Chasing the Norm

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

Month: April, 2015

National Security and Double Government

National Security and Double Government by Michael J. GlennonGlennon - Double government

For many people, US President Barack Obama’s term in office has been a disappointment. Having campaigned on the theme of ‘change’, his foreign policy has closely resembled the second term of the Bush Administration. Why is this so?

It could be Obama never believed what he said, or perhaps he did, but was persuaded in government to stay the course. In ‘National Security and Double Government’, Michael J. Glennon offers a third option, that thanks to the network of national security organisations established under Harry Truman and expanded in size and power ever since (the NSA, NSC, Joint Chiefs of Staff etc), Obama was never really in charge of his government’s policy.

To make clear, Glennon is not suggesting any mass conspiracy. His concern is not about nefarious individuals, but the way a relatively close knit and largely obscure mid-level range of institutions operates to drive policy, often in the face of the wishes of the visible (and publicly responsible) institutions such as the President and Congress.
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Hard Interests, Soft Illusions: Southeast Asia and American Power

Hard Interests, Soft Illusions: Southeast Asia and American Power  by Natasha Hamilton-Hart Hamilton-Hart - Hard interests

The disciplines that study international affairs generally start with a baseline assumption of a rational actor who looks out to the world and coldly calculates national interests, objectives, identifies threats and in turn, fashions a strategy. This picture of a homo strategist however, is a myth.

In this clever book, Natasha Hamilton-Hart examines why Southeast Asian nations tend to support the United States. Rather than simply being a question of objective alignment with their national interests, Hamilton-Hart shows how these calculations are made by a foreign policy community that has its own distinct patterns of thought, standards of information and other social forms that shape their assessment of the world.

Hamilton-Hart’s argument is that it is the material interests of the regimes in Southeast Asia that best explains why these states support the US. The US has often helped these regimes take power, or provided support to those in power. And this, far more than global balance of power questions determines the alignments of these countries or their response to international events. This is both about powerful sources that drive belief and powerful community dynamics that help re-enforce certain beliefs while excluding others.
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Somebody Else’s Century: East and West in a Post-Western World

Somebody Else’s Century: East and West in a Post-Western World  by Patrick Smith Smith - somebody elses

We know Asia is changing materially, but what about mentally?

So poses question at the heart of this fascinating little meditation. Patrick Smith, an American journalist who has lived for decades in Asia approaches the question of the century in a unique and engaging way.

Focusing on China, Japan and India, Smith explores how these societies have dealt with the question of ‘becoming modern’ and the split identity this has forced on them. Western modernity and ‘things’ and eastern history and ‘spirit’. Putting aside discussions of GDP and terms of trade he focuses on how these societies have been molded by their engagement with the west, and now as they grow and strengthen are increasingly seeking to mold themselves. Through many well told stories of travel and conversation, Smith shows how the challenges of remembering and forgetting, building and destroying, separating and combining are occurring in Asia as it throws off a position of identifying itself in split terms or in location to the west.
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The Age of the Unthinkable

The Age of the Unthinkable: Why the New World Disorder Constantly Surprises Us And What We Can Do About It  by Joshua Cooper RamoRamo - Age of unthinkable

The foxes who thought they were hedgehogs

Most people would be aware of Isiah Berlin’s famous metaphor of hedgehogs and foxes. The former know one big thing, the foxes many little things. This idea crops up frequently in books like ‘The Age of the Unthinkable’. It also perfectly describes them. They are largely the work of foxes, dashing from idea to idea and telling you it all amounts to one big insight.

Generally it doesn’t.

I’ve grown more cautious about pulling subtitle-heavy books off the shelves these days. You know the form. A catchy 3-5 word title, laden with a 3-5 clause long claim. In this case “Why the new world disorder constantly surprises us and what we can do about it”. If you go in expecting that the book will fail to live up to its claim, these texts can sometimes be good pointers to interesting ideas or other thinkers. And they do help point to some of the intellectual currents out there. Reading one or two may not tell you much, but skim a few regularly and you can help get the pulse of an era, even if it’s more reverberation than beating heart.
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The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia

The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia  by Bill Hayton Hayton - South China Sea

Books like this tend to lie right in my sweet spot for social reading. A big current topic, written by a journalist, but one who has taken the time to seriously engage with the academic literature.

This is an excellent read for anyone interested in perhaps the hottest place for modern geopolitics since we all re-discovered Crimea on a map. The South China Sea is where we see the clearest expression of China’s search for a new regional order and with it the region’s response, including of course, the resident non-resident America.

‘The South China Sea’ makes a serious attempt to explore these contested water ways from a wide variety of angles. The chapters on the history of claims for the area, chocked full of absurd figures and ambitions, and the discussion of potential oil and gas resources in the area are excellent considerations. Other chapters, such as on the military dimension or nationalism can feel a bit once over lightly, but they round out the book and will appeal to those who have not been following the issues closely.
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The Tools of Owatatsumi: Japan’s Ocean Surveillance and Coastal Defence Capabilities

The Tools of Owatatsumi: Japan’s Ocean Surveillance and Coastal Defence Capabilities by Desmond Ball, Richard TanterBall - Tools of Owatatsumi

The field of Strategic Studies has always had something of a split focus. At one level it is concerned with the mechanics of the use of force: what are the exact capabilities and limitations of the tools at your disposal. At another level, strategic studies is concerned with the purpose of force: Why do countries fight, when do they fight, how do they avoid fighting etc.

As a discipline, Strategic Studies owes its creation largely to the former question, given our urgent and life-changing need to understand just what kind of power we had come into control of at the dawn of the nuclear age. Over time however, the discipline has lumbered towards the second form. Not all of us can be rocket scientists, and frankly the most interesting and important questions are often not what a weapon can do, but what you want a weapon for.

There is however a hierarchy of knowledge here, and while the political questions are largely seen as more interesting and important, the technical and mechanical analyses are the necessary origins of our political judgements. It is firmly in the technical camp that you’ll find ‘The Tools of Owatatsumi: Japan’s Ocean Surveillance and Coastal Defence Capabilities’ by Desmond Ball and Richard Tanter.
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Painting as a Pastime

Painting as a Pastime by Winston S. ChurchillChurchill - painting

I hesitate to list this short tome as a book read, but it is a powerful meditation on one of life’s most significant topics from one of the greatest writers of the 20th century.

Churchill’s staggering influence often makes him seem a remote figure, and modern tellings of his life too often deify his actions. But reading this book you’ll hear his real voice. Afraid of being mocked, worried about what comes next, exhausted from his struggles, yet still passionate to keep pushing on and seeking to suck more from the marrow of life. There are many gorgeous phrases in this book. As an inveterate scribbler in the margins I wanted to mark them all, and yet felt the pull of the pen to hold back and leave the text untouched so others can enjoy this book in its pure form.

The text ostensibly is about Churchill’s late in life discovery of painting as a pastime. But why this book exists, and why so many non-painters have recommended it, is because it is really about how to manage a career where your passion and profession are the same. That may seem like an indulgent challenge when so many work jobs they can’t stand and are lectured nightly to ‘just follow your passion’. But it’s a real issue.
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