Chasing the Norm

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

The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century

The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century by Steven PinkerPinker-Sense of style

I went to a grammar school. Which naturally means I am quite bad at doing grammar. I can even mangle the very word grammar, replacing the last a with e. I have always loved playing with words, but the constraints that formal education demands have always felt too restrictive. Why can’t I spell crunnnch with three n’s? That’s how it sounds! And why can’t I start a sentence with and?

In The Sense of Style: The thinking person’s guide to writing in the 21st century Steven Pinker tries to sort out what we truly know about good writing. While much of our common wisdom is wise, there is much that you and I heard from our teachers which should be discarded.

Across 300 easily read pages, and six distinct chapters, Pinker wanders through how we think in and through English and how to use it more effectively. Most importantly, he shows that while it makes sense to choose some options over others, it is convention and convenience that should guide us. The human mind shapes particular choices to be more effective, but it is human society which ultimately determines the merits of our language.

This refreshing approach allows Pinker to defend some old wisdom while pulling apart others. He encourages infinitives to be split and mounts a convincing defence of the humble ‘the’ through its power to offer a sentence breathing space. Likewise, passive voice, which research has shown to aid a reader’s memory is also offered renewed praise.

This is where Pinker, a psychologist and linguist from Harvard shines as the author. How we think and the way language shapes and is shaped by thought have always been central to his work. Pinker shows time and again an interest not just in words as words, or thoughts as thoughts, but how they are connected.

His scientist’s eye for cognition and language is also smoothed by the clear sense of play which infuses the book. It starts with the book’s title. Having a sense of style is important, but there is sense in having a style that aids communicate. The frequent use of humour in the form of classic errors “Rachel Ray finds inspiration in cooking her family and her dog” break up the analysis and let the mind rest.

Early on in the book Pinker implies that a reader’s inability to follow is the writer’s fault. So let me attribute two issues which, with his injunction in hand, I can clearly lay at the foot of the Harvard-professor-as-writer, rather than this Canberra-lecturer-as-reader.

For those who have not followed some of his earlier work, the use of tree strings can seem a complication without much contribution. I have a vague memory of them from his earlier works like The Language Instinct but still found them difficult to learn from. Maybe more visual readers will gain more than I did. Still it is remarkable that encountering these strings was about the only time I had to ask myself ‘Do I really understand this’.

The other concern I had was that after 187 delightful pages of analysis and discussion, the book switches gear to become a list of 100 common problems and rules. While Pinker continues to rebel against the forces of pedantry, the change is still jarring. It almost felt like a different book, as if I’d been tricked into reading a style manual.

The advantage of this easy to look up section however is that I’ll now leave a copy of The Sense of Style close to my desk for future reference. Rather than sending it back to the shelves to gather dust, the book has gained a second life beyond the reading. In turn this ensures the book will be far more visible to those I work with, which is a subtle but genius act of marketing by the author if intended.

I should end by noting it has been more challenging than usual to pull this review together. Not because I have difficulty organising my thoughts about the text, but because I was much more (greater? further?) self-conscious about the quality of my writing. The first page of “The Sense of Style” says ‘credible guidance on writing must itself be well written’. While Pinkers’ work easily meets this test, does this also apply to those who are claiming to have read it?

To write badly so soon after digesting it would suggest a lack of attention and care on my part. If I’m reviewing a book of history or politics, then displaying a mastery of the dates and names I’ve encountered within its pages takes next to no effort on my part. But displaying a mastery of language after reading about good writing?

So in the tradition of cautious writers everywhere let me acknowledge the help Pinker has tried to provide my penmanship through his excellent little book, recommend you also seek out his help, and declare him free of any responsibility for the errors in this review and any future ones to come.

The Evolution of Strategy: Thinking War from Antiquity to the Present

The Evolution of Strategy: Thinking War from Antiquity to the Present by Beatrice HeuserHeuser - Evolution of strategy

“War. War never changes”. So begins the latest hit video game Fallout 4. In reality however, war has changed immeasurably.

Examining 2000 years of warfare, with an emphasis from the age of Napoleon to the early War on Terror, Heuser shows the evolution, change, and variations of strategy and conflict. While bloodshed, suffering, fog and friction are common of every conflict, the how, where, when, and why of war has as many fashions as well…fashion.

Heuser’s concern is how people have written about and talked about the use and management of war and violence. Treating this entire field as focused on ‘strategy’ is a methodological risk. Most people in history haven’t used the term ‘strategy’ as we understand it today. While we should be careful not to put new words into old mouths, this is a risk worth taking.

Evidence of strategic behaviour is common across all human history and all human cultures. Even if our ancestors would not have used the term, they were undertaking the same essential task as we do today: Thinking about how to manage and use force to achieve political ends. And if we are to understand our challenges, we need to learn how those before us overcame theirs.

To manage an intellectual history of this scope, Heuser identifies five broad areas, bookended by analysis of the use of the term ‘strategy’ (from the Greek ‘stratagos’ meaning a General), and a fascinating discussion of the long term trends and future challenges.

Heuser merges the period from covering Antiquity to the Middle Ages, covering issues such as leadership, moral, mercenaries, sieges and technology. The book then explores on the Napoleonic era and the development of ideas of total war. She highlights a ‘Napoleonic paradigm’ focused on decisive battles, and increasingly the targeting of foreign populations as a constant from the late 18th century till the advent of nuclear weapons in 1945. Forces such as the development of the modern state, technology, nationalism and Social Darwinism all contributed to this trend. The outcome was a shift from a war where people could sit on the hillside and watch during the American Civil War, to a world where civilians were the target of war.

Total war, pitting the entire resources of the state against an opponent in a struggle for survival found its apotheosis in the Second World War. Many expected its appearance during the Cold War, and its core ideas such as aiming for decisive, unconditional victories still drive many modern militaries, particularly the USA.
Following this analysis, and in line with the chronology, though more thematically organised, Maritime Strategy, Airpower and Asymmetric conflicts are explored. These chapters are useful to show just how new many of our ideas about warfare are, and how important technological change has been to dramatically shaping its nature, focus and use.

This is a long book, with a lot of history to chew through. While consistently solid in its prose, some of these areas can drag for the non-specialist. Or seem not deep enough for those with something of a background in the area. It’s useful to know some of what Thucydides, Jomini, Mahan, Corbett and other ‘masters’ of strategy thought, as Heuser tends to try and spread around her focus, showing the wider context of the debates and spread of ideas about war through (largely European) societies.

A highlight is the concluding section on ‘The quest for new paradigms after the world war’. Here the narrative seems to slow down, trying less to highlight all the major debates and authors. Instead it trace just a few ideas and pulls them apart. You hear more of Heuser’s own views through this section, which is to be appreciated, and reminiscent of the historically grounded essays of Hew Strachan’s Direction of War.

It’s a truism that general fight the last war AND that they are obsessed with how new technology makes all past experience obsolete. As Heuser masterfully shows, there have always been historically grounded and material/technologically oriented schools of thought about strategy. Its use and application has always been a debate, wrapped up with our notions of ethics, technology, geography, identity and logic. Strategy changes because war changes. Notions of linear experience might work for a fictional video game, but reality is far richer and more varied. The catch – and there always is one – is that to make sense of this change, we need to know what has stayed the same. If you can work your way through Heuser’s volume, you’ll be well on your way to separating fact from fiction.

The Direction of War: Contemporary Strategy in Historical Perspective

The Direction of War: Contemporary Strategy in Historical Perspective by Hew Strachan

IStrachan- Direction of War work at a ‘Strategic & Defence Studies Centre’ and like to use the word strategy. But I confess to not being really sure what the word means. In this confusion I am not alone.

In The Direction of War: Contemporary Strategy in Historical Perspective Hew Strachan (pronounced ‘strawn’) examines the ‘lost meaning of strategy’. Today most government departments try to be ‘strategic’ as do businesses, health coaches, schools and caterers.

This is a far cry from what the term classically meant. Strachan compelling argues that for 18th and 19th century thinkers such as Clausewitz and Jomini, strategy meant ‘the use of the battle for the purposes of the war’. This was the notion which World War One generals carried with them into the conflict. The change in meaning occurred after World War Two and with the rise of the nuclear age.

No longer could states use battles for war, because war could no longer be risked. The total war of Hitler, Stalin and Hirohito was too high a burden, and nuclear weapons made conflict seem cataclysmic. As Bernard Brodie famously wrote ‘Thus far the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them. It can have no other useful purpose’. Ever since, Strachan laments, strategy has been broad, grand, and banal. It covers peacetime and war, economics and policy and is thoroughly confused about its purpose and role.

Through a series of thematic essays Strachan traces this change and the harm it has done to our modern understanding and use of war. While total wars between powerful states have thankfully paused, warfare continues in a variety of forms.

In one fascinating chapter, Strachan highlights and critiques the emergence of the ‘operational’ level. This is a domain of thinking that had not existed in the past and represents an attempt by the military to recapture that original element of strategy — and their control of this highly valued term.

While Strachan rightly attacks the sloppy thinking and misuse of the term strategy, I admit to still being unclear exactly how he thinks we should use it. Perhaps a re-reading would help. This is a detailed, analytical book that weaves its way to a conclusion rather than setting out easy to follow guideposts. As a series of reprinted and updated works from other contexts the book is coherent but not comprehensive.

If I have caught the thread, Strachan believes that strategy should not be thought of as a constant but a discussion. An intersection between policy (what the nation wants) and tactics (the use of force by the state). In the middle, and negotiated between those with responsibility for policy (the politicians) and tactics (the military) is strategy.

Where we have gone wrong is to try and split the term. So the relationship between policy and strategy occupied the West during the Cold War, leading to meaningless Presidential rhetoric about a “forward strategy of Freedom”. At the same time, the operational concept only looks at the relationship between strategy and tactics. This ignores the purpose of fighting and confuses military concerns with the resources and approach of the nation undertaking it.

Strachan also usefully highlights the temporal shift in our thinking about strategy. Instead of a discussion between past and present it is now between present and future. As a historian who resents this shift, he lays blame for this change at the feet of two groups.

First theorists from the Navy and Air Forces who either don’t have much of a history to draw on. Or who believe their machines sufficiently different and perfectible in the future as to be ‘revolutionary’. The other group is political scientists, particularly those after WW2 who Strachan believes got lost in abstract game theories and formal logics that ignored actual human conflict.

In The Direction of War, Strachan judges strategic studies a very troubled discipline. He demonstrates it is confused about its key terms, divorced from its origins, and subverted in its purposes. At the heart of this is the inability of many in the discipline to shake the romance of World War Two. That is, wanting to plan for, discuss and debate grand strategy in total war scenarios without being sullied by looking at the actual occurrences and use of strategy in mundane, limited, and localised conflicts today.

There’s much to this. We have a generation of Western leaders who think every crisis is Munich, and Churchill is the only model of good leadership. And this generation, in war and peace has been terrible at using force to support national interests. Too willing, too reticent. Too fearful, too hubristic. And rarely clear minded in why and how the conflict will serve their nation. But we can’t just blame the leaders. Those who advise and write on these matters need to also take responsibility.

This is a slow read but a valuable one. There is wisdom on every page, but not every page seems to take you in the same direction. The essays wander through history, shift to theory and then back again. Unsurprisingly for a Professor at Oxford, European and especially British experience is the go-to, though Strachan does an admirable job of providing as much information as you need to understand the reason why he is raising each example.

Ultimately, I still feel some confusion about strategy. Restoring strategy to its original meaning seems an unhelpful move. It would seem to exclude many critical peacetime choices, such as the development of alliances and much of defence planning (do we build ships to defend the air-sea gap, or land forces to be interoperable with coalition partners overseas?).

The present wide use of the term also suggests a need for a term that helps us connect policy and action to secure the nation and its interests. Thanks to Strachan’s consistent effort to demand clear, historically grounded thinking I now feel I at least have a firm foundation upon which to build my own views

Restless Continent: Wealth, rivalry and Asia’s new Geopolitics

Restless Continent: Wealth, rivalry and Asia’s new geopolitics by Michael WesleyWesley_restless continent

If you go into a good bookstore these days, the international politics section is bound to be focused on ISIS/Terrorism, and the rise of Asia. Meanwhile, survey show 40% of US international relations professors consider Asia the most strategically important region for the US today, with that number jumping to 66% for those looking twenty years ahead. Both data points may seem surprising given Asia has been at peace for forty years.

Why the interest in Asia? Michael Wesley’s excellent new book Restless Continent: Wealth, Rivalry and Asia’s new Geopolitics, gives four big reasons for this focus: Scale, muscle memory, pride and location. In short, Asia is bigger, has stronger states, greater pride and more important location than any comparable region in the world. And Restless Continent is as good an explainer of the key trend and challenges as you will find on the bookshelves today.

This is a foxes’ book. There’s no big “one trick you didn’t know to explain the world” claims here. Rather dozens of trends, forces, and processes are highlighted to build an insightful, complex and even contradictory picture of Asia, as fits the actual diversity of the region.

This is a significant achievement for a book which is written for the general public (published by Black Inc). Wesley has a mature writing style that comfortably balance speaking to the public while drawing on the academic books and articles which offer detailed insight into specific issues. Not many can pull this off so well, so it’s worth highlighting.

Restless Continent focuses on three key areas, economics, politics and geography. Along the way themes of interdependence, colonialism, civilisations, hierarchies, and strategy are explored. The section on economic interactions – such as global production sharing, regional infrastructure and energy arteries, along with the way humans think about and engage geography are particular stand outs.

There’s a sense balance in the analysis that recognises the way the big trends and key actor’s concerns intersect. In some instances cooperating, more often contradicting, yet the implications are still unknown, if not unknowable. For instance, urbanisation is the force that has driven Asia’s economic rise and taken an average of 1 million people out of poverty every single week since 1990.

Yet this same process also increases the pressure on often weak states to deliver services and maintain public legitimacy. Urban based insurgencies are the nightmare situation for any military, yet 1/3 to 1/5th of the urban population of the region is packed into slums, with governments increasingly worried about the implications.

What I particularly liked about Wesley’s approach to Asia is that it is not just about China. As important as the Middle Kingdom is, he gives the other states their due. Indeed, his conclusion seems to imply it is the choice of the mid-sized countries, whether to follow or resist which will the key ‘choice’ of regional leaders.

Wesley defined Asia in its broadest sense ‘from the Pacific to the Mediterranean, and the Artic to the Indian Ocean’ (p.63). He argues that this is both more natural given the regional patterns pre-colonialism, and irresistible in an interconnected world. Yet while there is occasional discussion of ‘West Asia’ (Iran, Israel, Persian Gulf etc), the book tends to focus on the sweep from India, through Southeast Asia up to North Asia. Indeed Wesley seems to admit the need to subdivide, separating a Northern Tier of Central Asia, Russia and Mongolia from a Southern Tier which is the main focus of the book.

If I did have one major disagreement, it was with Wesley’s argument that ‘all policy – what governments are able to do within but particularly beyond their borders – is enabled or prevented by an underlying distribution or structure of latent force’ (p.126). This is a common view, and since Thucydides and Machiavelli political science has always tried to look at the power behind the throne, the steel inside the velvet glove. Yet I think it’s far too simple, if not outdated an explanation of Asia today.

The evolution of the region has been far from pre-determined by the distribution of force. While the US has championed many of the current rules and structures, it achieved much of this by negotiation, compromise, and traditional diplomatic politics. There is no evidence the region simply rolled over to accommodate it. Likewise China is not finding the running all going its way as its capacity for force grows. The most notable thing about the South China Sea is how much trouble the emerging giant is having trying to achieve its will against much smaller countries such as Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan etc.

The rules of the region are at essence negotiated. Military power helps countries seeking to shape those rules, but so does legitimacy, diplomatic skill, coalition building and the capacity to mount a persuasive argument. Wesley’s claim to see a substructure of force underneath that determines ‘all’ behaviour, also seems to contradict the important focus he places on psychological factors such as identity and history as key shapers of the relations between countries in Asia.

This criticism aside, I’m slightly surprised this book hasn’t had a bigger reception. Wesley is a charismatic speaker and engaging writer, with a significant CV and recognition around Australia’s corridors of power. The lack of one “big trick to understand Asia” probably hurts the PR pitch, but makes for an infinitely more engaging and interesting book.

While most US IR professors see Asia as the most important region, it is notable how few work on it. And fewer still among those can translate the work of their field into publicly engaging prose. Michael Wesley is one of the rare few who can do both. Restless Continent is therefore self-recommending.

* Disclaimer – Michael Welsey is Director of the Coral Bell school of Asia Pacific Affairs at ANU, within which sits the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre where I work.

Australia’s Second Chance

Australia’s Second Chance by George MegalogenisMega_Aus_Second_chance

In the field of ‘big-picture’ books by journalists about Australian politics, Paul Kelly is the hall of famer who still rightly claims attention. But the rising star is George Megalogenis.

Megageorge as he is widely known has recently produced two important books. The Longest Decade told the counter-narrative story of the similarities between Paul Keating and John Howard. So good was it that I believe Paul Kelly paid it the ultimate compliment by trying to write the same tale in his own The March of Patriots. Megalogenis then returned the favour by retelling the story of Kelly’s The End of Certainty, examining and advocating for the liberalisation of the Australian economy in The Australia Moment.

In Australia’s Second Chance Megalogenis has again set out for new territory, arguing that Australia’s prosperity and success depends not just on being an open country economically but an open country for migrants. The book shows that Australia was and always has been a nation defined by migration. This, alongside the question of population is a central element of the nation’s success.

In telling this story, Megalogenis usefully brings to popular light the role and status of the Irish and Chinese during the gold rush era, the link between the 1890s depression and the White Australia policy, and the efforts from the 1940s onwards to try and open up the country again to migration. The writing fairly clips along, and he helpfully doesn’t just focus on tired moments like Eureka and Gallipoli but tells of a steady clear narrative showing the vital importance of migration for national prosperity.

In writing a neat history however, Megalogenis’ work can sometimes imply a deterministic history. Much like his excellent, The Australia Moment, the outcome of any particular moment seems obvious and even necessary. The heat of conflict, the division, the possible alternatives are tamped down so as to clean up the narrative and progress the story. The end result seems somewhat bloodless. I found this more concerning in his earlier book ‘The Australia Moment’, because it seemed to imply there had once been an era where reform was easy and popular. But there’s a trace of it here too in ‘Australia’s Second Chance’.

The book is split into three sections. “The Rise” is Australia’s relative openness as a colony. “The Fall” charts the nation turning inwards against the Chinese on the gold fields, through the depression the 1890s, the establishment of White Australia and the muted 1920s. Finally “The Return” covers the post-war boom and through till today. All three sections are handled well, with the extended coverage of the early pre-WW2 years an important, and too often overlooked element of the nation’s story.

While this organisation makes the books purpose clear, you wouldn’t exactly know it from the title or cover design. Instead we get a book pitched as ‘What our history tells us about our future’. Likewise the introduction sets out as if it is just a simple retelling, only cryptically noting in one line ‘the thread that connects the past to the present and future is the ongoing conversation between those who came to these shores, and those who received them’. It may well be that this is simply the act of the publishers, who might (perhaps rightly) believe that such an approach would help entice a wider crowd, and lower readers’ guards given the controversial and tired nature of the issue.

But I suspect it was, at least partly deliberate. The bargain journalists tend to enter into when they write books is that they will focus on telling what has happened, but will hold off from looking ahead to say what should happen. By keeping to history re-examined, not a future imagined, they maintain their status as objective observers. Yet, Megalogenis is not afraid of making strong judgements on what was the right policy in the past. And in this case, he clearly passionately, and personally believes that Australia needs to much more fundamentally acknowledge and engage with migration.

While I was already a convert to this argument, I think the message in ‘Australia’s Second Chance’ is important and true and needs to be widely read and debated. It could also be made in stronger generalised terms. There is a vast literature on immigration and economic performance that could have been drawn upon to show that it’s not just because of our history that we should welcome immigration. It’s a general truth that immigration has many net positives for economic development. This literature is relatively easy to access and explain for a public audience, and gives us important guidelines for trying to work out how to achieve the best results in the future.

As such, given Megageorge’s reputation and track record, it would have been nice to see him wade into the ‘big Australia’ debate and argue clearly what Australia should do in the future. To stake out a position and help drive the national conversation about our relationship with migration and population. That’s a higher degree of difficulty, especially given the desire to remain an independent journalist. But get it right and it really would knock Kelly off his perch.

Between the World and Me

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi CoatesCoates_between_world

After finishing Between the World and Me I had to force myself to consciously exhale. So sublime in places is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ prose that I had often been holding my breath as I read.

This is not the type of book I would normally read. A memoir of a young New York writer, discussing race relations in a foreign country. Normally I have far more interest in people, as a group and movement, than specific persons. Yet I’d encountered Coates blog over the years, and had a respect for his pen and mind. Given the reception of this book, I wanted to give it a go. I am very glad I did.

This book doesn’t try to transmit knowledge about what happens to black men in America today, so much as attempt the much harder task of giving wisdom about what it feels like. The book is a letter from father to son. A warning of the fear that constant destruction of black bodies and black lives is the ethos of his time and the world he has brought him into.

Fear drives much of Coates views. Fear of the streets, of the schools, of police, and of ‘those who call themselves white’. Much of the backdrop for the book is the spate of police killings of young black men. Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Michael Brown, Eric Garner. These are just the well-known few, amongst a sea of young men destroyed.

Once the narrative begun, I was glad to have recently read Radley Balko’s excellent ‘Rise of the Warrior Cop’ to give some context to the racing pulse Coates feels near the authorities. Coates does not blame the individual officers for their deaths, but a system which he feels sustains itself upon their destruction.

Many will detect a hatred in his views. And they will then be bewildered by the positive reception of this book. What they miss —as does the author himself I believe— is that this fear is not just a black endowment but a human wellspring. This is not to pretend some banal equality of circumstance or dismiss the true record of suffering. But rather to suggest the power of his prose is not just to recount what happens to black people, but to identify how people necessarily feel in a hostile, unjust, meaningless universe. It is indeed far worse for some, but Coates is wrong to believe whole classes and races have managed to escape it.

I often read to get something out of a text. New knowledge, acquaintance with a passing stream of thought, simply to say ‘yes, I’ve read that’. But after just a few pages of this book, I realised I didn’t want to get anything out of this book. I just wanted to read and keep reading. Like the late Christopher Hitchens, Coates is a writer I enjoy for the sheer joy of their words, irrespective of the meaning they were trying to convey.

What I got out of this book was therefore not knowledge. Rather it is a greater sense of empathy. I choose that word deliberately. I do not feel sympathy, or pity for Coates. I do not feel compassion, as if his suffering is my own, or that I am responsible for alleviating his burden. Rather, I feel the boundary of my acceptance of behaviour has been pushed wider, my all too human desire to criticise weakened. Not to pretend he or ‘his people’ are innocent, but that such catch all terms as ‘guilt’ and ‘innocence’ are creations of an abstract world of perfect rules and unconfused hearts and heads.

One of the most compelling sections for me was Coates description of his education. One that did not happen in any school room, and only occasionally involved paid instructors. Rather it was via books and conversations, new experiences and a relentless curiosity. Many will recognise his search for historical figures ‘to put in my trophy case’ as he puts it. A desire for narratives and stories that might help justify his life, his colour, his identity as worth something. As if the success of past black figures redeems or sanctifies those alive today.

Yet, like the section on fear, this too is an emotion felt across the spectrum. Millions have flocked to places like ‘’ and the archives of their family, hoping to find a power in their name and blood line that might give significance to their own beating heart and flesh. It is however an escape, much like that offered by religion. Ultimately for Coates, both are unsatisfying.

Coates world view is instead much more grounded, giving the book a material essence that is far more powerful. Rather than acknowledging suffering then pulling away to discuss solutions or salvation, he stays with what it means for people. Real actual people. Not ‘slaves’ but the enslaved lives of individuals. Not trend lines, generations and other abstractions that we talk about. Rather the confusion, pain, and death of specific human beings. All with similar fingers and toes, pimples and pupils, and heads and hearts like our own.

Ultimately, I found myself rejecting Coates pessimism and lack of hope. I look at the history of the world, and for all the misery of now, I can see that while yesterday was worse, tomorrow will be better. But I appreciate his honesty in challenging this assumption. In a lunchtime interview with the Financial Times, Coates sets out his approach: “His job, he says, isn’t to prescribe policy; it’s to push more Americans to live in truth. “If we can act with consciousness, even if we can’t fix everything, that would be a monumental improvement.””

This is a powerful book that grabs like a fish hook and is difficult to dislodge from the mind till you have closed its cover. At its best, it reminds that politics and morality can only be generalised so far. That these are imprecise forms of understanding that abstract out the real lives and actions of people with breath in their chests. Empathy can only take us so far, but fresh paths require fresh lungs, and in Ta-Nehisi Coates, there is a strong new heart at work.

Two Futures: Australia at a Critical Moment

Two Futures: Australia at a Critical Moment  by Clare O’Neil, Tim Watts Oneil_Watts_two_futures

A few weeks ago, Australia’s Minister for Arts gave a lovely little speech about books and politicians as writers. In it he said:

“The current crop of my Federal Parliamentary colleagues has produced a superabundance of books. Admittedly, most belong either to the category of rather dull and worthy policy blueprints for Australia’s future, of the kind rising backbenchers are wont to write to advertise their intellectual wares; or memoirs of the “where did it all go so wrong – it certainly wasn’t my fault” variety”.

Given the timing, I suspect Brandis had Two Futures in mind with this line. For all the proliferation of blame sharing memoirs —particularly from the previous government— there are very few real policy blueprints around. Mark Latham made his name by writing them, and Cory Bernardi has tried the same — though I regret reading the former, and won’t read the latter.

Two Futures by Clare O’Neil and Tim Watts is therefore to be welcomed as a relatively rare break from the pack. Both were elected in 2013, but are already well regarded by insiders. Their book justifies that by trying to think through six big issues Australia must manage: Democracy, Inequality, Technology, Climate, (Economic) Growth, and The World.

Wisely the authors avoid prediction —save for a slightly odd concluding chapter which contrasts two futures —and focus on the key trends in operation today. They try and gather a reasonable factual basis and look ahead to what this might mean for the country in 2040. In turn they set some general policy principles to help take advantage of the opportunities and alleviate the challenges.

The simple fact that economic growth and foreign/defence policies were included as standalone chapters should be strongly applauded. Most Labor/left policy books I’ve encountered downplay these topics. Indeed many party figures would rather never talk about these issues, seeing them as unwinnable for the left, lacking any vote changing issues, and less appealing than safe ground like health or education. I think such a view is both cowardly and wrong, so I’m glad to see O’Neil and Watt face these issues directly.

The foreign and defence policy chapter* starts with a largely standard analysis of the trends. But its conclusion that we should think of Australia as a Southeast Asian power is something I strongly agree with, and very much welcome as a contribution to the debate. I suspect many in the public will like it as well.

The economics chapter however felt like it was the most difficult for the authors to write. It’s more descriptive, the arguments less well connected, the policy prescriptions less specific. There are more appeal for independent experts —especially the Productivity Commission— to provide the answers via reviews and reports. The chapter also quickly moves onto issues of education and participation. The authors embrace the liberalisation of the economy over the last thirty years as fundamental to national prosperity, but where it goes next is not really engaged head on.

The stand out chapter for me in many ways was on Democracy, which I think addressed some quite fundamental issues in a frank and honest way. It also offered the most innovative and specific of the policy proposals in the book. The climate and inequality chapters were interesting mostly for their different tone. Both try to look at the opportunities and get perspective on the challenges. This is a welcome break from the moralising, pessimistic admonition that for many on the left is their standard rhetorical approach. It also helps that these chapters in particular and the book overall is well written with some clever turns of phrase.

Our now former Minister for Arts might be right to note the way such books are often used to help advance careers more than debate. But Two Futures is a book that seems genuinely interested in ideas, and one where the authors have done their homework, drawing from scholarly material and reports to develop those ideas. For this reason, the sheer exercise alone strikes me as something to be encouraged, whatever the merits of any individual chapters or policy proposals. If more backbenchers took up the task, Australia’s future in 2040 would look far brighter indeed.

*Disclaimer – I had a chat to Tim about the production of the World chapter, though the ideas and arguments in it are entirely his and Clare’s.

The China Challenge: Shaping the Choices of a Rising Power

The China Challenge: Shaping the Choices of a Rising Power
by Thomas J. ChristensenChristensen-china

There’s a quite useful series of books called Physics for Future Presidents. Thomas J. Christensen’s The China Challenge: Shaping the choices of a rising power feels something like a ‘China for future Presidents’.

Christensen is well placed to offer such insight. He is a leading scholar on China and US Cold War policy. He also worked in the Bush Administration as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs from 2006-08, focused on China, Taiwan and Mongolia. Given this reputation I had been looking forward to this book for a while.

Christensen’s essential thesis is that while everyone knows about the security problem — avoiding a conflict between China and the US and its allies in Asia— there’s also a governance problem. This one ‘is arguably more difficult to solve: how do we persuade a large but still developing country with a nationalist chip on its shoulder to contribute to the international system’ (p.288).

Where we have a proliferation of theories on how to stop conflict, our experience about how to encourage governance and co-leadership is much thinner. The subtitle notwithstanding, the book demonstrates that everyone should stop thinking of China as a ‘rising power’. It has risen, it is here, and every major global issue requires its support, consent or at least acquiescence. This is not just aimed at nervous westerners. According to Christensen, China’s own sense of still developing is a significant handbrake on its contribution to international affairs

This is a strong and engaging theme, but there’s not much beyond the set up. We get a consistently solid but hardly original or persuasive analysis of the current debates about China and global challenges. If you wanted to know what the general trends of opinion were, this is a good start. But this seems somewhat of a waste given the flood of books and material on this subject, and the opportunity Christensen had given his scholarly and policy basis.

The book also suffers from a somewhat chaotic organisation. We get chapters saying “This time should be different”, then “Why Chinese power will not surpass US power anytime soon” and then “Why China still poses strategic challenges”. These are all interesting, but seem odd ways of organising and developing an argument. It’s only with Chapter 5 that we get back to the set up idea of Global Governance.

The second half of the book is even odder, posing as a potted diplomatic history of China on key issues of US concern such as non-proliferation – especially North Korea— climate change, Iran, Taiwan, and so on. But this ends up overlapping and repeating much of what was covered earlier. This led me to put down the book several times, so my reading took place over a month, with some long gaps in between. But on flicking through it again, I still struggle to see the threads that bind it, and the justifications for telling me about these issues and at this level.

Christensen is a great scholar, but this book feels much more like the former Administration official held the pen. It’s not that important whether he worked for Bush or Obama, rather he struggles to separate US interests from the global governance problems he wants to talk about. There are aspects of criticism of the US — he rightly shows the confused nature of Obama’s approach. But ultimately the book ends up falling between the two styles of analysis. Neither an inside beltway tome with new details about big events, nor an outsiders scholarly objectivity.

Notably, while the book begins by saying the problems are so big, the degree of policy changes it urges for the US are actually rather small and uncontroversial. A little more clarity, a little less liberal idealism, a bit more resilience, and she’ll be right it seems. Christensen seems to believe China will come to embed into the global system in a way that doesn’t fundamentally challenge the role or actions of the United States. It might be that is true, but this book doesn’t properly justify that view. It’s just sort of assumed, as so many Americans do.

The other strange thing about this book is that for someone who has spent so much time in China, and knows the country so well, I never got the feeling of real insight into the place. It’s always China as an object, to be pushed, pulled and directed, but never as a mass of humanity with its own views, needs, desires and emotions.

So, if you want a good overview of the current western debates about China, then Christensen offers a handy primer. But for someone who had the potential to break new ground, this public refresher seems a missed opportunity. It’s unlikely any of the 20 or so individuals running for US President will ever read this. What we need more from those like Christensen who have seen so far, is new and better theory and knowledge to help deal with the problem, rather than primers on what we already know.

Dependent Ally: A Study In Australian Foreign Policy

Dependent Ally: A Study In Australian Foreign Policy by Coral BellBell_Dependent Ally

One lesson I have come to learn in my brief time in academia is that it is not wise to just try and write ‘about’ a subject, with the hope the argument or insights will come later. There’s often a pressure to contribute your name to the current debates, but unless you really have something to say, the result is often more generic, less engaging and less memorable than you’d hope.

This was my surprising reaction to Coral Bell’s Dependent Ally: A Study in Australian Foreign Policy. Widely regarded as the classic work on the alliance, I got the feeling reading it that Bell wanted to write about the alliance (having done so indirectly for much of her career), but didn’t really have anything urgent to say.

The title of the book suggests a demonstration of Australia’s reliance on the UK and US. That is a theme, but it’s assumed as much as argued. Typical of Bell though, this book contains an original take on the issue. Rather than identify the cause of Australia’s dependence in a psychological need for security as the Left argues, Bell places it in the global lot of middle powers in a hierarchical world. Australia contributes to the global balance of power via its connection to the large states.

This asymmetry she seems to argue is inescapable while also far less harmful than many on the left presume. It’s not that the dependence doesn’t exist — as scholars such as David McLean or pundits like Greg Sheridan have argued — but rather it is somewhat harmless. She seems to find it far less interesting than noting internal changes in Australia, an evolution of ideas about its region, identity and capacity. There are occasional moments —1942 & 1963— where dependence emerges but it quickly returns to the comfortable, albeit unbalanced, norm of a smaller country making its own way in the world.

Dependent Ally does a solid job of covering the big debates, drawing out the nationalist threads of rejection, setting in context the moments of followership and poking holes in the common myths of the day — For instance the historical record is clear that Australia pushed the US to deal with Vietnam, a threat of much more direct concern for Canberra than D.C, rather than the other way around.

The final chapter is worth a read in its own right, though all the insights there — the importance of personality to the alliance’s health, the economic and social benefits Australia has gained from migration—seem somewhat unconnected to the historical cataloguing that preceded it. As such, I was left uncertain of what Bell was trying to say. There’s not enough scholarly scrupulousness or punditry passion to really define the book. Bell is consistently engaging, but at a lower altitude than many of her best works. The problem may simply be that of time. The book was published in 1988, and we know far more these days, with much richer archival and historical material to draw on.

Virtually everything written on Australian foreign policy at some point engages with the country’s relationship with the UK and US. In my recent review of the literature substantially on the ANZUS alliance I found more than 350 entries (and I’m still counting). It was perhaps inevitable then that Bell, a fantastic commentator on US policy in the Cold War would turn to how to look at how Washington’s policy has shaped her own country of Australia.

This is probably still the best one volume treatment of Australia’s relationships with its great and powerful friends. But I’d rather read books that either trace one single thread, like David Lowe’s biography of Percy Spender, or that reveal a particular moment in fresh detail, as James Curran does in ‘Unholy Fury: Whitlam and Nixon at war’ (review coming soon).

Trying to say it all, and writing ‘about’ a topic, often means saying nothing much at all. Or not really making clear what you want to say. Either way, this was a surprisingly disappointing read. Though my admiration of Coral in the pantheon of great Australian contributors to the study of world affairs remains firm.

Australian Between Empires: The Life of Percy Spender

Australian Between Empires: The Life of Percy Spender  by David Lowe Lowe - Spender

Bob Carr’s central complaint during his time as Foreign Minister (my review of his Diary here) was not the travel, food or company, but a lack of time. 18 months was too short to do anything he moaned. Percy Spender had just 16 months and was the most influential Australian Foreign Minister of the 20th century.

Spender is something of a forgotten figure in Australian history. This is partly because his time at the top was so short, but also because his story runs against the dominant narrative of his era. We think of the Menzies reign as British, cautious and somewhat lethargic. Spender was none of these things.

In this highly readable — albeit academic — biography, David Lowe illuminates a figure who is brash, bold and innovative. Spender was willing to take risks, worked at racehorse pace (often managing a federal parliamentary seat and significant caseload at the NSW bar) and challenged many of the fundamental ideas of his time.

Spender belongs to a significant, though minority school of foreign policy in Australia: The rationalists. This is not to claim a super intelligence. Rather he was guided less by tradition, culture or national pride and more by a nose for where the big geopolitical trends were taking his country and a willingness to embrace them.

Out of his wide reading and early embrace of air travel (allowing multiple quick trips at a time when his Prime Minister still took a month to sail to England) Spender helped form two of the pillars of current Australian foreign policy.

Most famously, he cemented an alliance with the United States, securing something that half a century of Australian leaders such as Deakin, Lyons, Curtin and Evatt had only talked about. This was a singular feat, given the deep reticence in both Washington D.C and Canberra for any such pact. Such was the importance of this relationship, Spender jumped from Foreign Minister to Ambassador to America to help cement the ties beyond what the legal framework assured.

Spender also helped to push and drag a reluctant Australian government towards embracing Asia. As Menzies once mocked him lightly in a cabinet meeting ‘Come on Percy lets have your thesis about Southeast Asia’. While many saw the coming Cold War as requiring Australia to return forces to the Middle East or Europe, Spender helped keep the focus on Asia and combatting Asian communism.

His main achievement in this direction was the Colombo plan. Often seen today as merely a form of student exchange (as its namesake today embodies), it was part of a far grander effort to help build and develop Southeast Asia as a bulwark against communism and as a neighbourly gesture of service to integrate Australia and the developed world into the developing one.

Spender had hopes of becoming Prime Minister, but he never seems to have gotten very close to the big chair. When all hope was extinguished in 1951 his energy soon turned away from federal politics. After just 1 year and 128 days as Foreign Minister (along with Treasurer in the 1939-40 government and member of the War Cabinet and Advisory War Council for the length of the Second World War) he left.

After that he spent seven happy years as Australian Ambassador to the United States and nine less successful years on the International Court of Justice in The Hague. He was and remains the first and only Australian appointee and spent three years as President and chief justice.

We should not be surprised that Spender’s story is unknown today. Most Australian foreign policy history is. To those on the left anything before Gough or even Keating is dismissed as cringe worthy dependence. To those on the right, only two relationships mattered, the UK then US and anything else was somewhat pointless and a waste of time. Spender’s story however shows that there is much to be proud of, and nothing to take for granted in the evolution and development of Australia’s approach to international affairs.

The revival in the last few years of interest in Spender’s story is important not just to overcome a historical ignorance. Spender’s actions matter because his, like our own, was a time of change and transition. He cut through because he was prepared to assess the big changes and push, negotiate, bargain, bully and dream about where and how his country could succeed. Such ambitions and innovations are needed again today, and time once again, is not on our side.

MIKTA, Middle Powers, and New Dynamics of Global Governance: The G20’s Evolving Agenda

MIKTA, Middle Powers, and New Dynamics of Global Governance: The G20’s Evolving Agenda by Mo Jongryn (Editor)Mo - MIKTA

I was recently invited to attend a MIKTA ‘Young Professionals Camp’, leading a delegation of Australian university students to South Korea. So naturally I needed to find out some more about this MIKTA initiative. Despite my work on middle powers, I hadn’t paid it much attention, unsure of what it actually stood for.

After this book and several days of the camp, I’m….still not sure. MIKTA (involving Mexico, Indonesia, Korea, Turkey, Australia) emerged from the sidelines of the G20, bringing together those countries which did not fit the G7 and were not members of the BRICs. MIKTA foreign ministers have now committed to meet 3 times a year, a substantial commitment in their busy schedules. It’s a key concern of Australia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Julie Bishop.

While I am all for more middle power cooperation, and think its significance is substantially under recognised by the wider literature, this is still an organisation in search of a purpose as this book, edited by Professor Mo makes clear. The strength of this text is that none of the authors pretends this initiative is world changing or without challenges. Yet they do see much promise in the platform and offer a variety of ways it could feasibly contribute.

This is very much a book for scholars, and only those interested in these countries, middle powers or diplomacy at that. The chapters by Andrew F. Cooper (author of two classic books on middle powers) and Choi Heenam are stand outs, and there is an intriguing thread in Thomas Wright’s contribution on the need for a multilateral pivot to help re-shape and sustain the international order. But these are all very short chapters, and the lack of a clear thread and history to focus on leaves many having to speculate and write in very general language.

I’m still slightly skeptical of MIKTA. Not of the states, but the notion of cooperating without a purpose. I tend to think middle power influence works best along niche lines, where a specific issue platform and coalition is built. But if this is a way for more countries to see the potential for such initiatives and share the skills they need to lead, then I’m all for it. Whatever it is…

The Korean War: A History

The Korean War: A History  by Bruce Cumings Cumings - Korean War

I recently visited South Korea, and to help orientate me towards this new destination, I headed to a bookshop to help get a sense of the place. I often think bookstores tell much about a country. Are they looking only for their own stories (America) or keen to learn how to engage others (Taiwan), are they focused on escapism (Australia) or do they want to learn how to succeed and get rich (Singapore). These are just one side to any culture, but where else can you directly see what the people want to bring into their minds just laid out before you.

‘The Korean War: A History’ is by one of the best known American scholars of Korea Bruce Cumings and many parts of this book show a fine scholar at work. One fascinating aspect of this book is the focus on memory as part of history. This is currently a major theme in the field, and producing some fascinating work and important insights. Much of what drives us when we invoke history is less the events themselves than our memory of them. Often it’s not so much the act as the memory of it that has so much impact in the world (The Holocaust being a prime example). Cumings argues Korea is not just a ‘forgotten war’ but one we never knew in part because we never wanted to know just what US actions had resulted in and what the US supported ROK government was doing.

But while we can hopefully correct the record about these acts, we can almost never correct memories. Perhaps appropriately, Cuming’s often displays an anger that fits the tragic material that he covers, and which those with deep ties to these threads of history must feel. But angry memories by those without direction connection to the acts often feels alien, especially coming from such a distinguished scholar.

As such, this is often an angry book, and to the uninformed reader in the wider debates – such as myself- it’s not often clear who Cumings is arguing with or why exactly the topics he picks are the best focus as the book jumps around. Towards then end Cumings reveals he is partly angry at the effect of the war on his own country, first in the move away from Keenan-esq containment to military globalism and then the parallels with the Iraq war. But this seems somewhat to downplay the significance and importance of careful contextual understanding which the book tries to begin with and condemn others for not recognising.

One advantage of this anger however is to recognise just how much history the people of East Asia have to chew through (to borrow Churchill’s famous quip about the Balkans). One of the things I find strangest about the IR theory of ‘Realism’ is how often its advocates assume away so much history as irrelevant. For many who look at the relationship between Japan and Korea or Japan and China or Russia and everyone else, there is a sense of ‘just get over it will you’ in realist scholarship. Their grand balancing schemes require everyone else to shift along desired axis, and for some reason all this history stuff keeps getting in the way.

This is absurd for a doctrine which claims to ‘seeing the world as it is’ to be so wilfully ignorant of what actually drives human behaviour. Of course, that’s not true of the original set, your Thucydides, E.H. Carr & Hans Morgenthau. But starting with Waltz and exemplified by the quantitiative turn, the notion of ‘knowing something’ about particular states seems positively unhelpful in their analysis. This is even stranger for American realists, given the see similar historical struggles on a daily basis in places such as South Carolina and Texas where the legacies of the Border Wars and the Civil War still reverberate through American life. You can’t understand the South without understanding the Civil War, but as Cumings points out, a lot of people try and understand the Korean War, or Korea (North and South) today without recognising its civil war history.

While I do try to engage with material that challenges received wisdom, and appreciate the importance of trying to upend dogma, my weathervane for appreciation of this turns on whether I think the author a ‘fair’ judge. At one point Cuming’s argues that a ‘democratic conception of justice is not dignified by assuring ourselves’ that our side killed less than the others. And he’s right. But somehow a lot of this book also fails to try and show they matter equally. While I trust Cumings as a historian he tends to put forward eye witnesses as truth-tellers of South Korean atrocity while questioning deeply official records and histories that look at the North. The book obviously isn’t about what the North did and continues to do, and does not need to repeat it. But it should not feel like it is dismissing it either, and unfortunately too often in my reading, it did.

Throughout the book Cumings wrestles with the notions of memory, but it seems to me his central message is backwards. He praises memory and condemns our forgetfulness. He also directly attaches the party of memory label on the North while tagging the South as the party of forgetfulness. And that may be true, but what if that’s also why the North stays paranoid within its garrison walls, while the South stands fair and free? It may well be that justice to our parents requires memory, while justice for our children requires forgetfulness.

A Coast Too Long: Defending Australia Beyond The 1990s

A Coast Too Long: Defending Australia Beyond The 1990s by Ross BabbageBabbage - coast too long

Like most of my generation I grew up watching Bush Tucker Man. A fun show, with a serious purpose: working out how do defend Australia. While Les Hiddins was the khaki front man, it was the geek squad like Ross Babbage who made the idea a reality.

It might seem a simple idea ‘design your forces to defend the country’ but putting it into practice requires a lot of thought. Especially in a country as big and diverse as Australia. While Hiddins looked at gathering ‘tucker’, Babbage and others looked at the tides, winds, bridges, population centres, and tried to work out how they could help national strategy and force structure.

It is strange to some today, but during the Cold War Australians held a real fear of invasion. We’ve largely discarded that concern now (See the Lowy Poll 2015), but by reading books like this, you can see how authentic such concerns were.

Intriguingly, the two main worries in ‘A Coast too Long’ are ones Australia no longer worries about. The first is nuclear war, a threat that still exists but it is understandable why most of the concern faded with the end of the Cold War.
The second is low-level conflict, a scenario where small groups of elite forces run around the northern territory damaging vital equipment. Think Konfrontasi in Kakadu. This was a real animating concern for much of the 1970s and 1980s, though many debated how to respond.

If just low level coercion, it would be very difficult to get allied support. Likewise Australia’s escalation options would be limited. A conventional strike against the opponents population or resources could seem disproportionate and shift international perceptions of who was the aggressor.

It’s somewhat strange to see such concern, given its absence from contemporary debates. Yet it’s not clear why it’s not a concern. We might think a modern Indonesia wouldn’t engage in such action, but if national relations really degraded (such as if Australia and Indonesia ended up on different sides of a second Cold War), it’s quite plausible.

Another fascinating area is the section looking at the strategic importance of Christmas Islands and Cocos Islands. While neither is worth wholescale defence, they add a lot to current defence capability (increasingly so in an era of autonomous drone equipment).

This is necessarily a book for the scholars and defence nerds. But there’s a lot to learn in this book about the geography of Australia. Just as Bush Tucker man showed the diversity of the top end on the micro scale, there are dozens of maps in ‘A Coast Too Long’ which show the intriguing nature of the country on the macro scale.

It seems that with the 2015 Defence White Paper, Australia is slowly moving away from the Defence of Australia concept. This seems the right direction, but work such as that by scholars like Babbage, Ball, Langtry and others will remain vital if we ever need to defend this long long coast.

No, Minister: So You Want to Be a Chief of Staff?

No, Minister: So You Want to Be a Chief of Staff ? by Allan Behm Behm - No Minister

Many reasons have been offered for why the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government fell short, but fundamentally I believe it came down to a failure of governance. They had smart, capable people, there were good ideas and policies and no shortage of hard work. But they couldn’t put it together in a sustained or effective fashion.

‘No Minister: So you want to be a chief of staff’ helps show exactly what that means. To be clear, Behm’s purpose is not to explain what went wrong, but rather try and show how to make government work, at least from within a single Minister’s office. Behm spends much of the book explaining how he set about his task as Greg Combet’s Chief of Staff, and how he thinks about issues of leadership, management, and building an efficient, trusting, value-driven team.

Behm’s position in the Minister for Climate Change’s office was always something of an oddity around Canberra. As Allan reveals early on, the intention had been for Combet to take over the Defence Portfolio, hence bringing in the ‘bow-tied assassin’* who offered a deep knowledge of the Defence organisation, the public service and a fine strategic mind.

One of the values of this book is that it focuses on the governance of governing. That is, how do you do the job? How do you build and manage relationships internally and externally so that you can achieve what you want to achieve.

That’s a vital issue and one often sidelined in our discussions of why the three baby boomer PMs (Rudd, Gillard and now Abbott) have been collectively viewed as failures. As one perceptive piece in The Atlantic recently noted ‘A great deal of political writing these days is indistinguishable from theatre criticism: Its chief concerns are storyline, costumes, and the quality of public performances’. Behm’s book is a good antidote to that. While there are some amusing character sketches, the weight of the book is on the process of running a government, rather than lumping it all on the ability of the PM to spin their way ahead.

Behm spends a lot of time in this book talking about wisdom, which he views as experience diffused through reflection. As such, he is quite critical of many of the young jocks that often ran the show in the Rudd era, though he is quick to sincerely praise many of the young staffers he personally worked with.

On this score, I must stress that I bear no actual wisdom as to life on the hill. I’ve never worked in a ministerial or political office, though like many in Canberra I’ve wondered if I could endure. But I do have friends and colleagues who have toiled those long hours at a variety of levels, and I’ve read my fair share of memoirs and accounts, so take the rest of this review with that caveat in mind.

One notable theme is the issue of ‘wheel-spinning’: That is, lots of effort for little result. While making no excuses for the long hours, Behm rightly notes how much work seems to be done that doesn’t end up furthering the aims of the government. While it’s something we can all reflect on in our own areas, I admit to wondering about the willingness of so many political operatives to sweat the small stuff. Every issue is treated as fundamental and worth responding to rather than keeping a focus on the larger issues of strategy that ultimately determine elections and legacies. Instead as Behm laments ‘in the current environment, politics is totally preoccupied with and consumed by tactics’.

One other message of the book is the idea of civility as a requirement for the process to occur. Behm stresses the necessity of politics being a hard business and he is happy to criticise individuals and parties he disagrees with. Yet he argues throughout that notions of ‘civility, decorum and respect’ are the functional basis for being successful in the profession of politics. In one intriguing line he suggests ‘a government’s image of competence is not really helped where scorn and disdain replace civility and decorum.’ While we often don’t link the concepts of capacity and civility, the most capable figures I’ve encountered have often been the most civil. It’s those who doubt their ability to perform at that level who tend to be the real scrappers searching for every inch of advantage.

Two final concerns that resonated with me were his concern about the rise of cynicism about and in politics, and the need for clear agreement and articulation of principles before policies are developed and announced. Neither claim is new, but they seem fundamental starting points for constructing a more effective political environment.

While I love a good memoir, I’ve largely left alone the stream of books by the politicians of the Rudd-Gillard era. They are all out much too soon for any real reflection to have occurred. ‘No Minister’ however is the second book by a staffer I’ve read and enjoyed. Given my favourite book on the Keating government is Don Watson’s beautiful ‘Reflections of a bleeding heart’, maybe more encouragement should be made for staffers, rather than their bosses, to pen memoirs and tomes.

Of course, with such a theme, this book will only be read by Canberra insiders, but that’s probably the audience who need to read it most. Highly recommended. As Greg Combet says in the foreword ‘it’s a gem.’

*Behm is famous for his preference for bow-ties. And pleasingly, if you look carefully at the cover, the advisor is also fashioned with a bow-tie.

Clausewitz: A Very Short Introduction

Clausewitz: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions #61) by Michael Eliot Howard Howard - Clausewitz

Hi, my name is Andrew, I study strategic issues, and I’ve never read Clausewitz.

That’s something difficult to acknowledge, though I suspect I’m in much wider company in my field than I fear. Of course I’ve read bits and pieces, chapters and sections that have been relevant to research inquiries, but I’ve never sat down and read it through. I’ve never studied ‘On War’ as a project.

I’ve come to feel that should change, hence getting this very short introduction. I’d normally have hesitated to even bother with a mere long essay, but for the author. Michael Howard is a co-editor on the definitive translation of Clausewitz’s ‘On War’, and the leading strategic scholar of his generation.

That said, this introduction is a little too short. Especially with a work as complex as ‘On War’, Howard barely even bothers to try and walk you through the major sections or ideas. He knows it is not really possible. Instead he tries to highlight and explain, in as clear a language as possible, why this minor Prussian Commander who died in 1831 is regarded as THE greatest theorist of war. A genius regularly compared to Shakespeare or Newton for his ability to grasp the fundamental features of his field.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the book is the concluding section on the reception of ‘On War’ and the legacy of Clausewitz. Freed of trying to provide crib notes, Howard provides a fascinating discussion of the influence of the book on military thinking in the 19th century and into the 20th. For instance, how it was used and misused during the first world war, and whether it can help us understand new forms of conflict like nuclear ‘cold wars’ and revolutionary people’s wars.

Still, this is an odd text. I can see the intuitive appeal behind such a series of books, but I can’t quite tell who the audience would be. For a scholar or anyone with a basic grasp of Clausewitz (enough to want to know more) the book is too short and light to be worth the time. But without such an impulse, why would you want to buy this book in the first place?

As such, it’s probably not worth your cash, though the kind of book you could steal from a friend’s shelf for an enjoyable hour or two on a lazy afternoon.