Chasing the Norm

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

Month: December, 2014

Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces

Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces
by Radley Balko

I’d had this book on my to-Rise of Warrior Copread list for a while, but with the events of Ferguson and New York, it became a priority. And one I’m very glad I made time for. This is a powerful book about a very troubling abuse of power by those we expect to protect us.

Balko begins with revolutionary America, showing the importance of ideas such as ‘a man’s home is his castle’ then skips forward to the 1960s, with chapters on each decade since as a way to illuminate how we got to here. Along the way he does a clever job of mixing social and legal discussions and enough practical examples to sustain his claims and reader attention without becoming bogged down with gossipy random anacdotes.

This is a journalist’s book, which sometimes left me wishing for something slightly more. And Balko does skip some significant debates (most notably dismissing the significant decline in crime rates since the 1990s with the line ‘Criminologists are still fighting over what those reasons are’ – p.272). Yet there is a wise balance to the text. Perhaps most importantly, while his book will leave you angry at the abuse of police power, Balko time and again pauses to note we should not be angry at police.
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Founders’ Son: A Life of Abraham Lincoln

Founders’ Son: A Life of Abraham Lincoln
by Richard BrookhiserFounders Son

The pity of the great tales is their stories have already been told. While every few years some brave soul will attempt a comprehensive biography, for most researchers and readers there is a need to find new illuminating angles, if only to starve off boredom. Hence, this take on Abraham Lincoln and his relationship with the US Founding Fathers.

There’s much to recommend about this biography. Brookhiser has a regularly clever turn of phrase, and he has done his homework, turning up some original insights that I had not seen before. Yet there isn’t quite the material to sustain the theme. Brookhiser does well to eke out chapters on how Lincoln learned from George Washington and Thomas Paine, but after that the theme somewhat fades into the background.

It seems there isn’t quite the material for a thematic or founder-by-founder analysis, so this book quickly turns into a somewhat pottered biography of Lincoln. One of the better you’ll read, especially in just 300 pages, but still I was left wishing for slightly more. Or slightly less but tighter. Or slightly more speculative – especially with a writer of this quality – at the risk of appearing fiction. Instead, this book is safe and solid, as befitting the theme.

The best takes on Lincoln I’ve come across are those that set the man in his time. Like Allen Guelzo’s Fateful Lightning, or James M. McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom. Set alone, Lincoln somehow always manages to escape being captured by the page, even in the hands of as talented a writer as Gore Vidal or Richard Brookhiser. Maybe some great stories can never be properly told.


The Adolescent Country

Adolescent CountryThe Adolescent Country: A Lowy Institute Paper (Penguin Special)
By Peter Hartcher

There’s a strange disconnect in this book. The target of Hartcher’s ire is largely the politicians, yet his examples of success are largely instances of policy and his examples of failure those of the wider public debate, led as much by the media and public as the politicians themselves. As such, the book manages to point to a flaw, but never quite grasps its hands around why it exists or how to resolve it.

Hartcher claims a major cause of this problem is that our political class treat foreign policy like domestic policy, yet another arena for their debates. Hence the lack of interest and small minded squabbles. Only I think that’s exactly wrong. While I don’t have the space to detail it here (I have a journal article on the issue coming out next year however), I see the lack of interest in foreign policy is driven by our desire for bipartisanship and our unwillingness to treat foreign policy as a normal arena of national debate.

Still, this is a good use of the Penguin Special format. Provoking and just the right length (and thankfully with footnotes to track down claims). I’d recommend checking out the Lowy Interpreter debate about the book, in particular Hugh White who nails the underlying structure that is overlooked (as does Mahbubani), and Sam Roggeveen who nails the ‘so what’ question.

Worth a read for those interested in federal politics.

The First Dismissal

The First Dismissal
by Luke Slattery

I wanted to like this book. I’m a fan of the penguin special/kindle single short size for non-fiction books (far too many in this genre are too long by half), and the initial argument – that Governor Macquarie helped initiate Australia’s sense of the fair go and egalitarianism – was engaging.

Unfortunately, this is a badly structured and confusing read, which is unforgivable in such a short piece. The writing itself is not bad, with a few charming sentences, but there was a need for a strong editorial hand. The chronology jumps all over the place, there are few linking sentences, major sections are included with seemingly little relevance, and the central argument is rarely – and badly – prosecuted.
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The Mandarin Code

The Mandarin Code (Harry Dunkley, #2)
by Steve Lewis, Chris Uhlmann

This book is a quick read, which is about the best that can be said for it. The plot doesn’t make much sense (and it’s finishes half done, be warned), and the deliberate use of real people as their characters quickly loses its charm.

Still, good to see some more Australian based political fiction coming in. With Paul Daley’s ‘Challenge’, and Peter Cotton’s ‘Dead Cat Bounce’, and of course ABC’s The Code, it’s good to see authors mining the rich potential of Australian politics.

The New American Militarism

The New American Militarism: How Americans are Seduced by War
by Andrew J. BacevichNew American Militarism

Ultimately this book ends up being slightly less than the sum of its parts. A conservative critique of unfettered American use of force, it is well written and engaging but somewhat unsatisfying. The critique of the first Gulf War, and the random bombings of Clinton are as brutal and compelling a critique of these normally celebrated eras as you will find. But after that fresh take, the ground becomes much more well trod. Perhaps it is a victim of its own gloomy predictions, in 2005 its fears were new and debatable, today they are self-evident truths. I’ve also read many a latter book which has picked up on some of its themes to varying degrees.

Perhaps for that reason I suspect this would have been stronger as a shorter book, such as a kindle single. While only 226 pages long, the chapters on the nuclear era strategists, conservative Christians and to a lesser extent neocons could have been shrunk and alluded to instead of directly targeted. Like many conservatives Bacevich also tends to have few ideas as to how to address the problem he identifies, beyond simply ‘return to the constitution’ or other idealistic paeans to the past. I also found the use of the WW IV construct contradictory to the overall argument of the book (afterall, if you’re in a true world war, surely militarism has many strenghts)

Still, it ranks as one of the most sensible and serious critiques of the many mistakes of US policy since the end of the Cold War. It isn’t just a left/right issue, it isn’t just the fault of some fallen individual or insidious ideology. Were that it was so easy. Instead, the US needs a fundamental reconsideration of how it ensures its security in the world, both for its own sake, and those of its ideals. Because it can not afford another decade like the last. Nor the one before that…

The Rise and Fall of Australia

Rise and Fall of AusThe Rise and Fall of Australia: How a great nation lost its way
by Nick Bryant

The Rise and Fall of Australia provides a useful reminder that with a slight change of perspective, the contemporary is less contemptuous than complementary.

When Australian’s talk about themselves, by indulgence or ignorance we quickly slip back into the ruts in the road left by the 1960s and 1970s. We know their divisive path doesn’t lead anywhere, but we can’t quite find the language or ideas to escape.

Fortunately however some foreigners are willing to give it a go, and while Bryant doesn’t quite manage to help break us out, he does at least remind that other paths can be taken and new grooves made. With a journalists trademark flare, there are a lot of gem lines in this book to be grabbed up and saved for future debates. An easy read, it offers a sense of how the rest of the world, at least of the fellow anglosphere views Australia and some of the warped unhelpful ways we view ourselves.

The title may seem an invoking of Rome or great empires, but it and this book is deeply Australian. Pessimistic on the outside, resiliently optimistic on the inside. Outside the political class, Bryant finds much to love about this country, a message many Australians don’t quite want to believe can exist.

For political tragics and news junkies, this book doesn’t offer much new in information, but it does help encourage a shift in perspective. And that is worth more than a dozen of the ‘I was right’ books that currently litter the politics section of our bookstores.


Keynes/Hayek: The Clash that Defined Modern Economics
by Nicholas WapshottKeynes Hayek

A fun and engaging dual biography of two interesting figures whose names are bandied about so often, but their actual words so rarely read. The author manages to do reasonable justice to both, and largely succeeds in bringing their sometimes arcane economics debates down to the level of this common man.

As an aside, there ought to be more dual biographies. Alan Bullock’s ‘Parallel Lives’ on Stalin and Hitler is fantastic, and Michael Duffy’s imaginatively titled ‘Latham and Abbott’ captures something essential about both men through its comparison.

The Fourth Revolution

The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State
by John Micklethwait, Adrian WooldridgeFourth Revolution

There are three books contained within this text. Two work, one doesn’t, which leaves the overall manuscript feeling somewhat less than the sum of its parts.

The first is a highly readable account of the development of the modern Western state. In around 100 pages, the authors provide an engaging tale of reform and philosophical battle to change the purpose and nature of the state. This is a highly readable and engaging tale, as befitting the authors background as editor/writer at The Economist magazine. Most citizens would benefit from reading this section, either as an introduction or refresher.

The second part however breaks down, and here so did my attention. The ‘fourth revolution’ of the title is based upon applying the power of technology and non-western thinking about the state to the west. Unfortunately neither topic has been researched in the depth required, nor is quite the right language found to bring coherence to the concept either. As such it’s often hard to tell what separates the ‘fourth’ revolution from the ‘half-revolution’ of Thatcher-Reagan the authors applaud (but don’t critically engage with sufficiently). As such the book’s claim to present a new way to think about the state, equal to those revolutions before it falls far short. It is also far too reliant on occasional and out of context anacdotes to provide any kind of a cohesive message.
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Rebalancing US Forces

Rebalancing U.S. Forces: Basing and Forward Presence in the Asia-Pacific
by Carnes Lord (Editor), Andrew S. Erickson (Editor)Rebalancing US forces

Note: This review is due to be published in the Australian Army Journal. My copy of the book was courtesy of the journal.

There’s an old joke military officials like to tell. Amateurs do strategy, professionals do logistics. For most of us self-proclaimed ‘amateurs’, how the US positions itself in the Asia-Pacific is one of the key strategic questions of our time. As Lord and Erickson’s new book Rebalancing U.S Forces: Basing and Forward Presence in the Asia-Pacific admirably demonstrates, this is also fundamentally a question of logistics.

This is a very timely and important book given the many questions that are being asked of the US role in the Asia-Pacific. Among allies the question focus on how the ‘pivot’ or ‘rebalance’ is being implemented, and how force presence translates into promises of force. For those concerned about US presence, the questions are whether the US is targeting them and whether its intentions are offensive or not. Finally for the US itself, there are questions about the long term capacity of America to afford and sustain an expanded presence in this remote region.
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The Political Bubble

The Political Bubble: Why Australian’s Don’t Trust Pollitics
by Mark LathamPolitical bubble

Cliff notes review: Mark Latham declares politics too tribal and banal. And then spends several chapters proving by acting in that exactly fashion himself.

This is an unfortunately lazy book from Latham. He begins well, and if you have 10 minutes to spare in a bookshop, there is value in to reading the opening chapter. Latham’s picked up on some of the international debate about authority and influence – such as Moises Naim’s excellent The End of Power – and engages with it. He even notes that he is uniquely placed to apply these to Australia, stating ‘Ostracism has its advantages. It gives me a chance to play a different, more instructive role: writing objectively about the changing nature of power and public trust’.

Only Latham never takes up that chance. Crash-tackling any serious notion of objectivity, Latham devotes four long chapters to attacking right wing figures like Abbott, Bolt, Rinehart, and his old favourite Henderson. Quite how these chapters are related to his larger theme of ‘Why Australian’s don’t trust politics’ other than in a simplistic ‘Those bastards are lying’ theme is never explained. If you followed these debates you don’t need to read these chapters. If you didn’t you wouldn’t want to. Maybe these will appeal to those for whom political tribalism is their defining identity, but then I thought such people were Latham’s target, not his target audience.
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The End of American World Order

The End of American World Order
by Amitav AcharyaEnd of American World Order

Amitav Acharya’s argument is that the ‘American world order’ was never that American in nature, nor worldly in scope or even very orderly. Instead he predicts that regions and regionalism is the future, and this might actually better serve us all, the US included. At least I think that’s what he argues. The book for all its clarity of prose, feels half-formed. This is a placeholder book, hopefully pointing the author and other scholars towards important new approaches, but with the risk it might never be taken and thus this book will soon be forgotten.

One virtue of not being a ‘big name IR scholar’: I’m not expected to have a book out every time there’s a new fad in the discipline. A decade ago, if you were big, you had a book on Terrorism, then it was Iraq, then China, now the decline of the US.

I’ve long been an admirer of Amitav Acharya’s work. His book ‘How ideas spread: Whose norms matter’ was one of the best books on norms I read during my PhD and quite influential on my thinking. He has also produced a stream of strong articles in the leading journals around the world.
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Rudd, Gillard and Beyond

Rudd, Gillard and Beyond
by Troy BramstonRudd Gillard and Beyond

Sometimes authors write books because they have to, not because they need to. One gets the feeling this book sprung from the desire of a publisher to have a ‘what it all means’ tome after the end of the recent Labor government. Or perhaps given Bramston’s obvious ambition, the initiative came from the writer. Either way, the purpose of the book seems set well before the content of it was conceived.

That is not always a bad thing, and this is no bad book. But it’s an odd end product. It’s far too insiderish for much appeal to the wider apathetic general public, yet there themes and issues are too well known and discussed in a generic way for those inside the triangle* to get much use.
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The Contest of the Century

The Contest of the Century: The New Era of Competition with China–and How America Can Win
by Geoff DyerContest of Century

In the latest edition of good books with terrible titles, the final subtitle “And How America can Win”, doesn’t appear in the British version of this book.

I’m glad it doesn’t as that kind of shlocky title just takes away the credibility from what is otherwise a very sensible, if straight forward reading of the current US-China relationship and regional competition. This is not a book proposing simple solutions, in fact the strength of it is Dyer doesn’t attempt to divine an ‘iron logic of strategy’ (ala Luttwak) or declare a winner will soon rule the world (ala Jaques) but instead casts a dubious journalists eye towards the complexities and contradictions which more ‘intellectual’ writers are want to slide over.

Dyer is best when he sticks close to what he knows, the challenge of Beijing’s leaders actually ruling over Beijing. That is managing to hold together a society with so many economic, social, political, geographic and engineering challenges. He’s also far more attuned to the challenge of then extending that influence over the rest of Asia. As Obama noted at Westpoint (but most commentators ignored) the fundamental difference between the US and China is the vast imbalance of allies towards America. China’s recent failure to persuade any countries to switch camps (in fact its strengthening of their allegiance to the US) is well covered in this book, not with an agressive “see America is winning” motif, but a journalists well honed cynicism that an authority claiming a confucian-inspired machiavellianism is quite as capable as it would have us believe.

I picked this book up in an airport, and completed it on the return flight home. It’s perfect for such venues. Like a healthy snack between meals, this book is tasty yet fulfilling. While not a meal you’ll remember, you’ll be the better of for chowing down on it.

The Tyranny of Experts

The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor
by William EasterlyTyranny of Experts

Easterly’s essential argument is simple: Western aid/development experts have focused on economic growth and not economic organisation. They have accepted the dictators gambit, that authoritarianism is acceptable if it comes with higher growth. But as Easterly shows this is almost never true. Instead, we should focus on ensuring the poor have the economic and political liberty (such as private property rights, free speech etc) and then the growth will come. Not just in rare busts, but long sustained development.