Chasing the Norm

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

Month: January, 2015

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

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



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

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

Table of contents

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

Where to buy the book?, Random House, Booktopia, etc. Best to order online, paperback or e-book copies available.


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

Strategy in Asia: The Past, Present, and Future of Regional Security

Strategy in Asia: The Past, Present, and Future of Regional Security
by Thomas G. Mahnken & Dan Blumenthal (Editors)Mahnken - Strategy in Asia

I bought this book thinking it was a full academic text, then learned 2nd hand that one of the editors intends to use it for his class, suggesting it is a textbook. Now i’ve read it I’m not sure it fits either of those two broad categories. And that’s no bad thing.

This is an impressive short volume on some of the major issues and discussions in the field of strategic studies today, as it relates to the most important region for such debates: Asia. The book features 14 short, well written but scholarly chapters looking at how geography, culture and economics affect strategic choices, along with how different types of warfare from irregular to arms races and nuclear deterrence operate. In between are a handful of country chapters, particularly focused on whether China, Japan, India and the US have their own ways of war or particular fascinations and concerns.

Broad sweeping books like this often struggle for coherence, particularly when they are textbooks trying to say everything, or collected academic volumes without a strong editorial hand in control. This book, while not without faults holds together strongly. Bradford Lee’s chapter on economics is particularly strong (as an economist talking politics, rather than the other way around), as is Mankhen on Arms races, Bitzinger on Modernisation, Holmes on Maritime strategy and Yoshihara and Wilson on China’s approach to the sea and way of war respectively.
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Presumptive Engagement: Australia’s Asia-Pacific Security Policy in the 1990s

Presumptive Engagement: Australia’s Asia-Pacific Security Policy in the 1990s
by Desmond Ball, Pauline KerrBall-presumptivee

This is something of a re-read. Though an important one having last flicked through it perhaps a decade ago during Uni. This book was written in 1996, but if you updated a few figures (pushing Australia’s Defence budget from $10 to $30 billion, and changing F/A-18s to F35s) you could bring it out as new without any change to the argument.

Desmond Ball and Pauline Kerr outline the wealth of cooperative engagement undertaken by Australia during the 1980s and 90s, and argue that the efforts are too ad hoc and ungrounded in a serious assessment of the precise objectives sought and how the specific policies and activities of the government will achieve those outcomes.

In short, we lacked a strategy. And we still do. If anything the problem is getting worse, with Rudd’s frenetic pace without purpose, everyone’s criminal neglect of DFAT while increasing responsibilities, and the substantial increase in the weight of expectations that defence diplomacy will save us from a US-China war (yeah sure…).
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Power and International Relations: Essays in honour of Coral Bell

Power and International Relations: Essays in honour of Coral Bell
by Desmond Ball &  Sheryn Lee (Editors)Coral

There isn’t a big tradition of festschrift’s in Australia, but thankfully it seems to be emerging. This is the third major book on a scholars work produced by my centre (The Strategic & Defence Studies Centre, ANU) and last year Sydney Uni produced a volume on Neville Meaney.

They’re a welcome addition to the library of any scholar. While we tend to reach for the primary works to hear the author speak directly, it is very instructive -especially for early career researchers- to see a range of scholars focus on the work of another. A book review, or journal article can only ever cover so much, via a work like this you get a full range of opinions and insights into someone’s collected body of work.

This book provides a dozen short essays, from recollections of her early years in the Department of External Affairs, presence at the signing of ANZUS, academic roles in England and Australia and contribution to some of the leading questions of our time on the Cold War, US policy choice and Australia’s alliance relationships. Stand out chapters include Michael Wesley on Coral’s ‘Negotiation from Strength’, Rob Ayson’s chapter on her ‘The Conventions of Crisis’, and Ian Hall who locates her work in the British intellectual tradition of Martin Wight and Hedley Bull. Collectively the authors see Coral as a ‘Optimistic Realist’. A category so common to Australians, so rare anywhere else.
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The Wife Drought by Annabel Crabb

The Wife Drought
by Annabel CrabbCrabb - Wife drought

This is an impressive book. Annabel Crabb has not only undertaken significant research, but she offers some fresh thinking about the role of women and child rearing in Australia today. As is usual for her, the book is a pleasure to read, both serious enough but also with clever phrasing and personal anecdotes.

I was somewhat surprised while reading this book to find myself arguing with it, though not necessarily because I disagreed with what Crabb was saying. I suspect this reflects an uncomfortable truth: That however much I think my own views are ‘enlightened’ and that I support the ‘appropriate policies’, this isn’t going to be enough to overcome the serious problems laid out in this book. Though I’m not yet sure how it affects my political beliefs.

It did raise some questions and debates in my own mind that I can’t resolve. First, Crabb comes down clearly on the nurture rather than nature side of the debate. Women do more housework and child raising because they’ve been raised to do so. And that’s certainly true. But as Crabb hints at but never quite explores, is there also a nature aspect at work? While human social organisation is far more flexible and weird than some like to admit, the pattern of women taking primary responsibility for child raising does seem rather constant. It’s not that we should accept the current discrimination women face at work or in the home, but rather recognise to what extent this problem is one capable of being solved. By government or anyone else.
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The Peace of Illusions

The Peace of Illusions: American Grand Strategy from 1940 to the Present
by Christopher LayneLayne - Peace of illusions

The most significant academic debate over US strategy in Asia at the moment is between the schools of ‘Deep Engagement’ who support the Obama/Clinton Pivot, and the ‘Offshore Balancers’ who don’t. That’s a simplification of course, but it gets to the nub of thinking about how the US should approach Asia.

The Peace of Illusions is a foundational text for the offshore balancing crowd. Written from a largely realist position, Layne offers a strong critique of the contradictory and hegemonic impulses of the United States towards Europe, Asia and the Middle East. He details how America has consistently sought to shape the rest of the world to be strong enough to stand apart from the Soviets and trade with America, but so weak it can’t meaningfully resist US authority.

This strategy has worked, Layne concedes. The US is the dominant power in most of the world, and in turn the American homeland is safe. Layne’s ‘extratregional hegemony’ theory explains some questions realists otherwise struggle with. Such as why there is such a continuity of US approach to Europe before WW2, during the War, during the Cold War and after the Cold War. And in turn why institutions like NATO have continued apace, as have the 750 plus US bases overseas continued (located in 38 countries).
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Cybersecurity and Cyberwar by P.W. Singer and Allan Friedman

Cybersecurity and Cyberwar: What everyone needs to know
by P.W. Singer and Allan FriedmanSinger - Cybersecurity

A few years ago I made a conscious decision that I wouldn’t seek to branch into writing about cybersecurity. Though it is increasingly important in the general fields of international politics/strategy/Australian security that I wander through, and there are far too few genuine experts in the area, it didn’t seem a good match. Afterall, the only credentials I could bring to it were 2 months of a failed computer science degree and far-too-much-of a lifetime spent staring at a screen.

Still, given the rising significance of the field I can’t not know about it. And nor can you, whatever your field. Online activity (however we label it, given those in the know tell me ‘cyber’ is soo passse) is as much a going concern as gender, race, class, traffic or the weather. And frequently represents a new and distorting facet of those fields as well.

As such primer books that give a basis for future reading and not sounding dumb in social conversation are ideal. I’ve read a few academic articles on the topics over the years, and countless news stories, and this fits neatly in between. It offers enough base principles and systematic discussion that I feel I’ve built a much firmer foundation for my knowledge, without ever seeing sentences such as ‘A computer is an electronic device that….’ It’s not a ‘dummies’ book, or a textbook, but instead a series effort to help get everyone else up to speed.
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God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World

God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World
by Walter Russell MeadWRM - Gold & Gold

Some books become greater than the sum of their parts. Others, like ‘God & Gold’ feel like the parts are still at war with each other. Which is perhaps ironic given Walter Russel Mead’s (WRM) central praise of the pluralistic and competitive nature of Anglo-American societies.

The book sets out to tell the story of the impact of Britain and America on the world as a joint project. Along the way there are some sparkling sections of insight and provocation. WRM is one of the best analysts of US politics and culture, and when he strays towards this territory —which he covered brilliantly in Special Providence— the passages are compelling. Likewise, his defence of the Anglo-American world as capturing something moral and essential in human nature — in the face of its many critics — is important if not always clearly articulated throughout. A paragraph near the end of the book does perhaps the best job:

“The quest for more scientific and technical knowledge, and for the application of the fruits of that knowledge to ordinary human life, is not simply a quest for faster cars and better television reception. It is a quest to fulfil the human instinct for change, arising out of a deep and apparently built-in human belief that through change we encounter the transcendent and the divine. The material and social progress that is such a basic feature of Anglo-American society and of the broader world community gradually taking shape within the framework the Anglo-Americans have constructed ultimately reflects a quest for meaning, not a quest for comfort and wealth (p.409-410)”

There are many other sharp lines and sections, but you tend to trip over them rather than the author leading you to them. As such, I never quite felt the sense that their true nature of these gems had been sufficiently clarified or supported. Instead of a dozen carefully polished nuggets, we get a heavy sack of rocks, some with obvious potential, but many clearly grabbed at random by the author and yet to be properly worked on.
To be unfair, it feels like something less of a book than a series of long blog posts carefully tied together to feel united, but of varying quality and never quite going beyond such a depth as one might find online. I put this book down a few times and had to push on to finish it in the end. WRM is a blogger and one of the best out there, but if this book is anything to go by I fear it has had a negative impact on his efforts to write longer pieces of work.

Notably when WRM uses the insights or structure another author or book to base his analysis (from Lewis Carroll’s parable of British and American power as the Walrus and the Carpenter, through to Johann Gottfried Herder & Reinhold Niebuhr) the sections shine, in part thanks to the anchoring of the other work to a core set of topics or issues. Without that, especially on the sections of European history or religion the text seems to flutter and float, less like a butterfly and more like a paper bag, blown by powerful intellectual winds but never quite in control of its own course.

As such the book doesn’t manage to make as compelling a case as it ought. Nor deal with the inevitable and important criticisms it faces. Yes we should be open to praise of Anglo-Americanism just as we are to its critics. But a book ostensibly about the issue has to deal seriously with both. Instead there is often a Panglossian type optimism that while the English and Yankees are not more virtuous they somehow manage to do everything right. And will probably continue to do so.

Inherent tensions and close run chances of fate are smoothed out. Everything is given an honourable place, especially religion which has spent so long battling the open society forces WRM praises. Yet in his telling actually forms a vital part of why open society forces work in the West. How these elements interact with each other is rarely discussed. At one point geography is the determinant of competition, with Europe’s micro kingdoms battling to thrive vs the stagnate open plains of empires in greater Asia. 50 pages on and it is now religion which kept competition afloat in the UK/US while its absence led to the deadening hand of communist purges on the mainland. Conservatism and tradition and religion do matter and do help explain the success of the West, but it has never been neat or easy and it is the nature of their defeats, not their successes which do far more to explain the outcome we see before us.

This is unfortunate, a book which took on these themes and had a slightly better sense of what it was trying to show or say would have been useful in this time of strategic realignment. I’d liked to have been able to recommend this book to others, as I have been with WRM’s Special Providence as the best book on US foreign policy – my review here – but I can’t say the same for this one.

At one point the author describes the book as a ‘thought experiment’. It feels like it, and it feels underdone. Then again, I get that sense with much of this genre of pro-west writing by those such as Henry Kissinger, Niall Ferguson and the like. Unfortunately I feel neither these authors — nor their most dismissive critics — give this vital issue of what the west represents the serious thought it requires.

This book has the intellectual capital to have done so, it just can’t quite get it onto the page properly. As such, this is a missed opportunity by a writer I continue to admire.

Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics

Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics
by Michael IgnatieffIgnatieff-fireashes

While it is a cliché that history is written by the winners, Ignatieff rightly notes that the best works on politics come from the failures and losers. Thucydides, Cicero, Machiavelli, Weber, Mill, Burke. And now, at least for a few years we can add Ignatieff. While his book won’t long remain amongst such hallowed companions, it should serve readers today as an equally important part of their engagement with politics.

It is reassuring and refreshing to see a man who failed so badly at politics still believe so whole-heartedly in the virtue of politics. Not just engaging as a pastime, but on the need for capable men and women to come down from the stands and onto the field. While many successful politicians leave notes in their memoirs about the importance of serving the people and simply spending time talking to them in their worlds, Ignatieff seems to have learned above all to actively celebrate this service as the core essence of politics. He may be a failure, but he is not a bitter one.

Circumstance and timing gave him a rapid shot – 5 years from entry to opposition leader, election loser and a clean exit through losing his seat – to have a brief but thorough engagement with political life. In turn, we get fascinating insights into the exhausting nature of modern political life and important discussions of how political language works. A highlight is the discussion of standing, earning the right to be heard as perhaps the central challenge of modern politics.
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