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International Relations

In 22 May 2023, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Papua New Guinea (PNG) Defence Minister Win Bakri Daki signed a defence and maritime cooperation agreement in Port Moresby. Blinken stepped in after US President Joe Biden’s last-minute cancellation. Had he attended, it would reportedly have been the first time a US president had visited a Pacific Island country other than US territories such as Hawaii and Guam. This is on the back of having pledged an additional US$800 million at a US-Pacific Summit in late 2022 to help tackle climate change, overfishing, and maritime security.

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It would be interesting to know how many Australians have heard of the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI). My guess is that not many have, and then only vaguely. It is interesting, then, that Melbourne University Publishing has published a book about the mission. Written by political scientist Michael Wesley, Helpem Fren is a detailed and meticulously researched account of the intervention, from an Australian perspective.

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The Silk Road is not one place, nor is it a particular route for travel, trade, and cross-cultural exchange. It is an idea, and a powerful one at that, as Tim Winter’s Silk Road: Connecting histories and futures shows. The concept of the Seidenstraße was popularised by Ferdinand von Richthofen in the 1870s to define the trade routes westwards from Han China in the ancient Greco-Roman world. Since then scholars have argued for many Silk Roads over land and sea between Africa, Eurasia, and the islands around those landmasses through which goods and ideas have been exchanged for at least two millennia. 

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As the war in Syria enters its second decade, the human scale of the catastrophe is difficult to comprehend. Shocked by the security service’s torture of children who had graffitied the words ‘Down with the regime’ on a wall in the city of Daraa in 2011, nationwide demonstrations rose up against Bashar al-Assad’s tyrannical government. When I ask my now-exiled Syrian colleagues what life was like under the Assad family, they struggle for historical parallels before agreeing that, for them, it resembled Stalin’s Soviet Union and North Korea (a regime the current president’s father, Hafez Al-Assad, looked to for inspiration).

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In the 1990s, I was a doctoral student at the University of Melbourne writing on the representations of race in the School of Historical Studies. Geoffrey Dutton’s White on Black: The Australian Aborigine portrayed in art (1974) and Bernard Smith’s European Vision and the South Pacific were essential reading. Over the subsequent three decades, interest in Dutton’s White on Black seems to have languished, but Smith’s magnum opus remains an indispensable text. Writing in Meanjin in 1960, Robert Brissenden noted that European Vision was ‘an extremely valuable and distinguished piece of work, one to which historians and scholars in many fields will be gratefully indebted for a long time’. I doubt he could have possibly imagined that sixty-two years later we would be reading the third edition of this monumental work, now edited by Smith’s biographer, art historian Sheridan Palmer, with an excellent introduction and contextual essay by Palmer and Greg Lehman. 

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One of the legacies of the Bush years has been the creation in the United States of an image of Iran as a monster, a dangerous rogue state that sponsors world terror and is bent on acquiring nuclear weapons with which to attack Israel. The image is encouraged by disgruntled Iranian expatriates who promote their personal interests by peddling out-of-date ‘expertise’ to grateful think-tanks along the Washington beltway. As Robert Baer observes in The Devil We Know, Americans tend to see the turban and not the brain. His book is a timely corrective. Drawing on his years as a senior CIA operative in the Middle East, he begins it with some little known facts.

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Andrew Bacevich, a former lieutenant colonel in the United States army and self-avowed conservative, has emerged in recent years as one of the most incisive and far-reaching critics of American foreign policy and of the Bush administration. His two previous books, American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy (2004) and The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War (2006), argued that the Bush administration has followed a path laid down by earlier administrations. In short, it is not an aberration. In his latest book, The Limits of Power, Bacevich not only holds little hope of foreign policy change from a McCain or Obama administration but also questions whether either would have any intention of changing the broad direction of American foreign policy. In an interview that I conducted with Bacevich recently in Boston, he described Barack Obama’s foreign policy as ‘thoroughly conventional’, a description certainly not meant as a compliment.


In American Empire, Bacevich attempted to justify his claim that continuity, not change, predominates recent American foreign policy. He did so by arguing that both the Clinton and Bush administrations have chosen as a central goal an open-door policy, where American businesses have greater access to foreign markets and where the American military has greater reach and more foreign bases. He presented these policies as thoroughly imperial and bipartisan.

In The New American Militarism, he showed how Bush drew on, rather than constructed, a culture that reveres military endeavours and military equipment in a way that profoundly misunderstands the sensible role of a military in a society. More generally, Bacevich, in his recent articles and Op-Eds, has frequently claimed that, like many other American presidents, Bush’s promotion of a ‘freedom agenda’ is a candy-coated justification for American expansionism. Bacevich views this combination of hubris and self-interest, backed up by overconfidence in America’s military strength and primacy, as disastrous.

In The Limits of Power, Bacevich takes up these themes once more, this time in a more direct and less academic manner than in his earlier books. Bacevich’s early works drew significant inspiration and analytical purchase from the writings of the left-wing scholar William Appleman Williams. In his new book, Bacevich uses the realist Reinhold Niebuhr as a lighthouse to guide the reader to wisdom in these worrying times; many passages begin with a quote from Niebuhr, who in the last paragraph is even referred to as ‘our prophet’.

The wisdom that Bacevich dispenses is often deeply pessimistic about America’s ability to recognise the errors of its ways. At its worst, this pessimism echoes the metaphor of the demise of Rome to predict the fate of the American Empire, recently overused by Chalmers Johnson and others. This is a small criticism, however. When compared to other root and branch critiques of the follies of the American empire, this book has much to recommend about it. Although not in the same league as Anatol Lieven’s brilliant America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism (2005), The Limits of Power is certainly one of the best critiques of American foreign policy written in recent years. Its sobriety, directness, largely evidence-based attacks, and attempts to offer solutions (even if the author sees little chance that they will be taken up) all make for compelling reading.

The central argument presented in the book is that American culture and government do not have a healthy respect for limits. As a people, Americans have a ‘shop till they drop’ mentality, using credit that is widely available and even more widely abused. ‘He who has the most toys wins’ is the motto of this profligate culture.

Given that responsibility and limits are frequently ignored by many Americans, Bacevich asks why the government would be any different. As evidence of this shallow culture, where consumption is king and sacrifice is someone else’s problem, Bacevich quotes President Bush telling the American people after 9/11 that they faced a long war against Islamo-fascism and that the appropriate response was to ‘get down to Disney World in Florida’ and ‘go shopping more’. Furthermore, this culture of accumulation has always driven Americans outwards seeking gold and oil, which has in turn created an American empire.

Bacevich’s distaste for American mall culture and his call for personal limits reminded me of an author not mentioned by name, but one certainly respected by Bacevich: the late Christopher Lasch. Although I found Bacevich’s cultural critique at times too sweeping, and incomplete in its understanding of the allure of consumer culture, his anti-materialism has much that is admirable.

The later chapters on the political and military crises afflicting the United States are similarly hard hitting in pointing out the rot at the centre of America’s institutions of state. Evidence was sometimes light on the ground in these chapters; I hope that Bacevich turns his considerable talents to developing these arguments in future works.

His discussion of the political crisis has many targets: the deficient role of Congress, the imperial presidency, James Forrestal, NSC 68 and Paul Wolfowitz. The central message is that the inflation of threats is one of the unfortunate legacies of the Cold War; it continues to be used by ambitious advisers and imperial presidents to mute dissent and pervert American democracy.

Along with the political crisis, Bacevich details a military crisis which he believes has been created by deficient civilian decision-makers and an underwhelming military hierarchy that fails to appreciate that ‘the utility of armed force remains finite’. Bacevich believes that the American government has yet to realise the fundamental truth, as once colourfully put by Norman Mailer, that ‘Fighting a war to fix something works about as good as going to a whore-house to get rid of a clap’.

Bacevich argues that for the United States to move forward it would do best to concentrate on two policies: nuclear disarmament (of itself first and foremost) and preservation of the planet (where it should lead by example). He does not totally dismiss the threat of Islamic extremism, but argues for a defensive policy of containment rather than an offensive and pre-emptive approach. However, this book offers more critique than prescriptions for future presidents.

Bacevich’s discussion of the history of the American quest for independence from foreign oil seemed particularly apt after the rhetoric of the recent Republican Party convention. American leaders have promised this independence many times: Jimmy Carter most presciently in his so-called ‘malaise speech’; Ronald Reagan and Bush most vacuously, and every candidate in the current presidential campaign. At the Republican Party convention, Sarah Palin’s speech was regularly (and depressingly) punctuated by chants from the crowd of ‘Drill, baby, drill’.

Bacevich’s book offers a matter-of-fact critique of consumer culture and imperial politics, and for this he should be congratulated. However, the benefits of America’s restlessness and its search for more (and something better) is undervalued. For traditional conservatives, the United States has often been seen as disruptive and shallow; however, I would contest that this ‘feverish ardour’, as Tocqueville called it, played a crucial role in breaking down class barriers (particularly social class distinctions), promoting democracy at home (and, yes, abroad, beginning with Europe) and promoting the notion of individual human rights.

It cannot be denied that the United States has used the language of freedom too often to mask self-interest, and fine-sounding words have frequently been used to justify crude social engineering of the type that Paul Bremer attempted in Iraq. However, without this often blundering force for change in the world, many people would be more exposed to the cruelties of local dictators and customs. As imperfect as America’s record has been, a globally engaged United States seems to me more desirable than the realist vision for American foreign policy presented by Bacevich. I argue this because ‘greed and folly’ is not only an American syndrome.

The great weakness of Bacevich’s analysis is that he does not consider the comparative dimension of international affairs. In other words, he fails to deal with the reality that, bad as American conduct often is, it is frequently better and more transparent than that of other nations, all of which have their own national pathologies and transnational desires.

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The Taliban and the Crisis of Afghanistan by Robert D. Crews and Amin Tarzi (eds)

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October 2008, no. 305

In its 250 years of statehood, Afghanistan has gone through numerous episodes of political rupture. The principal causes of these upheavals have remained more or less the same: an underdeveloped economy and the inability of the rulers to shift from a tribal political culture, to a more participatory national politics based on modern and democratic national institutions and rules of governance. As a result, with rare exceptions, the rulers of Afghanistan have depended on foreign patrons and not on the human and material resources of the nation to rule. This political milieu of buying the support of tribal leaders has led to fratricidal wars of succession and pacification, with devastating consequences, resulting in extended periods of political and social unrest and lawlessness. These bloody conflicts, often called jihad by the contestants, have facilitated and even invited foreign interventions by the British, Russians, Pakistanis, Iranians, and now the Americans and their allies.

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The author of The Post-American World, Fareed Zakaria, has a reputation that suggests the prototype for the twenty-first century Renaissance man. Zakaria was born in India, with Muslim roots but a secular upbringing. He was educated at a Christian school, then at Yale and Harvard. He studied international relations with two luminaries in the field, Samuel P. Huntington and Stanley Hoffmann. Add to this good looks, a facility with words and experience in journalism, and it is no wonder that it was he who succeeded in getting a serious foreign affairs show on to CNN

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Rivals by Bill Emmott & The New Asian Hemisphere by Kishore Mahbubani

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July–August 2008, no. 303

The world bank’s 1993 report, The East Asian Miracle, conveyed the quasi-religious awe prompted by the economic progress of many East Asian societies in the last quarter of the twentieth century. While somewhat self-serving (it was funded by Japanese money), it set the tone for much of the political and economic analysis of East Asia in the 1990s and its prospects. With few exceptions, we were told that the future belonged to Asia, that export-oriented industrialisation and selective liberalisation were the keys to growth, and that Asian societies had certain cultural features which furthered their comparative advantage and questioned the universality of Western notions such as democracy and human rights. This suddenly ended in July 1997 when the collapse of the Thai baht prompted a series of currency crises that produced political and social turmoil across the region. The Asian financial crisis, borne of bad investments, dodgy government–business relations and that favourite of the press, ‘crony capitalism’, raised questions about the foundations of Asia’s strength and the ‘Asian century’.

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