Chasing the Norm

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

Foreign Policy Making in Taiwan: From Principles to Pragmatism

Foreign Policy Making in Taiwan: From Principles to Pragmatism by Dennis HickeyHickey - FP in Taiwan

In preparing for a recent work trip to Taiwan (my first visit), this was ideal plane flight prep material. Using a good mix of academic categorisation and organisation along with clear writing and good historical details, Hickey provides a strong introduction to Taiwan’s foreign policy.

Perhaps most interestingly, he shows that this small ‘state’ (only 22 countries worldwide formally recognise it) is both shaped by large systemic factors and yet retains a substantial scope for independent action and control over its path. Hickey also demonstrates how democratic governance has brought as many challenges as blessings for helping Taiwan secure its existence in international affairs.

A good primer for those interested in the island’s politics or the way small states try and survive. While I visited several very good bookshops in Taipei, there wasn’t much english language material on Taiwan today and cross-strait relations. If anyone has some good suggestions, I’d be quite keen to hear.

From Third World to First: The Singapore Story: 1965-2000

From Third World to First: The Singapore Story: 1965-2000 by Lee Kuan Yew LKY - Singapore Story

I had been meaning to read this book for a while, and after hearing of Lee Kuan Yew’s worsening condition last week I finally pulled it off my shelf. I’m very glad I did.

To be a ‘great man of history’ you usually have to lead a large nation or embody a clear and significant culture or ideology. Lee Kuan Yew did neither, but he was no doubt, a great man.

Lee led a small city state, which both joined and left a larger federation in his time, and was nearly swamped by the much larger states on either side, not to mention Cold War pressures. He was of Chinese ancestry, led a nation with a vocal Malay minority and yet was the so called ‘last Victorian’ in Asia (he was born ‘Harry’ Lee).

The Singapore Story: 1965-2000 begins with Singapore’s dramatic step out of Malaysia and in a very personal way recounts the governance challenges facing the new country. How to get the economy going, how to build a defence force (with a notable cameo from two other beleaguered small states Israel and Taiwan), and how to build a coherent national identity.

Lee presents his approach in relentlessly pragmatic fashion, being swayed by better arguments, or more commonly, persuading everyone else with his better arguments. As such it’s easy to find yourself swept along without taking automatic offense at the anti-democratic or controlling aspects of his policies.

Perhaps most fascinatingly is Lee’s approach to capitalism. While very much convinced of its merits as a necessary framework, he has an alternate approach to the stereotypes of welfare laden Europe or heartless but free America. Lee instituted an early form of compulsory superannuation in the 1960s and soon expanded these accounts to cover housing (Joe Hockey must be jealous), along with medical expenses and other social costs.

This approach of forced savings and government/employer co-contributions is rejected by many free marketers, but if they reject the current welfare model, and want something that can plausibly work towards their ultimate ambitions (low taxes, low debt and a sense of personal responsibility) there’s a lot to like about it. (It’s certainly far more coherent and serious than magic pudding style laffer curves). For the left, these kinds of schemes do offer some challenges, but anything that ensures that we can guarantee long term social support, means tested to ensure that we focus state resources on the most needy is worth seriously exploring.

(This also gives some support to the claim of Adrian Wooldridge and John Micklethwait in The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State – which I’ve reviewed here – that the East has supplanted the West as the locus of re-thinking governance)

But back to the book. After covering the affairs inside the state, the second and longer part of the book details Singapore’s relations with the rest of the world. Southeast Asian and key large states get their own chapters (or several in the case of the US and China) and there’s some fascinating detail about how this city state has tried to avoid being squashed by the elephants around it.

That said, this section does also fall into that trap of other ‘great man of history’ books by detailing the many travels and meetings with dignitaries that your narrator held over the years. After a while, it can drag on, and for the general reader I’d recommend just skimming quickly through. Then again, if Singapore-Thailand relations are your real passion in life, do go right ahead and read it closely.

For few people is the term ‘Father’ of their nation quite so true. According to a friend from Singapore, the sense of loss after LKY’s passing is just like that of a family member’s death. A student of mine currently studying over there reports lines running kilometre after kilometre of people waiting to pay their respects.

Such images might bring to mind the fakery and fanaticism of dictators. And while LKY was happy to use the cane (or detention without trial) to further his cause, he was not just feared but loved. He took a desperately poor ‘tropical slum’ and made it coherent, rich, influential and safe.

A remarkable tale, and a remarkable book. Highly recommended.

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.

Borrowing from the great English commentator Walter Bagehot’s analysis of the monarchy-legislative diarchy in 19th century England, Glennon describes this as a ‘double government’. In the case of the US, it is staffed by decent, intelligent and hard working people, but a group which tends to support a certain style of policy (more often military and intelligence than political or diplomatic) and operate without significant oversight, as a way to deal with the nation’s threats. Foremost among them, international terrorism.

Glennon – again never implying a conspiracy – details substantial evidence of the way bureaucratic organisations in the United States, especially the military and intelligence agencies work to shape, subvert or even mislead the leaders of the government in Congress and the White House. Congress is kept in the dark, presidents battle day by day to make the smallest of changes to the course of the ship of state. In turn, the general public keeps blaming the public ‘Madisonian’ institutions the founders established, for a failure that is often tied to the role of largely private ‘Trumanite’ organisations and individuals.

This is a depressing book. It suggests that the War on Terrorism (at an estimated cost of $3.3 Trillion) is starting to feed upon the democratic structure of the US. It suggests a profound institutional failure is underway that will be extremely difficult to fix. As Glennon notes, many of the seemingly ‘simple’ changes, such as greater oversight by Congress or the Judiciary have been tried and continue to fail.

For example, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court approved 99.9% of all warrant requests between 1979 and 2011. To repeat, 99.9%. Glennon in particular notes the co-option of the courts and congressional committees to the public servants they are supposed to monitor. Some of the quotes he provides suggest a serious dereliction of duty by key individuals who, under the honourable motive of trying to protect the country from external threats, have guaranteed harm at home by abandoning their tasks of oversight and providing checks and balances.

The only plausible way forward Glennon suggests, is a revitalisation of civic virtue. A role demanded of the public by Madison, Jefferson and Washington, but since abandoned as Republican ideals gave way to liberal notions which suggest a citizen’s only duty is to abide by the law and pay (minimal) taxes. Representative government, and in turn the bureaucracy that feeds it can not run without an engaged public. Cruelly however, the more the public institutions seem to fail (Congress has an approval rate of 15%), the more the public reduce their attention.

There’s much to recommend about this short book, though it often resorts to inferring and supposing the presence of the network it focuses on, rather than clearly mapping its contours. Perhaps rightly, Glennon doesn’t try and single out specific individuals as the key sources of blame, but nor does he provide enough institutional analysis of what organisations and at what level the network operates at. Strangely this sense is actually deepened by the presence of an interesting chapter looking at alternative explanations for the continuity such as rational actor models, or organisational behaviour etc. This is to Glennon’s academic credit, but I would have liked a little bit more of a journalistic edge, more interviews and clearer descriptions of on the ground behaviour.

I am not entirely persuaded by the final thesis, but I think this is an important read for those interested in how governments manage national security issues, as well as those seeking insight to US foreign policy and the War on Terror. It shows how many of the failures we might easily prescribe to ignorance, incompetence or malevolence, are often best explained by boring but extremely serious institutional failure. The Trumanite network that Glennon condemns are all filled with good people who are desperately trying to protect the US in this era of anywhere, anytime threats. But if this compelling book is to be believed, the state is paying an extremely high cost for their loyalty. New ways are needed, and soon.

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.

Now, Hamilton-Hart tends to see much of this reason for supporting the US as somewhat cynical and based on illusions, and to the extent you agree or disagree may shape your view of much of the key data chapters and analysis. I tended to find my enthusiasm for the book waned as it went on. It’s hard to find great evidence for these issues, and some sections seemed further away from the core issues than was helpful. Some of the authors interpretations of the 70+ interviews also seemed less objective than I might have preferred.

But regardless of these quibbles there’s a central methodological insight that is vital here, regardless of your views. Namely, the need to recognise the limitation of the homo strategist model and adopt a more complex way of investigating why foreign policy actors hold the beliefs they do about the world and how those beliefs are developed, tested, re-enforced or challenged within the communities they operate in.

As Hamilton-Hart alludes to near the end, if we accept that there is merit to her judgement that material interests of the regimes in Southeast Asia matter then, there are vital and challenging policy implications.

First, this makes the support of Australia’s neighbourhood for the US much more brittle than it may otherwise seem. Not only could it be pulled away by Chinese (or someone else’s) resources in a relatively straight forward fashion, but because of the re-enforcing dynamics inside the community, mass opinion will barely seem to change until it shifts suddenly and substantially. Second, the US’s challenge is not about re-assurance or deterrence, but on the economic and political side of the ledger, helping to provide sufficient prosperity, regime legitimacy and rewards so that allegiance endures. This doesn’t have to be thought of in a corrupt, feudalist fashion, but you also wouldn’t be totally wrong to see parts of it that way too.

This is an important book. First for better understanding how Southeast Asia actually operates, and for encouraging much more grounded thinking about how foreign and defence policy is developed in the real world and how social forces do so much to shape what is seen and heard. Perhaps my own reaction of doubt is actually just because it forced some uncomfortable thoughts about the limited material I access and just how objective and evidenced based my own beliefs are.

A really good book. More for the scholar or student than general reader, but there’s much to gain for anyone interested in international politics and the future of the US-China struggle for influence in Asia.

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.

Smith argues that what we are seeing is not a simple shift of power to the east, let alone the emergence of an ‘Asian century’ but rather an end to the divide of east and west. These countries are not becoming western, nor abandoning the west. They are finally coming to fuse these notions into a more organic though distinctly modern whole. Though as he is quick to point out, the vast challenges facing these three societies are bewildering and while he sees this moment as one of their shift towards something new, he seems to have doubts about the capacity of all of them to realise it.

There are many thought provoking threads in this book, and while Smith covers much, there’s often a charming modesty about his desire simply to explore these issues, rather than declare a particular new epoch or term and claim his spot on the book tour circuit. Indeed, words like ‘meditation’ and ‘essays’ seem to better reflect the nature of this publication. As such, while he seems to pose arguments and suggest answers, I never felt a need to agree or dispute as much as I have with other writers on these topics. Doing so seems to provide little value, rather there’s simply a chance to explore and expand your thinking about the changing dynamics of our world.

Fascinating, elegant and thought-provoking. Well recommended.

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.

There’s often a central contradiction at the heart of much of this type of literature. The world is both extremely complex and contradictory, but this one simple trick solves it all. That’s why there needs to be dozens and dozens of facts and cases thrown at you, but none explored in any more depth than a page or two.
Just when you think Joshua Cooper Ramo has properly started a topic and will now give foundations to the wisps of ideas that have been introduced, you turn the page and find yourself in a different corner of the world, starting afresh with another random anecdote and another set of ideas. Or at least the faintest traces of them. You never get more than a few fragments scattered alongside observations about the significance of change today. And then you’re off again.

That the author is a former journalist is almost immediately obvious. Almost every chapter, every section begins in the same way. ‘Person X took a long breath and starred out the window… “that’s a good question” he says to me at a café in [exotic location]. Person X knew one vital thing to be true, but most people never saw it”. Who the person is, what their profession or history is, doesn’t really matter. We’ll have left them behind in a moment. All you need to know is, the lesson of their experience is apparently perfectly clear.

To be fair to Ramo, it feels like he has done his reading. Where he pauses long enough to discuss a particular thinker – such as the scholar Hans J Morgenthau— if helps ground his work and some clarity starts to form. Likewise there are interesting perspectives that he has scattered through the text. He was after all a former foreign editor at Time magazine and a leading part of Kissinger associates consultant firm (yes that Kissinger). So he clearly can think. And his pen has occasional elegance to it.

But then you have to ask yourself, are you in the presence of a far-sighted thinker who can clearly see the pattern and is forced to adopt a scattered fashion in order to communicate it? Or is this just someone as overwhelmed by information as everyone else, but with enough of a fascade of confidence to put their musings in book form? Someone hoping that the sheer quantity of name dropping and promises of about to be revealed “counter-intuitive but compelling logic” will be enough.

This book did make it to the New York Times Bestseller list, and has reasonable overall ratings on Amazon and goodreads. But there’s an awful lot of readers who seem to firmly believe this book fits into the latter category. Mile wide, inch deep has hardly been more appropriate.

Yet there is at least something here in The Age of the Unthinkable. Towards the end, Ramos stops trying to tell stories and looks ahead. What he grasps — and I see something to this — is the need for the sense of decentralized, organic innovation that thrives in markets and is desperately needed in government. Like the old soviet managers of old, we’re finding the central planning approach to national strategy doesn’t seem to produce. No matter how many resources it is fed. But this time we don’t have a readily available mechanism like the market to transfer power to. So how to get from here to that different future? I don’t know and after reading Ramos’ book I’m not really any closer.

If you do care to dip into this torrent of ‘complex world, outdated structures’ current affairs books, Moisés Naím’s The End of Power is a clear cut above the rest. It has its own flaws, but it hangs together better than most.

There may well be one big idea out there that helps clarify our era or ideally the form of governance it will take to manage it. But that outcome will probably take the digging of a true hedgehog to get there, rather than these pale imitations by confused foxes.

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.

The risk with books like this is the desire to justify attention (and perhaps sell copies), leading to an over-estimation of the significance and risks of the issue. Thankfully, this book carefully avoids that. Most likely because Hayton, an experienced author and journalist for BBC changed his own mind as he notes in an endearing section at the end. Initially motivated by a fear of imminent conflict, he now thinks major war unlikely, especially because China would ultimately lose (if not the shooting part, certainly the peace that followed). Though this caution keeps the final conclusions at a moderate to low temperature, there is still much here that will grab the reader and make them think about how many risks there are, how many close calls there have already been, and how significant a conflict really could be.

While I enjoyed and appreciated this book, I did take a strangely long time to finish it. Perhaps that was just the sudden influx of work which has limited virtually all my reading. Or perhaps my taste’s are changing. At times I wished for more substantive analysis and less discussions of fishermen looking out to sea as they had for decades as a way of introducing a new topic.

Still, I think this book gets the balance between journalistic capacity to engage and show you the view on the ground, combined with deep research of the history and wider analysis as you will find in the bookstores. An excellent one volume take on a vital part of the world.

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.

This is an extremely important book, but it is also staggeringly dry as the authors list page after page of highly technical details about what capabilities Japan has developed, with virtually no discussion of what this means for Japan or the region’s security. This however is the Des Ball way, and few in the world could do the research that underpins this book. Several times in his career Professor Ball has chanced his arm on larger arguments about big political and strategic trends (especially arms races), but generally he prefers to do the extremely detailed technical analysis and provide it to the public, with the expectation they will read, think and hold their elected leaders to account for it.

There are many important take aways from this book. While China’s economic growth has led many to claim they will rule the world or develop a sphere of influence in North Asia, the authors demonstrate comprehensively that Japan has a virtually unmatched surveillance system that would give them a substantial advantage in any military conflict. Likewise, while countless articles will seek to examine whether the US would ‘choose’ to support Japan in a conflict with China, Ball and Tanter prove that so thoroughly integrated are US and Japanese intelligence systems that a decision by the US to stay out would cost it not only an important ally but the virtual destruction of its own extensive ocean surveillance network. Suddenly, that’s a much higher price and far less about ideas of ‘credibility’ and other optics which political strategic studies analysts like myself tend to talk about.

Still, this is a hard book to read. If you don’t have a good background in hydrophone arrays and Direction Finding High Frequency systems, you’ll be checking Wikipedia every few minutes and often finding your eyes glazing over as you learn that this station has nine radar domes, while that one has 12 which measure 19 meters by 20 meters. And so on. Were the authors anyone else than Ball and Tanter I’d also raise a sceptical eye about the verifiability of their data. These kinds of works can feel like a cross between an electrical equipment owners manual and organisational annual report.

Analysis of particular station may rest on a data point from the 1980s, a quote from the 1990s and two news reports in the 2000s. Now, I trust these authors because I know they have gathered everything that is available and tested it with utmost care, but there must be many in the Japanese and US governments who will read this book and be both horrified at how much has been correctly identified, while also ready to identify a dozen things the authors simply could not have known about.

This book is very much in the original mould of strategic studies. An analysis of just how states prepare for and undertake the use of force. Without a solid knowledge of this material, any discussions about why they might do so, or how to avoid them doing so, won’t have a serious foundation. Few could do the work of Ball and Tanter. I certainly couldn’t, and sadly too few of my generation seem inclined to. But it is absolutely essential that it is done, and to their credit that they have done so.

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.

As Winston notes early on, strain the mind in one direction during the day and without some form of adequate rest (which neither booze nor unconsciousness can quite fill) and it won’t quite rebound in the right way the next day. Churchill discovered that at much greater pressure at 40. At 31 I feel I also have. I love my job and life, without question, but I feel I need some outlet to regularly reset beyond what I have access to. Whether painting is quite right for me I’m not sure. But that there needs to be something -having read this book- I feel no doubt is right.

I remember soon after beginning full time work asking my friends ‘What do you do each night?’. It was a genuine question. Of the mere precious few hours between coming home (5-6) and the necessary movement towards sleep (9-10), there are only so few things that can be done, so little distance put between you and the things you flee. But regardless of the verdict of the previous day you need to accept that deadline, move willingly towards unconsciousness and prepare for another vault into the forge. When thought of this way, the entire process is utterly bizzare, and even a few days eaked out over short holidays or long weekends makes little more sense.

What exactly then do you do during this time? What helps escape the past, salve the return and make meaningful the space inbetween? These are some of the most important and unasked and unanswered questions of our time. This is the rare book which tries to go beyond the utilitarian ideal and talk to this vital topic. For that reason it goes straight to my must read and most treasured pile.

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.

I would perhaps have liked to see some more on questions of whether there is an Asian approach to strategy – touched on but quickly dismissed by Michael Evans – and the lack of chapters on hierachy, conventions (norms and institutions) and cyber is a shame. I also think the somewhat exclusive focus on the great powers is a mistake – one somewhat admitted in the fine concluding chapter which seeks to remedy it with mini sections on the major middle powers. Still, there could always be more chapters, and those books that do try to take that route end up either without form or of such bulk that almost no one actually reads the good material within (I’m looking at you Oxford Handbook of  IR/Diplomacy/Policy etc. series)

This is a good refresher for the scholar, and a great tour of the grounds for the interested reader. One I’ll be recommending to my students and anyone else wanting to get a sense of how academia is trying to understand the tension and conflict in Asia today.

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…).

For the reader 19 years later, the assessment must be even gloomer than Ball and Kerr let on. Back in the mid 1990s some of the 34 significant security problems they could identify in Asia were new or emerging. By my quick count at least 30 of them remain unresolved today. And for the authors’ the new track-1.5 & track 2 ventures (meetings with policy makers + scholars or senior outsiders who could speak more freely) such as CSCAP heralded new opportunities for reform. These efforts have not been in vain, but neither have they offered the kinds of breakthroughs or fundamental shifts in attitude hoped for.

Given the age of the book, it’s probably one for the scholar or historian mainly. But still, a useful reminder that few of our major problems are new. It’s just our vanity that today’s problems are inherently different, that the past has little to teach us, and that doing something now is always better than trying to figure out exactly what is the problem and if we even can influence it

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.

Coral was always someone who I had admired, and I was fortunate enough to get the chance to meet her for an afternoon coffee a few months before she passed away. For those that missed the chance, this is by far the best opportunity to engage with one of Australia’s leading academics, a woman who made major policy and academic contributions through her long and varied life. No less a figure than Henry Kissinger has cited her as one of the leading analysts of the era.

As one colleague has rightly said, “She was our George Keenan in think glasses, blue floral dress, white sneakers and a string of pearls”.

BTW, In fortuitous timing, ANU’s School of International, Political and Strategic Studies is becoming the Coral Bell School of Asia-Pacific Affairs in early February 2015. No better proof could be asked for than this book and the renaming of a major research centre for the respect with which Coral’s work is held by her peers. Hopefully through these changes more Australians will come to learn about this inspiring woman.

This is an ANU E-Press book. Electronic copies can be downloaded for free, or paperback copies purchased on the publishers website.

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.

Or even the extent to which it is a problem. Our desire for spotless homes and clean safe children has had costs in immunity restrictions and less childhood experiences exploring the neighbourhood. I also see countless ‘experts’ declaring the vital importance of education during the first few years. As much as these studies are right about the benefits, we also have generations of experience that shows the absence of such education isn’t too harmful. Virtually every successful adult you see around you didn’t have the kind of early childhood education we are now being told is vital to children’s development. And while I would never want to argue against education, the cost of higher quality services does mean many parents can’t afford child care, forcing many women to stay home or work far less than they would like. Some solutions may be worse than the problem.

While Crabb blessedly skips past the ‘have it all’ concept, it does seem to inform her thinking. She rightly complains that parents* responsible for multiple kids and the hours and hours this costs them are seen as less capable at work. But I suspect she would see no problem with someone who has a second job also being seen as less capable at work. Outside hiring external help, can we ever expect child raising to be compatible with serious full time work? I strongly hope so, but I’m not entirely sure, and our use of third party options like nannies, au-pairs, childcare centres and mandatory primary and secondary education systems suggests otherwise. Maybe there are other alternatives out there we can use to also lessen the burden. (*Of course I’ve guilded the lily in the above comparison by using the word ‘parent’ rather than ‘mother’. Employers regularly accept fathers can keep their focus at work, but doubt mothers can. That is an unacceptable sexism that needs to stop. But maybe part of the problem is our overvaluing of parenting in total.)

Relatedly there is a tendency in the book to view all work and all child rearing as identical and identically valuable. But there are many different approaches and personal value systems. Some people like Crabb value their work highly and so struggle to keep it while raising kids. But for many work is just a means to a paycheck and they would much rather focus on their kids. It’s extremely difficult to separate these two groups with any policy settings, but to me it does seem to matter. When the first group can’t stay in work, that’s a problem for society. When the second group doesn’t, it’s not necessarily as bad. The problem is less about people not working and raising kids at the same time. It’s that the fact we erroneously assume men fit the first group tend to be men and women the second group.

Crabb’s best innovation (though I don’t know the literature well so maybe this is widely discussed elsewhere) is not to focus just on working women and instead urge us to try and get more men out of work and into child rearing. This is a useful addition to the debate, not only because more fathers want this but feel unable to do so, but also because it would help push towards a less gendered idea of parenting, while bettering opportunities for women at work. Unfortunately, I suspect Crabb’s line of work and desire to remain a commentator rather than pundit means she never offers any specific policy suggestions. A shame, but then it’s her general nonpartisan good standing now that helps ensure more people will read this book. So perhaps it’s better this way. Perhaps.

As this review perhaps suggests, I agree with most of what Crabb writes, even if I find myself being argumentative about how to view it. This is something for which the book should be praised. It forces the reader to think about an issue which many of us would prefer not to. This book should be seen as the standard for ‘Australian journalist writing about major social issues’. A willingness to seriously engage the extensive academic literature, a desire for fresh and clear thinking, and a crisp prose. Impressive stuff.

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).

Most thought these should have disappeared when the Soviet threat vanished, but Layne argues that this threat never was the real reason for their existence. Instead long standing liberal assumptions about the need for open markets overseas and fears that foreign hegemon’s could destroy American liberty at home are the true origins of US grand strategy.

While the strategy has been successful, there have also been many costs. The US spends staggering sums of money on its military, finds itself committing significant troops and time to largely irrelevant conflicts worldwide, has perverted some of its sacred domestic institutions and it is increasingly the target of enmity and hatred by hundreds of millions worldwide. The question then is whether the US —can’t? /should? /must? — continue this successful but costly strategy in an Asia which is rapidly changing.

Advocates of the pivot say that to change would be to undo all the peace and stability of the past half-century. It would embolden potential adversaries like Russia or China while setting off the alarm bells of nationalism and arms racing amongst Japan, South Korea and everyone else. There’s certainly a compelling logic here. The only problem is that the changes they fear are already occurring. The pivot has neither deterred foes like China nor restrained friends like Japan. And instead of keeping the peace, the US risks being stuck in the middle and seen as increasingly weak and irrelevant.

While I increasingly find myself in the offshore balancing camp these days, this was not the classic text I was hoping for as an academic contribution. First, while he proclaims extraregional hegemony theory (and indeed the wider book) as a neo-classical realist contribution, I struggle to see how it fits such prescriptions.

Other than a preference for moderation and critique of liberalism he incorporates a wide variety of domestic, economic and ideational factors which have tended to be downplayed by realists. And it is only by ignoring realist ideas about hegemony that he can carve out the benevolent hegemon space that describes the US approach to Western Europe and Asia. That is, letting countries develop freely, while preventing any rising too high or too divergently.

At the same time, Layne’s desire for it to be a realist text forces him to defend realist touchstones such as balance of power, using dubiously broad interpretations in order to keep the faith (see p.145 on ‘soft’ and ‘opaque’ balancing for example).

I also struggled to get a clear sense of what a US pursuing offshore balancing might look like. Of course books such as these spend 20% on theory, 60% on historical case study and have about 10-20% left for discussing solutions. But still, there seemed little more than a general ‘be close but not too close’ guiding logic.

Thankfully on page 187 we get some clear suggestions such as leaving NATO, abandoning Taiwain, ending security agreements with South Korea and Japan — and one presumes Australia, though we fail to rate a mention— and doing so over a period of many years to help ensure the ‘proper’ form of inter-regional balancing emerges. Still, what the US would actually do, and what circumstances would compel its involvement are not covered in sufficient detail.In recent years other authors have since stepped in. Barry Posen’s ‘Restraint’ is a recent (2014) and significant addition to the offshore balancing literature and fills in some of the sketchlines provided by Layne.

This is an academic text, but for those interested in a serious critique of US policy towards Europe and the many contradictions within it, a policy which is now being pivoted into Asia, this is an important read. It is quite possible that in 2016 the US Presidential election will become a debate between advocates of deep engagement (led by Hillary Clinton) and those in support of offshore balancing (led by Rand Paul). Each side has genuine and substantive fears that the policy prescriptions of their opponents will lead to great power war in Asia. Which makes it hardly an academic issue wouldn’t you say?