Chasing the Norm

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

Category: Academia

Recent media and a new job

I am delighted to announce that I have accepted a position with the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, at the Australian National University, Canberra.

I have also published a number of media op-eds, including

I am currently focusing on developing a number of journal articles, so blogging will be rare for the time being.

Blog on hiatus

I can now be found blogging on foreign policy and international relations issues for The Lowy Institute’s The Interpreter blog.

This blog will continue in hiatus while I’m working for Lowy.

As visitors would know, I’m currently in the process of completing a PhD. I am now entering the final intensive 6 months of that effort, and while also trying to write journal articles and book chapters, something in my schedule had to give. So I’m putting this blog on hold until at least the end of the year. Thank you to all who have visited and commented. I’ve had a great time writing this blog, especially the chance to argue with some of the finest minds in the country; I’ve learned a lot, and I will return, hopefully as Dr Carr.

I think blogs offer a fantastic opportunity for the academic community to communicate with politicians, policy makers, the media and most importantly the public at large. The influence and importance of blogs for academics is sure to grow in the future, but for the time being my career depends on accruing DEEWR points through publishing in journals and finishing the PhD. As this site was also established as my official site, I’ll update it with any new publications, but otherwise it will be in hiatus whilst I focus on my doctorate (Currently titled ‘Australia as a Middle Power Norm Entrepreneur 1983-2010′)

Thanks again to all who visited, stay safe and I hope you enjoy what is sure to be a fascinating political year.



I’ve been hard at it over the last few months, with the PhD nearly at full draft stage. Here are some things i’ve also been working on that may be of interest. I intend to restart this blog in February once the political year returns and the bulk of the editing is underway.

Op-Ed’s for Online Opinion – Link

Book Chapter: Carr, A & Roberts, C (2010) Foreign Policy under the Rudd Government in C Aulich and M Evans (eds) (2010) The Rudd Government: Australian Commonwealth Administration 2007-2010 Canberra: ANU E-press- PDF or HTML

Papers: From Deputy Sheriff to Lone Ranger: The Foreign Policy of the Rudd Government (pdf) Refereed Paper for the 2010 Australian Political Science Association Conference University of Melbourne
The Republicanism of Sir Robert Menzies (pdf) by Carr, A & Jones, B Refereed paper for the 2010 Australian Political Science Association Conference University of Melbourne

Is there a doctor in the country?

Fewer Aussies are undertaking PhD’s, leaving the spots to international students

AUSTRALIA has become heavily dependent on overseas students to tackle PhDs in the hard sciences as locals choose well-paid industry jobs over insecure careers in research, according to a new analysis.
Working with customised official data for 2002-08, Dr Birrell showed 142 per cent growth in PhD starts by onshore international students in the natural and physical sciences (357 more students in 2008 than in 2002), compared with 7 per cent for locals (80 more students).

In engineering and related technologies, locals were down by 19 per cent (116 fewer students) and overseas students up by 161 per cent (350 more). The strongest growth for locals was in creative arts, up 39 per cent, although the absolute numbers remain small (91 more). Dr Birrell said the weakness of local PhD starts during the past few years represented a sharp reversal after healthy growth from the late 1980s through to late 90s, when economic growth and job opportunities were patchy.
But in recent times, at least until the global financial crisis, students emerging with a bachelor’s degree in some sciences and engineering could choose between decent starting salaries in industry or poorly paid entry to an insecure career as a researcher.

The report focuses on the ‘hard’ sciences, but in my own department of Business & Government, again there seems a 70/30 split of International Post-grad students over Domestic. That’s a problem when their knowledge, skills and training will leave the country upon completion, with Australia receiving only a very indirect benefit (since they pay their way and hopefully will retain & encourage good will in the region towards Australia)

It’s no surprise really, given that even if you are lucky enough to win an Australian Post-Graduate Award Scholarship, your income is effectively on the poverty line .

This is not a woe is me post, you undertake a PhD because you love the field, the lifestyle, and after graduation significantly better salaries are on offer, and I couldn’t ask for a better occupation right now. To its credit, the Rudd Government has raised the award slightly for 2010, with promised rises beyond that. But as much as money, the lack of interest by domestic students is also significantly cultural too. We no longer have a government which prefers people do hairdressing instead of PhD’s, but the current prime minister doesn’t seem too keen on them either (Rudd denied the accusations when asked some weeks back on the ABC’s insiders program, though made no effort to argue for PhD’s either). Australia likes to think of itself as the clever country, and vigorously supports university education for all and sundry. Yet when it comes to the highest level of education, there seems a sense people are bludging from life and wasting tax payer money.

Options such as giving residency to successful international postgrad students may help temporarily. However, the number one problem across Australian education is the lack of respect it has in the community. We see less people wanting to be teachers, vast cultural groups simply ignoring education as anything more than a mandatory duty till aged 18, and many talented and bright future researchers and university lecturers leaving for the quick money and respect of industry/overseas jobs. For once, the Australian government can make a big social and future economic prosperity change without spending a cent. It just needs the courage to return the role of education to its rightful place in society’s respect. That’s a goal fundamental to both conservative and liberal ideologies, it just needs a spokesman. That truly would be an education revolution.

10 Books that influenced me most

Whenever I’m at someones house, I always like to sneak a peak at their book shelf. Which books take pride of place, which lost on a bottom shelf with a book mark 1/5th of the way in, and which do they seemed to have read again and again till the bindings have fallen away. So I’ve enjoyed the posts by Yglesias and Cowen on the 10 books that have influenced their thinking the most. Given that our politicians have started to reveal their reading lists, here are my 10, and hopefully other Australian bloggers will give this a whirl: (Update: Andrew Norton and Ben Jones have posted their lists. Let me know if you post yours/know of other Australian bloggers doing so.)

1. John Stuart Mill – On Liberty : The first time I read Mill’s harm principle, via a dog-eared 2nd hand copy on a bus home was a lightning strike moment. Where I had trended social-democrat, my thinking suddenly coalesced to liberalism. The clarity, the reasoning, the humanity, both in a call for freedom & the responsibility to use that were breathtaking. One of my most treasured possessions is a large, 8 volume collected works of Mill, and while his autobiography is a gem (esp on the development & change of ideas one *should* have over a lifetime) the 130 or so pages of On Liberty are unbeatable.

Read the full article »

Affirming or affirmative?

Big changes planned for Sydney University’s entry system:

THE importance of HSC results will be downgraded at one of Australia’s most prestigious universities under plans to recruit undergraduates for their leadership qualities and general academic aptitude.

The University of Sydney wants to introduce US-style quota systems with set targets to increase the number of disadvantaged and regional students, and make greater use of aptitude tests, references and general interviews when admitting students.
The university’s vice-chancellor, Michael Spence, said the existing admissions system meant the university was missing out on talented students.

He said a ”disproportionate” number of its enrolments came from the affluent eastern suburbs and north shore, with 65 per cent of new undergraduates from these areas. ”We know where the vast majority of our current students come from and we know that relatively very few come from disadvantaged schools,” Dr Spence said.

As a whole the Australian university system is very good at ensuring those from disadvantaged backgrounds are able to make it to attend uni, and if there are problems, they tend more to be due to cultural or related cost of living/accommodation factors, rather than straight entry & fees. As a student at Australia’s most socio-economically elite university (the non-group of eight University of Canberra), it’s also true that these stats can be misleading as students tend to attend nearby universities (in part due to the above mentioned costs of living problems).

However while I think there’s some scope for improving the access of those from rural and disadvantaged backgrounds make it to the best uni’s, I’d also like to see a public discussion on the merit of the HSC system in getting the right people into university. I make no claim to intellect, but as I’ve made it to a PhD I’m obviously rather suited to uni life. Yet I didn’t get into Uni when I first tried, (in fact UC turned me down once and nearby ANU has turned me down twice, though still let me tutor there in 2008, go figure) and I had to go through a Tafe degree in order to get into university. That initial failure on my part was probably the best thing that happened to me, as it made me knuckle down and start fighting to get where I wanted, but many times the smartest people I know (obviously the author is excluded here) did not make it into university due to their HSC marks. Meanwhile as a tutor & lecturer, I’ve seen many students who get in with 80′s or even low 90s in their HSC marks that just aren’t cut out for or even interested in university.

It’s an amazingly difficult task to try and rank young growing minds and sort them towards the best avenues for improving their career & life prospects, but while the HSC does a pretty good job, we should always be considering how to improve it. If Sydney Uni is interested in more than just changing their socio-economic make up in a bland affirmative action program, and actually want to re-think how we sort and identify university ready students to give them an affirming opportunity, this could be the start of an important change.

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.

Monarchist Misanthropes

Last week was 10 years since the failure of the Republican Referendum, an issue I’ve already blogged about. Of course supporters of a Republic arn’t the only ones using this anniversary to discuss the issue, so are the monarchists and misanthropes who are taking a chance to pile on. Here is Gregory Melleuish in The Australian:

If there is a key to what democracy is really about then it is the belief that the ordinary people possess a great deal of common sense and that generally they get things right. Howard expressed this idea with regard to the 1999 republican referendum.
Of course there are other views of democracy.
One is that the people are really not too bright, that they are amenable to manipulation and therefore cannot be trusted to make good decisions.
That is one republican interpretation of why that cause failed so badly in 1999.

This is one reason many republicans fear the idea that the people elect the president in an Australian republic; they are so stupid that they will make a bad choice.

Yet every time a matter that was once considered to be an issue for democracy or politics is handed over to a group of experts it would be true to say that an elite has triumphed over the people. There may be many among those elites who prefer something like Plato’s expert-dominated republic to the messiness of democracy.It is up to the rest of us to ensure that matters of public importance are not appropriated by expert elites and their politics.

This would be one thing if the argument was coming from a Direct Electionist republican. It would indeed be an increase in democracy if we moved to a directly elected presidency. But it is a fundamentally dishonest and ugly slur to come from a supporter of Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy. (As an aide if anybody “fear’s” the idea of a direct election it is the supporters of hereditary monarchy. But I don’t quite think that is who he means to attack.)

The current system of choosing our Head of State is the definition of elite control. The GG is chosen entirely at the discretion of one man, the Prime Minister, and has been effectively since federation. The Republican model in 1999 was for a two-thirds majority of the parliament to choose the GG/president. That is, even the limited model applied would have substantially increased public control over the process. Note as well how Melleuish uses verbs like ‘handed over’ as if the current system was not already the most undemocratic of the three possible options, (1-Status Quo with PM choice, 2-Republic with 2/3 Parliament choice, 3-Direct election choice).

But this aside, the far worse slur is Melleuish’s charge that Republicans who favour a minimalist change think that “the people are really not too bright…so stupid …cannot be trusted to make good decisions….[and want] something like Plato’s expert-dominated republic“. That is, despite posing a more democratic model Melleuish manages to charge Republicans (and he never mentions or differentiates minimalist with direct electionists) with a desire for an authoritarian society. Melleuish also clearly expects most people havn’t read their Plato and so don’t recognise the true totalitarian slur in invoking him, rather just a vague ‘philosopher kings’ idea. Still you have to admire the balls of someone who plays on public ignorance of a 2300 year dead philosopher as a way of calling his opponents elitist.

Melleuish’s representation of why the Australian Republican Movement and most well known republicans favour a minimalist model is a flat out lie and he knows it (as do the editors of The Australian who approved this ugly piece). Rather than thinking the people stupid or preferring elite control, minimalist republicans rather are making the most conservative argument possible: to retain a political system that works, whilst making formal what occurs in practice and sentiment.

A directly elected President will inevitably come to challenge the Prime Minister for control, and though having no constitutional decided power (and limits) will seek to change the fundamental way Australia’s democracy works. Even if the first few presidents are Steve Waugh and Cathy Freeman, they will eventually come to choose issues to disagree with the PM on, such as Immigration or Climate Change. Soon however, our political parties will begin choosing preferred celebrities, or community and business figures for the position who will follow the party line. Quickly it will become simply another two-party election, only for a constitutionally undefined role, in a way completely rejected by our Federating fathers, and inserted in spite of the historic success and stability of Australia as a democracy in the modern world.

How do I know we shouldn’t tinker with the system too much? Well because Melleuish tells us so:

“We should seek to preserve as many of those checks and balances as possible in our system of government. Democracy and efficiency are fine words but too often in practice they mean riding roughshod over the concerns of those who do not share the majority strikes me that ‘muddling through’ are good words for a Constitutional Monarchist to use. We have inherited a system of government that has evolved out of the British Constitution and that like the British Constitution seeks to combine liberty and power. We need strong government and we need to be free. We need responsible government combined with federalism and a system of checks and balances. That means avoiding extremes, it means keeping to the ‘golden mean’. It may mean at times muddling through rather than adopting radical means that appear to be superficially attractive but in the end have as their major consequence the destruction of the balance of our Constitution.”
- Taken from the home of Australian’s for a Constitutional Monarchy posted in 2003

In 2003 Melleuish rightly argued that the direct electionists were wrong to advocate such a big change. In 2009 however he is mis-using their arguments to push a vague ‘democracy vs the elites’ thesis as a way of smearing the minimalist model republicans. He clearly doesn’t believe what he is saying, (and nor likely do his readers), but they are all willing to put that aside to convince themselves of the fiction that they are standing with the people against the elites. Even whilst backing a hereditary, one person controlled system that is the least democratic of all three options available.

I own and have read Melleuish’s collected writings. In it, he is a good academic, very well read, and sensible with some good insights. The man who appears in these kind of opinion articles for The Australian is however unrecognizable to that author.

Book Review: The March of Patriots by Paul Kelly

The March of Patriots: The Struggle for Modern Australia by Paul Kelly Melbourne:Melbourne University Press $69.95 rrp
I had the good fortune of attending a lecture by Paul Kelly tonight on his book and Australian politics, so I figured this was a good incentive to polish off my review of his book which I promised over a month ago. His speech was largely a re-emphasis of the books main argument, or defence of some of its views, but where relevant I’ll add in his updated thoughts, indicated with a *.

One of the hardest tasks for writers of politics is to see how close you can get to normal events, whilst producing something substantial. Journalists are used to having most of their work quickly forgotten and in that temporariness, can find a freedom to formulate and re-formulate how they see the world. But for those producing something longer, a book, a thesis, there is an expectation that you can both obtain enough distance to properly observe an event and its characters, and still getting it out before the public demand for insight fades. In his earlier book ‘The End of Certainty’ Kelly charted the economic reforms of the Hawke/Keating Government, and yet his best formulation was not what they did, but defining what they removed via the concept of an ‘Australian Settlement’. Kelly’s latest idea is that Keating and Howard are best seen as Australian patriots, whose similarities are greater than their differences. Unfortunately its not quite so catchy, and his colleague George Megalogenis got there first with ‘The Longest Decade’ (and arguably proved the similarity thesis better).

Given Kelly’s conservatism, it is remarkable that this is actually his first book on the conservative side of politics. Despite the joint images on the title, Kelly devotes around 1/3 or 225 pages to Keating’s 5 years, and 2/3′s or 400 pages to Howard’s first 5 years, promising a second volume to come covering 2001-2007. The numbers give a fair ratio of his biases. Where Howard and Keating overlap on economics he is broadly supportive, even downright impressed by Keating’s bravery and genius, likewise on Asian Engagement as a Foreign Policy objective. Where they differ, on nationalism, culture, war, Kelly comes down firmly on Howard’s side. While there are already a number of books on Howard, the March of Patriots is going to become a cornerstone for interpreting the administration.

In Howard, Kelly sees four key impulses at work (1) Economic Liberalism, (2) Social Conservatism (3) Cultural Traditionalism (4) National Security vigilance. The first two are common wisdom, and the latter easily discernible though usefully brought together here. I’m less convinced by his claim that Howard isn’t a neo-liberal. There is of course a difference between rhetoric and policy, but given that Kelly awards the term of Cultural traditionalist to Howard whilst admitting his policy achievements in this area are ‘threadbare’*, it seems odd that he ignores so much of the rhetorical trend towards free-marketeerism under Howard. Indeed Kelly has said he deliberately ignored a lot of the politics so as to focus on the policy/governance issues, but both are significant to understand a governments thoughts. The Howard government relentlessly sold the idea that the unhindered market was the best way to run economic policy, and its occasional reticence (such as with banking or communications regulation) or their popularism (middle class welfare) doesn’t necessarily prove otherwise. In private Kelly argues Howard and Costello rejected the self-correcting market theory, which is largely true of the legislation that passed (via an a largely hostile senate) but had Howard enjoyed Senate control at the beginning of his government, not its tired final term, history’s judgement may have been very different.

In terms of foreign policy, Kelly makes a far bolder claim in both book and person that Howard “pioneered the idea of Australia as a regional leader”*. This is an interesting claim, in that Australians have always been reticent about claiming that Australia could lead this region. We have a profoundly different culture, history, background and way of life. Kelly points to the case of E.Timor as the first time Australia took the lead in a military role. However this downplays Australia’s role in creating APEC, encouraging the Cambodian peacekeeping, and advocacy on preventing WMD non-proliferation in the region. The Australian Government may have titled the policy as ‘Engagement’ but to my mind, it was an unabashed effort at positioning for and achieving regional leadership, under a much more PR friendly label. To grant Howard the credit seems to miss the critical set-up work that he inherited (though Kelly quotes Downer and others stressing the critical importance of Hawke/Keating’s creation of APEC to achieving success in E.Timor) The Foreign policy story is also incomplete, with the book ending at the unfortunate pivot point of 2001, which marks the end of the major economic policies, but fits half way between the big changes in Foreign Policy. For that I guess we will just have to wait…

Kelly’s book is in some ways hard to criticize. He lives up to his pledge* to focus on policy issues over the politics. His central thesis that Keating and Howard were both focused on restoring Australian patriotism, and had more in common than divided them/suited their parties to acknowledge is eminently defendable. But this insiders tale, with immaculate access to the powerful, also feels somewhat hollow. Kelly doesn’t manage to capture or even attempt to define the anger or resentment many in the public felt towards Howard. But you can’t understand Howard and Keating’s story without understanding the often ambivalent, sometimes hostile public reaction to them. Both men were loved within their tribes, hated by the other, and often polarised most of the public at various times of their leadership. Kelly perhaps rightly knows his argument that what unites them is more important is controversial, however it is notable how little popular sentiment seems to be considered, and his almost outright dismissal for their being any legitimate base of anger at Howard from the left. This is a sin by omission rather than fault, and one not unique to his book, but I think significant to understand the environment Keating and Howard were operating in. In fact even if limited to Howard, this would have been a big improvement (and given Kelly’s previous work on Keating and the proliferation of books on his government, this may have been better served as a book solely on Howard over his entire administration.)

Kelly is for better or worse Australia’s Bob Woodward (who traded in his watergate credentials for a white house all-access-pass). This insider status grants amazing access to the powerful, with often revealing interviews. These interviews let the major players speak for themselves, sometimes even hang themselves with their own claims, but it’s traded for a very conventional level of analysis. Indeed Kelly’s book screams conventional in its analysis, a thought only tempered by the knowledge that it was probably Kelly who set the common wisdom which everyone else has come to endorse. Where he speaks or acts, the press typically follows. For political junkies and close followers, Kelly’s book is a must read. There is not much that is brand new, but the book is very well researched, organised and its focus on policy over politics a welcome change, whilst in an very readable format.

There are other Universities Mr Rudd!

4 September 2009

Dear the Hon. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd

In recent days you have proposed two very good new initiatives aimed at improving the education and skills of the federal public service. These are the National Security College and a new Policy and Public Sector Management school, with both to be placed at the Australian National University.

There is however one problem. Both of these institutions already exist, and can be found at the University of Canberra (UC). In October 2008 UC set up the National Security Institute with Professor Peter Leahy, former Chief of the Australian Army as its head. And since the early 1980′s, UC has been running the Center for Research in Public Sector Management, and the National Institute of Governance, both of which have now been amalgamated into the ANZOG Institute for Governance . Whilst ANU has its rightful world class reputation for research, the University of Canberra has been carefully carving out a niche serving the public service, providing the latest in research and training facilities.

After the many years of distrust and dismissal of the value of the Higher Education sector by your predecessors, it is fantastic to see a government committed to taking the best new research, insights and training available and applying them to support and enhance the work of the public service. However, as fond as you may be of your alma mata, and as prestigious as the ANU is (and rightly so), there are 37 other universities in this country who are very keen to get involved in this welcome re-engagement. At the University of Canberra (where I have been both an undergraduate and postgraduate student and lecturer) the University has put extensive efforts into a world class research and training body in Public Policy and Public Sector Management. The decision to house the ANZOG institute for Governance at UC in early 2009 was in part a validation of the over 20 year history of high quality work in this sector that had been carried out at the University of Canberra.

So please Mr Rudd, rather than burden ANU to find new buildings and staff, an effort that may take years just to get started, have a look just 5 km away over the hill, past Black Mountain to the University of Canberra where there are already institutions in place with long standing links to serve your vision. Whilst the ANU is rightly one of the worlds finest universities, Australia should seek to expand its research and training excellence across a range of Universities (particularly in a hub such as Canberra) to build an overall reputation for the strength and quality of our institutioins. Just as in the United States where Ivy League schools seek to differentiate their key skills and focuses, building up the University of Canberra with its pre-existing specialisation in National Security and Public Sector Management and Policy can only benefit the country, our international reputation, and the ability of the higher education sector to serve and meet the needs of the federal government and the public service.

Yours Sincerely

Andrew Carr

Today’s real lefties: Cops and Soldiers

Conservative politicians and commentators regularly complain about the left wing bias of government run institutions such as public television and radio. But what they don’t notice is the institutions which are really promoting a liberal/left wing agenda: The Police and the Army.

From an Op-ed in the Washington Post by two policemen:

Nationwide, a police officer dies on duty nearly every other day. Too often a flag-draped casket is followed by miles of flashing red and blue lights. Even more officers are shot and wounded, too many fighting the war on drugs. The prohibition on drugs leads to unregulated, and often violent, public drug dealing. Perhaps counterintuitively, better police training and bigger guns are not the answer.

Drug manufacturing and distribution is too dangerous to remain in the hands of unregulated criminals. Drug distribution needs to be the combined responsibility of doctors, the government, and a legal and regulated free market. This simple step would quickly eliminate the greatest threat of violence: street-corner drug dealing.

Having fought the war on drugs, we know that ending the drug war is the right thing to do — for all of us, especially taxpayers. While the financial benefits of drug legalization are not our main concern, they are substantial. In a July referendum, Oakland, Calif., voted to tax drug sales by a 4-to-1 margin. Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron estimates that ending the drug war would save $44 billion annually, with taxes bringing in an additional $33 billion.

Without the drug war, America’s most decimated neighborhoods would have a chance to recover. Working people could sit on stoops, misguided youths wouldn’t look up to criminals as role models, our overflowing prisons could hold real criminals, and — most important to us — more police officers wouldn’t have to die

Whilst most left wing politicians are still a full decade away from even beginning a debate about legalisation, here is an authentic voice of the police pushing for it immediately. To them it is not an abstract question of the morality of condoning drug use or being ‘soft on crime’ but clearly evident that only with legalisation and regulation will we be able to tax and protect users, whilst financially destroying criminals from misguided youths through to bikie gangs and mob types.

A similar point can be made about the army, which is equally taken for granted by conservatives to be an institution on their side in foreign policy debates. Whilst many soldiers do relish the fight, just as many and their more experienced commanders prefer to be sent in only when and where they can make a significant difference or are undertaking their core responsibility: defending their country. Instead of being the first option as a way to respond to a problem, most in the armed forces would prefer that as a country we focus heavily on aid and development so as to prevent other countries from sliding into failed state/civil war conditions. Rather than being sent to be shot at whilst trying to stabilize and re-build in places from the Solomons to Afghanistan, it would be better to have focused on stability and long term development before these countries became problem children in the worlds eyes requiring a police or military solution.
Likewise idea’s such as ‘Human Security‘ which change the way we think about security from a national focus to a question of the individual, (including their right to food, shelter and basic liberties, along with their physical safety) have been picked up quite strongly by thinkers within the defence forces. These liberal/left wing ideas are often ignored by a lot of civilian International Relations/Security scholars, who are keen to prove their bona fides and toughness. Yet it is the very people who have to put their lives on the line for these concepts are coming to see their correctness and worth.

Conservatives often take for granted that police favor harsher measures against criminals, and that the defence force wants to cruise the globe in search of foreign monsters to destroy. Though obviously some join these institutions seeking such a struggle, many more have come to see that their chance of coming home alive, and making a real contribution to the world (the reason for which the vast majority undertake these risky careers) require that we move to different strategies and policies. They know first hand the costs of our current failed policies, even if todays political leaders are too weak (or afraid of being labeled weak) to advocate for real change. Liberals and the New Left need to begin to work to give voice to these institutions, to encourage their contribution to the debate. We need to show that policies such as preventative development, and drug legalisation are not abstract feel good ideas, but instead practical, hard headed responses that are coming to be endorsed by those on the ground with the strongest knowledge of our current failed approach. It is time we started listening to them. It is time we on the left dropped these cowardly half-way measures for fear of being called weak, and instead recognise the real strength that comes from open and honest advocacy of policies that offer genuine change and improvement for our fellow citizens both at home and in the wider world.

Photo used under a creative commons licence by user

The Joy of Uncertainty

Interesting fact of the day (h/t Secular Right)

When we distinguished strong varieties of nonbelief, such as atheism, from weaker nonbelief, a curvilinear relationship emerged (see Shaver, Lenauer, and Sadd). Those nonbelievers most confident in their nonbelief tended to be the most emotionally healthy, relative to the “fence sitters” who reported more negative emotions. Similarly, life satisfaction was lower among the spirituals relative to the other three belief labels. Therefore, having uncertainty regarding one’s religious views appears to be associated with relatively greater emotional instability.

Taken from here.
There is an old and prevalent idea that religion makes people happy, the opiate of the masses if you will and therefore ought to be encouraged by government as a social good. If nothing else, this research helps disprove that justification, allowing for a clearer debate about the real social benefit of religion (as opposed to individual benefit, a topic outside the realm of politics).

But I also regard this fact with some sadness, for it suggests that uncertainty is tied to unhappiness. Of course when one does not know what is happening to their job, family, or social identity of course worries seep in and discolour the other moments of joy in life. But why should the question of gods existence induce similar anxiety?

I have long wavered between atheism and agnosticism, eventually coming down as an agnostic. But I do so precisely because I enjoy the debate and uncertainty and arguments that are viable for both sides. I know I am a moral, but (like all others) flawed individual and so I have little doubt that should there indeed be a god I would be judged my merits not adherence to scripture. That is, my day to day ethics. As such contrary to Pascal’s wager, the ‘cost’ for me of agnosticism is very low. Of course I may be wrong and god is a vengeful and spiteful entity (an impression one could certainly get from the Bible) but in that case I see morality demanding I do not worship or endorse such a force within this world, and I defy any to justify otherwise.

Thus for me, the debate about god’s existence brings happiness precisely because it is uncertain. Precisely because it involves, indeed demands engagement with the greatest minds of human existence (almost all of whom have turned their attention to this question in some form) and so therefore standing either in their shadow or on their shoulders (depending on how you value your own contribution) you have a topic of boundless entertainment and importance. I must admit to always being slightly surprised at those agnostics (and many atheists) who assert that the question of if there is a god or not is not important to them. My own belief is that nothing could be more important. Its existence would shape the entire purpose and order of this world towards its orientation. Its non-existence would demand the fundamental reshaping of human values and institutions away from the church and believers and a re-invigorated quest to find principles and ideals upon which we can guide and educate future generations.

A man of course has to eat, and religious scholarship, particularly from the point of view of non-believers is not a high paying job. And so I have turned my attention and study to matters of domestic and international politics, seeking improvements in the wider human condition and living standards of my fellow citizens and international brothers. But on the occasional quiet evening, or when I feel I am ahead in my own work, I often turn to those books in my library on religion and like to delve into these great subjects. Some of the most interesting moments of personal development and reflection for me have precisely involved wresteling over these great questions of the existence of god, and my resulting agnosticism is not a disavowal of the importance of the question, but rather the encouragement of it. A starting point from which I may freely seek evidence, reasoning and insight into the question. The joy is in the uncertainty of it all.

But perhaps I am different in that way. The uncertainty of the abstract for me is of great appeal. I admit to having no idea of how one would build a bridge, or identify a cancer cell and indeed little actual desire to. Far more practical and useful than debates over god, but sciences desire for certainty, often restricting its endeavors to the mundane cataloging of life are largely uninteresting for me. It is the questions of the most uncertainty I desire, and as we witness humanity begin to slowly escape religions fundamentalist grasp, to see people equally flinging themselves into certain non-belief is a poor and disheartening replacement.

So here’s an interesting one to encourage the questioning: What does the existence of tarantula wasps say about god? Responses Here, and on the wider question of ‘natural evil’ see CS Lewis and Stephen J Gould.

Image used under a Creative Commons Licence by user Radiant Guy

Book Review: The Uses and Abuses of History by Margaret Macmillan

burning_bookThere is an undeniable charm to those whose contributions to fields of human endeavor whilst just amateurs. History is littered with philosophers whose greatest contribution came whilst in their early 20’s and nearly everyone can recite the story of Einstein working as a patent clerk whilst inventing theories that outsmarted the professionals. Politics has its own sacred story of the outsider whose distance from the levers of government is their very qualification for office (See Palin, Sarah). The internet too has given millions a new voice and opportunity to contribute and communicate (this blog being just one example). We are in the era of the amateur. The stultifying demands of professionalism which serve to restrict are being torn down in favour of amateurs can say anything, in any way they desire. Often this is of great benefit, breaking down groupthink and exclusionary norms, and challenging elite control of information. But what about when this means we are exposed to ignorance, prejudice and invention, masquerading as a serious contribution?

In ‘The Uses and Abuses of History’ ($35.99 Profile Books Ltd) Margaret Macmillan sets out to document the many ways in which historical knowledge is mis-used by governments, politicians, writers, amateur historians, and indeed even her professional colleagues. Given a thorough thwack for their deviations away from big political history, the professionals however come out looking the best of a very sad and sorry list of popular engagement with their history. History, Macmillan notes has had something of a renaissance in recent times. People are far more literate, have more disposable income and leisure time, and our media, -much like a shark- needs to keep moving and consuming in order to stay alive. Not only is it easier to make and access history, but there’s something in the modern secular culture that makes us value history as a higher good. Something firm and unshakable from which we can stand:

History with a capital H… restores a sense not necessarily of the divine being but of something above and beyond human beings. It is our authority: it can vindicate us and judge us, and damn those who oppose us (p20)

Given this immense power, is it therefore something we are willing to trust into the hands of amateurs? While civilization created universities to refine and restrict those who sought to have a public impact through their dissemination of history, the mass education of the public, along with the many self-inflicted wounds professionals have inflicted on their field (as McMillan demonstrates clearly) have destroyed much of the authority of advanced education. In making it cheap, it has come to be treated as cheap. Technology has allowed almost in the first world to call themselves a historian and contribute to the debate. But where our natural impulse is to champion on those contesting the popular view, we should also be careful about automatically granting higher virtues and morals to those who contest from the bottom as against the top.

In all societies, but particularly those who pride themselves on the freedom available, it is impossible to stop the flow of information from amateurs. But given that we have made it so easy for this to occur we can at least change the attributes we give to those who undertake this task. We have erred in assuming that because the professional is corrupt the amateur is pure. We have erred in believing that because the professional is biased the amateur is unfiltered. We have taken virtue and authority from being a reward for decades of work, and given them to the fresh and the new as playthings. In this mixed up climate we have made the underdog the default superior in any competition.

By and large the opening up of history to the entire public to either consume or contribute is a very very good thing. At its best, History is a learning process that saves us from sloughing and sweating to make fresh tracks when clear paths already exist. It gives us a grounding and sense of awe at what has been achieved and what could be achieved (It is my knowledge of History that makes me a progressive instead of a conservative). But ‘The Uses and Abuses of History’ makes abundantly clear the destructive power of this knowledge and the risks and perils of amateur engagement with it. With the fire man learnt how both to improve his own life, whilst destroying his enemies; history is no less powerful, and unless handled carefully in this era of ridiculously easy dissemination threatens to cause the whole world to burn.

Ending the Slave Trade

A large part of my scholarly work is examining the role of norms in International Relations. Norms are the social rules which tell you (or your country) how to behave and view the world. Some of these are unwritten, like saying please, thank you, or shaking hands. Others are written down, such as recognizing others private property. At an international level, Norms drive countries to respect each others sovereignty, to be concerned about environmental destruction or to not have slaves. Well, that is the case in most places, but not all

A year after she ran away from her master, Barakatu Mint Sayed prays that the election on July 18 will mark the beginning of the end of slavery in Mauritania. Her nation is one of the last places on Earth where large numbers of humans are still kept as property.

And like thousands of other slaves and freed slaves across the Saharan country, her hopes are fixed on an inspirational candidate, a man born to slave parents who has sworn to put an end to the practice of “owning” humans if he is elected president.

That candidate is Messaoud Ould Boulkheir, a 66-year-old former civil servant with a strong resemblance to the film actor Morgan Freeman. Mr Boulkheir has vowed that in power he would punish slave owners and do everything he can to free their human property.

Officially, slavery has long been abolished in Mauritania, but the law has never been enforced and there are an estimated 600,000 slaves, almost one in five of the country’s 3.2 million people, almost 150 years since the American civil war.

Sadly for the hopes of people everywhere, the election has declared the Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, the ex-military and 2008 coup leader as the victor with 52% of the vote. His challengers including Messaoud Boulkheir have called the result an ‘electoral masquerade’, though western diplomats at the scene seem content with the process.
Mauritania is a former French colony which gained independence in 1960, but which has remained mired in poverty, military challenges for power (most recently in 2008), and large area’s of the country where life has remained almost unchanged in centuries (outside better guns, clothes and phones). Yet it presents a stark reminder to the world that whilst the British pushed to end the slave trade in 1815, and the US came into line with the Civil War in 1865, almost 150 years later, some places in the world still have not come to accept these ideas. Whilst I, and most of humanity see this as an obvious stark moral issue, norms like slavery are better understood in practice as a contest of persuasion, influence and coercion. What is most significant is not that in “this modern world” that slavery exists, but that having had a dominant idea in place around the world for so long, it has not quite managed to drive out competing norms. Take this taxi driver from the capital Nouakchott:

A Berber driver, who would only give his first name, Mohammed, defended slavery. “It is our religion and custom,” he said.
“Why does the international community try to stop it? The slaves are better off with their masters. This is their fate. When they leave, they starve.”

Moral outrage in such cases is a necessary motivator, but it also blinds us to seeing what is needed to stop the practice. Better ideas, like the economically productive potential of free human beings, and free societies are stronger weapons for the non-slave trading countries than condemning ‘backward’ sins. This also needs to be coupled with financial and national incentives to lead the elites to recognize their own potential to benefit.

The Information Revolution has clearly not prevented war or genocide or even given the public that much more of a say in the way their countries conduct international affairs. But it does offer the potential for norms to flow significantly faster and more deeply into countries around the world. This is often poo-poo’ed when it means everyone starts drinking coke and talking with an American accent, but it also means that the battle of ideas is radically shaken up in ways that have never before been possible. If the world is to make good on any of the high language of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (it is 61 years since it was signed), then we need to make causes such as eradicating slavery a true objective. Whilst some issues such as conflict, and violence in conflict are difficult to learn about when occurring, much less deal with, long term human rights violations such as slavery are one’s we can track, monitor and deal with much more strongly due to the new information at our finger-tips. If the Information Revolution is to mean anything to human rights (and it’s not clear that it does) then I’d like to predict that Slavery will be its first great victory. That day is still some time off with an estimated 20 million bonded labour slaves around the world. Of a similar note (though more talked about in SE Asia) is human trafficking which may entrap from 2.5 to 5 million people around the world.

This issue is obviously one that touches the US President Barack Obama closely, given his own status as first African-American President, and his wife’s history with a great, great grandfather who was a bonded slave in southern America. Obama raised the issue on his recent trip to Africa, and his wife and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have also held events this year to help address the issue. Yet this is as I said at the beginning a battle of ideas and influence, not one that can be condemned nor bombed out of sight. Obama has too many challenges, and his skin-colour does not automatically give him a gilded tongue for every important cause. But where other challenges of stopping war or genocide or exploitation may well be beyond us, stopping slavery is something that is surely possible within the next 100 years. We can finally peer down and track where and how many are in chains, it is then up to us to convince and coerce those in charge to finally let them be free. Morality may energize us, but it is winning the battle of ideas about the best types of behaviour and action, by both individuals and countries that will achieve it for us. We must not relent.

The virtue of forgetting history

This morning brings with it news that Israel’s Government is invoking Hitler in its cause to build in East Jerusalem

Israeli officials said on Wednesday Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told Israeli ambassadors to circulate the 1941 shot in Berlin of the Nazi leader seated next to Haj Amin al-Husseini, the late mufti or top Muslim religious leader in Jerusalem.
One official said Lieberman, an ultranationalist, hoped the photo would “embarrass” Western countries into ceasing to demand that Israel halt the project on land owned by the mufti’s family in a predominantly Arab neighborhood in East Jerusalem.
Some diplomats opposed Lieberman’s move, arguing it could earn Israel stiffer world criticism for seeming to sidestep the wider conflict it faces with the Palestinians who want East Jerusalem as capital of a future state, another official said.
Asked why Lieberman issued the order, a spokesman said: “because it’s important for the world to know the facts” and would not elaborate.

Winston Churchill, (a historian of great merit in his own right), once commented that the peoples of the Balkans ‘produce more history than they can consume’. The same so easily applies to the Israel/Palestine conflict. To most people it would seem that putting up such a photo is a meaningless distraction, but to Israeli’s, especially those aged 50 or so, born to parents who survived/witnessed the Holocaust then the history and historical importance of such a photo must resonate strongly. History we are often told by learned men must be learnt so as to prevent us repeating the mistakes of the past.

What they don’t mention is that reading it often incites people to try and emulate the successes too, only in very different circumstances and with very different outcomes. No better example of this can be found than the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Led by a generation of men who also had parents in WW2 (only their memories are of great victory and liberation instead of brutal slaughter), George W Bush, a man with a bust of Winston Churchill on his desk, Tony Blair, living in Churchill’s house and 500m from his war time bunker & memorial, and John Winston Howard set their countries in motion to liberate Iraq from Tyranny. Whilst Iraq had made zero antagonistic moves against the west in recent years (and even half-truthfully accepted UN weapons inspectors), those who disagreed with the war were instantly labeled appeasers, ala Chamberlain’s 1938 blunder, with Saddam Hussein helpfully playing along in the role of mustachioed dictator. Here was the chance for these three to emulate their hero’s and live up to the merits of the ‘greatest generation’ who had defeated the Nazi’s and made great inroads against Communism. The weight of this history must have been heavy on these men from their positions of power to help the Iraqi people from what was one of the most brutal regimes in the 20th century.

Iraq of course had very little actual military might and was thoroughly defeated in less than a month. And far from the ease and praise of post-war Europe and Japan, Iraqi’s quickly soured on the invasion and began to attack their supposed liberators. That the analogy of 1939 had failed in every single way possible in helping understand the circumstances western governments found themselves in at the start of 2003, has not stopped similar conservative forces today declaring that Iran is the new Nazi Germany and cannot be appeased. As Fareed Zakaria points out, (again bringing pesky current facts into the debate), far from being Germany 1939, Iran who has 1/68th of the US military, is more like Romania. Indeed some US Senators have even taken to calling their own country “about where Germany was before World War II”. So long as the Baby Boomer Generation, born to fathers of the Second World War -with all its myriad and contradictory lessons- have power, analogies from that distant moment will continue to have an impact on our current political discussions. As Andrew Sullivan wisely noted in his 2007 essay for the Atlantic Magazine ‘Goodbye to all that’ the true radicalness of Obama for the USA is not in his policy (he is largely a cautious moderate) but rather that he is beyond the debates of the baby-boomers that have ripped America in-twain over the last 40 years. On race, gender, abortion and war Obama offered the US a chance to let go of its history and begin to build something new.

History it seems far from granting us wisdom seems time and again to be preventing us from seeing the world as it actually is, rather than in patterns of the past. One cause of this perhaps may be the staggering rise in popular histories amongst the reading public. Recently released, though yet to appear here in Australia, is Margaret MacMillan’s Dangerous Games:
The Uses and Abuses of History
which charts the many ways in which history is mishandled, distorted, politicized and mis-used by historians. After this great catalog of sins, the author, (a professional historian herself) poses this question:

MacMillan ends by asking whether we would be worse off not knowing any history at all…. “I think the answer would probably be yes,” she writes, a sentence that is unlikely to serve as the historians’ manifesto.

MacMillan argues that history’s greatest tool is to provide us with humility. To learn how often wrong and misguided past generations were in their efforts, and perhaps how we can use it to begin to doubt the basis of our own certainty. But in a hyper-connected and digitalized world, if anything history will be more and more with us. Where pub disputes about a past war or politician were forgotten with the purchasing of the next round, now someone invariably whips out a internet connected phone and checks that holy source Wikipedia for an answer. As more and more key moments are captured on film (witness the outpouring at the 40 year anniversary of the Moon Landing), the more history will be brought into current media streams to supplement and fill in time. Former Prime Minister John Howard may for this reason soon get his wish that young students are better exposed to history, but whether this is equal to an education in history is a completely different matter. Whilst memories imparted from books and film are never quite as strong as those gathered whilst sitting at the knee of a parent, this upcoming generation will likely not be able to escape the onslaught of history in their everyday life. As an avid reader of history I know no better source of personal development than reading history books, and yet every generation also deserves the chance to forget what has come before so it may remake and explore new potentials. If history’s lessons were never breakable we would never had had the rise of the church, nor that of the nation-state, nor international organisations. Each of these changes occurred through the acts of a generation that was willing to deliberately ignore the lessons of the past and push for a new future. Looking these days to places such as Israel/Palestine you can’t help but feel the people there also desperately need an act of wide scale amnesia, if they are ever to find peace.

The End of the War on Terrorism?

Soon after the recent bombing in Jakarta killed 9 including an 3 Australians, Kevin Rudd along with his Foreign Affairs minister Stephen Smith sought to draw a link between the attack and continuing the fight in Afghanistan. Responses were swift rejecting the PM’s claim. Hugh White from ANU told journalist Michelle Grattan that

“in practical policy there’s no link. It’s an illusion to think that if you fix Afghanistan, we’ll be safe from terrorism.” Ideologically and practically, the activities of Noordin Top, the alleged mastermind behind the Jakarta bombings, have nothing to do with Afghanistan, White says.

Meanwhile over at the Interpreter Allan Behm makes the case that there is a connection:

the fact is that many terrorist groups, be they in Chechnya, Palestine, Pakistan or even Indonesia draw ideological, ideational, inspirational and motivational solace from the pronouncements of Osama bin Laden and the actions of al Qaeda.
At the high end of anti-terrorist strategy is the goal of denying any oxygen at all to terrorist organisations and their followers. That is why the pursuit of al Qaeda, both in Afghanistan and Pakistan, is important.

So who is right amongst these two highly knowledgeable and respected experts? Well I side more with White’s approach, but he doesn’t explain this to its full significance. Behm’s point is well taken and worth noting. Whilst Al Qaeda was responsible for the attacks on a US embassy in 1999, the USS Cole in 2000 and of course the 9/11 attacks, it has not had a recognised attack since that day. Despite it’s name being taken as a synonym for terrorism around the world, it has been reduced to little more than a communications company sending out videos, sometimes training orientated (and funds) but largely just well made propaganda. It is this which Behm means when he talks of providing solace and inspiration. Denied the opportunity to attack the west directly through international counter-terrorism efforts, Al Qaeda has had to outsource its efforts with varying results. How you interpret this effort is the clearest diviner of how experts regard the success or failure of the war on terrorism.

The worst case scenario tends to note details such as the 9/11 attackers had connections to Hambali the Indonesian terrorist who was key in the Bali 2002 attacks, or the role of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi leading Al Qaeda in Iraq . It sees the general values that motivate these groups in their Islamic faith, rejection of western modernity, and desire for independent Islamic states as primary compared to local values such as between various sects, personality and ethnic differences and on the ground conditions. It emphasises the flow of money, intelligence and training, especially through the internet between these various groups. Under this reading, the USA and west is facing an enemy who can change face and location with ease. Like trying to stop water flooding through a grill, each blockage in one place simply increases the pressure coming through in another. Our very size and strength makes us vunerable to a thousand cuts leaving us to bleed out, in finances, troops and resolve. This is also an approach that places great store in the concept of confidence. It interprets most events primarily in psychological terms, rising or reducing the motivation of both the west and the terrorists according to the ebb and flow of events. Every attack is seen as significant in re-enforcing this pattern. Therefore what happens in Afghanistan is critically central to how events in Indonesia play out. (Afghanistan perhaps even more than Iraq or other locations due to its historic role in bringing down the soviet empire). This is a somewhat zero-sum approach, we are winning so they must be losing, or vice versa, with confidence a limited commodity effectively traded between the groups through their various successful or failed missions. At its worse this results in mush like Andrew Bolt’s effort, which conflates all threats as one, and indeed all Muslims as somehow suspicious. This however is very far from the considered approach of scholars such as Behm who highlights the significance of local links and issues. Still, for all their certainty, those who take this approach can as Behm does write sentences like “Noordin Top would derive considerable encouragement from that[withdrawal from Afghanistan], even without any formal or operational links with al Qaeda ” without ever qualifying what this ‘considerable encouragement’ means in practical policy terms. It could be meaningless heart warming or a game changing recruitment & financial driver. We don’t know and they don’t say.

The more optimistic scenario again notes these early links, but also their paucity and the local nature of the connections and the difficulty of maintaining these once key individuals are taken out (Hambali currently sits in Guantanamo Bay, the 9/11 attackers are dead, as is al-Zarqawi). They also note that when Al Qaeda has attempted to significantly involve itself in the local fight, the results have usually been poor. Whilst Al Qaeda in Iraq had a significant number of successes in the early years after the war, they have come to be combated by the US effectively. More importantly when they tried to integrate into the Iraqi system they ran into two fundamental problems. The sunni/shia divide, and the suspicions of the tribes. Where they had been largely non-sectarian in the early years, Al Qaeda found that the best way to bring in new recruits was to emphasize it’s Sunni origins, and help the fight against the true enemy: the Shia. This immediately cleaved the groups influence across vast sections of the islamic world, not only the Shia, but Sunni and other moderates who rejected the internal conflict and wanted attention focused on the West. Secondly, where Al Qaeda tried to integrate itself with the tribes it often did so in a ham-fisted, culturally insensitive manner (much like the US soldiers similar errors) It’s measures were often too extreme and lacked local knowledge and so came to be rejected by 2006 in the now infamous Al-anbar awakening where Tribal groups once supportive of the insurgents switched to help the US and gave the US it’s first big break of the war. This is a pattern that has been repeated around the world. Rather than Al Qaeda creating terrorist franchises as the pessimists had feared, we have seen that invariably local issues, personalities and conflicts have dominated and distracted the effort. Some groups have simply taken Al Qaeda’s money and men and used them for their own local pre-jihad efforts, whilst occasionally mouthing similar rhetoric to keep the cash flowing. Instead of a global war on terror we are seeing the emasculation of the worst of the groups (Al Qaeda), and a significant reduction in capabilities for their supported groups (Jemaah Islamiyah is still a shadow of its former self despite the recent attacks). And importantly the more the global group shrinks, the more the local groups will return to their own local concerns and local efforts, and fail to be drawn by the global values that once threatened to envelop the west. Therefore what happens in Afghanistan is of minor concern. It may give an individual or group solace for a day or week, but very soon local realities like a lack of skills, funds or the omniprescence of the police will do more to change their actions than any psychological acts. Especially when the overall trend of the war has been quite strongly against the Jihadist’s. Psychology is important, but both groups can be gaining confidence whilst one side is technically ‘winning’ (ie a withdrawal from Afghanistan may not provide extra terrorists, whilst freeing up western resource – though I do not advocate such an act)

Whilst the recent attacks surprised some adherents of the common wisdom that JI was broken (Though perfect timing by Carl Ungerer to warn of the groups risks the day before the attacks), what it most significantly shows is that the ‘Global War on Terror’ is almost over. What we are facing instead are local threats from nihilistic, barbaric misfits of a form that states have been dealing with successfully for over two thousand years. Though these days we don’t use the gruesome techniques these groups were usually suppressed by (ie killing anyone and everyone related to the group), we have far superior tools through the information revolution to track, isolate and bring down such groups. We can shut off their funds, listen in on their communication and highlight their barbarism to win the PR war (there have been sharp declines in the support for suicide bombing across the muslim world from 2002-2007).

What is perhaps most significant about the recent attacks in Jakarta is how low key the public and press responded to them. The media brought information quickly to the public, but soon moved on from the story. The general public took it largely in their stride, with it barely meriting a mention in most people’s gossip over the weekend. This was terorrism without terror. Of course it may make many re-think that Indonesian holiday, but Australians have condemned, mourned, and gone on with life. This is a pattern of terrorism that we can live with, and take precautions against, in the same way we avoid dark city ally’s and ask for more cops to patrol our streets to keep away the drunks and street thugs. (If the government’s new anti-terror laws move in this direction of on the streets social changes, great, if not, it is an authoritarian over-reaction).This is not to downplay the threat that these groups could still do to many of us, but it is to suggest we have entered a new phase. One where this violence is seen for what it is, petty and unpredictable, but not threatening everyday life or the nation-state as it stands. And if the public here recognise this, then soon the local population in islamic countries who may otherwise fall under the sway of terrorist groups will recognise it too. And who want’s to die for a tiny group of losers who are never going to achieve their aims? We still have terrorism, but maybe we have almost ended the war.