Chasing the Norm

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

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?

Cybersecurity and Cyberwar by P.W. Singer and Allan Friedman

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

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

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

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

Like the best analysis of cyber issues, most of the book isn’t actually about technology. Tools change, what matters is how, where, and why people try to use them to influence the behaviour of others. That’s when it becomes an issue of security, strategy and even war. And this is where the book shines. Peter W. Singer is a strong analysts (I recommend his ‘Wired for War’ on drones & robotics) and with Allan Friedman he has written a very engaging baseline book for those wanting to get across what’s important – how online issues may affect our politics and ourselves – while including enough tech knowledge to know why that might occur.

It’s easy to look down on such books, but this is by two good analysts from Brookings Institute, with a top university press (Oxford) and very well written. If you think you need to know about these issues, this is a great starting point. For a more advanced class, I also recommend Thomas Rid’s ‘Cyber war will not take place‘, which is much more of an academics book, though also very readable and engaging. Hopefully it will inspire more people to make the decision I didn’t and choose cyber issues as their field of research. We certainly need it.

God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics

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

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

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

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

And yet, I couldn’t help but feel failure inhibits Ignatieff as well. He has such a concern to not appear the bitter loser (probably because he isn’t) that you have to regularly remind yourself he actually lost the election. In turn, some major issues are not discussed.

Most notably of all, for a book that is a paean to centrist-liberal politics, we get no examination of whether there is a future for centrist-liberal politics. Ignatieff had many handicaps as a candidate, but he combined intellect, personal history (via his father) and fervent belief in his cause. He proudly waved the banner of centrist-liberal politics and yet was easily dismantled on the battlefield by his opponents.

Ignatieff uses the fact that his opponents never attacked his ideas or policies to sidestep any serious engagement with why those policies and ideas did not resonate with voters. He may attack the cynicism or antagonism of his opponents, but he never quite turns to why his own view might not have worked. It almost doesn’t seem to come up. Yet he can’t have escaped noticing how increasingly discredited the supposed hallowed ground of centrist-liberalism has become. Nor its failure not just in Canada but in the US, Australia, UK and around the world. Maybe, hopefully, this is a discussion for future work.

The book also has a confused message about the voters. On the one hand they are decent honourable people who make no mistakes at the polls and hold the soul of the country in their hard-working hands. Yadda yadda. And yet, Ignatieff can’t help but note – as any serious observer of politics does – that the voters pay little attention to politics, seem to reward many partisan attributes they claim to dislike, and don’t help support a system of representative politics that still serves them very well. Unfortunately because Ignatieff doesn’t pin the blame for his failure on his own outdated ideas, he can’t in turn confront the behaviour of voters lest he look like making excuses for his failures. But no serving politician or media figure can say these things either.

One final verbal tic is worth noting. Whenever Ignatieff reaches for an example of politics’ dispiriting or inspiring nature, he almost inevitably talks of America. From Madison to Obama, the names of US leaders litter this book. This was somewhat disappointing given I had hoped to learn a little bit about Canadian politics from the book, but perhaps Ignatieff knows his audience well. US political history has become the common currency of those interested in politics worldwide today. We cannot help but pay attention to the events of the high court, and in the 21st century that castle still resides in Washington D.C. That said, for a man who was accused by his political opponents of being too American, it does seem to somewhat prove their point.

This book has rightly been on the reading lists of most political junkies. It should be. It deserves to be read by anyone who considers themselves interested by politics. It is one of the finest examinations of modern politics by someone who has served time as a wise commentator in the stands and as a bloodied contestant on the battleground. There’s still much more that could have been said, but there are enough wise lessons from this honourable failure to make this short tome a must read.

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

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

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

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

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

The rise of warrior cops is a story that cannot be told outside of the context of the war on drugs. According to Balko, the proliferation of SWAT teams might have begun in response to violent robbers and murders, but the vast bulk of the 60’000 + raids per year in the continental United States are to serve warrants on non-violent offenders who are accused of the largely victim-less crime of selling or consuming drugs. Not to mention occasionally raids on those who don’t have barber licences, or play small money games of poker at a friend’s house, or might have mislabeled alcohol (p.282). All too often it seems the police consider full riot gear enabled fast assaults the only way to engage with the public.

Yes these boys may like their toys, but we have been their enablers. Politicians, especially of the right – though shamefully ignored or indulged by the left – have given vast new powers and resources to these armed public servants and then shown precious little oversight. Indeed some like Nixon and Reagan saw great political virtue in flexing the muscles of the state in the sight lines of minorities and the poor. And to the great shame of the Courts, many judges have been negligent in their oversight of the police as well as their protection of individual rights and liberties.

But the real blame lies not with an institution but the citizens themselves. Every school child knows Lincoln’s ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people‘ refrain. But we too easily forget who Lincoln held responsible for this great cause: ‘that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain’. WE the people are responsible. There is a clear rationality to why Cops, Courts and Politicians have acted the way they have. The irrationality to see this, to monitor those we bless with state power and to hold them to account is our own.

Of course, the situation in Australia is quite different from the US, but this is an important book for many in this country to read, because the same impulses are at work here. Yet there are also some notable and important differences. Many of those killed by police were people whose natural and inevitable response to a violent break-in to their house at 3am was to reach for their gun. This in turn leads to the state’s agents being more expensively armed and more violently assertive – a useful point for those like Senator David Leyonhjelm whose libertarian concern about state power leads them to want citizens to have access to more guns. We also have better oversight and our police don’t have access to the same weapons nor face the same threats, but the risk of treading a similar path is real and inherent.

If America created this problem for itself, it also seems to be leading the way in solving it. Some US states are seeking to end the war on drugs through legalisation. In turn much of the money and opportunity for this kind of police action will dry up. This adds just another moral justification for abandoning the prohibition of drugs. We might not like all of what drugs bring to our society, but only the wilfully ignorant would pretend that this heavily armed ‘cure’ is working or better than the disease. As Balko notes at the end, we have hit a point where it is now legitimate to ask ‘Are today’s police forces consistent with the principles of a free society?‘.

This book is another citizenship book. If you’re interested in politics or social issues there’s much you will get out of this book. But it should be read first and foremost because we are citizens of a very similar democracy and wish to ensure our society does not suffer the same fate. Highly Recommended.

Founders’ Son: A Life of Abraham Lincoln

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

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

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

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

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


The Adolescent Country

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

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

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

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

Worth a read for those interested in federal politics.

The First Dismissal

The First Dismissal
by Luke Slattery

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

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

It is sometimes useful in historical writing to identify opponents, even villains who try and block the central actors in your story. But they should only serve for dramatic tension, and to help demonstrate the importance and significance of your central themes. Instead, the author ends up spending much of the book trying to prosecute the character of John Thomas Bigge, who was sent to Australia to investigate and undermine Macquarie.

As such it feels like we’re dragged back into a 200+ year old factional argument, no different than you might find in the pages of any of the current tract of political memoirs currently on our shelves. Do you imagine 200 years from now any audience will want to become invested and take sides over Gillard or Swan’s account of who was to blame?

As I said, I like the penguin specials length, but -and this is not the first one I’ve read to seem under-edited – there needs to be a much tighter
editorial control to make the series really shine. Get the argument up front, make sure it is woven coherently through, and ideally provide some endnotes to help prove the credibility of the claims and give those interested in the ideas some future reading options. This could have been a good christmas conversation starter, but instead i’d recommend giving it a miss.

The Mandarin Code

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

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

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

The New American Militarism

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

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

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

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

The Rise and Fall of Australia

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

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

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

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

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

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