Chasing the Norm

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

This Time is Different

This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly
by Carmen M. Reinhart, Kenneth Rogoff

Interesting, and important but pretty dry. I would recommend for all those who say Australia’s debt ‘doesn’t matter’. This book shows that even if we are comparatively much better off than most countries, and have a comparatively low debt to GDP, that it still makes wise financial sense to move towards a low debt status. Indeed, the fact we are doing so much better is all the more reason to keep our noses extra clean.

This book had the exquisite timing of coming out during the GFC, but was not written to directly address it or the after effects, so it is a strong history and source of information without being dragged into the partisan debates about ‘austerity’.

That said, I ended up skimming it once I’d picked up the main themes. Useful to have on the shelf. Maybe i’ll learn more from it through osmosis if it stays there long enough.

Special Providence

Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World
by Walter Russell Mead

I’ve long been a reader of Walter Russell Mead’s (WRM) blog, but without quite realising why. His politics always seemed different to my own, but I liked being provoked and somewhat led along the thoughtlines of this engaging writer.

Thus, I’d been looking forward to reading this book for a while. I consider myself first & foremost a foreign policy scholar and what nation after my own is more interesting to see under the disciplinary microscope than the US. I’d also heard a lecture while I was in the US which used the conceptual framework of this book to organise the discussion. For the rest of my trip I hunted a copy of this book, but like my own white whale, failed to catch it. Instead I had to turn to the ingenuity of American commerce to eventually land a copy at my door.

At the heart of this book is the argument that US foreign policy has four schools: The most well known are the commercially inclined Hamiltonian’s who built the global economic system, and the Wilsonian lawyers/missionaries who gave us its institutional framework. Less understood (and far more scorned when encountered) are the stay-at-home pessimistic Jeffersonian’s (experiencing a mini-revival under the libertarian umbrella) and the god & country strivers of the Jacksonian school. If the first two schools represent the bankers and missionaries of the North East, the latter may be stereotyped as the aristocrats and red necks of the south.

Between them however, they have managed to provide a ballast and ‘realism’ to American foreign policy that has led this nation to a position of authority, legitimacy and significance unrivaled in human history. I use the term realism deliberately because, for all the wisdom of WRM’s main argument, there’s another just-as-clever theme behind the ‘four schools’ organisation of this book.

Much like Fukuyama’s End of History, it’s easy to just track the ‘big idea’ at the center of this book and miss the elegance and deliberateness with which the author has structured their argument. The first 100 pages or so of Special Providence are not mere throat clearing about the four schools but a very important argument: namely that US foreign policy succeeds precisely because it has not tried to follow that most well known and adored icon of foreign policy: The Continental realist.

For at least the last century to be ‘serious’ in international affairs was to be a realist. Despite Machiavelli’s actual record as a failed diplomat scribbling away in his shed, his robes are still the most desired outfit for wanna-be scholars and practitioners. Just learn a few lines like the ‘failure of Versailles’ and ‘Nixon going to China’ and you can befriend almost any IR post-grad in the security field.

Yet WRM delivers a fairly brutal uppercut to this mythology by noting that American foreign policy seems to have succeeded precisely because it didn’t follow Niccolo’s maxims. Most notably, economics & economic links play a substantially larger role than the Florentine would have understood. Likewise Wilsonian idealism seems a too-obvious punching bag which some like my near-name-sake E.H. Carr made their career’s taking well-aimed shots at. Yet, we live in a Wilsonian world. Likewise Jeffersonians and Jacksonians are responsible for the ingenuity and endurance of the American system when more ‘realistic’ advisers would have simply doubled down or given up and fold their cards.

Special Providence was released in mid-2001, yet it holds up remarkably well. Tensions with China and ill-consequences from arming the mujahideen can all be found in here. I suspect, WRM would also still endorse his call for a greater Jeffersonian voice in US foreign policy (the school I would consider myself also closest to). To be fair, I’m one of those who think politics today is only understood by those who have drank deeply from the past. This seems a somewhat rare view among many in our journalist and academic classes, so this book is a siren call to me. But I can honestly say, I’ve not read a book that will better explain the role & challenges of America today than this 13 year old book which spends most of its time talking about the 18 and 19th century.

Highly recommended.

Diary of a Foreign Minister

Diary of a Foreign Minister
by Bob Carr

Typically Australians prefer their former politicians to be neither seen nor heard. While a judiciously delayed post-office memoir is considered acceptable, we don’t seem to quite know what to do with those like Paul Keating, Malcolm Fraser or Bob Carr who breech this convention.

Yet we are the better for them having done so. While Keating (Engagement) and Fraser (Dangerous Allies) have written two important books on foreign policy ideas, Carr’s Diaries are a must read for their insight on foreign policy practice. And indeed politics as it is practiced daily by our political class.

The joy of this book is being as close to the action as possible, with a very dry, boyish narrator leading us through his mere 18 months near the top of the greasy pole, and some insight into how he got there.

This book exploded into the popular press with its lines about lack of pjs in first class, missing subtitles on Wagnerian operas and steel cut oats and abs. These comments can be read alongside the other bemoans of deep sleep deprivation & a loss of the comfortable retired life of the mind Carr had built. But Carr knew exactly what he was doing by keeping such absurd concerns in these pages. Bob Carr is one of the greatest directors of the Sideshow of Australian politics, and these pages and the launch of this book show him still a master of this game.

For foreign policy buffs, the real insights are twofold. One that Gillard and DFAT were bereft of a coherent foreign policy approach (i’m loath to use the word strategy for reasons discussed here: http://www.aspistrategist.org.au/why-…). No great surprise there but this book is all the prosecution needs to secure its case. This lack of preparedness or direction for Australian foreign policy did leave me wondering whether books on Australian foreign or defence policy history have had much chance to grace his bedside table. Like many of our political class, he seems to regard history as something that happens to other countries.

More encouraging is Carr’s attempt to untangle the US-China-Australia knot. Carr seemed unprepared for the challenges he faced, and he comes out of the experience with no great insights for the way forward. Yet his rambling seminar is still a must read for showing how bedeviling the relationship truly is for our leadership and the narrowness of their sense of policy options. The two radical ideas Carr has – A proposal to resolve the South China Sea disputes based on the Antarctica Treaty, and Australian membership of ASEAN are raised then quickly dropped. Carr’s assertion that ‘all foreign policy is a series of improvisations’ is rightly criticised, but given he was given little direction from above or below, and the complete failure of the system-builder he proceeded (Rudd), his record in office is a highly competent one.

This is a long book, but it is very well written, often very funny and for those who want to get a sense of just what it’s like to be in the job, there’s no better option. While no doubt many former colleagues (and bureaucrats) have cursed his name in recent months, the Australian public is well served by the book’s release. Simply writing such a book and putting it out within months of his departure from the spotlight is a radical move.

More of this please.

Dangerous Allies

Dangerous Allies
by Malcolm Fraser, Cain Roberts

This book is the last word on the debate about Australia’s Foreign Policy ‘independence’. The last word because the case is a bust. At heart this book is a ho-hum recitation of the long hymn of ‘independence’ which was sung most prominently and successfully by Fraser’s arch rival Gough Whitlam and generations of lefties ever since. Now however, Fraser has joined them, thanks to a good research assistant and with barely an acknowledgement except to claim some of Robert McNamara’s legacy for himself (the Fog of War admissions not the failing to win Vietnam thing).

If you think Australia is too close to the US, and want to know the historical justification for such a view, this is your book. But you probably wouldn’t want to consult it to know what’s going on in Asia today or where Australia should turn next. Despite the title and 200 pages of build up, the last section which purports to say why Australia must abandon the US alliance is by far the weakest, least persuasive section of the book.

Fraser’s argument essentially has three parts
1) Australia has been abandoned before by a great power protector (Britain in 1941)
2) The US has erred before (Vietnam, then Iraq)
3) Pine Gap & the Marines in Darwin make us a target, make us complicit in things we don’t like (drone strikes)

There’s a good deal of truth to all three. But cumulatively they don’t really amount to much. I read the last section of the book wonder ‘Is this really it?’. After years as a critic, is potential complicity in drone strikes in Yemen really the best counter-argument to the US alliance which Fraser can muster?

Fraser’s thesis is one that has been sung for forty-years, but while he keeps coming back to the terms ‘independence’ and ‘strategic dependence’, these don’t actually seem his concerns. If Australia was more willing to occasionally disagree with the US, and had a bigger defence force of its own, I suspect this book would not have emerged from his pen. And while the term ‘independence’ is found throughout, I suspect you could remove it and not change the book very much.

Fraser wants a liberal, open hearted, activist foreign policy. He sees the US as an impediment to this, but other than a ‘once bitten twice shy’ type rhetoric about Vietnam, there’s hardly any substance to the ‘dangerous allies’ claim.

The best parts of this book are due to his research assistant Cain Roberts. It’s quite clear who writes which sections. Cain seems to have written all the pre-Vietnam section which is clear and logical (largely) and Fraser the 1960’s onwards which rambles and can never quite kick the football that has been faithfully lined up for it.

The story I really want to read (and that didn’t appear in his biography either) was how he came to shift so clearly in views. That’s a fascinating story (indeed if you didn’t know who Fraser was you’d be hard tasked from this book to know that 1) he was prime minister of Australia for 8 years 2) he was a Liberal, hard-right cold war warrior.

Still, this is an important book. We need more of our former leaders writing about issues, not just trying to assert their legacy in history. More of it please, but if you’re anyone but this book serves as a last word, not because of the bang of its argument but its whimper.

Australia-China Relations post 1949

Australia-China Relations post 1949: Sixty Years of Trade and Politics.
By Yi Wang

(Review first published by Pacific Affairs: Volume 87, No. 3 – September 2014)

Middle age is often seen as a time for reflection on our lives, and the 40-year mark of the relationship between the People’s Republic of China and Australia is an apt time for reflection. Yi Wang has written a timely study that joins a number of recent publications on the fascinating relationship between the newest great power of Asia, and an aging middle power. This book examines the relationship from the Australian perspective, divided into discrete historical chapters roughly linked with Australian prime ministers. Chapters include the 1949–1972 period, the Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser years (1972–1983), the Bob Hawke government up until the “June 4” incident in 1989, 1989–1996 under Hawke and Paul Keating, John Howard’s long reign from 1996–2007 and finally Kevin Rudd’s aborted 2007–2010 term.

As the subtitle indicates, the author weaves a careful study of both the political and trade aspects of the relationship, and works hard to bring both parts to light and show the links between the two. Wang demonstrates that while there have been regular diplomatic disputes and political challenges, the overall relationship has significantly strengthened and matured. As Wang notes, this is in large part because Australian leaders and their Chinese counterparts have placed the maintenance of good trade relationships ahead of political considerations. This has not only served the economies of both countries well, it has enabled a deepening relationship where issues such as human rights and regional security politics now have the opportunity to be openly discussed.

Reading through the years, it’s encouraging to see how similar many of the debates and worries about China have been for Australian audiences. Wang’s historical survey shows that contemporary fears about how close Australia should get to China and the relative balance between the security and economic aspects of the relationship are neither new nor particularly fraught today. The book also shines in periods where the author, a former Chinese official now working in Australia, was either involved or at least present for key moments in the relationship. The section on Australia’s
human rights delegation visits to China after Tiananmen, and the analysis of Kevin Rudd’s now infamous “zhengyou” or “true friend” speech shine with personal detail and sharp analysis. Indeed, the analysis of the “Rudd paradox,” where a Mandarin-speaking former diplomat oversaw growing mistrust and suspicion between China and Australia, is excellent.

Unfortunately, the wide scope and different levels of access means a varying quality and quantity of analysis. The author has managed to talk to many senior policy makers on the Australian side, but aside from an interview with John Howard in 2011, the bulk of the interviews were conducted back in 1991–1994. This is a shame, as it would have been great to see the author revisit those involved during this crucial period and see how their views have changed or evolved over time. The interviews and the author’s engagement with the early 1990s period also lead to an overly heavy focus on this era. Most chapters, such as the one on the 23 years between 1949–1972 or on  the 11 years between 1996–2007 run to about 30 pages in length. The 16 years of the Hawke-Keating government, however, is given 88 pages. In turn, the impact of Whitlam, Fraser and Howard in particular feels under-done. The “findings and conclusion” chapter is also too brief, while raising many tantalizing but unaddressed questions. It’s also clear that the author’s interest lies more towards the trade side of the relationship, and so several of the political questions which are raised
in the introduction are largely sidelined during the book. Most notably, the author sets out to “answer the question of whether Australia has been pursuing its relations with China independently or otherwise” (ix) given its alliance with the US, yet aside from a few half-hearted references the issue is largely ignored. The author doesn’t even really address the topic in the findings chapter, aside from dismissing similarities between Canberra and Washington’s approach to Beijing as a “coincidence of interests [rather] than from blind subservience to great power policy” (211).

This is a shame, as the impact of the great powers on Australian foreign policy is one of the key questions in the field, and Wang’s focus on a nonallied power such as China could have proven an excellent addition to the literature. Certainly careful readers can see a justification for the author’s assessment in the historical chapters and draw their own conclusions, but it would have been useful to see a more explicit engagement throughout. Indeed, while the author sets out to present the book as a work of political science and international relations, this feels at times like a coat pulled over the top of a more traditional piece of diplomatic history—one put on in order to attract a wider readership without necessarily deepening the analysis. Big questions such as whether Australia now faces a “China choice,” for instance, are hinted at by the author, yet left untouched. Ultimately, this book represents a very useful reference work that will inform and guide any student or scholar of Australian foreign policy. But it also feels like something of a missed opportunity. Given the author’s background, it would have been great to learn more about what the Chinese think of this middle-sized Western outpost with its great mineral wealth and a healthy self-regard on the international stage. Maybe that’s for the next book. Until then Yi Wang is to be congratulated for holding up a mirror to Australia’s approach to China, showing both the growing strength, as well as patches of flab that need further work.

The Masterpiece

The Masterpiece (Les Rougon-Macquart, #14)
by Émile Zola, (Translated by Roger Pearson)

If books are valuable, and tourism is enjoyable, books about the locations one is a tourist in are a winning combination. Thus I picked up Zola’s The Masterpiece while recently in Paris on vacation.

This beautiful, funny, philosophical and ultimately tragic story is at heart a treatise on ambition. While it centres on a painter, it involves a cast of writers, sculptors, architects, musicians and could apply to anyone who is bound by larger visions for their life’s purpose. Less a mere ‘goal’ but consuming passions to create and bring out of you what is in you, to produce something of real merit and importance in your chosen field.

Zola’s insight and part of the charm of the book comes from his close connection to the French impressionists, such as Cezanne, Monet, and others who he knew and who are loosely represented in this book set in 1860s-80s Paris.

The struggle to create is the central focus as Zola’s characters age from dashing young figures trying to bring a new art form, appropriate for a new age to life and find themselves ground down and turned down as much by themselves and their faults as by the conservatism and ignorance of the society they seek to change. As they change they debate the meaning and significance of ambition and achievement, whether it is decided upon or some irrepressible force within, and how it might come about and in what circumstances it is vanquished.

The book is not all of uniform quality, some chapters and lines sparkle, while some seem to drag, and it’s slightly too apparent what must happen to our central figure and how much the writer identifies himself with one of the key characters. Given it’s part of a series of 20 books, at times I thought I would instantly order the rest from Amazon, at other times I simply wanted to finish it and move on. I’m yet to order any, but I don’t doubt I will do so shortly.

For all who want a life that amounts to more than the mere animal achievement of existence and reproduction, this will be a gripping manuscript that really is, as the title suggests ‘A Masterpiece’.

John Quincy Adams

John Quincy Adams
by Harlow Giles Unger

Many years ago when somewhat lost in life, I chanced across an audio book version of David Mcculloch’s biography on John Adams. It left a great impression on me, especially because of the sheer humanity of its central figure. Here was a man who, while he could often be disagreed with, seemed to breath the same air as the rest of us, rather than floating above it all as Jefferson and Washington at times seemed to.

I’d thus long been intrigued by the story of his son also becoming President, but it was not till I learned (Via Robert Kagan’s excellent book Dangerous Nation) that John Quincy Adams played an even more important role in starting the national debate about slavery in the early 18th century. The fires for change John Quincy Adam’s lit would not be extinguished until the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation.

While perhaps not a first rate biography, Harlow Giles Unger has produced a highly readable, engaging and important book on an oft overlooked figure. So often is it wondered how the US managed to produce such figures of genius at the time of its revolution, Quincy Adams was perhaps the last of these towering figures whose life and experience tells the story of how the aristocratic elite slowly came to pass from American political life.

As with his friend Thomas Jefferson, Quincy Adams may have been President, but this is almost among the least of his achievements. He joined his father’s ambassador trips to Europe at 10, aged 14 he worked as an aide and translator to the US ambassador to Russia. He continued serving as a diplomat (often leading US delegations and key missions) until returning to the US in his 50s to serve as a leading Constitutional scholar, Secretary of State and finally a completely ineffectual President.

Indeed it’s almost charming how bad a President was Quincy Adams given his expansive talents and experience. As Unger notes, perhaps no man was more prepared for the Presidency yet achieved so little.

Yet in one of the great revivals of political history, Quincy Adams returns, at first hesitantly, to the Congress and finds his true voice and calling: To preserve his nation via the eradication of slavery. He did so in the party of no man but himself. With enemies so high on every side the Congress for many years had an instituted Gag Rule preventing him from speaking. But still he found ways to continue his campaign for change.

John Quincy Adams is the man who links the two great tales of US history, the Revolution and the End of Slavery. He served both causes and helped establish the latter as an inevitable and necessary condition of the full completion of the former.

In a scene as if written by Shakespeare (or even some two-bit hack for it is almost too perfect) Quincy Adam’s end came during a roll call on the floor of the House of Representatives. He had indeed given his life for his country and his principles.

Quincy Adam’s deserves a fuller telling than it has received, but hopefully this book, at an easy 300 pages of clean prose can help to revitalise interest and encourage some other scholar to create the full modern volume which is so richly deserved.

Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War

Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War
by Robert M. Gates

If journalism is the first draft of history, Memoirs are the first draft of legends. Generally written with the ambition to cement the authors place in history, scorn their foes and embellish their achievements. Like most fiction writers however their stories fail to capture the public imagination and slowly fade away.

Not so with this one. Gates makes a push for his own iconography, beginning with the simple yet bold assertion of the title, yet for once this author achieves his target. While there’s a little bit of a boy scout style to some of Gate’s discussions about only being secretary of defence because of a sense of duty (to the country and the troops) and his annoyance at finding politicians practising politics, generally you can’t help but appreciate the man.

I was recommended this book by a US military official at the Pentagon as an excellent explanation of the building and how it (doesn’t) work. On this score the book is excellent, you get a real sense for the management and ideas of management that drove his time in office. Not only with his senior departmental staff, but up to the President and all the way down to how he sought to interact with the troops (civilian Defence officials seem largely missing-in-action from this story).

This is slightly less true for the discussion of issues. Most of the book is on Iraq and Afghanistan, but unless you have a very good knowledge of the conflicts you won’t get much out of the discussions, and then, if you do know about them in some detail, you probably know what you’ll find anyway. It was more telling what he didn’t tend to discuss, namely China and Asia. This might have been an editor’s cuts to keep the book with a main focus, but I suspect it also well represents the attention of the Pentagon from 2006-11. And probably through to today.

So Gates succeeds because he aim’s at a big easy target. He doesn’t claim to have ‘won the wars’ (though implies he avoided defeat in both cases), but simply sets out to establish his legend as one who was asked to serve, tried to do so in a pragmatic, decent manner and largely succeed at it. He never aimed as high as Rumsfeld in reforming Defence, but neither did he ever fall quite so far. There’s a reason this book is still in the bookshop shelves several months after release. It’s an easy and enjoyable read.

Gates is clearly sympathetic to Bush Jnr and very respectful of Obama. He has issues with both their staff and a handful of their judgements (which is where all the press attention was focused), but this is not only to be expected but welcomed. We want leaders who have their own views, press for them, identify where they disagree, but ultimately recognise that serving the country requires implementing and promoting as best you can the views of the democratically elected leaders.

That, more than any 19th century sense of patriotism to the country or ‘troops’, is the real modern version of ‘Duty’. One too easily forgotten, but hopefully well reminded to the many who pick up this book.

Maximalist: America in the world from Truman to Obama

Maximalist: America in the World from Truman to Obama
by Stephen Sestanovich

There’s a certain formula for current books on global politics today. Assert an argument about the nature of change (generally along the lines of the US decline, rise of others, yadda yadda), then recount the history of the Cold War and decades since, cherry picking your way through those events which support your thesis, and wrap up with a small conclusion chapter that has some policy recommendations.

Like most authors, it’s that last chapter which is hardest. For many it’s perhaps unnecessary, they are not here to advise governments but to shape thinking. In this case however the difficulty in the last chapter is a telling blow.

The author argues that there is a clear cycle to US foreign policy, between Maximalist and Retrenchment approaches (I.e. go big, or go home). There’s merit to this, indeed I often think one of the most under-rated aspects of democratic government’s capacity is their cyclical, self-correcting nature.

Yet Sestanovich can’t quite make up his mind which approach is the right one. You get the sense he strongly prefers Maximalist governments, but he’s too honest to properly condemn Eisenhower, Nixon, Carter or Obama for their moments of pause and re-conceptualisation.

As such, this book is left with a reasonably good historical over-view, but the take away is somewhat confused. Like another (much better) book on recent geopolitics politics (‘Still ours to lead’ by Bruce Jones) I suspect the title does more harm than good to readers of this book.

Thus, his is a solid over view of US foreign policy and strategies, though not quite as strong on the Cold War strategic aspect as Gaddis’s ‘Strategies of Containment’ nor as comprehensive on the governance structure as David Rothkopf’s ‘Running the World’ on the NSC. Nor as good on the modern international environment as the above mentioned Jones ‘Still ours to lead’ or any number of rise of China tomes.

Sometimes it’s worth reading these books just to refresh the history, know what the arguments of former policy makers are, and since it’s rather straight forward you’ll be able to skim through it in a day or two.You’ll enjoy it if you find yourself with access to a copy (perhaps a long flight ahead), but it’s unlikely one to make much of an impression.

America the Philosophical

America the Philosophical
by Carlin Romano

This is a very good tour of the mind of the US. A former book reviewer, Romano makes a strong case that while Sarah Palin exists and academic analytical philosophy may be a dead end (insofar as it’s struggling to replicate itself or engage the general public), the US is a very intellectual, even philosophical society.

We all half know this. Most of the era-defining authors headed to, or are products of the American system. And if we take Philosophy as more than an academic degree in logic, and view it an active process of public debate and discussion of ideas, then America has a rightful claim to one of the most vibrant philosophical societies on the planet.

While I like the argument, even more important for me was the chance to build and extend my ‘interested/must read’ author list. Everyone knows the Nietzsches/Kant/Hume/Berkley’s of this world. But what about mid-late twentieth century thinkers who are little known beyond the academy. Or those in the fields of sociology, linguistics, political theory, psychology and so on who have made important [dare we say it] philosophical contributions to how we understand modern life.

It was an extra pleasure to read this book while in the US, but for anyone who has visited the classics and is looking for a new reading list, that is engagingly discussed within a larger argument for the importance and significance of America for the frontiers of thought today, this is a welcome addition to your bookshelves

Middle Power Dreaming

Middle Power Dreaming:  Australia in World Affairs, 2006-2010
James Cotton and John Ravenhill (eds.)

(Review first published in Australian Army Journal • Volume IX, Number 1)

Of what do middle powers dream? This is the intriguing question at the heart of this excellent addition to the Australia in World Affairs series. Like its predecessors (this is the fourth edited by James Cotton and John Ravenhill), Middle Power Dreaming is a must have reference for any serious student of Australian foreign policy. It provides an authoritative account of Australian foreign policy during the last years of the Howard government, the full Rudd government, and some early thoughts on the Gillard government, and is written by many of the most respected observers of the Australian political landscape. One advantage of a whole book on a short period of time is its ability to delve into the machinery of Australia’s foreign policy. For instance Michael Wesley carefully charts one of the most significant changes of the last five years, the move by the Australian Government from what Alan Dupont and William J Reckmeyer have termed a ‘narrowly construed, siloed approach to national security planning towards a genuinely whole-of-government stance’. 1 Likewise James Cotton’s discussion of the United States–Australia relationship details the specific events and institutions that keep the relationship humming, while Tanya Lyons gives much needed attention to the growing Australia–Africa relationship. Garry Rodan also has an artful chapter on Australia’s relationship with South-East Asia, especially when discussing asylum seekers, an issue which has generated so much heat, but so little light in Australian scholarship over the last decade.

As always with multi-author books about recent events, the tension between recording and reflecting does raise some issues. One notable tension is that the term ‘middle power’ is used in a variety of different and somewhat contradictory fashions. The editors begin, stating that ‘the close identification of the country’s foreign policy with that of the United States during the Howard governments, and their contempt for many of the activities of the United Nations (UN), rendered any middle power ambitions that [Foreign Minister Alexander] Downer might have harboured unlikely to be realised’ only to write a few lines later that ‘The “middle power” concept refers principally to aspects other than size, but most definitions refer, in one way or another, to capability or “capacity”’. 2 Neither contempt for multilateral institutions, nor close relations with a great power affect the size, capability and capacity of a state. While the later definition is likely drawn from Ravenhill’s excellent 1998 article on middle power activism, 3 the book Middle Power Dreaming seems guided by the literature’s traditional definition of middle powers as states which ‘pursue multilateral solutions to international problems … embrace compromise positions in international disputes and … embrace notions of “good international citizenship” to guide their diplomacy’. 4 This focus on multilateralism helps explains why the editors suggest Australia under the Howard Government wasn’t a middle power, but was under the Rudd Government. Not because Australia had suddenly changed, but because the Government was now more open to multilateral institutions.

Yet surely the co-editors of this volume were deliberate in their title choice of Middle Power Dreaming instead of ‘Multilateralism Dreaming’. Rudd wanted a larger role for Australia, but so did John Howard and Alexander Downer. The Howard Government’s record of activism and global influence might have been less than their political opponents, but their build-up of Australia’s defence capability, deployment of these forces in East Timor, Afghanistan and Iraq, and their regional leadership of the Proliferation Security Initiative all suggest a middle power in action. Can we really dismiss all this simply because of their ideological dislike of multilateral forums? The confusion over what defines a middle power demonstrates Cooper’s claim that the literature has reached an ‘impasse’. 5 Fortunately, the title of this volume may identify a way out of this conflict. Of what do policy makers in middle power countries dream? The best answer is influence in matters that affect their nation’s interest. While multilateralism might be the forum in which these policy makers tend to operate (as do most states on most issues), we need another definition of middle powers that gets at the systemic role these states play in international affairs that is free from the normative judgements found within behavioural definitions. 6 After all, the real value of terms such as middle powers is not their classification of power, but their explanation of it. Such as, what is the impact of middle power states on the international and regional system? Can they overcome the wishes of a great power on an issue of utmost significance? A systemic definition might help answer these questions, and provides a greater predictive power than other  approaches. Some initial work in this vein was undertaken by scholars such as Robert Keohane, 7 but it needs updating for the modern era.

Another difficulty faced by the editors and authors of this volume is the disruptions for Australian foreign policy from the three changes of government between 2006 and 2010. Discussions of Howard and Gillard sit slightly uncomfortably in the book—one tired but well established, the other yet to begin. The real question is what to make of Kevin Rudd’s Government—a government that started so many projects, but completed few of them. Andrew O’Neil in the final chapter is right to argue that first term governments always struggle, but inexperience doesn’t quite explain the Rudd Government’s tendency to drive in circles. Prime Minister Rudd not only had major problems of process and decision making, it wasn’t always clear which way Rudd wanted to go. He was both a ‘true friend’ and a ‘brutal realist’ on China. He launched an anti-nuclear commission and then embraced the US nuclear umbrella. He worked himself to exhaustion in support of a climate change agreement at Copenhagen, yet quietly dropped his own emissions trading scheme at home. Even important and worthwhile initiatives such as the Asia-Pacific community were derailed over Rudd’s initial confusion over whether the European Union was, or was not, a model. While Kevin Rudd is a careful student of Australia’s place in the world, his constant, crippling demands for more information and delayed decisions suggests a man who didn’t yet have a course in mind when he took over the country. Of what did Kevin Rudd dream on behalf of Australia in the Asian century? Middle Power Dreaming suggests even he didn’t quite know. Rudd wanted activism and change for the better certainly, but struggled to limit his ambitions to either the few really big issues or select from the niche opportunities where Australia could have the most influence. So, he tried to do everything, but ended up giving proper attention to nothing. The complexities of this fascinating Prime Minister and period in Australian foreign policy are nowhere better covered than this latest edition of the Australia in World Affairs series.

Endnotes
1 Alan Dupont and William J Reckmeyer, ‘Australia’s National Security Priorities:
Addressing Strategic Risk in a Globalised World’, Australian Journal of International
Affairs, Vol. 66, Iss. 1, 2012, p. 35.
2 James Cotton and John Ravenhill, ‘Middle Power Dreaming: Australian Foreign
Policy During the Rudd–Gillard Governments’ in James Cotton and John Ravenhill
(eds) Middle Power Dreaming: Australia in World Affairs, 2006–2010, Oxford
University Press, South Melbourne, 2012, p. 2.
3 John Ravenhill, ‘Cycles of Middle Power Activism: Constraint and Choice in
Australian and Canadian Foreign Policies’, Australian Journal of International Affairs,
Vol. 52, No. 3, 1998, pp. 309–27.
page 142 • Volume IX, Number 1 • Australian Army Journal
Book review • Andrew Carr
4 David Cooper, ‘Challenging Contemporary Notions of Middle Power Influence:
Implications of the Proliferation Security Initiative for “Middle Power Theory”’,
Foreign Policy Analysis, Vol. 7, Iss. 3, 2011, p. 319.
5 Cooper, ‘Challenging Contemporary Notions’, p. 323.
6 Cooper, ‘Challenging Contemporary Notions’, p. 321.
7 Robert W Keohane, ‘Lilliputians Dilemmas: Small States in International Politics’,
International Organisation, Vol. 23, No. 2, 1969, pp. 291–310.

The Age of Airpower

The Age of Airpower
by Martin van Creveld

A very easy to read and provocative romp through the way air power (defined widely to include missiles, space and some discussion of cyber) has shaped conflict and discussion of conflict. Van Creveld’s two big take aways are that strategic bombing almost never has the effect its supporters claim (esp psychological – he argues we’ve almost never seen an opponent bombed into submission), and secondly that dogfight -of the sort we’ve just bought $12b worth of F-35’s to carry out- are probably also a thing of the past.

No surprise the least supportive blurb on the back cover is from an airforce journal. Normally I’m not a huge fan of books about military hardware (weapon’s don’t make war in my view), but books about particular aspects of war like this can be fascinating reading. As much for the way people have thought about various arenas and environments and how to master them, as much as the actual technology and stories of conquest and defeat.

Still Ours To Lead

Still Ours to Lead: America, Rising Powers, and the Tension between Rivalry and Restraint
by Bruce Jones

This is the best book I’ve read in the last 12 months on the changing geopolitics of Asia. Of course take that judgement with care, as the judgements of this book are perhaps also the closest to my own. Namely, that while there is a ‘rise of the rest, relative decline of the US’, the most important factors for understanding the liklihood of war and peace are far more structural.

Most importantly, i’ve been awaiting a text which engages with the vast imbalance of power towards the US thanks to its alliances and partnerships with more than 90% of the most powerful and significant countries. This one fact seems to me the most ignored yet vital issue. Yet since it has not yet even entered mainstream analysis(except at the most superficial level), it seems even more remote policy discussions.

Taking the Asia-Pacific as a focus, Bruce Jones brings a nice mix of personal insight (from his role as a negotiator on behalf of the us) and enough distance to be critical of recent administrations. He also has a reasonable turn of phrase and ability to weave good metaphors into his text. For example, on the role and importance of allies and partners, Jones compares the West/China debate to a US style electoral college map. Considering solid, leaning and swing states, Jones shows clearly that this is still the West’s race to lose. Only western error, not Chinese ingenuity will fundamentally change the current position.

Let’s hope more people read this (despite the title being rather misleading, this is not another ‘boosterism’ book) and begin to think seriously about US policy in Asia. Strongly recommended.

ANZAC’s Long Shadow

ANZAC’s Long Shadow: The Cost of Our National Obsession
by James Brown

This is an excellent book. Short, sharply written, but giving a depth and expansiveness to a question which is often written off as simple or straightforward in newspaper op-eds.

It is perhaps telling that it took a former military officer to write this book. Such is the odd nature of Australia’s relationship with its military. As James demonstrates we have been failing our troops for too long, both in our understanding of what we ask them to do in our name, and in the support we provide for them when they get home. Yet, we spend hundreds of millions commemorating those who died nearly a century ago, and refuse to even discuss the possibility of failure or misuse of our military.

Like Ross Garnaut’s Dog Days, this is what i’d term a citizenship book (and props to their co-publisher, Redback for what is shaping up to be an important series). A book that I wish all citizens would read and think about (certainly it is engaging enough that all could) and then form part of the wider public debate.

The Second Machine Age

The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies
by Erik Brynjolfsson, Andrew McAfee

This is a solid attempt to understand how digitalisation and automation is changing our economy and lifestyles. Having enjoyed Race Against The Machines by these authors, and the praise they get from authors I respect such as Tyler Cowen, I had hoped for more honestly.

It’s not that this book is bad in any sense, but it’s neither deep and insightful enough if you’ve already read a bit about this topic, nor coherently organised and introduced if you want to begin learning about the issues.

The authors tend to wander between boosterism of technology and a macro economics focus that sometimes has little to do with the rise of machines. I learned more about the emergence of robots and their strengths and weaknesses from Peter W. Singer’s Wired for War, and more about the economic impact of robots from Tyler Cowen’s Average is over. Though maybe that’s not Brynjolfsson & Mcaffee’s fault, as Cowen acknowledges and praises their work early and often, and the two approach it in similar ways.

It does at least make one key argument, that you can get from the title. This is not the first time machines have fundamentally challenged the organisation of society. We’ve faced these problems before and, with wise policy choices we ended up far richer, healthier and happier. But it will take time to see all the advantages, and we will need to build understanding to ensure society can embrace and benefit from the changes, instead of feeling besieged by it.

A solid book, but not a vital one for understanding the digitalisation of our times.