Lowy Institute

For those interested in the themes raised by Michael Fullilove in his Boyer Lectures on A Larger Australia last year, I would recommend George Megalogenis' latest book, Australia's Second Chance, which makes the case that the periods of greatest Australian prosperity are linked directly to high immigration levels, and that when the country has turned its back on the outside world, it has suffered as a society and an economy.

I was reminded of this argument over the weekend while reading an interview with Ian Goldin, Professor of Globalisation and Development and Director of the Oxford Martin School at the University of Oxford. Goldin argues passionately that immigration is overwhelmingly a social and economic good. But more, he says the importance of immigration to world history and to our future is deeply under-appreciated:

One of the reasons I wrote my book, Exceptional People — which has the subtitle ‘How Migration Shaped our World and Will Define Our Future ’ — is because, as an economist, I felt this profoundly positive story is just not getting out there. It’s also a deep story. None of us would be where we are today without it, civilizations wouldn’t exist. And it continues to be a fact. If you’re trying to think about where the UK is going to be, or where the US is going to be in the future, and how we’re going to meet big challenges, it’s the key explanatory factor. That’s not getting across.

Read the whole thing.

Photo by Flickr user slgckgc.


I bow to few in my admiration of Stephen Colbert, a brilliant comedian as well as a rather fascinating human being.

But I wonder if his big move from Comedy Central, where he inhabited the character of a right-wing blowhard pundit on The Colbert Report, to CBS, where he took over from the legendary David Letterman as host of The Late Show, is really going to work.

While Colbert's main competition, NBC's Jimmy Fallon and his Tonight Show, wins the ratings battle by gushing over celebrities and playing after-dinner games, Colbert invites guests who can discuss religion, business, technology, science and politics. Yes, especially politics. His interview with Donald Rumsfeld yesterday, for instance, while not revelatory, was more substantive than you would find on most 'serious' news shows. When was the last time you heard a late-night comedian ask 'Does a secretary of defense affect policy or implement policy?'

Enjoy the Colbert policy seminars while they last. And if Colbert's Late Show does survive, we will know there is hope for America in the age of Trump.


When President Obama turned to foreign policy in his final State of the Union speech yesterday, he used a phrase that seems to come from a maths textbook. Here's the relevant passage, with emphasis added:

No nation attacks us directly or our allies because they know that’s the path to ruin. Surveys show our standing around the world is higher than when I was elected to this office, and when it comes to every important international issue, people of the world do not look to Beijing or Moscow to lead. They call us.

So I think it’s useful to level set here, because when we don’t, we don’t make good decisions. Now, as someone who begins every day with an intelligence briefing, I know this is a dangerous time. But that’s not primarily because of some looming superpower out there, and it’s certainly not because of diminished American strength.

In today’s world, we’re threatened less by evil empires and more by failing states. The Middle East is going through a transformation that will play out for a generation, rooted in conflicts that date back millennia. Economic headwinds are blowing in from a Chinese economy that is in significant transition. Even as their economy severely contracts, Russia is pouring resources in to prop up Ukraine and Syria, client states that they saw slipping away from their orbit. And the international system we built after World War II is now struggling to keep pace with this new reality.

It’s up to us to help, the United States of America, to help remake that system. And to do that well, it means that we’ve got to set priorities. Priority number one is protecting the American people and going after terrorist networks.

'Level set' is clearly analogous to 'calibrate' here. And Obama is right: when you overestimate the threat, you make bad decisions (like the Iraq invasion). So Obama's ongoing effort to give Americans a less apocalyptic assessment of the terrorist threat is to be applauded. If Americans have a more realistic view of terrorism, they are less likely to support military adventures that end in disaster for their country.

But note that Obama is walking a fine line here. Over the course of his term he has nudged America away from the Bush-era language of 'existential threats', but he can't get out too far ahead of the country, and he can't be seen to dismiss the threat, since that would look very bad for him if a major ISIS or al Qaeda attack happened right after. So he still refers to terrorism as America's number one priority.

From a Pacific perspective, it's also interesting that Obama's 'level set' includes, as one of its reference points, a 'looming superpower'.

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You could read this passage narrowly — Obama is making the obvious point that ISIS is no superpower — but a broader reading is that Obama is not concerned about the rise of a rival power. That can only be a reference to China or Russia, since in the next paragraph he downplays both countries' prospects by referring to their economic woes. Then Obama makes the curious claim that the main reason the post-World War II order is 'struggling to keep pace' is Russia's interventions in the Ukraine and Syria. 

It's hard to dispute the claim that Russia is past it as a superpower — even Putin dismisses the label — but China cannot be dismissed so easily. So when you add this kind of rhetoric to Obama's repeated assurances of America's military lead over international rivals ('It's not even close!'), he does create the impression that he isn't taking the rise of China particularly seriously. Yet when it comes to economic power, ultimately the most important measure of national power, China is already streets ahead of the last 'looming superpower' the US faced down, the Soviet Union.

Of course, China is not the new Soviet Union. But China's relationship with the US is marked by rivalry as well as cooperation, and that is only likely to grow as China grows in stature and its interests expand. If any country is going to fundamentally challenge the international system built by the US after World War II, it will be China, not Russia.

Obama has done America and the world a service in recalibrating the terrorist threat, but in this speech at least, he seems to have lumped China into his argument about exaggerated threats. If Obama 'sets his levels' too low, he and his country might one day get a nasty shock.

Photo by Flickr user Chris Costes.


Great insight here from Joel Wit, who spent 20 years negotiating with North Korea and is the founder of the North Korea website, 38North:

Americans and the international community have a comic book image of North Korea. We simply don’t take them seriously...

...I have been meeting with North Korean government officials for more than two decades in their country, Europe and Asia, and I can tell you that they are neither nutcases nor comic book characters. They are a diverse group, from hidebound apparatchiks to bureaucrats who teach themselves English by listening to foreign radio broadcasts. Some of them, military men especially, are hard-line, patriotic and, above all, anti-American.

I found that out firsthand in the 1990s, while leading a team on an inspection of a military-run underground facility that we thought might violate the 1994 United States-North Korea denuclearization agreement. My team was locked in a room surrounded by soldiers with bayonets drawn after one member of our team violated the inspection procedures. Many of us thought we were going to be killed. Eventually, we managed to extricate ourselves, but as we left the base in an old school bus, the military men followed us in a truck with a loudspeaker blaring anti-American slogans. I asked our North Korean civilian escort if they were going to follow us for the whole ride back to our hotel — two hours over bumpy roads. He responded with a smile: “Do you want them to?”

Americans might find it surprising that many North Korean officials take a nonideological view of foreign affairs. Indeed, we would call them realists. They are well aware of their national interests and are dedicated to safeguarding them, a dedication that is based on a keen understanding of the outside world.


South Korean protesters in Seoul after the North's nuclear test. (Getty/Chung Sung-Jun.)

Those of us who returned to work on The Interpreter this week perhaps had visions of a gentle start to the new year. North Korea ruined those plans with a surprise nuclear test.

When the event was detected on Wednesday, the media took at face value North Korea's claim that it had tested a thermonuclear weapon. Only the next day did the headlines catch up with the analysis we posted within hours by former chief of the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office, John Carlson, who was sceptical of the thermonuclear claim:

Successfully producing a thermonuclear weapon is a major technical challenge, and most experts doubt North Korea has this capability. Possibly North Korea has succeeded in developing a 'boosted' fission explosive, where the fission yield is increased through injecting tritium into the weapon's core. Boosted weapons are described as 'second generation' nuclear weapons, so would represent some technical advance by North Korea. This would be well short of a thermonuclear weapon but could enable North Korea to claim it had achieved a fusion device.

Conducting nuclear tests is one thing. Producing compact and reliable warheads able to be fitted on missiles and to withstand the stresses of launch and re-entry is quite another. North Korea's nuclear tests raise the level of international tensions but the country has a long way to go to establish a credible nuclear weapon capability. There is still time for the international community to dissuade North Korea from proceeding further down this path.

The Lowy Institute's Euan Graham argued that the test was not all bad news for China:

On one level, Beijing's swift expression of firm opposition underlines how the bilateral relationship has sunk to an all-time low since the death of Kim Jong Il.

On a realpolitik level, however, the distraction value of North Korea's nuclear test will make it harder for Washington to maintain policy focus on the South China Sea, at a time when the Administration's cautious conduct of freedom of navigation operations is already under fire from critics such as John McCain. North Korea is the one regional security issue where Washington consistently courts greater Chinese assertiveness. If Beijing sees this as a timely source of leverage in Sino-US relations, Pyongyang's latest nuclear escapade may not be entirely unwelcome.

Malcolm Cook said criticism of US North Korea policy is misdirected:

China's policy towards North Korea should be the focus of criticism, not that of the US. China's rhetoric on North Korean nuclearisation has certainly become less contradictory to that of the US, Japan and South Korea. Yet China willingly provides the largest gaps in attempts to isolate North Korea for its nuclear destabilisation. Isolation is still the best tool available to try to change North Korea's nuclear calculations and has the significant added benefit of imposing costs on North Korea for its destabilising behaviour and for welching on its commitments. It also sends the right message to Pyongyang: do wrong, suffer the consequences.

We covered a lot of other issues this week too, including the 75th anniversary of FDR's famous 'Four Freedoms' speech

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The members of Congress received Roosevelt's address solemnly and without the usual raucous applause; journalists noted that Republican members were largely silent. The responses of senators and congressmen ranged over the entire scale. Democratic senator Morris Sheppard of Texas thought it was 'one of the greatest deliverances of all time, not merely of American history.' On the other hand, Representative Robert F Rich of Pennsylvania thought the speech meant 'war and dictatorship in this country'; his fellow Republican, Representative George H Tinkham of Massachusetts, claimed that Roosevelt had 'declared war on the world.'

But New York Times columnist Arthur Krock thought that the sobriety of the representatives during the address 'was more eloquent than the published comment.' They had already read in the newspapers about the President's plans for Lend-Lease. Now, having been officially informed of the Administration's intentions in his speech, 'the members, while not shrinking from the consequences, were thinking of them hard. And they must have thought especially hard when Mr Roosevelt said: 'When the dictators — if the dictators — are ready to make war upon us, they will not wait for an act of war on our part.''

Here's Rodger Shanahan on Saudi Arabia's execution of 47 prisoners, including a leading Shia cleric:

Riyadh would have been well aware that its actions would draw international criticism and ratchet up regional tensions, but it acted anyway. The executions, done largely for domestic effect, are further evidence that the ruling family sees aggressive responses to real or perceived security threats as the best way to shore up domestic support. It's not a good sign for 2016.

Jennifer Hunt covered this topic too:

Both states are also self-professed guardians of the Islamic faith. Nevertheless, though much has been made of their central roles in the global Sunni and Shi'a communities, the primary concern for both states is power, not religion. In the Gulf, power is a zero-sum game. With the nuclear deal set for implementation this month, Saudi Arabia sees the lifting of financial sanctions as bolstering Tehran's tools for regional influence. As if to prove Saudi Arabia's falling favour amid the tentative restoration of ties between the US and Iran, the Obama Administration has thus far maintained a neutral stance in the political row over al-Nimr.

Stephen Grenville welcomed the new year by looking for some economic trends to worry about in 2016:

With commodity prices down (especially oil), resource investment worldwide is likely to fall over the next few years. As well, the steam has gone out of property investment. One forecaster predicts the only prospect of strong positive investment growth over the next few years will be in the high-tech sector.

Claude Rakisits examined the political implications of an audacious assault on an Indian air base by Pakistan-backed militants:

this most recent attack confirms yet again, if confirmation were required, that India and Pakistan are far from achieving 'normal' bilateral relations. And while Prime Minister Sharif may be genuinely keen to have peaceful and economically fruitful relations with India, the Pakistan army is less enthusiastic. Ultimately, it is Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif, not Prime Minister Sharif (the two are not related), who calls the shots on security and foreign policy issues in Pakistan.

James Goldrick explained why China's first indigenous aircraft carrier will be based on Soviet blueprints:

The PLA Navy was able to extract eight truck loads of detailed plans of the Liaoning from the Ukrainian vendors. These will have to be the foundation of the present activity because China is now facing the same reality that has dogged the efforts of all the major navies of the last century. The greatest restraint on naval expansion in the industrial age has been neither budgets nor disarmament treaties. It has in fact been the lack of drafting expertise to translate the design concepts of naval architects into the detailed compartment-by-compartment drawings that allow the shipbuilders to do their work (arguably, this has been a key problem for Australia with the new Air Warfare Destroyers). The scale of the effort involved is demonstrated by the report that the Liaoning's documentation amounted to many tons of paper.

Sarah Frankel profiled the front-runner in Taiwan's presidential election, Tsai Ing-wen:

As Tsai transitioned from university professor to politician, she developed her own brand of political leadership based on communication and calm thinking. After admitting that her rallies lacked energy, Tsai sought advice from the leader of a Taiwanese theatre troupe on how to respond to an indifferent audience. His guidance on how performers ignore audiences prompted Tsai to stick with her own style, one that she describes as 'low-key but deeply felt passion.' In response to critics who said she wasn't enough of a schemer to survive in Taiwan's political environment during her first presidential campaign, Tsai responded firmly that in three years she had shown that 'scheming doesn't have to be a part of politics, and that trust and debate are more important.'

Tsai appears to be driven by a desire to reform an increasingly economically and socially divided Taiwan.

Catriona Croft-Cusworth's regular 'This week in Jakarta' column is back for 2016:

Jokowi spent Christmas in Kupang, West Timor, where Christians are the majority, rather than the minority as in most of Indonesia. Speaking to a crowd of thousands, the President supported the right of Indonesia's religious minorities to worship and celebrate in line with the national motto of 'Unity in Diversity'. In contrast to the previous president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Jokowi has openly supported religious freedom, regardless of attempts during the campaign period to 'smear' his image via rumours that he is a closet Christian. While past years have seen episodes of violence, Christmas was celebrated peacefully across Indonesia in 2015.

Denise Fisher examined the results of the latest census in New Caledonia:

The censuses since 1994, including this latest one, have consistently shown an ever-increasing and more diffuse population. Those newcomers either from metropolitan France or other French territories who have not been able to vote in local elections have become increasingly vocal about being excluded, and, as shown by this census, are now far more numerous. There is therefore the potential for them to influence if not the actual vote, then the atmospherics surrounding what is already going to be a sensitive plebiscite.


The December-January holiday period was a memorable one for China military watchers, with two important developments.

The first was photos (see above, courtesy of Chinese Military Aviation) of what is widely believed to be the first production version of the J-20 heavy stealth fighter. Readers might recall that, back in January 2011, the J-20 created some ripples in great-power relations when the PLA decided to stage the maiden flight of the first prototype of the new jet while US Pentagon chief Robert Gates was visiting Beijing (see J-20 Flies, Gates Sighs). Since then, seven more prototypes have appeared, and now it looks like production of the finished article has begun.

Yes, the J-20 will still take some years to reach squadron service, and the jet remains reliant on somewhat dated Russian engines while China's domestic engine industry struggles to catch up. But still, this is a phenomenal achievement for what is still a fledgling industry in China, and when fielded in numbers the J-20 has the potential to substantially shift the balance of military power in the region.

The second big development was confirmation from a Chinese military spokesman that construction of a domestically built aircraft carrier is underway. As The Interpreter reported back in October, this was fairly clear from the shipyard photos anyway, but still, this announcement removes any doubt.

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The spokesman's statement that the ship will displace 50,000 tonnes and have a 'ski-jump' ramp suggests that China is taking this carrier business slowly. Why? Because it means this ship will be the same size or slightly smaller than China's first carrier, the Liaoning, which was built from a refurbished Russian hull. It will also adopt the same technique for launching aircraft as that used on Liaoning: the so-called ski-jump. This is basically a ramp at the end of the carrier's short runway, giving aircraft just that little extra lift to allow safe take-off. American carriers use different technology. Aircraft are hurled off the ship at higher speed with the assistance of a steam-driven (and in future, electrically driven) catapult. This is a more expensive and complex method, but allows for bigger aircraft to take off with more fuel and/or weapons. China is thought to be working on catapult technology, but clearly it isn't ready yet.

Again, we need to apply some caveats. China is several years away from having two fully operational aircraft carriers, and even then, they will be no match for US carriers. But even with two moderately capable carriers, China will easily outrank all its regional neighbours in ship-borne aviation, and will join a select group of nations with more than one carrier in service. Again, a major achievement and a clear shift in the regional military power balance.

We'll have much more soon on China's second aircraft carrier from naval expert James Goldrick.


Celebrated director Werner Hertzog has directed Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, which will debut at the Sundance Film Festival later this month. Looks great:

Here's a synopsis:

Society depends on the Internet for nearly everything but rarely do we step back and recognize its endless intricacies and unsettling omnipotence. From the brilliant mind of Werner Herzog comes his newest vehicle for exploration, a playful yet chilling examination of our rapidly interconnecting online lives.

(H/t Slashfilm.)


Readers, this is where The Interpreter says goodbye for another year.

My thanks to Emma Connors and Brendan Thomas-Noone, who put The Interpreter together each day, and to the many others at the Lowy Institute and at Twisted Pear who support the site in various ways. Of course, my thanks to the contributors too, who make The Interpreter such a wonderful read and such a privilege to work on each day. And finally, thank you to the readers; we are indebted to you always.

We will see you on 4 January, when normal posting resumes. Until then, you will see regular 'best of' posts on each Australian working day. Best wishes for the season, and see you in 2016.

Photo by Flickr user Matthew Fuentes.


Back in September I featured a trailer for the a new film about the US financial crisis, The Big Short. On the evidence of the trailer, I wondered what direction the film would take: 'Will it look for a villain (greedy bankers), which is easy and emotionally satisfying for a movie audience, or will it demand more of the viewer by looking at the systemic and human weaknesses that bring about such disasters?'

The movie has now been released, and in his review, economist Tyler Cowen addresses that very question: 'There is no central villain, none whatsoever. The filmmakers succeed in showing how the collective actions of many, operating together, can give rise to structural problems and systemic risk. And yet the story remains suspenseful.' Cowen goes on to say: 'what the movie does well — namely to condense amazing amounts of economics and finance into what is likely to prove a popular and critically acclaimed film — is path breaking, and more important than its shortcomings.'

what the movie does well — namely to condense amazing amounts of economics and finance into what is likely to prove a popular and critically acclaimed film — is path breaking, and more important than its shortcomings. - See more at: http://marginalrevolution.com/#sthash.Q4igiyac.dpuf
what the movie does well — namely to condense amazing amounts of economics and finance into what is likely to prove a popular and critically acclaimed film — is path breaking, and more important than its shortcomings. - See more at: http://marginalrevolution.com/#sthash.Q4igiyac.dpuf

The Big Short is also rating well over on Rotten Tomatoes. I'll be looking out for it over the summer break.

Maybe I was wrong to worry. Sure, the director of The Big Short, Adam McKay, is better known for comedies like Anchorman, but comedy is harder than drama. And McKay also has form on this topic. His 2010 comedy The Other Guys (under-rated, I reckon) has a clear financial-crisis subtext, culminating in an illuminating infographic sequence over the closing credits:

There is no central villain, none whatsoever. The filmmakers succeed in showing how the collective actions of many, operating together, can give rise to structural problems and systemic risk. And yet the story remains suspenseful. - See more at: http://marginalrevolution.com/#sthash.Q4igiyac.dpuf
There is no central villain, none whatsoever. The filmmakers succeed in showing how the collective actions of many, operating together, can give rise to structural problems and systemic risk. And yet the story remains suspenseful. - See more at: http://marginalrevolution.com/#sthash.Q4igiyac.dpuf
There is no central villain, none whatsoever. The filmmakers succeed in showing how the collective actions of many, operating together, can give rise to structural problems and systemic risk. And yet the story remains suspenseful. - See more at: http://marginalrevolution.com/#sthash.Q4igiyac.dpuf

Well, this looks diverting. It's a war comedy about a journalist sent to Afghanistan on assignment. Due out in March:


A Spanish F100 class destroyer, similar to the upcoming Australian Air Warfare Destroyers. (Flickr/Horatio J Kookaburra.)

The Australian's defence writer Brendan Nicholson wrote an upbeat assessment of the Air Warfare Destroyer (AWD) program on Thursday, having just visited the shipyard courtesy of Raytheon, which makes the Aegis combat system being fitted to the AWDs. (To Stewart's and The Australian's credit, they disclose the Raytheon connection in the article.)

It is certainly to be hoped that this three-ship class can recover from its delays and cost over-runs. The article does suggest that, with the second and third ships in the class, the program could catch up on some of its delays. But there is no suggestion that the cost over-runs will be recovered.

Nicholson says in the article that the AWDs could have a future role in defending the Australian continent from ballistic missile attack:

Depending on a decision still to be made by an Australian government, the missile systems aboard the destroyers could be upgraded to allow them to be used as part of a ballistic missile defence system to protect Australia against nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles such as those on which North Korea is working.

Perhaps Raytheon disclosed some new information to Nicholson, but on the basis of public information, it seems most unlikely that the AWD will be able to protect Australian territory from intercontinental ballistic missiles. It is true that the government has a decision to make about whether to fit the AWDs with ballistic-missile defence capability, but even if they do go down that path, such a capability will only be useful against short-range ballistic missiles, and maybe against intermediate-range weapons.

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However, the only nations that could conceivably threaten the Australian mainland with ballistic missile strikes — North Korea, China, Russia and Iran — are so far away that they would need to fire long-range or intercontinental ballistic missiles to reach the Australian mainland. And because those missiles fly higher and faster, the AWDs won't be equipped to intercept them.

In fact, the ballistic missile-defence capability we can put on our Aegis-equipped AWDs is quite limited. As ASPI said in a report published last year:

...the Aegis combat system can support defence against at least short-range ballistic missiles, although...the limited number of missile cells and lack of ability to reload at sea make it potentially vulnerable to saturation attacks, and place a premium on accurately discriminating between decoys and real targets. For missiles incoming at substantially higher speeds, such as the Mach 6+ of intermediate or longer range ballistic missiles, the capability of the Aegis system and its integrated surface-to-air missiles is much less clear...It’s most likely that Aegis provides some residual capability against very high speed missiles, but with significantly lower kill probabilities—and the saturation attack problem remains.


Economist Tyler Cowen thinks the Paris agreement is getting too much attention, given the relatively more important news that China's emissions may have peaked:

How much news has this received, relative to the Paris meetings? Less than a hundredth, I suspect. Typical readers and viewers are far more interested in the deliberate actions of high-status political leaders than they are interested in underlying structural developments, even when the latter are probably of more import. We need dramatic stories with prestigious protagonists, leading the way...This is just one way in which I feel the world I live in is a delusion and shadow play, relative to the truth.

I sympathise, though of course sometimes those 'high status political leaders' really do move historical events (heck, sometimes even low-status people do so), and this may be one of those times. We simply don't know, and we won't for many years.

Most of the time, as the China emissions issue attests, history is a relatively slow moving process. But while history is mostly trends, journalism is about events. In fact, the focus on events is baked into the DNA of the profession. It's no accident that journalists refer to their product as 'stories'. Their job is to find and package stories, not convey information. Yes, there's a lot of overlap between those two categories, but they are not the same thing, and as Tyler Cowen's example shows, sometimes important information is overlooked in favour of reporting a story. I think the trick to consuming journalism is to sift out the story elements and pay attention to the information.

Photo by Flickr user Gustavo M.


It seems extraordinary now, but the idea of using randomised control trials to test whether new medical treatments actually work didn't take hold until the early 20th century, and only became widespread after World War II. Until then, medical treatments were largely applied based on the idea that the physician knew best. Experiments simply weren't done because physicians, particularly ones with high reputations, were considered so infallible that no independent, scientific validation of their treatments was considered necessary.

The attention-grabbing claim of a new book is that political forecasting operates to this day in just such a pre-20th century mode.

Superforecasting: The Art & Science of Prediction, by Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner, argues that the forecasts offered by political experts — media pundits, academics, intelligence analysts and, yes, think tankers — are made without anything approaching a scientific method, and are rarely subjected to scrutiny after the fact in order to determine their accuracy. Tom Friedman, Steve Ballmer, Niall Ferguson and other luminaries come in for scrutiny in this book for their dodgy political and business predictions, but the deeper theme is that we are all guilty of the mistakes they made in their thinking.

Happily, the book also offers ideas on how to overcome some basic cognitive traps that lead to poor political predictions. Superforecasting is the product of a long forecasting tournament funded by the US intelligence community in which teams applying various methods were pitted against each other to determine which team — and which methods — delivered the most accurate forecasts. Superforecasting describes the most effective methods, and even comes with a handy cheat sheet at the back with 'Ten commandments for aspiring superforecasters'.

Last Friday, I interviewed one of the authors of Superforecasting, Dan Gardner, from his home in Canada:


Back in June, when the Abbott Government was stoking fears that ISIS was 'coming for every person and every government with a simple message: submit or die', I wrote an op-ed for the Herald Sun arguing that, by playing to our deepest anxieties, the government was actually making it harder to defeat the terrorist threat. President Obama, I argued, presented an alternative model, as a leader who, rather than talking about anxieties and threats, focuses on 'policies and rhetoric that emphasise steadfastness, stoicism and resilience, a refusal to give in to fear.'

Obama's latest speech on terrorism, delivered just hours ago in response to the San Bernadino terrorist attack (and yes, as Obama said in his speech, we do have to call it that now), reinforces my sense that he is on the right track. Echoing Prime Minister Turnbull's recent remarks that this was not the time for 'machismo', Obama said ' Our success won't depend on tough talk, or abandoning our values or giving into fear.'

Obama is honest about the scale of the threat, but he does not hype it. He insists that the Muslim community is an important ally in the fight, he expresses confidence in American values rather than fear that they are in peril. And he refuses to be drawn into a self-defeating ground war because:

That's what groups like ISIL want. They know they can't defeat us on the battlefield. ISIL fighters were part of the insurgency that we faced in Iraq. But they also know that if we occupy foreign lands, they can maintain insurgencies for years, killing thousands of our troops and draining our resources, and using our presence to draw new recruits.

The big question is whether this policy stance can survive a further rapid escalation of the terrorist threat. What if we have two or three more Paris-style incidents, one of them in a major US metropolis? I still think the course laid out by Obama in this speech would be the right one, but the clamour for overwhelming military action, including through the deployment of ground forces, would be strong in such an event. The question is whether Obama would resist it.

A final note: in the closing stages of his speech Obama refers to ISIS as a 'cult of death'. When it comes to terrorism, Obama's policy instincts are much closer to those of Malcolm Turnbull than Tony Abbott, but at least the former PM's signature phrase lives on in Obama's rhetoric.


A fascinating column from Paul Kelly over the weekend, which describes how former PM Tony Abbott sees his future role:

The Paris attacks have seen two competing Australian voices in response — Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott. The crisis has revealed Abbott’s long-run strategy — positioning himself on the global and domestic stage as a champion of the conservative forces in the current international security crisis.

Abbott believes the threat from Islamist violence is the defining issue of the age. It occupied much of his prime ministership and he intends to become a rallying point in the war of ideas and ideology at its heart. Abbott as a politician can only exist and operate with a mission. It has always been thus — and the deposed prime minister has found his new mission.

While Abbott has taken no decision on his political future, the omens seem clear: he is currently heading towards contesting the next election and carrying a banner for the conservatives, in parliament, the Liberal Party and the public.

Abbott clearly still has allies within the parliamentary Liberal Party,  including former defence minister Kevin Andrews, who has now called for Australia to send ground troops to Syria in the war against ISIS. Andrews was mocked by some in the media for his poor showing in the ballot for the Liberal Party deputy leadership on 14 September, but he got 30 votes to Julie Bishop's 70, which demonstrated that there is a sizeable rump in the Liberal Party with misgivings about the more progressive turn of the Turnbull-Bishop leadership team.

But to see this purely as a right-left ideological debate inside the Liberal Party is incomplete. There is also a fundamental difference in threat perception driving this debate. Kelly is correct to say that Abbott and his allies see Islamist terrorism as 'the defining issue of the day'. To get a sense of how deeply this is felt, check out Greg Sheridan's weekend column, in which he describes a morally corrupt and vulgarised West (apparently Ronda Rousey is to blame somehow for the collapse of our civilisation) which is in danger of being overwhelmed by the ISIS threat. Niall Ferguson made a similar argument in a recent op-ed.

As Sheridan correctly identifies in his column, some people simply judge the threat differently. Sheridan defends the claims made by Julie Bishop and George Brandis (both considered ideological moderates within the Liberal Party) that the ISIS threat is 'existential'. Turnbull, of course, argued directly against Bishop when she claimed ISIS was the biggest threat to world order in 70 years, responding that 'Daesh is not Hitler's Germany, Tojo's Japan or Stalin's Russia'. Since taking over as PM, Turnbull has resisted calls to increase Australia's military role in Iraq and Syria, and used more inclusive language about Australia's Muslim community, reinforcing the sense that he sees the threat as serious but not as an existential threat to Australia's multicultural compact.

After outrages such as the recent events in Paris, Beirut, Bamako and in the skies over Egypt, it can be hard to sustain this perspective. Yet Turnbull's case doesn't need to be purely defensive. Australians are clearly unnerved by the ISIS threat, so it's not enough to simply say that the threat is less serious than they might believe. In fact, that course would be politically disastrous. But nor does Turnbull need to embrace the right's rhetoric in order to sound like he takes ISIS seriously. There is a third alternative.

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At the heart of the right-wing critique is the sense that Western civilisation is decadent and depraved, and thus vulnerable to a well-disciplined extremist threat. According to Paul Kelly, Abbott's mantra is that 'the West, like Australia, must possess the self-confidence to defend its interests and its universal values.' This fear, that Western civilisation is feeble and on the brink of collapse, has been a right-wing talking point for years now, though the evidence for it is weak.

More to the point, though, this line of argument actually plays right into Turnbull's key message since becoming PM: one of optimism and confidence, a sense that right now is a great time to be alive and be an Australian. Where the hard-right sees only threat and fragility, Turnbull sees a strong country with a hopeful future. Turnbull can play this card against his ideological opponents. Why are they so pessimistic about Western civilisation at a historical moment when it has never been so dominant? Why, when faced only by a small army of poorly equipped extremists, do they have such little faith in a system which has seen off Nazism and communism, and which is a magnet for every persecuted minority in the world, including Muslims?

The right's case is drenched in nostalgia for an Australian society that has disappeared and a distrust of what has replaced it. Starting with his National Security Statement today, Turnbull can counter this with a determined and resolute optimism, one which uses the strengths of modern Australia to fight extremism, and one which refuses to be spooked by a threat that Australia and its allies can contain with sustained, proportional effort.