Chasing the Norm

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

Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future

Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future by Peter Thiel, Blake MastersThiel - Zero to One

I tend not to read business books, but Peter Thiel strikes me as an interesting guy, and occasionally dipping into the stream of discussion from Silicon Valley & the business world is helpful to keep your orientation. (The material and voice is Theil’s, Masters helped write it)

If nothing else, I was reminded of Adam Smith’s famous line that ‘People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices’. To Theil’s credit he is entirely upfront about this.

Theil’s philosophy in business is to find the handful of mega opportunities which come from near monopoly circumstances and go all in. Pleasingly, he seems to think such situations come about largely from technological advances where your product is either new or 10x better than the competition, rather than just via lobbying and loopholes. While governments and people like open market competition, business does not, and too many political leaders forget or ignore this.

More interesting to those outside the business world – and I never have been, my 1 year with a private think tank really doesn’t count – is his take on the wider world. He has an interesting chapter on chance and US/China/Europe world views (though it descends to something of a Carpe diem). Likewise the book can serve as a useful push to think clearly about what exactly you do, whether its the best use of your time, how you differentiate yourself from the competition and what you can plan for that leads you where you want to go. All important areas to explicitly think through, even if you have no desire to step into the finance world’s pin-stripe suits. (Or even a t-shirt and jeanes, which Theil rates as the true entrepreneurs wardrobe).

As a palette cleanser between some more serious books, this was an interesting read from someone with a frank and different take on the world. But I suspect the only one who gets rich from the voluminous literature on business and wealth are the authors and publishers. Still, as Lawrence Freedman notes in his master work ‘Strategy’ this is where a lot of the brightest minds of our era are focused, and it serves us well to pay at least some attention to their thoughts

Liberty, Equality and Democracy

Liberty, Equality and Democracy by Chris BergBerg - Democ

As everyone knows, democracy is in a bad state these days. Polls show widespread dissatisfaction with our political system, many would not vote if they didn’t have to and few people seriously engage with politics. Globally, the post-Cold War wave of democracies risks rolling back, while authoritarian capitalists like China seem to stand impervious.

Indeed, it is worse than we think as Berg makes clear. The notion that democracy is a system where people develop considered views and are represented by accountable leaders in a timely and effective manner is shot through with problems.

The temptation might then be to abandon democracy, or at least reduce its scope. Indeed we have already moved well down this path with the growth of statutory independent bodies to make expert judgements on our behalf. This is already common in economics (The RBA or ACCC etc) and becoming increasingly popular as a resolution to health or environmental problems.

This is a grave mistake Berg argues. Democracy is not about good decision making processes he argues. That’s a nice outcome, but the real reason people across time and space have yearned for it —in a multitude of diverse forms— is because ‘it is an ethical claim about the relationship between state and citizen, and about individual equality’.

In other words, Democracy not a mechanism for choosing the nature of our political community but a normative philosophy that takes human equality as its fundamental starting point. Attempts to fix the decision making capacity of democracy that reduce or undermine that basic equality are therefore undemocratic.

Regular readers of my reviews will know I tend to like shorter books. Get into the idea and get on with it. In this case however I couldn’t quite decide if the length was just right or about 1/3rd too short. The book moves at a cracking pace, and while Berg describes and explains very clearly, you need a strong level of background reading in politics and philosophy to truly follow the debate.

That’s not a bad thing, given few would pick up this book without such an interest already, and bulking it out might deter many who would, without necessarily better informing the most likely audience for this book. Still, with a book this ambitious a slightly slower pace might have helped to strengthen its overall effect. This book is planted in modern Australian concerns but bounces from republican England to Poland, Ancient Greece and the Soviet Union with barely a breath.

This is a difficult book to review because it took me a while to work out what it was trying to say, and I’m still not sure I’ve quite grasped it. I spent much of the book thinking that the historical and philosophical analysis of democracy and equality was an intellectual means to make an ideological argument (namely that over-regulation by centralised experts should be abandoned for a more libertarian idea). Only when I reached the end did I realise the philosophical analysis of democracy and its value is the actual point, with implications for modern policy only given brief reference along the way. A stronger editor’s hand by the publishers might have helped bring out a greater clarity as to the focus of the book. (along with removing a handful of unfortunate typographical errors).

Speaking of the publisher, only a PR person could be so unthinking as to put Tim Wilson describing the book as “mischievous” on the cover. Wilson occupies precisely the sort of role Berg critiques, and the mischievous line suggests the serious argument is just a front, undermining the vale of the work from the very start.

Instead of being a subversive attempt to re-define democracy in libertarian terms (as Wilson’s quote implies) Berg rightly notes that there’s space for a range of ideological systems to operate within the democratic equality framework. Unfortunately given the short length of the book we don’t get any significant attempt to explore this in any depth. In particular I would have been interesting to see a greater engagement with what is meant by liberty and equality to help flesh out exactly what was intended. Poking a few mainstream media talking heads is hardly sufficient for such a fundamental re-interpretation of our system. He notes that non-state forces like poverty or racism can damage equality and liberty, but we have to infer where he would draw the line. More so, how might we make decisions about this principle? Will a utilitarian ethics suffice or does this have to be much more absolutist? I suspect many will end up agreeing with the general premise of this book (we’re all good democrats) but without it changing their opinions on specific issues).

There are two notable features of this book that deserve recognition and praise. The first is that Berg is making a libertarian argument for democracy. Though he only briefly alludes to it, many who share his ideology have an extremely sceptical view of democratic society (precisely because it allows public interference with individual liberty). It is therefore very encouraging to see the most prolific and engaging libertarian author in Australia clearly stake his flag amongst the democrats.

The other notable feature is the sheer ambition of it. While there is a voluminous literature on these topics, few try and bring it together in such a publicly accessible form and with as clear a public policy concern. In an ideal democracy, books like this would be common place and widely explored and discussed. In our current environment, it’s far too rare. Whatever your take on the merits of the argument, credit should be given for having attempted the work in the first place.

Disclaimer – I’m mates with the author.

The Gillard Project

The Gillard Project by Michael CooneyCooney - Gillard Project

It is often noted that the Labor Party sells more books than their opponents. One reason they do is because there is a vibrancy to their work that resonates widely. (well save Wayne Swan’s contributions). Cooney’s ‘The Gillard Project’ helps show why.

Taking us down the path of an ALP speechwriter (whose ground Graham Freudenberg, Don Watson, James Button and others have magisterially illuminated) this is a passionate defence of the life of a political staffer. It fairly drums along, proudly pulling back the curtain to show the resilience and humour that sustained the Gillard Government.

This is also a somewhat grumpy book. For all Cooney’s erudition he doesn’t offer many telling blows against his political opponents (indeed the Liberal Party is virtually absent from the text while the Greens are just occasional subjects of abuse). Likewise the defence of tribalism and unity makes sense when you consider the pressure faced during the mad summer of 2012-13. But it hardly persuades as a long term justification for the ALP’s union links and organising principle. Indeed it somewhat cheapens it. A means becomes an end. A cause established for the ‘making and unmaking of social conditions’ ends up a club seeking merely to sustain itself.

The easiest path in literary criticism is to attack a writer for not writing the book you think they should have written (or would have written yourself if you could). Let me therefore walk the road most often travelled. The segments and glimpses of how Prime Minister Gillard’s key speeches were put together were a highlight for me and I would have loved much more of it.

Cooney could easily defend himself by noting that many others have tried this approach (most recently James Button). But Gillard’s was a government that was centrally criticised for lacking a narrative and widely assumed to be unable to connect to the punters. Cooney himself regularly attributes a ‘failure to sell’ as crippling to a PM he clearly loves.

So, enquiring minds would love to know, how did his words play into that? We get an honourable mea culpa with the problems of the carbon tax label and ‘we are us’ lines, but why didn’t the bigger picture cut through? Can big picture rhetoric work anymore in this social media age? What’s the purpose and merit of speeches these days? Especially when even the author admits many were purposeless or boring.

The same could be said for policy issues. Again, this is a criticism of what I’d like to have read, rather than did read. But Cooney is not just a word smith but a policy wonk. And the two are intimately involved. So in which direction would he like to see the party go?

That said, this is a fun book, which I devoured on a plane flight home. There are enticing sections of high politics in the global capitals along with relaxed Australian larrikinism, punctuated by drinks and laughs at the beach or the PM’s house.

The vibrancy of this book is a celebration of the sheer bloody hard work of countless invisible staffers who carried this government along on their shoulders. Of course like the tragic Greek plays which Cooney has surely read, suffering alone is not enough for redemption. At least not in this world. Few however will read this book and not acknowledge that, at least they tried.

The New US Strategy Towards Asia: Adapting to the American Pivot

The New US Strategy Towards Asia: Adapting to the American Pivot by William T Tow and Douglas Stuart (eds.)Tow - US Strategy towards Asia

What is the value of an edited book? Or perhaps more precisely, how do edited books achieve the most value? It’s a question that has been on my mind recently as I finished my second edited book (this time a textbook) and as I wonder how I can convince myself to read more of them.

In theory edited books are the best of all worlds. Deep analysis across a broad spectrum of issues, in a format that few single authors could hope to achieve. For academics they’re also seen as a quicker and easier way to both produce and consume a careful analysis of an important topic. Like many academic theories however, reality begs to differ.

Some editors manage to get closer to this mean, and William Tow and Douglas Stuart fit in that category. Tow in particular has produced a range of edited volumes in recent years which are fresh and insightful, packed full of great authors and often very well edited. His ‘Regional-Global Nexus’ is a deserved classic. While this book, ‘The New US Strategy Towards Asia: Adapting to the American pivot’ doesn’t quite hit that high mark, it still meets the measure of what an edited book should be.

This collected text works because there is a clear division of labour. It examines how the US allies (and some partner nations) are responding to the US pivot to Asia, and therefore each chapter features an author describing a country where they hold a particular expertise. This enables careful analysis of the main currents of debate (Taylor on Australia), the reception of different audiences (Misalucha on Philippines) and governance choices in response (Jimbo on Japan). Add in a few overview chapters (Tow on the regional order is particularly good) and there is a clear and coherent book.

That kind of neat separation isn’t so easy for many edited books. They lack the clear boundaries of this one (the US pivot to Asia instead of all US policy in the region) or lack clear divisions to split the chapters (for instance one country, one chapter). The best edited books often also have a clear argument, or particular framework for viewing the topic. That doesn’t quite occur here, and often it is those arguments, rather than the deeper empirical detail which provides the most insight and —for me at least— the most ‘sticking power’ in terms of recalling just what the book was about.

Even better, there has been a careful editing process applied to the chapters, ensuring there is not too great a difference in quality between the individual pieces. The editor’s paradox is that 10% of chapters can take 90% of the work, and too many scholars are unwilling to commit to that. As such readers often find these books hard to consume cover to cover, with both subjects and writing quality bouncing all over the place. In this case however the language is easy to read and the standards consistent.

As should be obvious by this point, this is a book for and by scholars. I’d like to recommend it, given how vital the issue is to understanding the world today. But I don’t blame the general public for being just as wary of edited books as most academics are. In addition the $150+ price tag is an extremely high fence that will keep most readers at bay. And that’s a shame, but that’s the story of edited books. As a profession I think we produce too many of them, for too little return. This one however makes a powerful case that when done well, they are worth the effort. For editors, authors and readers alike.

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.