Chasing the Norm

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

Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Founders’ Son: A Life of Abraham Lincoln

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

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

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

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

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


The Adolescent Country

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

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

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

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

Worth a read for those interested in federal politics.

The First Dismissal

The First Dismissal
by Luke Slattery

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

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

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

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

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

The Mandarin Code

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

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

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

The New American Militarism

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

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

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

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

The Rise and Fall of Australia

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

The Fourth Revolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebalancing US Forces

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Political Bubble

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The End of American World Order

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rudd, Gillard and Beyond

Rudd, Gillard and Beyond
by Troy BramstonRudd Gillard and Beyond

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Contest of the Century

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

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

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

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

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