Lowy Institute

In Washington, they refer to news stories that only matter to the political class as being 'inside the beltway', a reference to the road which encircles the capital. Maybe we can coin a Canberra variation on the term? How about 'inside the parkway', given that, roughly speaking, Canberra is framed by two north-south arteries, the Tuggeranong Parkway and Majura Parkway.

And if we wanted to define an 'inside the parkway' story, we could do worse than starting with yesterday's events in Senate Estimates, in which DFAT Secretary Frances Adamson got in a muddle over whether the Foreign Minister had commissioned a Foreign Policy White Paper or whether it would be called something else. The press release from Shadow Foreign Minister Penny Wong's office explains the details, and asserts somewhat hyperbolically that the Turnbull Government's foreign policy is 'in chaos'. The news media has largely ignored the story, though it will increase scrutiny on the White Paper process, which looks rather unformed despite the fact that the announcement to write a white paper was made two months ago.

The Interpreter has already carried several pieces on the new white paper (and yes, it will be called that, as Secretary Adamson clarified late yesterday), including one by Peter Layton on why the new document probably won't be a real strategy, another by Hugh White on how DFAT can do it right, and a third from Geoff Kitney: Foreign Affairs White Paper will be a Big Test for a Public Service in Decline''.

For my part, I was fascinated by Minister Julie Bishop's comment when the document was first announced that it would establish a 'philosophical framework to guide Australia's engagement, regardless of international events' (my emphasis).

Fairfax's Dan Flitton has pointed out that previous white papers were outdated almost as soon as they left the print-shop because they were overtaken by events, and Bishop's statement seems to obliquely acknowledge this danger. If we take Bishop's statement at face value, we could see a very different sort of white paper to the documents we are used to, one which stops short of making forecasts about the future (because they are unreliable anyway) but looks instead for perpetual or at least long-lasting factors in the formation of Australia's foreign policy. Geography and demography are two obvious examples — the first is permanent and the second changes only slowly and predictably.

But it is impossible to allocate resources without making some kind of rough bet about what the future will look like, and if this document is to be of any use it will have to make some decisions about our priorities; after all, if everything is important, then nothing is.

So if the white paper team does focus its energy on divining the future of our region and the globe, I hope it doesn't only seek advice from the intelligence, think tank, and academic worlds. Prediction markets are one other possible source, but there is also crowd-sourcing, and Professor Philip Tetlock from the University of Pennsylvania has led an intensive study in cooperation with the US intelligence community on improving the techniques of forecasting. See the video above for a taste of Tetlock's work.


US presidential race 2016

Rolling Stone's Matt Taibi penned an essay a week ago about the Trump phenomenon, which builds to a stirring close:

Trump's shocking rise and spectacular fall have been a singular disaster for U.S. politics. Built up in the press as the American Hitler, he was unmasked in the end as a pathetic little prankster who ruined himself, his family and half of America's two-party political system for what was probably a half-assed ego trip all along, adventure tourism for the idiot rich.

That such a small man would have such an awesome impact on our nation's history is terrible, but it makes sense if you believe in the essential ridiculousness of the human experience. Trump picked exactly the wrong time to launch his mirror-gazing rampage to nowhere. He ran at a time when Americans on both sides of the aisle were experiencing a deep sense of betrayal by the political class, anger that was finally ready to express itself at the ballot box.

The only thing that could get in the way of real change – if not now, then surely very soon – was a rebellion so maladroit, ill-conceived and irresponsible that even the severest critics of the system would become zealots for the status quo.

In the absolute best-case scenario, the one in which he loses, this is what Trump's run accomplished. He ran as an outsider antidote to a corrupt two-party system, and instead will leave that system more entrenched than ever. If he goes on to lose, he will be our Bonaparte, the monster who will continue to terrify us even in exile, reinforcing the authority of kings.

If you thought lesser-evilism was bad before, wait until the answer to every question you might have about your political leaders becomes, "Would you rather have Trump in office?"

Trump can't win. Our national experiment can't end because one aging narcissist got bored of sex and food. Not even America deserves that. But that doesn't mean we come out ahead. We're more divided than ever, sicker than ever, dumber than ever. And there's no reason to think it won't be worse the next time.

If you want to read more about 'Trump's people', for weeks now I've been recommending to friends this interview by Rod Dreher in The American Conservative with JD Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis

RD: A friend who moved to West Virginia a couple of years ago tells me that she’s never seen poverty and hopelessness like what’s common there. And she says you can drive through the poorest parts of the state, and see nothing but TRUMP signs. Reading “Hillbilly Elegy” tells me why. Explain it to people who haven’t yet read your book. 

J.D. VANCE: The simple answer is that these people–my people–are really struggling, and there hasn’t been a single political candidate who speaks to those struggles in a long time.  Donald Trump at least tries.

What many don’t understand is how truly desperate these places are, and we’re not talking about small enclaves or a few towns–we’re talking about multiple states where a significant chunk of the white working class struggles to get by.  Heroin addiction is rampant.  In my medium-sized Ohio county last year, deaths from drug addiction outnumbered deaths from natural causes.  The average kid will live in multiple homes over the course of her life, experience a constant cycle of growing close to a “stepdad” only to see him walk out on the family, know multiple drug users personally, maybe live in a foster home for a bit (or at least in the home of an unofficial foster like an aunt or grandparent), watch friends and family get arrested, and on and on.  And on top of that is the economic struggle, from the factories shuttering their doors to the Main Streets with nothing but cash-for-gold stores and pawn shops.


Next Wednesday we begin a new phase in the life of The Interpreter, which is now nine years old. We've only had one previous redesign in that period, so we figured we were due for a new look.

Over those nine years The Interpreter has matured from a group blog to a true digital magazine. Granted, those categories are flexible and hard to pin down, but The Interpreter began as a true blog, built to host the quick takes of the Lowy Institute's in-house experts. And of course it was designed from the outset with that signature reverse-chronological layout of a blog.

The site soon began to also host the views of experts and commentators from outside the Institute, and then took on many other attributes we associate with a magazine: it always had a full-time editor, but the staff has grown modestly over the years, we commission writers, run regular special features, hold daily editorial meetings, and maintain a thorough editorial process for submissions.

Through it all we have maintained the familiar reverse-chronological format of a blog, but that is about to change. We think The Interpreter is Australia’s leading magazine for daily commentary and analysis of world events, and our new look reflects this evolution. The Interpreter will have a true front page where we can highlight our best and most important articles of the day.

You will also see a striking new design for the Lowy Institute website, and improved integration between the two sites.

Next Wednesday, after the launch, you may notice that the URL for The Interpreter will change. But if you have the current site bookmarked, you will be redirected automatically.


The Interpreter took a day off on Monday but last Saturday we published a piece by new Shadow Foreign Minister Penny Wong, her first public comments about the US alliance:

It is in the US's best interests for Australia's voice to be an independent one, and for our perspective on the region to be unique. The US is better served in this region by an independent and confident Australia. This is why, for modern Labor, the US alliance is one of the three pillars of our foreign policy, along with strong relationships in our region and multilateral engagement with the world. However, being in an alliance does not mean Australia must agree reflexively with every aspect of American policy or make its foreign policy subservient to that of our partner.

Brendan Thomas-Noone wrote on the worrying trajectory of tactical nuclear weapons development:

The proliferation of these systems and their potential impact on strategic stability has not been fully considered. One way these capabilities could upset stability is by blurring the distinction between conventional and nuclear use. Another is the prospect that 'decapitation strikes', a source of Soviet anxiety during the Cold War, could become more feasible. Indeed, there are some indications that nuclear-capable, submarine-borne cruise missiles are playing a role in nuclear dynamics between Russia and the US in a similar way.

The ANU's Ian Parmeter wrote on deteriorating US-Russia relations over the war in Syria:

...the reality is that Russia has the US in a bind over Syria. President Obama’s refusal to become militarily involved in the civil war had left a vacuum that Russia filled with its intervention in September last year. Russia, not the US, now sets the rules for negotiations on Syria. The Catch 22 for the US is that having ruled out the military option, it has no choice but to continue with diplomacy. To abandon diplomacy would subject the US to withering international criticism for doing nothing over the humanitarian crisis in Aleppo.

Stephen Grenville said American anti-globalisation sentiment is misplaced:

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If Trump’s main appeal is to blue-collar workers, let’s look more closely at the experience in their core industry: manufacturing. Adaptation and change have been the norm in manufacturing. Contrary to general perceptions, manufacturing output continued to grow strongly following what another one-time presidential candidate,  Ross Perot, described as the ‘great sucking sound’ of NAFTA in 1994.  Even when China’s entry into the World Trade Organisation in 2001 opened up the US market, US manufacturing output continued to expand.

The shock of intense competition from China, however, bought a change in manufacturing employment.  After plateauing between 1980 and 2000, employment fell sharply.  China was not the only reason: the ‘tech-wreck’ recession of 2001 and the Great Recession of 2008 also brought sharp cut-backs in manufacturing employment. But the competition from China provoked a burst of innovation which transformed manufacturing, shifting labour-intensive processes offshore, splitting production through the use of offshore supply chains, and computerising the processes that remained onshore. Output has now reached record levels, but it is produced by far fewer people.

Could Joe Stiglitz be part of another Clinton Administration? Emma Connors:

Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair thinks Joseph Stiglitz, the outspoken economist, Nobel Laureate, and one-time chairman of President Bill Clinton's Council of Advisors, has the ear of Hillary Clinton, as discussed in this fascinating interview with Politico's Glenn Thrush, (you can listen to the podcast or read the transcript).  Blair says: 'Hillary Clinton has become very close to Joseph Stiglitz, who is one of the individuals, kind of an avatar of that movement, and she has clearly been moved to the left by Bernie Sanders.'

Rodger Shanahan this week had twin posts on the Syria morass. The first ('Syria: What are we going to do now?') focused on those who want the US to 'do something', and why their arguments don't stack up. The companion piece was all about calls to (a) punish Assad for Aleppo and (2) save the civilians of Aleppo. Shanahan said the US cannot do both:

The Assad regime and its supporters have encircled Aleppo with little prospect of the siege being broken. They seek to attrit the armed elements which are fighting among the civilian population. Even if the regime and Russian forces took all care to minimise civilian casualties (which they don't), innocents would still die. Assad is likely to take Aleppo and it is simply a matter of how many civilians will die before it is done.

Rather than call for military intervention to attempt the rather quixotic task of stopping Russian, Iranian and Syrian forces attacking Aleppo, a more likely path to limiting civilian deaths would be to pressure armed groups to leave Aleppo and to provide a UN presence on the ground to ensure that fighters are given safe passage out of the city.

There's a lot to learn from Vietnam's experience of living with a powerful China, says Euan Graham:

Beyond the deterrent value of raising costs for China in a military sense, Vietnam understands the complex interplay between diplomacy and military power. This includes psychological aspects, above all the capacity for independent action that is embodied in a national defence capability maintained at high readiness. Vietnam's defence inventory includes Israeli-made radars, Russian S-300 surface-to-air missiles, Su-27 and Su-30MK2 strike aircraft and Kilo submarines equipped with land-attack cruise missiles. This resembles a thrifty but still potent version of China's own 'anti-access' and sea denial dispositions vis-à-vis the US.

Hanoi further avoids the flip-flop mentality by maintaining depth to its international relations, averting dependence on a single ally, and ensuring that alternatives are available when a comprehensive strategic partner like Russia proves unreliable.

Kevin Rudd's bid to lead the UN ended this week, an occasion marked by pieces from Sarah Frankel ('Rudd's latest manoeuvre in the race to lead the UN') and Peter Nadin:

Kevin Rudd will certainly be in the mix for a 'cabinet' post after his work as chair of the Independent Commission on Multilateralism. The question is what position? Would Rudd, a former head of government, be satisfied with a minor role? Traditionally, the prominent posts are divided among the big powers: France has peacekeeping (DPKO); the UK has humanitarian affairs (OHCA); and the US has political affairs (DPA).

Voter turnout will be vital for Trump, wrote Christine Gallagher:

People are optimistic that Trump will deliver on jobs and the economy. A man from upstate New York told me workplace issues are key for people he knows who have taken financial blows in the past decade and who are either out of work or unable to retire. An increase in white, working class voters has the potential to swing the election Trump’s way, particularly in contested Rust Belt states such as Ohio.

While Trump may increase the white, working class Republican vote, Clinton may struggle to retain Obama’s youth and non-white votes. The election of the first female president of the United States would clearly be an historic landmark, yet this barely featured in my discussions, which suggests age and race are more important than gender in this election.

Greg Earl's regular round-up of economic diplomacy included this anecdote:

...now one of the key advocates for a rewrite and the powerful US Senate finance committee chairman Orrin Hatch has a solution with a sting in the tail for Australia. He says there is a simple way to get the 12-year intellectual property protection for biologic drugs in the TPP that the US pharmaceutical industry wants, but which Australia has limited to eight years. 'There are countries that would renegotiate the deal if the Administration were to get on the ball and work on it,' Hatch told Politico. 'Australia may not be one of them, but I said: 'Tell Australia we'll deal with them later. They don't have to be part of TPP.'

Zubaidah Nazeer on the battle for the Jakarta governorship:

The contest illustrates that Indonesia's democracy is, to a large extent, a fight between emerging leaders with strong public support such as Widodo and Purnama and old war horses trying to maintain their influence.

Protectionism is the spectre over this weekend's IMF-World Bank meetings in Washington:

But there is a 'new' aspect to this year's annual meetings, and that is the increased emphasis on avoiding policies that will impair growth. The IMF normally focuses on what needs to be done to lift growth rather than on what needs to be avoided. Yet in her warm-up speech for this year's meetings, the first point Lagarde made was that ministers should follow the advice given to first-year medical students and above all 'do no harm'. As to what would do harm, Lagarde said that the rise of protectionism was a 'clear case of economic malpractice' that would destroy a clear driver of growth.

These concerns reflect Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump, who has pledged to impose punitive tariffs on imports from Mexico and China. The implications of a Trump presidency will no doubt be a key talking point in Washington, even if this is not explicitly acknowledged in the formal communiques. But there are rising protectionist pressures in many countries. Ministers attending the IMF/World Bank meetings may not be able to influence the views of Trump and his supporters, but they could share a common resolve to avoid the spread of 'economic malpractice'. If this was achieved, something significant would come from this year's meetings.

Now that Iran is free of many sanctions, how is its international trading position faring? Dina Esfandiary:

On implementation day of the landmark 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a number of multilateral and unilateral sanctions on Iran were lifted, including all EU measures in a number of sectors like banking and finance, insurance and shipping. Suddenly Iran became a potential gold-mine: an untapped and diversified market, the second largest economy in the Middle East, a young and educated population, and a country with the fourth-biggest oil reserves and the second-biggest gas reserves in the world.

With these changes came great foreign interest. Sixteen trade delegations visited Iran in the first three months after implementation day last year and the number of visiting trade delegations increased by 237% over one year. Between January and mid-March 2016, Iran struck an estimated $50 billion in deals with firms from Italy, Japan, South Korea, Russia, and Germany.

But turning them into deliverable contracts has been difficult.


Readers, Monday is the Labour Day public holiday here in Australia, so normal publication resumes on Tuesday. But look out for our usual weekly wrap tomorrow morning, and then at noon, a special Saturday article by the Shadow Foreign Minister, Senator Penny Wong, in what will be her first published article on the US alliance. 

Photo by Flickr user Sigita Manite.


Earlier this week tech entrepreneur Elon Musk announced his company SpaceX's vision for human colonisation of Mars. Musk has been treated as something of a visionary in recent years for his leadership of the electric car company Tesla, but the company's planned takeover of SolarCity has been badly received, Tesla continually fails to meet its production targets, and SpaceX had a truly spectacular launch failure recently. So it's fair to say some of the shine has gone off Elon Musk this year, and the social media reaction to his Mars announcement was rather sceptical. But here's a balanced take from ArsTechnica:

...the company has proposed building breathtaking space machines orders of magnitude greater than NASA or anyone else has ever constructed. These are truly audacious space-faring vessels, designed to go where no one has gone before. They are almost unbelievable. Understandably, one might dismiss Elon Musk as a crank, a once-promising visionary slowly degenerating into a Howard Hughes-like madness. A million people on cold, dead Mars? Humans haven’t even been to the Moon, which is right next door to Earth, in nearly half a century. However, SpaceX has made some demonstrable technical progress.

And there's this:

Tuesday’s speech marked only the opening salvo in Musk’s evangelism about the colonization of Mars. His search for a deep-pocketed backer now begins in earnest. For him, personally, and his company, this represents a huge gamble. By putting his entire vision out for the world to see, Musk has emboldened his doubters. Opponents will use details to undermine him. Certainly, they will mock his concept of using a booster with 42 engines...Musk's greatest attribute in an era of space timidity and a stagnated launch industry is probably this: he was never afraid to fail. In what may be his most revealing comment of all on Tuesday, he said, “I just kind of felt that if there wasn’t some new entrant into the space arena with a strong ideological motivation, then it didn’t seem like we were on a trajectory to ever be a spacefaring nation, and be out among the stars.”

Musk decided fourteen years ago to see if he could do something about that. On Tuesday, he finally let it all hang out. This audacious plan might be madness, or brilliance—or both.


It was announced earlier this month that Apprentice (note: no definite article, so no Trump) will be Singapore's entry to next year's Academy Awards:

In my occasional visits to Singapore over the last decade, my observation is that while the country remains politically closed, it has liberalised a lot culturally, an impression reinforced by the trailer for this film, which seems to take a confronting look at Singapore's harsh capital punishment laws.


It is rarely acknowledged that the list of Australian journalists working on China in recent times is pretty stellar. Just off the top of my head I can think of Jane Perlez (New York Times), John Garnaut (formerly Fairfax), Stephen McDonell (BBC), Chris Buckley (New York Times) and of course Richard McGregor, former China bureau chief for the Financial Times and author of the widely praised ‘The Party: The Secret Life of China’s Communist Rulers’. (Sorry if I’ve left any worthy names out; please let me know in the comments.)

I was proud to introduce Richard last night at a Lowy Institute event at the National Press Club in Canberra, and afterwards we talked about the big theme of his speech, which was Xi Jinping. In this podcast Richard talks about Xi’s record as China’s leader, his reputation both at home and abroad, and how much control he really exercises over foreign policy decision-making.

Apologies for the below-standard audio, but it is definitely listenable.

US presidential race 2016

The first thing to note is that, despite the avalanche of media coverage and articles such as this one, presidential debates may not matter very much. At the very least, the evidence is mixed. The second thing is that what the candidates say is probably secondary to how they look, and how they react in an unscripted way. As James Fallows points out, one reliable way to pick tonight's winner might be to hit the 'mute' button.

That said, some initial thoughts which I jotted down as I watched:

  • If in fact this debate really is being decided on visuals and the 'human moments' rather than policy substance, then on the first 30 minutes in particular, Clinton wins. Trump was incredibly rude; constantly interrupting, talking over his opponent, and pointing at her aggressively.
  • According to Trump, America is being fleeced by other countries, but his framing is fascinating. He praises the 'opposition': China is the 'best'; Mexico has a smart tax system; America is being ripped off by every country in the world; other countries have incredible airports. Trump is telling Americans that they are being overtaken, and that America may not be as exceptional as it thinks. That's kind of extraordinary, but certainly reflects the historical moment.
  • Incredible: Trump says America has spent $6 trillion in the Middle East when it could have been spending on infrastructure at home. Not long ago, you would have been hounded out of the Republican Party with pitchforks for a sentiment like that. Now the GOP's nominee says it. The Republican Party is being transformed before our eyes.
  • Clinton got into a slanging match over NAFTA, which was weak territory for her and strong for Trump. But Trump spent much of this period badgering Clinton, which looked really unattractive.
  • Let's not blind ourselves to how extraordinary Trump is; how many 'rules' (norms, really) he has broken in US presidential politics. Tonight he directly talks down the US economy, saying that the economy is in a bubble and that the Fed is being more political than Clinton. Unprecedented.
  • Clinton jabbed early by saying Trump was born with a silver spoon. Trump took up the point but in a fairly reserved way. Later Clinton launches her strongest attack, on Trump's refusal to release his tax returns (again, unprecedented) and his record as a businessman. A lot of pre-debate commentary suggested Trump could be baited into self-destructive counter-attacks, and Clinton has tried. But it has to be said this tactic failed.
  • On race relations, Clinton casts herself as the optimist against Trump's vision of lawless inner cities. Optimism is usually a winning strategy for US presidential candidates, but then again, these are not normal times.
  • Clinton pivots to Trump's right on the question of cyber-security, arguing that America needs to be more assertive and more capable. Trump is too close to Russia, she says, and incredibly...Trump defends the Russians! He says it might not have been Moscow which hacked the DNC. Why didn't Clinton point this out in her response?
  • On national security and counter-terrorism, Clinton sounds too much like the type of foreign-policy establishment figure against whom Americans are clearly rebelling. She praises NATO and implies that she wants more surveillance, and at the end of the debate she sends a message to America's allies that it will continue its historical world role. It seems out of touch with the times. By contrast, Trump doubles down on his 'heresy' that America's allies don't pay their way, and says America cannot be the policeman of the world.
  • 'Wooh, OK'. That's Clinton's smiling and ever-so slightly condescending put-down in reaction to Trump's spray about his winning temperament and Clinton being 'out of control'. That's going to become a meme.
  • On nuclear weapons, Trump says 'We should certainly not do first strike'. Did Trump just announce a no-first use policy?
  • Clinton's late attack on Trump's sexism was strong, and Trump's riposte incredibly weak.

 Photo: Getty Images/Joe Raedle


This is a new series which has just started airing in the US and is available on Netflix here in Australia.

It's a compelling premise for a series, and the reviews are generally positive.

(H/t JG.)


Arguably the most important fact about contemporary Australian foreign policy is that, for the first time in our history, Australia's major trading partner is a peer competitor of our major ally. Previously the UK, then the US and in more recent times Japan were not only our chief foreign economic partners, but also closely aligned to Australia on questions of defence and security. Today, our major trading partner, China, has strategic interests that are, at best, in tension with those of the US, Japan and Australia, if not outright inimical to them.

Since The Interpreter began in 2007, China's rise has been the single most prominent theme on this site. And within that larger story, The Interpreter has also charted the debate about how Australia should conduct its relations with China. We are proud to have encouraged a diverse debate among some of our most eminent and prominent scholars, policy-makers and commentators, helping to make The Interpreter an integral part of Australia's foreign policy conversation.

In earlier years, that conversation was confined to policy elites, but in recent months we have seen it hit the mainstream, thanks to stories such as the Ausgrid decision and the Dastyari case. With the Australia-China relationship now so prominent in the national political debate, we thought this was the perfect moment to look back on nine years of Interpreter coverage of this key issue.

Click on this link to see a list of the many posts on this issue on The Interpreter. You can also page through all the posts here.


This film, about the impact of contraband American VHS tapes on communist-era Romania, was released last year. The version below, available free on Vimeo and YouTube, runs to 55-odd minutes, but IMDB lists the film as having a running time of 78 minutes, so this may not be the whole thing, but it is a pretty good taste:

From the film's website, here's a synopsis:

In 1980s Romania, thousands of Western films smashed through the Iron Curtain opening a window into the free world for those who dared to look. A black-market VHS racketeer and a courageous female translator brought the magic of film to the people and sparked a revolution.


This is a trailer for a documentary about the fear of terrorism and the militarisation of the US police. There's a memorable shot near the end which seems to tell the whole story: a heavily armoured ex-military vehicle designed for counter-insurgency operations in Iraq drives down a suburban US street, with the house in the foreground featuring a children's playground and the iconic white picket fence.

Do Not Resist was named best documentary at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival.

(H/t Slashfilm.)


After the Australian election, I flirted with the notion of a worldwide trend away from globalisation, but on further reflection I am reluctant to embrace fully any grand theory about global political trends.

First, the notion that Trump, Brexit, the EU crisis and even Australia's near miss with a hung parliament all represent evidence of a single global narrative strikes me as flirting with the Orwell Temptation, the tendency among intellectuals to inflate the significance of contemporary events in order to make themselves feel more important.

Then there is the 'parochialism of the present' — the tendency to believe we are living through uniquely important times. We might, but equally we might be ascribing too  much significance to events just because we happen to be living through them.

Moreover, we shouldn't forget the many local factors at play. It goes without saying that Trump's victory in the GOP primaries was a historical outlier, and a great many small things had to go right for Trump to win. If the dice hadn't rolled just the right way on any one of them, we wouldn't be discussing global trends against liberalism and internationalism.

Still, if you are interested in grand, overarching theories on the state of world politics, this long essay in Slate on the week democracy died is a good example:

There are years, decades even, in which history slows to a crawl. Then there are weeks that are so eventful that they seem to mark the dissolution of a world order that had once seemed solid and to foretell the rise of one as yet unknowable.

The week of July 11, 2016, has every chance of being remembered as one of those rare flurries of jumbled, inchoate, concentrated significance. The centrifugal forces that are threatening to break political systems across the world may have started to register a decade ago; they may have picked up speed over the last 12 months; but never since the fall of the Berlin Wall have they wreaked havoc in so many places in so short a span of time—showcasing the failures of technocratic rule, the terrifying rise of populist strongmen, and the existential threat posed by Islamist terrorism, all in the span of seven short days.

At first glance, a political crisis in London; a terrorist attack in Nice, France; a failed putsch in Ankara, Turkey; and a bloviating orator on his way to becoming the Republican nominee for the presidency of the United States look like the dramatic apex of very different, barely connected screenplays. To my eye, they are garish panes of glass that add up to one unified, striking mosaic. Looked at from the right distance, they tell the story of a political system, liberal democracy, that has long dominated the world—and is now in the midst of an epic struggle for its own survival.

Photo: Getty Images/The Washington Post


New ABC Managing Director Michelle Guthrie gave a thoughtful speech at the Lowy Institute Media Award dinner last night (read the whole thing here). The Australian's coverage of the speech focused on Guthrie's remarks about the ABC's profile overseas, saying she had 'outlined plans to renew an international expansion into overseas markets like China as part of a “soft power push” to influence Australia’s standing on the world stage.'

As was appropriate on a night honouring Australian foreign correspondents (congratulations to this year's winner, Fairfax Indonesia correspondent Jewel Topsfield, as well as to the shortlisted Amanda Hodge, Nick McKenzie, Richard Baker, Michael Bachelard, Daniel Quinlan, Eric Tlozek, and Philip Wen), Guthrie also talked about the ABC's commitment to reporting world events:

It is far too easy to claim, as some have done, that the instant access to a world of information makes obsolete the need for the ABC to invest in its own coverage and to devote the time, energy and money to explain complex global events. Yes, it is possible to go straight to the New York Times website for the latest Donald Trump outrage or to London’s Financial Times for the next Brexit development.

However, context and relevance are important. What the ABC does through its investment in programs like Q&A and its international reporting infrastructure, is provide Australians with a continuous rich flow of information and analysis, explaining the relevance of events and issues. It can link continents and through its array of programs, delve deep into policy. Hopefully, this contributes to a far more informed domestic debate about security, defence and other matters.

Guthrie's acknowledgment that news consumers have a vast array of options when they want to learn about world events is important, because it cuts against the common narrative (also acknowledged by Guthrie in this speech) that coverage of overseas events by Australia's commercial media outlets is declining. It is clearly true that commercial media outlets are reducing their overseas footprints, yet it is far from clear that news consumers have suffered as a result. In fact, the internet has vastly improved the options open to those of us who follow world news.

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Which raises the question: what unique role can Australian foreign correspondents fill in this environment? Guthrie's answer is that Australian correspondents can bring 'context and relevance' for an Australian audience. The ABC's foreign correspondents, she says, 'provide Australians with a continuous rich flow of information and analysis, explaining the relevance of events and issues'.

If I understand Guthrie correctly, she is saying that coverage of overseas events created specifically for an Australian audience will better speak to the concerns and priorities of Australians. That sounds right to me, yet it raises some important questions, which are illustrated by the examples Guthrie cites.

Trump and Brexit are both huge international stories with any number of shared, global implications that transcend a specifically Australian reading. So do Australian audiences need those angles to be covered by Australian reporters, or can they rely on the significantly greater resources of foreign outlets?

Should the scarce foreign-reporting resources of the Australian media be used to cover big international events in the same thematic way that far larger organisations do, but on a smaller scale? Or should they instead focus on niche stories that are directly relevant to Australia? In the case of Trump, for instance, should ABC reporters cover his views on American gun rights, or should they focus more on what he says about the Trans-Pacific Partnership?

I don't have firm answers to these questions. From a Lowy Institute perch, it is easy to say there should be more focus on our region, and it is easy to bemoan the lack of policy substance in the news media. But the ABC does more than anybody in Australia to cover Asia and to add that policy substance. And we policy wonks also need to acknowledge that journalism is about news — which is to say, it will always focus on breaking events. That agenda will not always align with what us policy purists consider 'important'.