Chasing the Norm

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

The Age of the Unthinkable

The Age of the Unthinkable: Why the New World Disorder Constantly Surprises Us And What We Can Do About It  by Joshua Cooper RamoRamo - Age of unthinkable

The foxes who thought they were hedgehogs

Most people would be aware of Isiah Berlin’s famous metaphor of hedgehogs and foxes. The former know one big thing, the foxes many little things. This idea crops up frequently in books like ‘The Age of the Unthinkable’. It also perfectly describes them. They are largely the work of foxes, dashing from idea to idea and telling you it all amounts to one big insight.

Generally it doesn’t.

I’ve grown more cautious about pulling subtitle-heavy books off the shelves these days. You know the form. A catchy 3-5 word title, laden with a 3-5 clause long claim. In this case “Why the new world disorder constantly surprises us and what we can do about it”. If you go in expecting that the book will fail to live up to its claim, these texts can sometimes be good pointers to interesting ideas or other thinkers. And they do help point to some of the intellectual currents out there. Reading one or two may not tell you much, but skim a few regularly and you can help get the pulse of an era, even if it’s more reverberation than beating heart.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia

The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia  by Bill Hayton Hayton - South China Sea

Books like this tend to lie right in my sweet spot for social reading. A big current topic, written by a journalist, but one who has taken the time to seriously engage with the academic literature.

This is an excellent read for anyone interested in perhaps the hottest place for modern geopolitics since we all re-discovered Crimea on a map. The South China Sea is where we see the clearest expression of China’s search for a new regional order and with it the region’s response, including of course, the resident non-resident America.

‘The South China Sea’ makes a serious attempt to explore these contested water ways from a wide variety of angles. The chapters on the history of claims for the area, chocked full of absurd figures and ambitions, and the discussion of potential oil and gas resources in the area are excellent considerations. Other chapters, such as on the military dimension or nationalism can feel a bit once over lightly, but they round out the book and will appeal to those who have not been following the issues closely.

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

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

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

The Tools of Owatatsumi: Japan’s Ocean Surveillance and Coastal Defence Capabilities

The Tools of Owatatsumi: Japan’s Ocean Surveillance and Coastal Defence Capabilities by Desmond Ball, Richard TanterBall - Tools of Owatatsumi

The field of Strategic Studies has always had something of a split focus. At one level it is concerned with the mechanics of the use of force: what are the exact capabilities and limitations of the tools at your disposal. At another level, strategic studies is concerned with the purpose of force: Why do countries fight, when do they fight, how do they avoid fighting etc.

As a discipline, Strategic Studies owes its creation largely to the former question, given our urgent and life-changing need to understand just what kind of power we had come into control of at the dawn of the nuclear age. Over time however, the discipline has lumbered towards the second form. Not all of us can be rocket scientists, and frankly the most interesting and important questions are often not what a weapon can do, but what you want a weapon for.

There is however a hierarchy of knowledge here, and while the political questions are largely seen as more interesting and important, the technical and mechanical analyses are the necessary origins of our political judgements. It is firmly in the technical camp that you’ll find ‘The Tools of Owatatsumi: Japan’s Ocean Surveillance and Coastal Defence Capabilities’ by Desmond Ball and Richard Tanter.

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

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

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

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

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

Painting as a Pastime

Painting as a Pastime by Winston S. ChurchillChurchill - painting

I hesitate to list this short tome as a book read, but it is a powerful meditation on one of life’s most significant topics from one of the greatest writers of the 20th century.

Churchill’s staggering influence often makes him seem a remote figure, and modern tellings of his life too often deify his actions. But reading this book you’ll hear his real voice. Afraid of being mocked, worried about what comes next, exhausted from his struggles, yet still passionate to keep pushing on and seeking to suck more from the marrow of life. There are many gorgeous phrases in this book. As an inveterate scribbler in the margins I wanted to mark them all, and yet felt the pull of the pen to hold back and leave the text untouched so others can enjoy this book in its pure form.

The text ostensibly is about Churchill’s late in life discovery of painting as a pastime. But why this book exists, and why so many non-painters have recommended it, is because it is really about how to manage a career where your passion and profession are the same. That may seem like an indulgent challenge when so many work jobs they can’t stand and are lectured nightly to ‘just follow your passion’. But it’s a real issue.

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

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

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

Winning the Peace: Australia’s campaign to change the Asia-Pacific

I’m delighted to announce the release of my next book, ‘Winning the Peace: Australia’s campaign to change the Asia-Pacific‘, published by Melbourne University Press.



Winning the Peace seeks to explore and explain how Australian governments, during the modern period of Australia’s engagement with Asia (from 1983 till today), have attempted to use their defence and foreign policies to shape the region. While there were certainly times of tension during this period, such as the spikes around the end of the Cold War and during the early years of the War on Terror, the region has been largely defined by peace. Because of this peace and thanks to Australia’s relative size as a ‘middle power’, the government’s attempt to change how other states act and think was not sought through the deployment or use of force but through military and diplomatic engagement and persuasion.

Australia’s smaller size meant it had to be strategic in its efforts. It had to determine which changes were priorities, it had to re-organise and develop its resources, it had to deploy them effectively and efficiently, and it had to be able to sustain the effort in the face of competition and rejection. This book focuses on the three main ‘campaigns’ the Australian government has undertaken since the early 1980s to reshape the Asia-Pacific in pursuit of its national interests.

Table of contents

1  Introduction
2 Conceptual Framework
3 History of Australian Foreign and Defence Policy
4 Australia and Irregular Migration
5 Australia and Weapons of Mass Destruction
6 Australia and Trade Liberalisation
7 Can Middle Powers Promote Norms?
8 Conclusion

Where to buy the book?, Random House, Booktopia, etc. Best to order online, paperback or e-book copies available.


To mark the launch, I’ll be writing some guest posts on The Lowy Interpreter blog, and having a launch at Parliament House. Full details will be published here shortly.

Strategy in Asia: The Past, Present, and Future of Regional Security

Strategy in Asia: The Past, Present, and Future of Regional Security
by Thomas G. Mahnken & Dan Blumenthal (Editors)Mahnken - Strategy in Asia

I bought this book thinking it was a full academic text, then learned 2nd hand that one of the editors intends to use it for his class, suggesting it is a textbook. Now i’ve read it I’m not sure it fits either of those two broad categories. And that’s no bad thing.

This is an impressive short volume on some of the major issues and discussions in the field of strategic studies today, as it relates to the most important region for such debates: Asia. The book features 14 short, well written but scholarly chapters looking at how geography, culture and economics affect strategic choices, along with how different types of warfare from irregular to arms races and nuclear deterrence operate. In between are a handful of country chapters, particularly focused on whether China, Japan, India and the US have their own ways of war or particular fascinations and concerns.

Broad sweeping books like this often struggle for coherence, particularly when they are textbooks trying to say everything, or collected academic volumes without a strong editorial hand in control. This book, while not without faults holds together strongly. Bradford Lee’s chapter on economics is particularly strong (as an economist talking politics, rather than the other way around), as is Mankhen on Arms races, Bitzinger on Modernisation, Holmes on Maritime strategy and Yoshihara and Wilson on China’s approach to the sea and way of war respectively.

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

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

Presumptive Engagement: Australia’s Asia-Pacific Security Policy in the 1990s

Presumptive Engagement: Australia’s Asia-Pacific Security Policy in the 1990s
by Desmond Ball, Pauline KerrBall-presumptivee

This is something of a re-read. Though an important one having last flicked through it perhaps a decade ago during Uni. This book was written in 1996, but if you updated a few figures (pushing Australia’s Defence budget from $10 to $30 billion, and changing F/A-18s to F35s) you could bring it out as new without any change to the argument.

Desmond Ball and Pauline Kerr outline the wealth of cooperative engagement undertaken by Australia during the 1980s and 90s, and argue that the efforts are too ad hoc and ungrounded in a serious assessment of the precise objectives sought and how the specific policies and activities of the government will achieve those outcomes.

In short, we lacked a strategy. And we still do. If anything the problem is getting worse, with Rudd’s frenetic pace without purpose, everyone’s criminal neglect of DFAT while increasing responsibilities, and the substantial increase in the weight of expectations that defence diplomacy will save us from a US-China war (yeah sure…).

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

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

Power and International Relations: Essays in honour of Coral Bell

Power and International Relations: Essays in honour of Coral Bell
by Desmond Ball &  Sheryn Lee (Editors)Coral

There isn’t a big tradition of festschrift’s in Australia, but thankfully it seems to be emerging. This is the third major book on a scholars work produced by my centre (The Strategic & Defence Studies Centre, ANU) and last year Sydney Uni produced a volume on Neville Meaney.

They’re a welcome addition to the library of any scholar. While we tend to reach for the primary works to hear the author speak directly, it is very instructive -especially for early career researchers- to see a range of scholars focus on the work of another. A book review, or journal article can only ever cover so much, via a work like this you get a full range of opinions and insights into someone’s collected body of work.

This book provides a dozen short essays, from recollections of her early years in the Department of External Affairs, presence at the signing of ANZUS, academic roles in England and Australia and contribution to some of the leading questions of our time on the Cold War, US policy choice and Australia’s alliance relationships. Stand out chapters include Michael Wesley on Coral’s ‘Negotiation from Strength’, Rob Ayson’s chapter on her ‘The Conventions of Crisis’, and Ian Hall who locates her work in the British intellectual tradition of Martin Wight and Hedley Bull. Collectively the authors see Coral as a ‘Optimistic Realist’. A category so common to Australians, so rare anywhere else.

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

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

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

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

The Wife Drought by Annabel Crabb

The Wife Drought
by Annabel CrabbCrabb - Wife drought

This is an impressive book. Annabel Crabb has not only undertaken significant research, but she offers some fresh thinking about the role of women and child rearing in Australia today. As is usual for her, the book is a pleasure to read, both serious enough but also with clever phrasing and personal anecdotes.

I was somewhat surprised while reading this book to find myself arguing with it, though not necessarily because I disagreed with what Crabb was saying. I suspect this reflects an uncomfortable truth: That however much I think my own views are ‘enlightened’ and that I support the ‘appropriate policies’, this isn’t going to be enough to overcome the serious problems laid out in this book. Though I’m not yet sure how it affects my political beliefs.

It did raise some questions and debates in my own mind that I can’t resolve. First, Crabb comes down clearly on the nurture rather than nature side of the debate. Women do more housework and child raising because they’ve been raised to do so. And that’s certainly true. But as Crabb hints at but never quite explores, is there also a nature aspect at work? While human social organisation is far more flexible and weird than some like to admit, the pattern of women taking primary responsibility for child raising does seem rather constant. It’s not that we should accept the current discrimination women face at work or in the home, but rather recognise to what extent this problem is one capable of being solved. By government or anyone else.

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

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

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

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

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

The Peace of Illusions

The Peace of Illusions: American Grand Strategy from 1940 to the Present
by Christopher LayneLayne - Peace of illusions

The most significant academic debate over US strategy in Asia at the moment is between the schools of ‘Deep Engagement’ who support the Obama/Clinton Pivot, and the ‘Offshore Balancers’ who don’t. That’s a simplification of course, but it gets to the nub of thinking about how the US should approach Asia.

The Peace of Illusions is a foundational text for the offshore balancing crowd. Written from a largely realist position, Layne offers a strong critique of the contradictory and hegemonic impulses of the United States towards Europe, Asia and the Middle East. He details how America has consistently sought to shape the rest of the world to be strong enough to stand apart from the Soviets and trade with America, but so weak it can’t meaningfully resist US authority.

This strategy has worked, Layne concedes. The US is the dominant power in most of the world, and in turn the American homeland is safe. Layne’s ‘extratregional hegemony’ theory explains some questions realists otherwise struggle with. Such as why there is such a continuity of US approach to Europe before WW2, during the War, during the Cold War and after the Cold War. And in turn why institutions like NATO have continued apace, as have the 750 plus US bases overseas continued (located in 38 countries).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Founders’ Son: A Life of Abraham Lincoln

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

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

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

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

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