Lowy Institute


Red Army is about the Soviet Union and the most successful dynasty in sports history: the Red Army hockey team. Filmmaker Gabe Polsky tells an extraordinary human story from the perspective of its captain Slava Fetisov, the friendships, the betrayals, and the personal dramas, which led to his transformation from national hero to political enemy. The film examines how sport mirrors social and cultural movements and parallels the rise and fall of the Red Army team with the Soviet Union. 

(H/t Slashfilm.)


This morning on ABC radio Attorney General George Brandis said something quite mundane yet absolutely critical in regard to the apparent ISIS-related terrorist plot disrupted by police in Sydney yesterday:

I want to emphasise the point, and it can't be stressed enough: yesterday's police operation was about crime. It was about disrupting a criminal network that meant to do Australians harm.

Along with NSW police commissioner Andrew Scipione's calls for calm yesterday ('We don't need to whip this up'), this is precisely the right tone. This is a criminal matter and we need not elevate it beyond that. Our leaders need to strike a tone of resilience, stoicism and quiet resolve rather than anger and outrage. As Waleed Aly says this morning:

Long-term, it's about us. It's about how resilient we are as a society, and how focused we are in our response. There is one very clear way in which this alleged plot can succeed, even if it is never carried out: that we become so emotionally manipulated, so provoked, that we end up helplessly polarised.

Unfortunately, we have done ourselves no favours in this regard by so eagerly embracing America's military operation against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, a strategy which significantly inflates the actual threat posed by the group. And Brandis' language has not always been so measured. Last week he said ISIS 'represents or seeks to be an existential threat to us.' It's a vast exaggeration to say that ISIS could threaten Australia's existence as a political and cultural entity, and the fact that Brandis felt it necessary to throw in 'or seeks to be' just exposes the vast gap between ISIS's capabilities and its intentions.

The Australian Government could take some guidance from President Obama here. For although he has embarked on what I would consider an unnecessary and possibly counter-productive escalation of military operations against ISIS, his language in doing so has been quite measured.

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Throughout his term of office, Obama has been ruthless in using military force to kill terrorists in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and the Philippines. Yet he seldom hypes the threat. Even in his speech announcing expanded military operations against ISIS, he painted the threat in realistic terms: 'We can't erase every trace of evil from the world and small groups of killers have the capacity to do great harm. That was the case before 9/11, and that remains true today.' He also said there was no hint that IS had targeted the US. It was an admirably honest assessment, which just made the military escalation he announced immediately after sound all the more precipitate.

Obama's language is notably more moderate than that of the Bush Administration, when al Qaeda was routinely described as an existential threat. Back in 2004, then Democrat presidential candidate John Kerry was attacked by President Bush's campaign for saying that America's aim ought to be to once again 'make terrorism a nuisance'. This wasn't anywhere good enough for the GOP, which even amid the unfolding disaster of Iraq, maintained the absurd fantasy that terrorism could be permanently eliminated.

But Kerry and Obama are both right. Terrorism cannot be eliminated, but it is containable, and we only make the problem worse by hyping the threat.


Two anecdotes I have stumbled on recently from reviews of Rick Perlstein's The Invisible Bridge, a new book about the US conservative movement.

First, did you know Richard Nixon invented the term 'Missing in Action'?:

The ’70s also marked the high tide of the American Right. Much of the country was discomfited by protests, drugs, and crime...In The Invisible Bridge, (Perlstein) describes how Nixon invented the category of soldiers “Missing in Action” (who, in previous wars, would have been called “Killed in Action / Body Unrecovered”) to rile up the home front against peaceniks, making it seem as though they were determined to abandon soldiers on the field of combat.

And here's a great anecdote about Reagan and the 1973 Arab-Israeli war:

Kissinger...solicited him for advice on the extraordinarily delicate matter of how to frame an Israeli resupply operation that, if handled incorrectly, could lead to a military confrontation with the Soviet Union. Reagan suggested: "Why don't you say you will replace all the aircraft the Arabs claim they have shot down?"

This was brilliant. Since the Arabs were wildly exaggerating their success, presenting them with a Hobson's choice—saying nothing or facing international humiliation—was perfect. Reagan's interpersonal intelligence was something to behold.


This passage comes from Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman's2011 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow:

An availability cascade is a self-sustaining chain of events, which may start from media reports of a relatively minor event and lead up to public panic and large-scale government action. On some occasions, a media story about a risk catches the attention of a segment of the public, which becomes aroused and worried. This emotional reaction becomes a story in itself, prompting additional coverage in the media, which in turn produces greater concern and involvement. The cycle is sometimes sped along deliberately by ‘availability entrepreneurs,’ individuals or organizations who work to ensure a continuous flow of worrying news. The danger is increasingly exaggerated as the media compete for attention-grabbing headlines. Scientists and others who try to dampen the increasing fear and revulsion attract little attention, most of it hostile; anyone who claims that the danger is overstated is suspected of association with a ‘heinous cover-up.’ The issue becomes politically important because it is on everyone’s mind, and the response of the political system is guided by the intensity of public sentiment. The availability cascade has now reset priorities. Other risks, and other ways that resources could be applied for the public good, all have faded into the background.

Did the brutal beheading of two (now three) Westerners by IS touch off an 'availability cascade'? Discuss.

(H/t Dart-Throwing Chimp, @Robert_E_Kelly.)


Bringing together the best longer Interpreter articles you were too busy to read this week.

The Lowy Institute’s Melanesia Program Director Jenny Hayward-Jones released a Policy Brief this week on the significance of Fiji’s elections, set for 17 September. Her accompanying Interpreter post argues that Australia should be doing more to assist Fiji in its transition back to democracy: 

Australia, which has already begun to re-engage with Fiji and has provided significant assistance for the elections, must continue to support Fiji's transition to democracy. Persuading an elected Prime Minister Bainimarama (if indeed he is victorious) of the value of Australian support for democratic institutions will be challenging given his suspicions of Canberra. It will require skilled Australian diplomacy and patience but also real leverage, something Australia has in the attractiveness to Fiji of a reconstituted bilateral defence relationship. 

Australia should consider offering further elements of the assistance package Julie Bishop announced in February. These should include 'no strings attached' new partnerships with the Fijian parliament, support for civil society, media and the rule of law, and an enhanced military relationship. If Australia does not take the lead in assisting democratic institutions and the building blocks of democracy in Fiji, who will?

Alex Stewart, also writing on Fiji, pointed out that successful elections involve much more than just ensuring that widespread cheating does not occur:

However, a truly free and fair election requires more than the absence of extra ballots stuffed into the box. Yes, voters need to be free to make their choice on the day, but the process by which they reach their decision also needs to be fair. In a free and fair election, political parties compete on as level a playing field as the system can enforce. This is where the election process in Fiji stands on shakier ground...

...There have been a variety of issues, from candidates being reportedly barred for traffic offences to the lateintroduction of a residency requirement that has disqualified several respected Fijians, including people seconded to RAMSI. What I would focus on is not the changes themselves but the lateness with which they were made. Both measure came into force in August, mere weeks before the election. Campaigning had been going on for months by this point. For an election to be fair, political parties and voters need to have clarity as to who is running for election. Having candidates knocked out at the eleventh hour should be an exceptional matter for a functioning democracy, not one of deliberate state policy. 

Lowy Institute Nonresident Fellow Tess Newton Cain summarised the economic policies of the political parties running in Fiji’s election: 

FijiFirst's manifesto, unsurprisingly, rests its economic policy on the interim government's track record. It highlights four consecutive years of GDP growth and a private sector investment rate of 15% in the current year. The manifesto stresses that job creation, particularly for young people, is a priority and sees maintaining the momentum of the Bainimarama Government as the means of achieving this. While there is reference to a 'comprehensive program' to be implemented after the election to complement existing policies (eg. tax-free zones, free education), there is no detail on what the 'key initiatives' are.

The Fiji Labour Party grounds its economic policy in the belief that 'given a stable  democratic environment and honest and competent leadership with policies that ensure good governance and inspires investor confidence in Fiji's future, the economy will automatically pick up'. In terms of how the party proposes to grow the economy, the manifesto refers to reviving the agriculture sector and sustainable development of forestry and fisheries. It also identifies a number of ways in which the FLP intends to create a favourable industrial and business environment, including by bringing down the cost of doing business, setting up a 'Special Fund' to encourage self-employment, especially among professional graduates, and pursuing investment to boost employment opportunities and enhance incomes.

President Obama gave a prime-time address this week that outlined his strategy for dealing with ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Rodger Shanahan's first impressions

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Shi'a militias are part of the Iraqi landscape and in some instances they have been resurrected for the fight against IS. The Sunni National Guard units that will now be stood up sound awfully like a Sunni militia, no matter how much they may be dressed up as being part of the Iraqi military...

...Although Obama said the US was ramping up its military assistance to the Syrian opposition, it wasn't spelt out exactly which opposition he was talking about, how they would be deployed or sustained, or who they would fight (just IS, Jabhat al-Nusra also, the Assad forces, or the Islamic front?). Syria is not a binary issue.

In James Bowen’s analysis of the speech, he argues that we have not seen a President Obama like the one we saw on Thursday in some time: 

Given the relative lack of surprises, the most notable feature of the performance was the level of conviction with which the President articulated these points, recalling for a brief time the vim and vigour on which he established his political reputation only a few years ago. Gone was the painfully slow pace of delivery and the not-so-pregnant pauses that characterised many of his recent announcements, particularly in this troubled foreign policy sphere.

Speaking after the Public Broadcasting Service telecast of the speech, New York Times columnist and frequent Obama critic David Brooks went as far as to praise the President for so clearly articulating his desired pathway, despite the fact that most of us realise he is a reluctant strongman when it comes to such matters.

In a popular and reflective post, Lowy Institute East Asia Program Director Merriden Varrall argues that a tendency to assume Western norms may impede our understanding of China: 

We tend to presume that underneath the surface-level differences, Chinese people are more or less the same as us. The reading of surface-level signs according to our own norms, like the apparently Western toilets at Beijing airport in 1999, also occurs when we try and explain and interpret Chinese politics and behaviour. One example is the way political structures and activities are described. Xi Jinping is described as 'the President', so we ascribe to him the same roles and responsibilities as Barack Obama. Li Keqiang is the 'Prime Minister', the State Council is China's cabinet, and so on. This translation and simplification, a bid to understand how China works, ultimately impairs our ability to see it for how it is, rather than just another version of how we are.

Manjeet Pardesi and Robert Ayson from Victoria University of Wellington said that the results of the Modi-Abe summit last week showed the ‘support for their (India and Japan) respective strategic roles’: 

As China converts its material power into greater regional influence, the common interests between Japan and India in preventing Beijing from holding sway over the region are becoming more pronounced. Both have long-standing rivalries with China: in the case of Japan over history and disputed islands in the East China Sea, and in the case of India over the world's longest unmarked land border and the Tibet issue. Beijing will no doubt also have noticed the commitment of Abe and Modi to 'maritime security, freedom of navigation and overflight…and peaceful settlement of disputes in accordance with international law.'

My assessment of the Abbott Government's foreign policy during its first year in office: 

...the Abbott Government has also rapidly advanced its free-trade talks with Beijing, and so seems wedded to the Howard Government formula that Australia does not have to choose between its main strategic partner and its biggest economic partner. This arrangement also seems amenable to Beijing, for now. But as China grows and Beijing demands a regional security order that matches its status as an economic equal to the US, it becomes less and less clear that this posture is sustainable.

When the Abbott Government is eventually unseated, and peripheral foreign policy interests such as Ukraine and Iraq have long been forgotten, this will be the ground on which we ultimately judge its foreign policy performance.

Also, Abbott’s foreign policy has been lacking in the Pacific, said Nic Maclellan: 

Abbott couldn't even spare a day to attend this year's Pacific Islands Forum (Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss spent just 36 hours in Koror, though you wouldn't know about it  since not one press gallery journalist or TV news crew accompanied him to Palau). Abbott's decision to focus on the MH17 crisis overshadowed a crucial meeting, which included the selection of a new Forum Secretary General, preparations for Fiji's first post-coup elections and the development of regional interventions for a series of global summits on small island states, climate and development.

Natasha Stott Despoja wrote of Australia's role in putting gender on the agenda of the Indian Ocean Rim Association: 

The IORA conference I hosted on behalf of Minister Bishop in Kuala Lumpur was the flagship event to further Australia's aspiration on the economic empowerment of women. The event had a focus on textiles and tourism, two areas in which women are active in every member country. Textiles involve women as artisans, workers, designers, entrepreneurs and traders. Tourism is anticipated to account for one in every ten jobs on the planet by 2022.

Finally, CNAS's Ely Ratner suggested that Abbott may be stretching Australia’s resources with his globalist agenda: 

While Australia's leading strategists don't all agree with each other on priorities and alternatives, many said quietly (and some not so quietly) that Abbott may dilute Australia's power and influence if globalist ambitions prevent Australia from devoting sufficient resources to issues where it can make more unique and significant contributions. In the case of Australia's global activism, less may ultimately be more. 

 Photo courtesy of Flickr user Let Ideas Compete.


A couple of pieces I have stumbled on in the last 24 hours which rearranged my mental furniture a little. First, on China's 'smart' censorship:

...you can say pretty much anything you like on Chinese media, providing that it does not lead to any kind of action. “Chinese people can write the most vitriolic blogposts about even the top Chinese leaders without fear of censorship, but if they write in support of, or [even] in opposition to an ongoing protest – or even about a rally in favour of a popular policy or leader – they will be censored.”

Even more subtly, the volume of protests is used to gauge whether any given leader is sufficiently unpopular that his removal will make things go more smoothly. In this way the information signalling part of a market economy is co-opted to the service of an authoritarian state. It turns out that you can say what you like – and this includes all the kinds of hashtag activism. All you may not do is influence events away from the keyboard, or even refer to them. If there is a news story that suggests there might be a role for protest in the physical world, all comments referring to it are removed, whichever side they take.

 And here's philosopher John Gray tearing strips off Francis Fukuyama's new book about how political development happens. The review never refers to China, but it bears directly on the durability of the authoritarian state China's leaders are trying to build:

...Fukuyama takes for granted that the end point of political development is the system of government he prefers. As he puts it here and in the previous volume, the problem that most of the world faces is 'getting to Denmark' - where 'Denmark' means not the actual country but 'an imagined society that is prosperous, democratic, secure, and well governed, and experiences low levels of corruption'. He sees many of the humanitarian and military interventions of Western governments as bungling attempts to promote this imaginary society: 'The international community would like to turn Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, and Haiti into idealized places like "Denmark," but it doesn't have the slightest idea of how to bring this about.'...

...But political legitimacy is a slippery business; people want many things apart from prosperity, accountability and low levels of corruption. They also demand expression of their national myths, identities and enmities - and quite often attach more importance to this aspect of government than they do to democracy. Somewhere above the fog that surrounds Francis Fukuyama's convoluted treatise hangs a clear and simple question: what if large sections of humanity don't much care about getting to Denmark?


 President Obama's speech to the US National Defense University, May 2013:

We cannot use force everywhere that a radical ideology takes root; and in the absence of a strategy that reduces the wellspring of extremism, a perpetual war — through drones or Special Forces or troop deployments — will prove self-defeating, and alter our country in troubling ways.

Amen, Barack, Amen.


Given how little The Interpreter has had to say on the topic of Scottish independence, it seems somewhat frivolous to post this, but it's irresistible:

(H/t Dish.)


ASIO* Director-General David Irvine last night told the ABC's 7:30 program that he is considering raising the terrorist threat level in Australia from Medium to High:

I would say that, at the moment, it is at a very elevated level of medium and I'm certainly contemplating very seriously the notion of lifting it higher, because of the numbers of people that we are now having to be concerned about in Australia, because of the influence of Syria and Iraq on young Australians, both in terms of going to those places to fight but also in terms of what they are doing here in Australia with a potential intent to attack.

Back in March, the Lowy Institute's Anthony Bubalo tackled the subject of foreign fighters in the Middle East, and the threat they pose on return to Australia. He argued that 'In coming years Australia will face a more complex and serious terrorist threat than it did after 9/11', but that it would be wrong to focus solely on fighters returning to Australia:

...the breakdown of state control in a number of Middle East countries is opening new spaces in which jihadists can train and operate. In fact the situation today is considerably worse than it was before 9/11. In the 1990s jihadists found sanctuary in Afghanistan, parts of Pakistan, Yemen, Sudan and Somalia. Today all of those are still on the list of jihadists’ safe (or semi-safe) havens, which now also includes Sinai in Egypt, Libya, parts of Iraq and Lebanon, and of course Syria.

For Australia the concern is not just about Australian returnees, however. Indonesians have also travelled to Syria. At least one has been killed there. Given the success that the Indonesian authorities have had in tackling the terrorist threat over many years, it is critical that the conflict in Syria does not allow jihadist groups in Indonesia to redevelop their lethal capabilities and linkages once again. This is a situation that will require close attention and cooperation with the Indonesian government, perhaps as much as any focus on Australians returning home.

* A corporate member of the Lowy Institute.


I don't understand why they gave away the ending in this trailer (presumably just of the first episode), but still, this shows some promise:

The series will air in the US beginning 21 September.


So, the first-year assessments are in, and it seems the Abbott Government has done well on foreign policy.

Mark Kenny says Abbott has established 'a solid profile as a man of purpose' on the world stage. Michelle Grattan says Abbott 'has shown an unexpected sureness on the international stage'. Barrie Cassidy says 'Whether it be repairing a damaged relationship with Indonesia, responding to the Malaysian air crashes, standing up to Russia, or confronting the brutality of the Islamic State, Abbott has been exemplary.'

All of these judgments lean heavily on the Abbott Government's response to the MH17 shootdown, and to that extent, they surely overstate the Government's foreign policy effectiveness.

Abbott is getting points for his blunt criticisms of Russia and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop is being praised for hammering out a UN Security Council Resolution which got Russian support for an international investigation into the shootdown. But as last night's Four Corners program illustrated pretty clearly, the practical effects of all this have been negligible. President Putin, you will be shocked to hear, paid little heed to Abbott's criticisms, and the Ukrainian army roundly ignored the UN Resolution, advancing into the crash site in order to press its military advantage against the rebels.

Of course, we shouldn't be narrowly utilitarian in our judgments of foreign policy leadership; it's not solely about enacting effective policy. It also carries a symbolic and ceremonial role, particularly in the event of tragedies like MH17. But that's not to say, as Mark Kenny does, that the Prime Minister's role in such circumstances is to 'lead the outrage'. High emotion is never a good guide to statecraft, and as Raoul Heinrichs has argued, Abbott's rhetorical offensive may have been counter-productive.

The instinct to react emotionally has also marked the Abbott Government's response to the rise of Islamic State. Last week Abbott said the beheading of Steven Sotloff alone 'abundantly justifies' Australia's military involvement in Iraq. That is an extraordinary statement, when you stop to think about it: a single murder is apparently enough for Australia to send a squadron of fighters half way around the world to bomb IS for an undefined period.

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The brutal execution of two Western journalists (along with the attempt to wipe out the Yazidi people) seems to have been decisive in turning elite opinion in the US and Australia on the threat of IS, and prompted what now looks to be almost certain Australian involvement in forthcoming expanded air combat operations against the group. But as Andrew Sullivan says of the effect the beheading footage has had in Washington:

Like the horrifying images of 9/11, these images scramble our minds. And they are designed to. They are designed to awake the primordial instincts and the existential fear that Salafist fundamentalists thrive on....by reacting so comprehensively to it – the president has unwittingly given these poseurs a much bigger platform.

By contrast, Abbott has been more cold and calculating on Indonesia, both on the 'stop the boats' policy and on the spying issue. In both cases, Abbott has stuck steadfastly to a position and methodically achieved his goal. As Annabel Crabb says in regard to the boats policy, 'You may not agree with the method, but he's pulled it off.' As for the Snowden revelations that Australia was spying on senior Indonesian leaders and the president's wife, Abbott seems to have determined early on that his primary concern was the US alliance, and the intelligence-sharing arrangement that is at its heart. His Government fixed on a policy to protect that relationship, and after months of diplomatic pain with Indonesia, Foreign Minister Bishop last week signed a Code of Conduct with Jakarta that largely maintains the status quo on Australian spying.

Here we see the golden thread running through the first year of Abbott's foreign policy: the constant reaffirmation and reinforcement of Australia's alliance with the US, and with Washington's regional partners.

The Government agreed to join a US-led military mission against IS even before it was explicitly asked. The 2014 AUSMIN communique talks about a US Air Force and Navy presence in Australia, on top of the newly established US Marine base in Darwin. The Government has signed free trade deals with Seoul and Tokyo, with Abbott calling Japan Australia's 'closest friend in Asia'.  It has prioritised the Five-Eyes intelligence pact over the relationship with Jakarta. And we are now apparently set to sign a historic arms deal with Tokyo.

Which brings us finally to China. It is impossible to see this pattern of ever deeper ties with Washington and its allies as not being a reaction to Beijing's recent behaviour in the region. Beijing has become more deliberately confrontational over the first year of the Abbott Government, a twelve months marked by China's unilateral declaration of an Air Defence Identification Zone in the East China Sea and the moving of a CNOOC oil platform into waters off the coast of Vietnam that are claimed by China. Beijing, it seems, is is no longer just reacting to 'provocations' but is deliberately and pre-emptively asserting itself, and Canberra is noticing.

Yet the Abbott Government has also rapidly advanced its free-trade talks with Beijing, and so seems wedded to the Howard Government formula that Australia does not have to choose between its main strategic partner and its biggest economic partner. This arrangement also seems amenable to Beijing, for now. But as China grows and Beijing demands a regional security order that matches its status as an economic equal to the US, it becomes less and less clear that this posture is sustainable.

When the Abbott Government is eventually unseated, and peripheral foreign policy interests such as Ukraine and Iraq have long been forgotten, this will be the ground on which we ultimately judge its foreign policy performance.

Photo by Flickr user Tony Abbott.


Bringing together the best longer Interpreter articles you were too busy to read this week.

Two Iraq articles were our most popular of the week. First, Rodger Shanahan asked why President Obama needed to get involved in a religious debate:

In talking about the future of President Bashar al Assad in light of the IS threat, Obama said 'I don't see any scenario in which Assad somehow is able to bring peace and stability to a region that is majority Sunni and has not so far, you know, shown any willingness to share power with them or in any kind of significant way deal with the longstanding grievances that they have there.'

With this simple sentence Obama virtually sidelined religious minorities in the region, appeared to indicate that Sunni Islam was the region's political as well as religious orthodoxy, and suggested that only 'they' could rule and guarantee stability at the same time. Rather than simply state that Assad's illegitimacy rested on his flouting of international norms and lack of popular consensus, Obama bought into the religious argument.

James Brown listed five fallacies in Australian thinking on Iraq. Number 5 was 'This problem can be solved without a strategy for Syria':

Air strikes in northern Iraq can contain ISIS and limit its advance into Iraqi Kurdistan. But to deny terrorists safe haven, to destroy Islamic State as a group, to stop civilian slaughter and restore relative order in Iraq, ISIS positions and strengths in Syria need to be targeted. That means a decision to intervene in Syria's civil war and alter the power balance between the Assad regime and the forces arrayed against him. That's something Obama and his allies have avoided for three years, despite a number of provocations. And the complexity of determining a strategy on Syria is why the US has not yet formed a comprehensive strategy to deal with this current crisis.

It will not be easy, but if a case for a US military campaign against ISIS is to be made next month it will have to include a strategy for Syria. Australian decision-makers should be thinking beyond just northern Iraq to determine our view of the best outcome in Syria, and what burden we might be willing to shoulder in order to achieve it.

Danielle Rajendram's summary of the likely agenda items for this week's visit by Tony Abbott to India was also popular with readers:

It has been reported that Australia and India have now concluded negotiations on the civil nuclear agreement, which began in 2012 under the Gillard Government. If all goes to plan, this agreement will be formally signed during the visit, establishing the framework for Australian uranium to be exported to India for civilian purposes. Aside from assisting India to achieve its goal of upgrading its nuclear power capacity to 20,000 MW by 2020, the conclusion of the agreement will remove what has been a major source of mistrust and an impediment to closer relations in recent years.

Stephen Grenville said that, if as some claim, the US Fed is a de facto global central bank, it is a flawed one:

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The US Fed's swap operations are akin to global central bank operations, effectively making short-term US dollar loans to foreign central banks, which can on-lend these to their domestic banks to help them through a foreign currency liquidity crisis. This is analogous to traditional liquidity operations, where central banks make domestic currency loans to banks in need of liquidity. These Fed swap arrangements have been a powerful and valuable stabilising element during global financial crises since 1965 or even earlier. Until recently, however, they have been available only to a small group of advanced economies (including Australia), plus Mexico.

Andrew Kwon argued that, in Japan, Shinzo Abe has reshuffled his cabinet with a focus on internal issues:

Traditionally an opportunity to keep party factions onside by rewarding them with a share of cabinet positions, this reshuffle instead took several prestigious positions off the table. Taro Aso, Fumio Kishida, Akira Amari and Yoshihida Suga are the most prominent members of Abe's leadership team to be retained. By ensuring important positions such as Chief Cabinet Secretary and Minister of Finance (Yoshihida Suga and Taro Aso respectively) are unchanged, Abe has chosen to prioritise consistency and steadiness in pushing his ambitious legislative agenda.

Nevertheless, implementation of that agenda remains a challenge. With this in mind, the Prime Minister has bought on a mixed group of established operators and rising stars within the LDP to help spearhead legislation.

Catriona Croft-Cusworth said the Australia-Indonesia Code of Conduct, signed last week, had some troubling subtext:

Most telling of Australia's priorities in the past nine months was the way the spying row was used as an opportunity to act unilaterally against asylum seeker arrivals, as observed by both Bachelard and Sulaiman. With diplomatic relations suspended, Australia was essentially free to pursue its agenda without consulting the neighbour. The Australian Government went ahead with Operation Sovereign Borders despite Indonesia's explicit rejection of the idea, and further damaged relations by allegedly straying into Indonesia's territorial waters.

The new 'Joint Understanding on a Code of Conduct' offers a clean break from the sour relations of the past year, starting from a basis of agreed ethics and intentions. The outcome may have been a favourable one for Australian intelligence, but gloating over this fact should probably be kept to a minimum, and more deeply reflected upon. While Indonesia is said to be concerned with 'saving face' by patching up relations, Australia should perhaps be a little more concerned about 'losing face' from its hubristic (or is that sombong?) handling of an important relationship.

Tim Mayfield came to the defence of the Abbott Government's proposed new anti-terrorism laws:

...present legislation was conceived during a period in which the threat predominantly emanated from 'home-grown' terrorism as demonstrated in cases like Operation Pendennis and the plan to attack Holsworthy Army Barracks. Whereas the terrorism offences introduced by the Howard Government have proved adequate in accounting for such plots (with 38 people prosecuted in Australia as a result of CT operations and 22 people convicted under the Criminal Code Act 1995), they have proven far less effective against Australians based overseas.

For example, the Australian Federal Police faced substantial challenges in preparing the prosecution of Jack Thomas upon his return from training with al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Indeed, the limitations associated with conducting the investigation in Pakistan (where Thomas was detained) ultimately led to the overturning of his conviction for receiving funds from al Qaeda. It is reasonable to assume that there are other cases of returning extremists that have never seen the light of day due to the existing legislative constraints.

When the inadequacies of the current regime are matched with the fact that the Syria and Iraq theatres contain more Australians than all previous extremist conflicts combined, the rationale for the new laws becomes clearer.

Yesterday Elliot Brennan looked at al Qaeda's announcement that it was setting up an Indian subcontinent branch:

...attacks by Islamic extremists in Myanmar seem far less likely than a violent backlash from nervous and angry mobs of Buddhist extremists, at least in the short term. These will likely be provoked by firebrand clerics such as the much criticised 'bin Laden of Buddhism', U Wirathu. His movements (which track closely with the onset of recent religiously inspired violence in the country) and those of his '969' movement will be closely watched. With 140,000 Muslim Rohingya confined to IDP camps, security of these massive complexes will need to be significantly improved. The prospect of a widespread and a polarising religious conflict appears to have escalated.

Julian Snelder looked at this week's big news from Hong Kong — that China was nipping democracy in the bud:

Beijing has delivered a predictably hard-line ruling on the nomination process for the 2017 chief executive election...: Hong Kongers can vote, but candidates must be pre-approved by at least half the business-stacked electoral college. Leader of the pro-democracy Occupy Central movement Benny Tai conceded quickly that he had failed to sway Beijing and that support from a pragmatic public is waning. Some mock Tai for chickening out, but he has made a Solomonic judgment to preserve rather than destroy.

Preparing the ground a week before the announcement from Beijing, Tsinghua law dean Wang Zhenmin explained that 'the business community is a reality. Even though it's a small group of people, they control the destiny of the economy of Hong Kong. If we ignore their interest, Hong Kong capitalism will stop.' Wang reasonably advised patience: 'less perfect suffrage is better than no universal suffrage, leave some room for future growth.'

The People's Daily pitched the decision as 'crucial to the fundamental interest of foreign investors.' The Great Helmsman must be turning in his mausoleum.

Cambodia's political calm is unusual and unlikely to last, wrote Milton Osborne from Phnom Penh:

With opposition deputies having taken their places in the National Assembly after a prolonged boycott, calm pervades Cambodia's domestic politics, at least for the moment. Opposition leader Sam Rainsy's ambition to lead the country is undiminished.

What is this 'New Russia' that keeps cropping up in Putin's speeches? Matthew Sussex explained:

Putin has made two major recent references to novorossiya. The first was in April this year, to justify the annexation of Crimea. The second came when he addressed the 'militia of novorossiya' on 28 August. Now he has explicitly called for the formation of a new state in Eastern Ukraine.

If this was just posturing or signalling, there would be little reason for the West to worry. The problem, though, is that Putin is using a significant amount of hard power to bring about his vision. The T-72B1 tanks (which are not used by Ukraine) videoed near Amvrosiyivka in Ukraine are proof that he has escalated from a campaign of deniability and deception to outright intervention. Russian media made little attempt to explain what ten Russian paratroopers captured by Ukrainian forces were doing on the other side of the border, except for a bland suggestion that they had 'got lost'. When the ten were swapped for over 60 Ukrainians, it sent the message that Russian lives were intrinsically more valuable than Ukrainian ones. And the decision to keep sending relief convoys to the separatists is designed to goad Ukraine into taking action against them, which would be a pretext for a full-scale invasion.

Matt Hill said this week's NATO meeting should deal not only with Iraq and Ukraine, but with a big internal problem:

To compensate for higher costs, NATO states turn to exporting defence technology. While proliferation may help national defence industries in the short run, over longer time frames it also serves to bolster the capabilities of repressive regimes and rising powers. The starkest example is France's reluctantly aborted sale to Russia of two Mistral-class assault ships. Openly recognised as a sop for shipyards that are facing hard times amid Paris' defence retrenchment, these ships threatened a substantial technology transfer to Moscow. Russia's demand for such vessels, designed to project force in contested littoral environments, is directly tied to its revanchist ambitions, which recent events have demonstrated stretch to NATO's doorstep. The cancellation of the sale is good news for Europe. But the fact that the sale was cancelled only after the customer invaded another European country underscores the risks posed by an absence of defence industrial rationalisation.

Mike Callaghan said foreign investment policy should not be used as a bargaining chip in FTA negotiations:

Australia does need to overhaul its foreign investment review system. It needs a coherent strategy, not one based on concessions in FTAs. Moreover, the whole system should be reviewed, not just the treatment of SOEs. And Alan Fells is right; changes need to be made to the FIRB. The OECD has recommended that Australia needs to 'further promote foreign direct investment by easing the stringency of screening procedures'. But Australia needs a clear foreign investment policy strategy, and not one that looks like Swiss cheese.

Photo by Flickr user Chrls Devers.


UPDATE: Thanks to Cecilia in the comments thread for pointing to this debunking of the Gessen piece, which argues that there has been 'a substantial and long-term improvement in the health of (Russia's) population' in the last fifteen years.

Did you know 'Male life expectancy at age fifteen in Russia compares unfavorably to that in Ethiopia, Gambia, and Somalia'?

Since the Soviet collapse, says Masha Gessen in this wonderful NYRB essay, Russia has suffered the longest peacetime period of depopulation of any country, ever. And nobody really knows why. Is it alcohol? Not really, since Russians drink less than Czechs, Slovaks and Hungarians, whose life expectancy has increased since the end of the Cold War. And it's not as if Russians have the fattiest diets or that health spending is exceptionally low.

So maybe Russians are just dying from a lack of hope. Here's the conclusion of the article:

Another major clue to the psychological nature of the Russian disease is the fact that the two brief breaks in the downward spiral coincided not with periods of greater prosperity but with periods, for lack of a more data-driven description, of greater hope. The Khrushchev era, with its post-Stalin political liberalization and intensive housing construction, inspired Russians to go on living. The Gorbachev period of glasnost and revival inspired them to have babies as well. The hope might have persisted after the Soviet Union collapsed—for a brief moment it seemed that this was when the truly glorious future would materialize—but the upheaval of the 1990s dashed it so quickly and so decisively that death and birth statistics appear to reflect nothing but despair during that decade.

If this is true—if Russians are dying for lack of hope, as they seem to be—then the question that is still looking for its researcher is, Why haven’t Russians experienced hope in the last quarter century? Or, more precisely in light of the grim continuity of Russian death, What happened to Russians over the course of the Soviet century that has rendered them incapable of hope? In The Origins of Totalitarianism Hannah Arendt argues that totalitarian rule is truly possible only in countries that are large enough to be able to afford depopulation. The Soviet Union proved itself to be just such a country on at least three occasions in the twentieth century—teaching its citizens in the process that their lives are worthless. Is it possible that this knowledge has been passed from generation to generation enough times that most Russians are now born with it and this is why they are born with a Bangladesh-level life expectancy? Is it also possible that other post-Soviet states, by breaking off from Moscow, have reclaimed some of their ability to hope, and this is why even Russia’s closest cultural and geographic cousins, such as Belarus and Ukraine, aren’t dying off as fast? If so, Russia is dying of a broken heart—also known as cardiovascular disease.


Terrific op-ed by my colleague James Brown in today's Guardian, which calls out the Government and Opposition for their inflated, even comic book, rhetoric on ISIS (Tony Abbott's outrage-thesaurus is on display in this video). 

'The pressing question now', writes James, 'is what Australia should do next when Barack Obama determines whether the US should seek to crush, or merely contain Isis'. The world still very much awaits a clear answer from the President on that issue; he only muddied the waters in his remarks yesterday.

James and I discussed these and other issues relating to Australia's involvement in the fight against ISIS in this podcast recorded yesterday. We plan to do these regularly as the situation develops, with occasional guests invited along for the discussion (though promise I will improve the sound quality from my end in future recordings — sorry about that...).


Great piece from Fairfax's US correspondent Nick O'Malley today on those in Washington who are resisting the rush to war in Iraq and Syria, most notably prominent foreign policy realist Stephen Walt, who argues that a large scale US intervention against Islamic State (IS) 'could make the broader regional situation even worse. Even if such a reaction was to work, he says, it would be disproportionate to the threat posed to the US by the IS, which Walt believes is real but limited, and certainly not existential.'

I agree with Walt and I said some broadly similar things last week. This evidently surprised the people at Crikey. In a curious item they posted yesterday which collects the views of various pundits who are sceptical of military action against IS, I am described as a 'usually right-wing commentator' who has 'taken a jump to the Left'.

But of course you don't need to be left-wing to oppose the use of military force. It is true, anti-war conservatism has become marginalised in the US by the neo-conservative faction, but before the 2003 Iraq war, there was a small rump of realist and conservative critics of George W Bush's plans to topple Saddam Hussein, including figures such as Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to George HW Bush.

These are not dewy eyed one-worlders who think peace is around the corner if we can all just learn to get along. They recognise that international politics is fierce and anarchical, and that states need to defend themselves, sometimes with force. But they also insist on a rigorous examination of their country's core interests and are wary of the hubristic tendency to believe that lasting political reform can be imposed by outsiders through force.