of heavy reads. But far from simply offering a fresh taste in crisp writing, I found a rich and flavourful book which has opened up many new avenues for future reading.

Like his columns and other books —which I admire— I had expectedThe Road to Character to be a sociological ramble about the good life. At worst it would be a generic, though lightly woven, argument that the old days were better and we’re all wayward children today. This impression was seemingly confirmed in the first few pages with an anecdote comparing constrained celebrations in 1945 at the end of the war, with the showboating of modern football stars.

Yet rather than pursue this theme, Brooks largely gets out of the way for the next 250 pages, offering a series of moral-biography sketches. Each is fascinating and sympathetic in portraying people who have worked and struggled to develop themselves as moral agents.

Some undertook these journeys so they could contribute to resolving the chaos of the worlds they lived in. Francis Perkins was The woman behind the New Deal as one biography put it. George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower helped lead the allies to victory in world war two. Phillip Randolph and Bayard Rustin were vital leaders in the Civil Rights movement in America. All had to constrain some element of their own personality, expressions and desires to be able to lead.  Read the full article »

Napoleon the Great

Napoleon the Great by Andrew RobertsRoberts_Napoleon

Napoleon. The ‘god of war’ according to Carl von Clausewitz. A military leader in the pantheon of those known just by one name. Bonaparte modelled himself on these men (Alexander, Themistocles, Caesar), and through his achievements became one of them.

While I knew of the reputation, I knew very little of the man himself. Hence reaching for a more popular and engaging tome to begin setting the record straight. At 820 pages —a length I typically shun— I kept waiting for the story to lag, and the author to bore. But it never occurred. Some sections take a little more effort to chew through, but there is plenty of story to sustain a full tome of a biography.

The subject was a migrant who rose to ultimate power and identification with one of the great states of Europe. A believer in the French Revolution who compelled Europe to modernise their governments, while sliding into his own hereditary monarchy. A man of science and literature who was responsible for some of the worst bloodshed and needless waste in Europe’s long history. He led campaigns across Europe and Egypt, fought 60 battles —winning most of them— was Emperor at 34 and exiled twice.
Read the full article »

Rise of the Machines

Rise of the Machines: the lost history of cybernetics by Thomas RidRid_machines

If you want a new idea, read an old book. Thomas Rid has done precisely that to reveal the lost history of ‘cybernetics’. In turn he provides new insight to many of our most pressing contemporary philosophical, technological and social questions.

It’s rare to read a current affairs book that doesn’t deal in some way with the vast new power of machines. Typically, this challenge is presented as both new and future-oriented. AI is just around the corner. Mass unemployment from robotics will soon disrupt society. Robots fighting robots will be tomorrow’s battlespace.

Only, none of this is actually new. Rid traces three recurring themes which have shaped the history of ‘cybernetics’. Originally a scientific discipline it came to serve as a launch pad and language for a wide variety of communities who used the emergence of complex ‘thinking’ machines to rethink and challenge existing forms of life and social organisation.
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Light and Shadow

Light and Shadow: Memoirs of a Spy’s Son by Mark ColvinColvin_light

An ideal beach read. Mark Colvin tells an engaging story with wit and passion. Through the exploits of father and son this book ranges from violence and intrigue in Revolutionary Iran to the jungles of Vietnam and wide open steppes of remote Mongolia. Along the way we get stories of English boarding school life, the birth of Double J radio station (now Triple J) and forays into British and Australian politics.

It’s hard to say what exactly the focus of this book is and in one revealing aside late in the book Colvin acknowledges as much. The book is nominally about his father’s role as a spy, yet Colvin knew about this identity while his father was alive and seems largely reconciled to it and their relationship.

The book is also about his time as a journalist and foreign correspondent, yet most of the recent decades are skipped over in just a few pages. Ultimately, ‘Light and Shadow’ is an enjoyable, insightful memoir of a widely admired figure. And as the book sales show, that’s clearly enough.
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The Black War

The Black War: Fear, Sex and Resistance in Tasmania by Nicholas Clementsclements-the-black-war

The Black War is the name given to the conflict between the indigenous population of Tasmania and their conflict with the European settlers. It ran from around 1824 to 1831 and represents both the largest military operation on Australian soil and a brutal guerrilla conflict. It also featured fear, lust, paranoia and despair on both sides.

The most striking feature of this book is that every chapter is equally divided between telling the story of Whites and Blacks. This clever device allows Clements’ to explore, explain and ultimately sympathise with both sides.

Lest anyone be confused, or willing to believe indulgent lies, the moral scales are heavily weighted in one direction. The Tasmanian aborigines lived for 33’000 years on this remote island, yet survived barely 30 more after white colonialists arrived. They faced not only the destruction of their lives, but also their cultures, their way of life. The final years must have been as miserable as any people have lived, in the face of a relentless and ever strengthening opponent.

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A Savage War

williamson_savage_warA Savage War: A Military History of the Civil War by Williamson Murray, Wayne Wei-siang Hsieh

In summer 2012 I took a horse and buggy ride through Lexington, Virginia. As we moved around the town, the lady leading the tour pointed to the houses and buildings which Union soldiers had burned in 1864. And she was still pissed about it.

I’ve never quite understood her attitude, but now at least thanks to Murray and Hsieh I know why the damage occurred. It was a distraction operation under General David Hunter, to draw Confederate eyes away from Grant’s main thrust, while also helping to bring the war to the people of the rebellion.

While I’ve read several accounts of Lincoln and the war, my military knowledge of it is admittedly weak. Despite my profession, I tend not to read military history. Too often I find the genre focused on the actions of incredible, but insignificant individual soldiers. Which is fun in the same way an action movie is, but the real meat for me has always been the politics of conflict. Namely the interplay of strategy, leadership and logistics upon which wars —not just battles— are won or lost.
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The Wealth of Humans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why the future is workless by Tim Dunlopdunlop_workless

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

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

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

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