Chasing the Norm

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

The Direction of War: Contemporary Strategy in Historical Perspective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Australia’s Second Chance by George MegalogenisMega_Aus_Second_chance

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

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

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

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi CoatesCoates_between_world

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In this highly readable — albeit academic — biography, David Lowe illuminates a figure who is brash, bold and innovative. Spender was willing to take risks, worked at racehorse pace (often managing a federal parliamentary seat and significant caseload at the NSW bar) and challenged many of the fundamental ideas of his time.
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MIKTA, Middle Powers, and New Dynamics of Global Governance: The G20’s Evolving Agenda

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

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

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

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

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

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

But while we can hopefully correct the record about these acts, we can almost never correct memories. Perhaps appropriately, Cuming’s often displays an anger that fits the tragic material that he covers, and which those with deep ties to these threads of history must feel. But angry memories by those without direction connection to the acts often feels alien, especially coming from such a distinguished scholar.
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A Coast Too Long: Defending Australia Beyond The 1990s

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

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

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

It is strange to some today, but during the Cold War Australians held a real fear of invasion. We’ve largely discarded that concern now (See the Lowy Poll 2015), but by reading books like this, you can see how authentic such concerns were.
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No, Minister: So You Want to Be a Chief of Staff?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Red Star Over the Pacific: China’s Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy by Toshi Yoshihara & James R. Holmes Yoshihara - Red Star

In Red Star over the Pacific Toshi Yoshihara and James R. Holmes argue that the best analysis of China’s maritime turn in the 21st century can be found in the writing of an American Naval Captain who died in 1914.

Holmes and Yoshihara set out to explore and detail China’s internal debates about naval strategy. Bringing many of these debates to an English speaking audience for the first time, they show how the middle kingdom is thinking about its new role and how prominent ideas are influencing national capability choices.

At the heart of this debate, the authors find the strategic grammer of the American strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan. The book begins with an exposure of his work and his significant influence on Chinese thinking and debates. The book then turns to examine key factors in Beijing’s maritime strategy. This includes chapters on fleet tactics, major capabilities such as ballistic missiles and submarines, and soft power operations.
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The Global Village Myth: Distance, War, and the Limits of Power

The Global Village Myth: Distance, War, and the Limits of Power by Patrick Porter Porter - Global village myth

A good academic book will usually have two stories contained inside. First, it needs an academic contribution that helps explore with careful logic and substantial detail a specific aspect of world affairs. The second story is the public/policy implications. That is, an attempt to say why this matters, and how the refined understanding of the ideas and issues in the first story, can translate into a clear path forward that completes the second.

The Global Village Myth is a persuasive, fascinating, important, and extremely well written book. But unfortunately its two stories don’t quite balance each other. The policy story unfortunately tends to dominate the academic one, which in turn limits the power of the analysis, which then constrains the power of the policy recommendations.

Porter’s thesis, and one I broadly accept, is that thanks to globalisation and technology we have seen a consensus emerge that the world has ‘shrunk’. This however has not helped the nerves of security analysts. Rather, the tyranny of distance has been replaced by the peril of proximity. To those who accept this view, security requires a global approach. No threat can be left alone, no bad guy untouched, no distance sufficient to give breathing ‘space’. And so perpetual war needs to be waged to have perpetual peace.
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