Chasing the Norm

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

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.

Keynes/Hayek

Keynes/Hayek: The Clash that Defined Modern Economics
by Nicholas WapshottKeynes Hayek

A fun and engaging dual biography of two interesting figures whose names are bandied about so often, but their actual words so rarely read. The author manages to do reasonable justice to both, and largely succeeds in bringing their sometimes arcane economics debates down to the level of this common man.

As an aside, there ought to be more dual biographies. Alan Bullock’s ‘Parallel Lives’ on Stalin and Hitler is fantastic, and Michael Duffy’s imaginatively titled ‘Latham and Abbott’ captures something essential about both men through its comparison.

The Fourth Revolution

The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State
by John Micklethwait, Adrian WooldridgeFourth Revolution

There are three books contained within this text. Two work, one doesn’t, which leaves the overall manuscript feeling somewhat less than the sum of its parts.

The first is a highly readable account of the development of the modern Western state. In around 100 pages, the authors provide an engaging tale of reform and philosophical battle to change the purpose and nature of the state. This is a highly readable and engaging tale, as befitting the authors background as editor/writer at The Economist magazine. Most citizens would benefit from reading this section, either as an introduction or refresher.

The second part however breaks down, and here so did my attention. The ‘fourth revolution’ of the title is based upon applying the power of technology and non-western thinking about the state to the west. Unfortunately neither topic has been researched in the depth required, nor is quite the right language found to bring coherence to the concept either. As such it’s often hard to tell what separates the ‘fourth’ revolution from the ‘half-revolution’ of Thatcher-Reagan the authors applaud (but don’t critically engage with sufficiently). As such the book’s claim to present a new way to think about the state, equal to those revolutions before it falls far short. It is also far too reliant on occasional and out of context anacdotes to provide any kind of a cohesive message.

The final part is a solid, if well worn argument for the Western state to slim down to regain its strength. This is a liberal, not libertarian argument, and much of the advice is likely to find wide support. This part would have been much stronger had the middle section been outstanding. Almost as if acknowledging they have come short, the final section seems to leave behind most of the fourth revolution theme and return to some solid if common ideas for restoring the strength and popularity of the state through trying to get it under more control.

This is a work I’d encourage my friends on the left to read. They may disagree with some of it, but I suspect, especially those in Australia will find much to like. If for no other reason it makes clear that the problem is often ‘bad government’ rather than any abstract debate about size. There are some things government can do very well, and some things it does poorly. There will be a good advantage for the left in both policy and rhetoric if this recognition of the need to make government work can be placed front and centre. It will both give a coherence and power to many long standing progressive themes, insulate them from some of the criticisms, and enable the left to get away from a -losing- conservative defence of the status quo, and push towards radical rethinking of how the state guarantees justice and equality (such as a basic wage idea). Finally for Australians it’s also useful to see just how many ideas which are common on the left (such as means testing) are still so controversial and strange in the US or Europe.

This highlights another useful contribution of this book. This book helps demolish the myth that the US is the land of small government. It is not. America is a land with a large and highly intrusive, yet often badly functioning government. Too many Australians assume the poverty and deprivation of the US is a result of too little government. In some cases it is, but more often it is a result of bad government. Abandoning this simplistic view enables a much better understanding of why the Republicans and general American public have such a poor view of government. Ideally demolishing this idea that ‘the US = small govt’ will also help reduce the mistaken and banal criticism that any change or reduction in the role of government in Australia will produce US style outcomes. Other than conservatives who think the status quo is fine, anyone interested in improving the way the state works in Australia should abandon this lazy thinking about the USA.

In the end however, this book falls somewhat short. It promises more than it can deliver, though we should not be too harsh given the high ambition it had. While the prose is excellent it can also feel a little too polished and superficial as well given the importance and difficulty of its themes. Not bad, but not as good as it could or should be. Ideal airplane book really.

Rebalancing US Forces

Rebalancing U.S. Forces: Basing and Forward Presence in the Asia-Pacific
by Carnes Lord (Editor), Andrew S. Erickson (Editor)Rebalancing US forces

Note: This review is due to be published in the Australian Army Journal. My copy of the book was courtesy of the journal.

There’s an old joke military officials like to tell. Amateurs do strategy, professionals do logistics. For most of us self-proclaimed ‘amateurs’, how the US positions itself in the Asia-Pacific is one of the key strategic questions of our time. As Lord and Erickson’s new book Rebalancing U.S Forces: Basing and Forward Presence in the Asia-Pacific admirably demonstrates, this is also fundamentally a question of logistics.

This is a very timely and important book given the many questions that are being asked of the US role in the Asia-Pacific. Among allies the question focus on how the ‘pivot’ or ‘rebalance’ is being implemented, and how force presence translates into promises of force. For those concerned about US presence, the questions are whether the US is targeting them and whether its intentions are offensive or not. Finally for the US itself, there are questions about the long term capacity of America to afford and sustain an expanded presence in this remote region.

Whatever your viewpoint on these questions, this book is a rich source of details and data to help guide assessment. Foremost the eight case studies demonstrate the substantial presence the US already has in the region. One-fifth of all US forces are in the Asia-Pacific, involving at least 330’000 civilian and military personnel, five aircraft carrier groups, 180 ships, 1’500 aircraft and substantial Marine and Coast Guard capacity. All this aptly demonstrates the wisdom of those who questioned how the US could pivot to a region it had never actually left.

Yet for those who doubt US commitment to the Asia-Pacific, the Obama Administration’s intention to have 60% of the naval fleet in the Asia-Pacific and increased Marine presence in Australia do little to prove the US presence will endure. As several chapters clearly detail, the nature of US presence in these countries is as much about historical legacy as contemporary strategic policy. This is especially true for the base locations. As former US Defence Secretary Rumsfeld has noted of US bases in South Korea ‘our troops were virtually frozen in place from where they were when the Korean War ended in 1953’.

This obvious point should help defray Chinese concerns that the US is attempting to encircle it. As Toshi Yoshihara elegantly demonstrates in the chapter on Japan, Beijing has paid significant attention to the location and presence of US bases. It also seems to have come up with a worst-case ‘solution’ of attacking via ballistic missiles. While Yoshihara identifies a number of questionable assumptions behind this approach, it does encourage serious reading of the final chapter on Sea-Basing as an alternate approach. Yoshihara’s analysis also strengthens the merits of more remote and sustainable bases for the US such as Guam, Australia and Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.

Moving out to more remote bases, either outside China’s A2/AD zone or a serious effort at remote offshore balancing as advocated by Barry Posen and others, would require changes to the way the US approaches regional security and its allies. The logistics at the heart of the US presence in the Asia-Pacific, and almost uniformly endorsed by the authors in this book is that distance still matters and the shorter distance from base to crisis point the better. Continuing America’s preferred strategy of quick and decisive force will be much harder to sustain if its fleet has to move to locations five to seven days sailing time away. This is where the nut of strategy meets the screw of logistics. Close in means greater threat but a quicker response, further away is more safety yet less immediate capacity.

Complications also exist in the political circumstances of the bases themselves. While Guam and Diego Garcia are under US control, there are still tensions around US bases in Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and Australia. As all the chapters, but especially Alexander Cooley’s insightful chapter on Central Asia demonstrates, those who host the US are not mere passive recipients. Leaders in host countries argue between themselves and with Washington over locations, they seek political pay offs, and they ‘cheap ride’ in the provision of their own security forces. Some like South Korea have event tried to claim a veto over what the US can and can’t do with American forces based in its territory. Important questions such as the support the US receives from its allies can only be answered with a clear understanding of just how much the US does for its allies today.

Inevitably an edited book like this will have stronger and weaker chapters, and for those reading about their own countries, the bar for authors to say anything new or important will be that much higher. Any Australians who is likely to pick up this book is likely to be aware of most of the details McCaffrie and Rahman outline. The Australia chapter also feels one of the driest, in terms of just listing names and places, as much as the authors try to dress it up.

Still, the most significant step in the US-Australia relationship in the last few years has been a question of basing, and understanding how the Darwin deployment fits into the wider picture of US presence, and the message the US tries to send with its force posture is vital. Too many arguments around the US approach to the Asia-Pacific still treat military force as something that is entirely a question of will or desire. If nothing else, this book demonstrates how short sighted that view is.

As the authors rightly argue ‘it is puzzling that serious students of American national security policy have paid so little attention to the subject of overseas basing over the years’. This is not just a question for those interested in the sharp end of conflict. As the debates over the pivot and the South China Sea have shown, presence matters. Too little presence and your commitment comes into doubt, too much and your intentions can look menacing. All the while trying to manage the tension between the message you send to opponents and allies via your presence, with the inevitable trade-off between security, capacity and speed of response. This book deserves to be on the shelf of all those who want to move beyond amateur games of risk about the Asia-Pacific and contribute to the full scope of professional analysis.

The Political Bubble

The Political Bubble: Why Australian’s Don’t Trust Pollitics
by Mark LathamPolitical bubble

Cliff notes review: Mark Latham declares politics too tribal and banal. And then spends several chapters proving by acting in that exactly fashion himself.

This is an unfortunately lazy book from Latham. He begins well, and if you have 10 minutes to spare in a bookshop, there is value in to reading the opening chapter. Latham’s picked up on some of the international debate about authority and influence – such as Moises Naim’s excellent The End of Power – and engages with it. He even notes that he is uniquely placed to apply these to Australia, stating ‘Ostracism has its advantages. It gives me a chance to play a different, more instructive role: writing objectively about the changing nature of power and public trust’.

Only Latham never takes up that chance. Crash-tackling any serious notion of objectivity, Latham devotes four long chapters to attacking right wing figures like Abbott, Bolt, Rinehart, and his old favourite Henderson. Quite how these chapters are related to his larger theme of ‘Why Australian’s don’t trust politics’ other than in a simplistic ‘Those bastards are lying’ theme is never explained. If you followed these debates you don’t need to read these chapters. If you didn’t you wouldn’t want to. Maybe these will appeal to those for whom political tribalism is their defining identity, but then I thought such people were Latham’s target, not his target audience.

Latham excuses his lack of writing on the Left and Labor by claiming he has already done so before, such as in his 2004 Diaries. Which is a shame, because the one chapter he writes on the left is halfway decent. Many on the left will hate it, and a lot of it is trite. But unlike the chapters on the right, Latham goes beyond citations of sin and begins to justify his claim about a disconnect between the public and left wing politics and links it to larger themes. It still feels like a few long op-ed’s stuck together, but it makes sense in a way the earlier chapters on Climate Change or the supposed Gillard/AWU scandal don’t.

For those with a economic liberal bent, there’s much to like in Latham’s prescriptions, and I’m left wishing he would write a book solely on what the ALP’s economic policy should be. (I know he wrote long treaties in the 1990s on global capitalism, but no one should have to suffer through those). Something serious and along the lines of how to recover the Keating compact of free markets, an emphasis on competition and a basic saftey net could have a real impact. Maybe next time. That said, the theme Latham occasionally highlights ‘thanks to growth and deregulation people don’t need politics as much as they used to’ has been made elsewhere and better. I’d recommend the ‘Declaration of Independents’ by Reason Magazine’s Matt Welch and Nick Gillespie for a much better effort.

The disappointment of this book is that in arguing modern Australian politics is banal and tribal, Latham demonstrates his point by being banal and tribal. This is persuasive, but in a way that seems somewhat too literal and pedantic. In summary, the first chapter is worth reading, and future Latham books will be worth keeping an eye on, but you can probably leave this one off your shelves.

The End of American World Order

The End of American World Order
by Amitav AcharyaEnd of American World Order

Amitav Acharya’s argument is that the ‘American world order’ was never that American in nature, nor worldly in scope or even very orderly. Instead he predicts that regions and regionalism is the future, and this might actually better serve us all, the US included. At least I think that’s what he argues. The book for all its clarity of prose, feels half-formed. This is a placeholder book, hopefully pointing the author and other scholars towards important new approaches, but with the risk it might never be taken and thus this book will soon be forgotten.

One virtue of not being a ‘big name IR scholar': I’m not expected to have a book out every time there’s a new fad in the discipline. A decade ago, if you were big, you had a book on Terrorism, then it was Iraq, then China, now the decline of the US.

I’ve long been an admirer of Amitav Acharya’s work. His book ‘How ideas spread: Whose norms matter’ was one of the best books on norms I read during my PhD and quite influential on my thinking. He has also produced a stream of strong articles in the leading journals around the world.

Yet I can’t help but feel this book is a ‘my thoughts on the world’ text, both in its lengths (a mere 117 pages) and the many initiated but unfinished thoughts that appear amongst its pages. The book is neither long enough to serve as a description of the currently changing international system, nor with a clear and striking enough argument to serve as a way of understanding that change. Instead the book ends with something of a call for a new story to be told, of how regions are increasingly important and non-great powers play a vital role shaping the world order. Both of which I’d strongly agree with, but as a reader I’m left to wonder why those important arguments (and the detailed evidence to substantiate them) were not refined into a different book, instead of the one that is now in my hands.

Acharya’s prose is clear, and even when walking you through the logic and arguments of other scholars he keeps the arguments highly accessible. If some random member of the public who largely ignored international politics happened to receive this as a birthday present, they’d be reasonably able to work through this book and come out much wiser for it. But that wasn’t its intended audience and more likely our random member of the public would never even flick through its pages.

There’s an interesting sub-theme running through this book. As everyone knows, Asia is rising and this is challenging traditional western ideas of how international politics works and even how we go about studying said politics. One small but growing trend is by Asian scholars who argue that the region has been judged by the wrong standards by outsiders who don’t understand what is occurring. In short, westerns can’t understand what is going on. Kishore Mahbubani is perhaps the most well known example of this critical trend, one which even if yet to clearly justify its case and uncomfortable reading for many western scholars, will be an important one to engage with. Acharya is far too conscious of American audiences to wholly embrace this trend, but he does seem to imply it at times in this book, as he has in other works.

If this trend ends up the growing pains of a serious contribution towards ‘Non-Western approaches to International Relations’ we will all be the better off for it. But if it’s just a form of Asian swagger, based on nothing more than economic growth and feelings that the region’s time has come (as it often does in Mahbubani’s work), then, like its prior British and US versions, we could well do without it.

This is an enjoyable read, but i’m glad I didn’t shell out the $31.95 (or a ridiculous $94.95 for hardcover) for it. I’m keen to see where Acharya’s thinking goes next, his work will continue to be on my must-read lists. But it feels more like this book is a placeholder, or a basecamp for future endeavours: Something to satisfy the publishers and keep his name in the ring as a thinker on the big questions of the day, while he (hopefully) begins the actual struggle to move his way towards a real and substantial new contribution.

Rudd, Gillard and Beyond

Rudd, Gillard and Beyond
by Troy BramstonRudd Gillard and Beyond

Sometimes authors write books because they have to, not because they need to. One gets the feeling this book sprung from the desire of a publisher to have a ‘what it all means’ tome after the end of the recent Labor government. Or perhaps given Bramston’s obvious ambition, the initiative came from the writer. Either way, the purpose of the book seems set well before the content of it was conceived.

That is not always a bad thing, and this is no bad book. But it’s an odd end product. It’s far too insiderish for much appeal to the wider apathetic general public, yet there themes and issues are too well known and discussed in a generic way for those inside the triangle* to get much use.

Still, i suspect many who follow politics the way most normal people follow sport will pick up a copy. There interviews with Rudd and Shorten help to present both men in perhaps as good a light as they could hope for. For me, Shorten came away as a figure to look at closer, Rudd as even more delusional than seems safe. Gillard is the only one who didn’t speak to Bramston and so the writer seems unsure what to think.

Bramston has set himself up as the medium of Labor, but when Labor people don’t give him access, the resulting prose is decidedly medium.

I do like Bramston’s work and think he plays an important role. But if he wants to step into the Paul Kelly/George Megalogenius upper tier of journalists who can help define Australian politics, he needs to take more time than ‘two brief bursts’. A serious engagement with the wealth of insight from the political science fields would be a rich starting point. Like his subject of the Rudd and Gillard government, simply being productive is never enough. Valuable, honourable legacies are built upon having a defined purpose and a language which elevates to that level. Maybe next time.

* Ala Washington DCs beltway, Canberra has a parliamentary triangle which seperates those inside and in the know from the general mass.

The Contest of the Century

The Contest of the Century: The New Era of Competition with China–and How America Can Win
by Geoff DyerContest of Century

In the latest edition of good books with terrible titles, the final subtitle “And How America can Win”, doesn’t appear in the British version of this book.

I’m glad it doesn’t as that kind of shlocky title just takes away the credibility from what is otherwise a very sensible, if straight forward reading of the current US-China relationship and regional competition. This is not a book proposing simple solutions, in fact the strength of it is Dyer doesn’t attempt to divine an ‘iron logic of strategy’ (ala Luttwak) or declare a winner will soon rule the world (ala Jaques) but instead casts a dubious journalists eye towards the complexities and contradictions which more ‘intellectual’ writers are want to slide over.

Dyer is best when he sticks close to what he knows, the challenge of Beijing’s leaders actually ruling over Beijing. That is managing to hold together a society with so many economic, social, political, geographic and engineering challenges. He’s also far more attuned to the challenge of then extending that influence over the rest of Asia. As Obama noted at Westpoint (but most commentators ignored) the fundamental difference between the US and China is the vast imbalance of allies towards America. China’s recent failure to persuade any countries to switch camps (in fact its strengthening of their allegiance to the US) is well covered in this book, not with an agressive “see America is winning” motif, but a journalists well honed cynicism that an authority claiming a confucian-inspired machiavellianism is quite as capable as it would have us believe.

I picked this book up in an airport, and completed it on the return flight home. It’s perfect for such venues. Like a healthy snack between meals, this book is tasty yet fulfilling. While not a meal you’ll remember, you’ll be the better of for chowing down on it.

The Tyranny of Experts

The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor
by William EasterlyTyranny of Experts

Easterly’s essential argument is simple: Western aid/development experts have focused on economic growth and not economic organisation. They have accepted the dictators gambit, that authoritarianism is acceptable if it comes with higher growth. But as Easterly shows this is almost never true. Instead, we should focus on ensuring the poor have the economic and political liberty (such as private property rights, free speech etc) and then the growth will come. Not just in rare busts, but long sustained development.

Fateful Lightning

Fateful Lightning: A New History of the Civil War and Reconstruction
by Allen C. GuelzoFateful Lightning

To understand the US, I firmly believe you need to understand the Civil War. Not in some crass “the tea party are neo-confederates” way, but to get a sense of the diverse principles and impulses which work in the glorious, chaotic and utterly human society that is America.

This is a fantastic single volume history, that not only tells the story in a smooth, well written fashion, but also tries to convey both the scope of scholarly debate on the big historical questions, as well as providing as up to date an assessment of what actually happened and why.

In this day and age when the story of democracy seems a little grubby, full of decaying institutions and declining participation, the US civil war is an vitally important story. It offers many insights for understanding how and why democracies can and do fail. And the fundamental, historic importance of ensuring that democracy by and for the people shall endure on this earth.

Guelzo seeks to provide an broad brush overview of the war, the major characters and the major issues still debated by scholars. This is naturally a big picture history, with the main focus on the national politics and militaries, but he also has chapters that take in the wider view, showing how the war affected women, slaves, free blacks and worked at the level of class, ideology and culture. These chapters feel like natural extensions of the large story, given their place but never assumed to be more significant than the overall story. Likewise while there’s a degree of Lincoln adoration, old Abe doesn’t dominate too strongly as some histories like to portray.

There are reportedly over 50’000 books on the American Civil War. In preparing for this book, I feel Professor Guelzo may have almost read all of them. You could easily read this one and never have to read another. Though I suspect most will want more, and this book helpfully provides further reading lists on key topics as well as extensive (though not obtrusive) footnotes. The only section that felt a little short was the Reconstruction, a period I don’t know as well, and still feel there is much to learn about. I’d have liked more on it, but at 535 pages, it’s probably long enough as is.

After reading this and watching through Ken Burns’ Civil War Doco, I’ve also ordered Shelby Foote’s three volume history of the civil war. And while i’m normally not one for drawn out discussions of military tactics and battle stories, I’m also looking into some of his recommendations for books that cover the tactical and especially strategic campaigns in greater depth.

This is single volume history as it should be. Comprehensive enough you feel you don’t need to read anything else, but wide enough in scope and enticing in discussion to awake you to dozens of new books and hundreds of pleasant hours of study and entertainment ahead.

Highly recommended.

This Time is Different

This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly
by Carmen M. Reinhart, Kenneth RogoffReinhart - This time is Diff

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

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

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

Special Providence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Highly recommended.

Diary of a Foreign Minister

Diary of a Foreign Minister
by Bob CarrCarr - Diary FM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More of this please.

Dangerous Allies

Dangerous Allies
by Malcolm Fraser, Cain RobertsFraser - Dangerous Allies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Australia-China Relations post 1949

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

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

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

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

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

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

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