Lowy Institute

If you haven't caught up with Robert Kelly's piece on North Korea's shelling across its maritime border with South Korea, do so now.

Kelly's essay argues that most media analysis of these provocations may miss the point about the nature of the North Korean regime, which needs continued tension to survive. His point about Pyongyang using these shows of force as a form of signaling also struck a chord: 'North Korea lacks a serious diplomatic corps. It lacks formal diplomatic recognition with many important states, particularly South Korea, the US, and Japan, its major proximate adversaries. This may then be a way for the North to "talk" with the outside world.'

It reminded me of a scene from the Cuban missile crisis film, Thirteen Days. I think I have shown this clip before, but it's such a good film that it deserves another airing (and what do you know? The entire movie is available on Youtube):


A new article in Slate says 'probably not':

According to (British sociologist and international joke expert Christie) Davies, among all the factors that led to the Soviet Union’s spectacular collapse, joking didn’t even crack the top 20. At best, he thinks the explosion of Soviet jokes was an indication of a rising political discontent already underway among the populace, not the spark that started the fire. Or as he puts it, “Jokes are a thermometer, not a thermostat.”

Some scholars go further, arguing that not only is comedy incapable of launching revolutions, but it might even have prevented a few from happening. According to this line of thinking, joking among the discontent masses might act as a release, allowing folks to let off steam, instead of rising up in rebellion.

The late great Harold Ramis agreed. Some extracts from a 2006 interview:

Somebody once told me that if you laugh at a George Bush joke, or you send an email cartoon to your friends that makes Bush look like a fool, you feel like you’ve done something significant. “I did my part, I let people know how much I hate George Bush.” But really, what have you actually done? Just expressing contempt for your leaders doesn’t really accomplish anything...

...There were a lot of political films coming out of Europe during the late ’60s. Movies like Costa-Gavras’s Z and stuff like that. I used to go see all of them, and I realized that my righteous indignation was a form of entertainment for me. I loved getting pissed off at injustice. I didn’t do anything about it, I just liked the feeling of being pissed off...

...Usually, satire is intended for the people who agree with you. Did [Michael Moore’s] Fahrenheit 9/11 convert a single person? I doubt it. He’s just a cheerleader for the already liberal crowd.

(BTW, I included the clip above of Bill Murray's speech from Stripes because I read somewhere that although Ramis, who wrote the screenplay, didn't want to make an explicitly anti-Vietnam movie, he did want to sneak in some commentary. Hence Murray's reference to 'ten and one'. )


The war in Afghanistan has certainly been a rich source of inspiration for film-makers. This synopsis of The Hornet's Nest, due out in May, is from the official website:

The Hornet's Nest is a groundbreaking and immersive feature film, using unprecedented real footage to tell the story of an elite group of U.S. troops sent on a dangerous mission deep inside one of Afghanistan’s most hostile valleys. The film culminates with what was planned as a single day strike turning into nine intense days of harrowing combat against an invisible, hostile enemy in the country’s complex terrain where no foreign troops have ever dared to go before. Two embedded journalists, a father and son, bravely followed the troops through the fiercest and most blood-soaked battlegrounds of the conflict. What resulted is an intensely raw feature film experience that will give audiences a deeply emotional and authentic view of the heroism at the center of this gripping story.

(H/t Slashfilm.)


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

We've had some great Pacific coverage on The Interpreter lately, so let's start there. This week Lowy Institute Nonresident Fellow Tess Newton Cain sorted the 'knowns' from the 'unknowns' following Prime Minister Tony Abbott's visit to PNG:

We know that PNG has confirmed its commitment to resettle some of the asylum seekers now detained on Manus island if and when they are determined to be genuine refugees. PM O'Neill has advised that there are communities within his country which have indicated that they are willing and able to accommodate such people, but he has yet to advise which communities, and on what basis such accommodation might be effected.

We also know that both O'Neill and Abbott believe other Pacific countries should do their 'share' in resettling refugees. The Australian Government has indicated that it is in discussions with likely candidates but has not revealed who they are. Previously, both Vanuatu and Solomon Islands have declined invitations to that particular party.

We know that both O'Neill and Abbott believe the majority of asylum seekers currently detained are economic migrants and will be repatriated. We do not know what the basis for this belief is. And we know that the government of PNG has moved to put a stop to an inquiry into the Manus island processing centre by Justice David Cannings, but it is unclear to what extent the Australian Government may have influenced that decision.

There is no doubt this visit was significant. We can expect its ramifications to be many and varied. We can hope, as the various new initiatives are realised, that they will be positive for the relationship between Australia, PNG and the wider region.

We carried powerful pieces from on-the-ground observers this week, the first from Susanne Schmeidl in Kabul:

When the Taliban first swept into Afghanistan in 1996 it had a reason: to liberate the Afghan people from the terror of mujahideen rule. But where does the terror come from now? When one speaks to ordinary Afghans, both in rural and urban areas, the main terror now comes from the Taliban (and of course some also from the Afghan government and international military, which I've written about in the past). It rules by fear and not support, and it seems to no longer care about the very constituency it claims to defend – the Afghan people.

This also became apparent in some recent research in which I took part: many communities in Afghanistan are starting to question whether the Taliban is still an Islamic movement or a defender of Islam. After all, it kills those accused of spying without a trial (Sharia forbids this), denies funerals to members of Afghan National Security Forces (every Muslim has the right to a funeral) and kills and beats up mullahs who do their job, such as hold funerals for ANSF members.

And Lisa Main in the Middle East, who had observed the trail of Peter Greste up close

Greste, who was arrested along with two Al Jazeera colleagues on 29 December, is caught up in Egypt's crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, a trend that's gaining momentum in the Gulf states and in particular Saudi Arabia. As Qatar's neighbours move against it and its television network Al Jazeera, Peter Greste's predicament could become a little more complicated.

Proceedings inside Cairo's Tora prison are farcical. During the previous hearing earlier this month, I watched Peter cling to his cage in the dock, unable to follow the proceedings. For a second time the court did not provide a translator, despite requests.

As the judge fumbled through the evidence, three of Qatar's neighbours were making diplomatic moves to isolate the emirate. As I left the courtroom I started to hear reports that Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain were recalling their ambassadors from Qatar. It was an unprecedented public split between the Gulf monarchies, which usually manage their disagreements firmly behind closed doors.

Our Indonesia analysis continues in the lead-up to national elections. This week Catriona Croft-Cusworth looked at what a Jokowi presidency might mean for Australia-Indonesia relations:

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President Jokowi would inherit a difficult state of affairs. Canberra is still without an Indonesian Ambassador since Nadjib Riphat Kesoema was withdrawn over the spying row last November. Then there is the matter of Operation Sovereign Borders, which aims to fortify Australia's borders but pays little respect to Indonesia's. Australia has not taken heed of Indonesian requests for an end to the operation that has led to incursions into Indonesian territory.

The combined impact of these disagreements has resulted in a freeze in Australia-Indonesia relations, predicted to last until October when a new president is sworn in. Assuming that Jokowi will be the one taking the oath for his country, how will he handle the rocky relationship?

Jokowi's domestic appeal in Indonesia is that he doesn't put on the airs of the elite. At the same time, this grassroots image has promoted the view that Jokowi is not 'worldly' enough to hold his own in international forums, with rumours suggesting that he lacks fluency in English. In what was certainly a move to dispel these perceptions, Jokowi late last year led the first meeting of the governors and mayors of ASEAN capitals, and what's more, he addressed the delegates in English.

Jokowi shared his experiences as mayor of Solo and governor of Jakarta, roles in which he has shown a preference for using dialogue as a problem-solving technique rather than issuing top-down commands. If this approach is translated onto the international stage, it will make Indonesia an approachable neighbour for Australia.

Here's Catriona again,  discussing the power of money in Indonesia's democracy:

With corruption scandals constantly in the headlines, it's no wonder money is often assumed to be the winner in Indonesian politics. Newspapers and citizens alike decry the tactics of 'money politics' and the ill effect on Indonesia's democracy. Corruption is a very real problem in Indonesian political life. But when it comes to voting day, money is not always the winner at the ballot box.

The best-known example is the victory of Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo in the 2012 Jakarta gubernatorial election. On a reported campaign budget of Rp 16.1 billion ($1.6 million), Jokowi took 42.6% of the vote in the first round. Incumbent Fauzi Bowo's Rp 62.5 billion attempt to retain the governorship saw him receive only 34.05% of the first round vote.

A lesser known victory for low-budget campaigning in the Jakarta election was independent candidate Faisal Basri, who took fourth place in the ballot but still managed to beat Alex Noerdin of Golkar, the party of former president Suharto and one of the longest established parties in Indonesia. Faisal's team reportedly spent only Rp 5.1 billion on campaigning and came away with 4.98% of the first round vote, while Golkar injected a reported Rp 24.6 billion and received 4.67%.

These victories suggest another power at play besides financial capital: social capital.

Jokowi and Faisal invested less in big budget advertising and vote buying techniques, and more in interactive social media and face-to-face engagement with voters. Their investments in forging links with the people paid off on voting day and beyond, with Jokowi's campaign proving successful enough to propel him (almost two years later) to the top of popular polls for the presidency.

Melissa Conley-Tyler marked Julie Bishop's half-year anniversary as foreign minister with an exhaustive study of her speeches:

The most noticeable theme in the speeches is placing 'economic diplomacy' at the heart of Australia's foreign statecraft. Putting economic diplomacy first means using international assets to promote Australia's economic prosperity, focusing on economic reform and trade liberalisation, supporting open trade, pursuing an ambitious free trade agenda, supporting a vibrant business sector at home and abroad, and working for closer ties to Asia. In her words: 'Just as traditional diplomacy aims for peace, so economic diplomacy aims for prosperity' – not just as an end in itself but also as a vital support for peace in the region and for global peace and security.

This week Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced he will introduce the titles of 'knights' and 'dames' under the Order of Australia. The BBC's New York and UN correspondent (and regular Interpreter contributor) Nick Bryant argued that 'the long and anguished process of detaching Australia from Britain...has seemingly been put into reverse':

His intention is to celebrate Australians, of course, but he has done so by reviving a colonial relic, and bestowing what feels still like a distinctively British honour.

In some ways, the surprise move is reminiscent of Robert Menzies' audacious attempt in the 1960s to rename the Australian pound the Australian royal, a gambit met with scepticism and mockery even then. The difference this time is that, for all the jokes and guffaws, the writ of the prime minister will hold sway.

The question germane to readers of The Interpreter is 'Does this matter in the international sphere? Is it a gesture of diplomatic significance?' 

Given how few gongs will be bestowed – only four per year – an argument could be mounted that this is trivial. Nobody outside of Australia will probably even notice.

But notice they have already. Even as attention focused near myopically on the search for the missing MH370, the international media has been unable to resist the temptation to lunge at such low-hanging fruit. Globally, it has made Australia in the Asian Century look more like Australia in the British Century. It reinforces the sense that the one-time executive director of the Australians for Constitutional Monarchy views his country through sepia-tinted spectacles, and prefers the world as it was rather than as is.

Former Director General of the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office John Carlson wrote on the announcement that Japan would transfer much of its plutonium and highly enriched uranium to the US:

This agreement is a major achievement for both nuclear security and non-proliferation. It will remove weapons grade material from a civil site in Japan and bring it under military-standard security in the US while it is disposed of. At the same time, the agreement decisively addresses any suspicions that the material is being retained for a nuclear weapons option. China recently expressed concern about Japan continuing to hold this material, which is sufficient to produce some 60 nuclear weapons.

Japan is to be commended for acting to eliminate this weapons grade material. However, Japan still has significant quantities of weapons grade plutonium contained in 'blanket' assemblies from its fast breeder reactor program. Japan has said this material will be reprocessed in such a way as to dilute the plutonium with lesser quality ('reactor grade') plutonium.

Other countries will take a close interest in how this material is dealt with. A similar issue arises with India, which plans to use fast breeder reactors to produce weapons grade plutonium for use in other reactors. Separation and handling of weapons grade plutonium raises regional tensions and also presents a serious terrorist risk.

 Our debate on a 'larger Australia' continues. Bates Gill and Tom Switzer from the US Studies Centre argued that the US pivot is far from dead

Perhaps nothing better demonstrates the long-term US commitment to Asia than its enhanced security relationships with Indo-Pacific allies. We all know about Australia's enhanced security relations with what Menzies called 'our great and powerful friend', but we are hardly alone in looking to America. A few months ago, Washington sent six new P-8As (pictured; 'the most advanced long-range anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare aircraft in the world,' according to the Pentagon) to Japan on their first overseas deployment.  In another first, numerous American Global Hawk surveillance drones will be operated out of Japan and elsewhere in the region. Add to this the landmark US-Japan defence agreements last October and it is clear that America remains strongly committed to the region.

But that commitment is more than an enhanced diplomatic and military profile. Take, for example, the US-led recovery effort in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan in November. Not only did the Obama Administration send an aircraft carrier and hundreds of Marines to distribute food and water to remote areas, it also pledged $22 million in assistance. (The Chinese government, by contrast, pledged only $100,000 before increasing its total contributions to a measly $1.5 million.) 

Innes Willox, Chief Executive of the Australian Industry Group, argued this week that large-scale immigration makes the Australian economy more dynamic:

Somewhat more than half of our current population growth comes from net migration. Indeed, given that our total fertility rate has been well below replacement levels for almost four decades, in the absence of immigration we would be looking to join the likes of Japan, Germany and Russia as countries with declining populations.

One of the impacts of strong immigration is that it injects additional mobility into our labour market. Most immigrants come with a keen eye for job opportunities. Many come with an eye on a specific job and some with a promise of a position that has not attracted local candidates. New immigrants are demonstrably more footloose than the resident population and they travel more readily to where the jobs are. This helps reduce the impact of the traditional frictions that operate in labour markets; frictions that in Australia are magnified by our vast internal distances. In the absence of this additional labour mobility, we would be less responsive to shifting opportunities.

Immigration also assists us to more rapidly replenish our workforce skills. Particularly as a result of employee-sponsored immigration, migration assists us overcome not only geographic mismatches between employees and job opportunities but also the mismatches between the skills of the resident workforce and these opportunities. Again, immigration makes us more responsive to emerging opportunities.

I don't think I need to dwell on how immigration adds to our national talent pool. Whether in the arts, business, science, sport or indeed in any area you care to nominate, we find a healthy share of migrants, and the sons or daughters of migrants, among the leading ranks. This is not simply a matter of migrants coming and excelling in areas where Australia has traditional strengths; it is also a matter of migrants breaking new ground and creating new areas of Australian excellence. There is something of a filtering process at work here, with the act of migration adding disproportionately to the adventurous and the ambitious. 

 And Paul Bourke, a former DFATer, argued that increasing the Department's budget would not alone result in a Australia having a larger influence in the world. It's also about the quality of our international engagement:

The core business of managing strategic relationships, trade negotiations and consular affairs are what every foreign ministry deals in, but there is also, without doubt, a need to broaden the conception of what modern diplomacy must address. There is, in DFAT, a paucity of long-term planning and analysis of economic and environmental trends of critical importance to Australia's national interests, issues that are domestic and international in their manifestation.

Understanding the breadth of climate change or the borderless worlds of energy policy and financial crises (to take three 21st century 'big issues') requires the application of knowledge and skills DFAT does not have. Nor does the department attempt with any real conviction to recruit people who do have the technical expertise to augment critical policy areas.

For instance, in my experience, much of the substantive work in the Japan-Australia FTA was handled by the respective agriculture ministries; DFAT added an overall framework for the formal negotiations. DFAT insists it is the lead agency for most international negotiations, yet without adding to the content of many sector- or issue-specific negotiations.

And last, Nick Bisley drew four lessons for Asia from the Ukraine crisis. The first:

Don't humiliate great powers

Putin's gambit is intimately bound up in the domestic foundations of his political apparatus. Central to this has been the way in which a sense of humiliation has been fostered by the ruling elite to justify its political program.

The principle that the humiliation of powerful states should be avoided has its origins in the Europe's concert system and was a key part of the long-running success of 19th century European diplomacy. Aggrieved great powers have the potential to destabilise the system by mobilising to right perceived wrongs. Furthermore, the humiliated power feels as if it does not have a stake in the international order. Without skin in the game, these powers have significantly lower incentives to follow the rules. While China's path to power has been quite different from the traumas of post-Soviet Russia, nonetheless a strong sense of humiliation has been an important motive force behind its rise and will remain an important part of its international engagement. 

 Photo by Flickr user Ed Yourdon. 


Well, all glory is indeed fleeting.

Having just given The Interpreter a pat on the back for our Asia coverage, I'm embarrassed to admit that we are late to Prime Minister Abbott's Asia Society speech, delivered on Tuesday to set the scene for his early-April Asia trip.

The speech is trade focused, and the PM has a good story to tell on that subject: 'While in Korea, I hope to witness the signing of the Korea-Australia Free Trade Agreement. In Japan, I hope to help finalise the Japan-Australia FTA. In China, I hope to announce substantial progress towards freer trade. This is the trifecta of trade we are working towards.'

But he also talked about the evolution of China's political system in ways that are unlikely to endear him to Beijing:

I want to say that the transformation of China is a watershed in human history. Lifting hundreds of millions of people into the middle class in just a generation is perhaps the most spectacular advance in human welfare ever accomplished...

...As liberalisation spreads from the economy into other elements of Chinese life, I am confident that Australia will be a valued friend and strategic partner, as well as a rock-solid-reliable economic partner, to the Chinese people and government.

China’s achievement mirrors Japan’s and Korea’s, some decades earlier – only on a larger scale.

Japan and Korea have been strong democracies as well as powerhouse economic for decades. I honour the Japanese and Korean people, not only for their economic achievements, but for their steadfast commitment to liberal democratic values.

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It hardly needs saying that the Chinese Communist Party is acutely sensitive to suggestions that it needs to liberalise, particularly if that implies, as Abbott's remarks surely do, an evolution towards multi-party democracy. That's not to say upsetting China should be avoided at all costs, but I do wonder what is to be gained by such comments as Abbott's officials negotiate a trade deal with China.

It's notable too that Abbott seems to make Australia's friendship and partnership with China contingent on such liberalisation. This implies that Australia can never be more than a 'rock-solid-reliable economic partner' until then, and thus sets pretty clear boundaries for the relationship (it also suggests that Australia's friendship and partnership is solely contingent on China's internal political structure, though even a democratic China would surely have many interests that clash with those of Australia).

Lastly, there is an air of historical inevitability to these remarks, with their implication that the spread of liberalisation from the economic to the political sphere is just a matter of time. Again, this won't please Beijing's leaders, though at least they will find the teleology familiar from their studies of Marx.


Over the last few months, you might have noticed that The Interpreter has gotten busier.

The Lowy Institute made a decision late last year to invest in a bigger, more ambitious Interpreter, and since early this year we have increased the number of items we post each day. More specifically, we have substantially increased — and improved — our Asia coverage. This initiative is part of the Lowy Institute's Engaging Asia Project, which was established with the financial support of the Australian Government.

So far we've placed particular attention on Indonesia, and we have brought you what I think is the most comprehensive coverage in Australia of our key neighbour in its crucial election year. Already this year we've featured work from Joanne Sharp, Gary Hogan, Tom McCawley, Wawan Mas'udi, Peter McCawley, Stephen Grenville and Catriona Croft-Cusworth.

One of our aims has been to establish a roster of regular contributors who could write about Asia, from Asia.

We now have four such contributors: Catriona Croft-Cusworth in Jakarta, Elliot Brennan in Yangon (and frequently other parts of Southeast Asia), Robert Kelly in Busan, and Vaughan Winterbottom in Beijing (though he also spends a lot of time in Oxford). There are also many occasional contributors who have enriched our Asia coverage this year; we have a dedicated Contributors page with links to all their work.

But we want to do even more. In particular, we'd like to improve our coverage of Japan and India, where we don't yet have regular contributors.

So if you know someone who might be suited to a contributor role, or if you just have thoughts about what The Interpreter is doing right and wrong, let us know through the Disqus comments thread or send an email to blogeditor@lowyinstitute.org.

Photo by Flickr user John Keogh.


Here's a major piece of research from the US Naval War College about China's participation in Gulf of Aden anti-piracy operations over the last four-plus years. It's from November last year but very much still worth flagging.

It's incredibly thorough, covering everything from operational lessons to the dietary and psychological needs of sailors on long-term deployments to the larger strategic motives behind China's involvement in this multilateral effort:

...antipiracy escorts have furthered China’s strategic and doctrinal shift from a purely land-based power to an oceanic power, in part by fostering maritime culture in and through the PLAN. When PLAN escort task forces cross “China’s traditional maritime boundary” on their way to the Gulf of Aden, the ships’ crews each reportedly conduct a solemn ceremony of taking and signing pledges.

Indeed, many Chinese view escort operations as only the beginning of a larger process in which China’s military development will increasingly mirror its rapidly expanding national interests. If indeed this proves true in practice, decades from now China’s Gulf of Aden mission will be seen as the genesis of the nation’s ascent as a global maritime power. Indeed, at a symposium in Beijing in January 2012 to mark the three-year anniversary of China’s Gulf of Aden mission, Adm. Wu Shengli remarked that escort operations were a landmark event in the historical development of China’s navy.


Thanks to Longform, an aggregator that finds great old essays which might otherwise be forgotten, an epic tale of cultural globalisation written for Rolling Stone in 2000 about one's of the world's best loved songs, 'a pop song so powerful that Brian Wilson had to pull off the road when he first heard it': 

Navajo Indians sing it at powwows. Japanese teenagers know it as ライオンは寝ている. The French have a version sung in Congolese. Phish perform it live. It has been recorded by artists as diverse as R.E.M. and Glen Campbell, Brian Eno and Chet Atkins, the Nylons and Muzak schlockmeister Bert Kaempfert. The New Zealand army band turned it into a march. England’s 1986 World Cup soccer squad turned it into a joke. Hollywood put it in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. It has logged nearly three decades of continuous radio airplay in the U.S. alone. It is the most famous melody ever to emerge from Africa, a tune that has penetrated so deep into the human consciousness over so many generations that one can truly say, here is a song the whole world knows.


Spiegel's interview with former CIA and NSA chief Michael Hayden is endlessly quotable. Some nuggets below.

On the future of the internet:

There are countries that do not want the Internet as we know it. Russia, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia. The Snowden revelations will now allow them to argue that we Americans want to keep a single, unitary Internet, because it just helps us spy. My fear is that the disclosures may have set a motion in progress that ends up really threatening the Internet as we know it.

On the Pentagon's ambition for 'information superiority':

We Americans think of military doctrine and "domains" -- land, sea, air, space. As part of our military thought, we now think of cyber as a domain. Let me define air dominance for you: Air dominance is the ability of the United States to use the air domain at times and places of its own choosing while denying its use to its adversaries at times and places when it is in our legitimate national interest to do so. It's just a natural thing...to transfer that to the cyber domain. I do not think it is a threat to world peace and commerce any more than the American Air Force is a threat to world peace and commerce.

On Chinese cyber-espionage:

...although I think the Americans and some others are more sophisticated than the Chinese at doing this, no one is doing it on the scale that the Chinese are doing it. As a professional intelligence officer, I just stand back in awe at the depth, breadth and persistence of the Chinese espionage effort against the West and the United States...

Spying on German Chancellor Angela Merkel:

Perhaps we underestimated the depth of feelings that the German people -- and again, not just the chancellor, but the German people, felt about this question of privacy, given their historical circumstances compared to our historical circumstances. At the Munich Security Conference it was clear to me that Germans regard privacy the way we Americans might regard freedom of speech or religion. Perhaps we did not appreciate that enough.


When artificial light is practically free, how much of it can the world take, asks Dirk Hanson?

Like any junkie, we don’t know when we’ve had enough. “One thing that evolutionary anthropologists have learned is that humans are not necessarily natural conservationists,” says biological anthropologist Carol Worthman of Emory University, who has done field work in developing countries with scant night lighting, such as New Guinea and Vietnam. “We don’t have inbuilt mechanisms to step down consumption, even in the best interest of our own physical health.”

I love this kind of writing, which not only examines a ubiquitous but rarely thought-about aspect of our lives, but also illuminates (sorry) larger questions, in this case the problem of resource consumption. We've managed to make energy incredibly cheap, but this has not brought efficiency gains; it fact, it has just increased our appetite:

As prices fall, our use of light climbs in exact proportion. For several years now, physicist Jeff Tsao at Sandia National Laboratories has been digging into the economic cost-benefit ratios of artificial lighting. Analyzing data sets spanning three centuries and six continents, Tsao and his coworkers at Sandia have concluded that “the result of increases in luminous efficacy has been an increase in demand for energy used for lighting that nearly exactly offsets the efficiency gains—essentially a 100% rebound in energy use.” The Sandia group’s equations aren’t holy writ, but with remarkable consistency, human beings, when faced with the availability of a cheaper and more efficient lighting technology, simply use more of it. We don’t bank the savings, but instead fall into what is known as Jevons’ paradox, which states that technological improvements can be counterproductive if the resultant savings are spent rather than saved.

(H/t Dish.)



This week we kicked off a debate on a 'larger Australia.' This comes off the back of Lowy Institute Executive Director Michael Fullilove's 'Larger Australia' speech to the National Press Club on 12 March.

Stephen Grenville kicked off the responses, suggesting that one way Australia could get 'larger' would be by uniting with New Zealand:

Of course, a union wouldn't be easy or quick. For a start, New Zealand is significantly poorer than Australia, and many Australians would fear that New Zealand would be a larger version of mendicant Tasmania. On top of this, amalgamations always produce redundancies, most notably in this case a whole parliament, though New Zealand might be content to make its Beehive the equivalent of a state parliament. 

Despite the compelling logic, neither side shows the slightest enthusiasm for union. The 2012 Lowy Institute Pollshowed that most Australians are against it and almost as many New Zealanders agree with them.

The key is to see this as an evolutionary process rather than a revolution. And the way to maintain progress is to be ready when opportunity presents itself.

Here's an example: unifying the currency would be a huge step, unlikely to be taken under normal circumstances and not being recommended by anyone. But in a real crisis (the Kiwi dollar going well over parity?), it might well be seen as sensible.  In 1997, when the Reserve Bank of New Zealand handled the Asian crisis with less finesse than its Aussie counterpart, there was a strong interest among New Zealand businesses in linking the currencies. Our then Treasurer, Peter Costello, told them they could adopt the Aussie dollar but an Anzac currency was not on.  

To build a Larger Australia, why not start by declaring a contest for the new currency design, drawing on icons of shared heritage to decorate the new notes? The list is endless: Phar Lap, Russell Crowe, Crowded House and the pavlova for a start.

Kiwi Robert Ayson responded by suggesting that the 'annexation' of New Zealand probably wouldn't help Australia very much:

This is annexation season further afield, but I am confident the Crimea option is not what Grenville has in mind. Instead, his argument potentially answers a perennial Australian question: New Zealand, just what are you good for?

But the answer is unlikely to be much extra size or heft. An extra four million people would be hardly noticeable unless they all crossed the Tasman and started demanding social payments. The two economies are already significantly (although not completely) integrated, and their Closer Economic Relations already acts as a stepping stone for broader regional cooperation (including CER-ASEAN).

And if Australia's foreign service is too small for the country's size and ambitions, as Fullilove suggests, then the addition of New Zealand's streamlined diplomatic corps would hardly overturn that numerical problem. Canberra may actually find the removal of a separate international vote for Wellington (in the Pacific Islands Forum, the East Asia Summit, and at the UN) a move backwards. Despite differences on some issues, two neighbours occasionally even find themselves in agreement.

And despite its obvious qualities, I don't think the New Zealand Defence Force is quite the answer to Fullilovian concerns that Australia is falling behind in Asia's strategic balance. We might bring some uncomfortably different views on China and the US too.

I chimed in, looking at the broader strategic context of a larger Australian defence budget:

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Don't forget that a favourable balance of power in our more immediate region is no long-term certainty. Indonesia's economy is already larger than our own, but burdened by poor governance, Indonesia has a weak state sector and thus an underfunded and corrupt military. But those are eminently fixable problems, and in fact Indonesia has made quite a show of fixing many of its political problems since Suharto fell. Yes, reform has stagnated, but who is to say we aren't on the cusp of a second wave of reforms that further strengthens Indonesia? We can't expect Indonesia's power projection capabilities to remain indefinitely weak, and when that situation changes, the need to influence the balance of power with China will start to look like a more distant concern.

There are other questions raised by the promise of a bigger defence capability: would we use it to buttress America's slowly eroding regional hegemony? If so, won't that generate the kind of friction with China we would like to avoid? Or are we developing a more independent national strategy on the premise that American security guarantees will be less reassuring than they used to be? And are we pursuing a truly defensive (or 'non-offensive') capability that merely aims to deny an adversary the ability to coerce us, or do we want the ability to 'rip an arm off' an adversary?

 Former BBC Australia correspondent Nick Bryant , who is writing a book on the Rise and Fall of Australia, took aim at the complacency inherent in phrases like 'punching above our weight', 'down under' and 'the lucky country':

In politics, the turning point — or pivot, to use the fashionable diplo-speak of the day – was the 2010 federal election, which followed the ouster of Kevin Rudd. For him, personal and national ambition were entwined, and both extended far beyond Australia's borders. Julia Gillard's aspirations were more easily accommodated at home. At the outset of the campaign, in a strategically placed story on the front page of The Sunday Telegraph, she signaled her preference for a Small Australia. This policy announcement, aimed squarely at Sydney's western suburbs, married with her comments on The 7.30 Report during her first overseas trip as prime minister, when she admitted she felt more comfortable in Australian classrooms than international summits. In distancing herself from Kevin Rudd, she distanced Australia from the rest of the world.

With the then opposition leader Tony Abbott also indicating that he preferred to be a stay-at-home prime minister, the 2010 campaign had a distinctly municipal feel. It was as if Gillard and Abbott were competing to become the mayor of a medium-sized city rather than contesting the leadership of an ever more thrusting and consequential nation.

The Harvard academic Niall Fergusson, who happened to be visiting Australia at the time, could scarcely believe his ears. 'It is true to say that there is a quality of Australian political debate very reminiscent of local politics in Glasgow when I was growing up,' he told the ABC's Mark Colvin. Crikey's Bernard Keane called it the 'little Australia' campaign.

The 2013 campaign was not much better. 'I don't think we should be getting above ourselves here,' said Tony Abbott during another ABC interview, when asked if Australia should support American airstrikes against the Assad regime. 'We are a significant middle power but no more.'

Gillard and Abbott, who tended to bring out the worst in each other, took the old maxim that 'all politics is local' to the point of absurdity.

It is time have a national debate of a quality, scope and ambition that is not constrained by the supposed small-mindedness of the electorate — a small-mindedness, I would argue strongly, that is overstated.

Stay tuned for more on this debate.

Of course, we covered a heap of other topics on The Interpreter this week. Last Saturday Jokowi was nominated at the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle's presidential candidate for 2014. On Saturday, Catriona Croft-Cusworth gave us the details of the nomination:

The party announced the nomination over Twitter via its account @PDI_Perjuangan, and soon after launched a logo for Jokowi's campaign, fitted with an abbreviation ready for hashtagging: JKW4P, Jokowi for president.

The night before in Jakarta's Old Town, the previously neglected Dutch-era buildings in Fatahillah Square were lit up with coloured floodlights on their freshly painted facades. Visitors who arrived on public transport cut quickly through peak hour traffic, thanks to a months-long campaign to keep the TransJakarta busway lane clear. The square itself was filled with a gourmet food festival, multiple performance stages and thousands of Jakartans enjoying an open public event.

Here's Peter McCawley on what Jokowi might stand for:

So far, he has managed to avoid commenting on almost all matters of national policy by adopting a 'shucks, why ask me? I'm just the Governor of Jakarta' line in response to any ticklish issues. Thus very little is known about Jokowi's views on such matters as national economic priorities or international affairs.

To the extent Jokowi has favoured any particular national philosophy, he seems to be sympathetic to the 'Marhaenism' (sometimes translated as 'proletarian nationalism') espoused by former president Sukarno. Marhaenism is an eclectic set of ideas which stresses national unity and national culture along with 'pro-people' collectivist economic ideas. It is often unsympathetic to liberalism and sharp individualism, regarding them as undesirable features of capitalism. But quite what the implications might be for economic and international policies under a Jokowi presidency are unclear.

 And to round things off, Wawan Mas'udi from Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta looked back on Jokowi's start in politics:

Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo is the man of the moment in Indonesian politics. A furniture retailer by trade, two years ago he was a little known small town mayor in central Java. Today he is streets ahead of his nearest competitor in the opinion polls for July's presidential election. To understand Jokowi's meteoric rise, we need to go back to his early days in politics.

There was little hint of Jokowi's future trajectory in his first foray into politics, when he was elected mayor of Solo in 2005 with 37% of the vote. At the time, Jokowi was a political unknown compared to his running mate FX Hadi Rudyatmo, who was a local patron of the Democratic party of Struggle (PDI-P). Five years later, Jokowi won re-election with 90% of the vote, an eye catching result that helped him gain the PDI-P nomination for governorship of Jakarta.

Three factors account for Jokowi's extraordinary popularity in Solo.

First, he introduced health care and education schemes that catered to Solo's poor. After becoming mayor, Jokowi received many requests from constituents for help with their medical bills. At first he paid these bills using his discretionary funds as mayor, but over time realised this approach was unsustainable. Instead in 2008 he introduced a health insurance scheme for uninsured residents. Two years later, Jokowi introduced financial assistance for poor families to access education, as well as establishing fully funded government schools for the children of extremely poor families.

Take-up of both schemes was high: by 2011 each covered around half of Solo's residents. Each scheme was funded primarily from central government transfers to Solo under Indonesia's decentralisation arrangements. Jokowi made sure he gained credit for the programs, attending the launch of the healthcare and education financial assistance scheme and personally handing out membership cards.

Finally, Elliot Brennan looked at the diplomatic fallout from MH370, arguing that the incident will impact on territorial disputes in the South China Sea:

Claimants in the South China Sea's territorial disputes, such as China, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Indonesia, have participated in the search. But adding to public frustration and to a perception of poor cooperation and information-sharing in the region, Thailand yesterday announced that its military radars may have picked up MH370 last week, information that was not passed on to Malaysia.

The implications will not be lost on China. If, as many analysts believe, China this year tries to extend an Air Defence Identification Zone further into the South China Sea, there will be a renewed pressure in the region to improve air and maritime awareness and information-sharing. 

For Malaysia, the criticisms of its handling of the incident overshadows recent triumphs in international relations, including negotiating a ceasefire between the Philippines Government and southern MILF rebels; a peace accord is due to be signed on 27 March. Malaysia's handling of the MH370 incident may also tarnish its holding of the ASEAN Claimants Working Group Meeting on the South China Sea on 25 March.

The diplomatic fallout of the mismanagement of the MH370 incident could be significant. Indeed the diplomatic mess that has already ensued will have a lasting effect, most notably on relations between China and Malaysia. It also demonstrates the need for improved cooperation, information-sharing and confidence-building in the region. Despite years of improved cooperation, the region is still a long way off where it needs to be.

Photo by Flickr user Veronica Belmont.


Lawrence Freedman argues that 'The basic challenge of crisis management is to protect core interests while avoiding major war'. He lists some major lessons from the Ukrainian crisis:

One main difference between Cold War crisis management and the 21st Century is the importance of the economic dimension.

There was very little interaction between East and West during the Cold War. The export of energy was one area which began to grow during the Cold War and then became progressively more important. In 2007 and 2009 gas supplies were cut off to Ukraine and this affected European suppliers using the same pipeline. The position has changed substantially over the past few years. The Russian economy is now slowing down and Gazprom’s position is no longer so buoyant. Both need the revenues. Russia has chronic problems of demography and corruption.  It has failed to move its economy away from being dominated by oil and gas, and become an increasingly unattractive place to invest. It is not an emerging economy but a declining one. The past use of gas supplies for coercive purposes has encouraged customers to look elsewhere or to develop alternative supplies so they are less vulnerable to coercion. Finally, the transformation of the US’s energy position over past few years could be used to weaken Russia’s position further. One response to the crisis has been a determination to further move away from dependence on Gazprom. The long-term significance of this should not be underestimated.

Chicago Law School professor Eric Posner, meanwhile, examines the legal arguments in Vladimir Putin's recent speech to the Duma (Posner's comments in bold):

We keep hearing from the United States and Western Europe that Kosovo is some special case. What makes it so special in the eyes of our colleagues? It turns out that it is the fact that the conflict in Kosovo resulted in so many human casualties.  Is this a legal argument? The ruling of the International Court says nothing about this. [True; it is legally irrelevant.] This is not even double standards; this is amazing, primitive, blunt cynicism. One should not try so crudely to make everything suit their interests, calling the same thing white today and black tomorrow. According to this logic, we have to make sure every conflict leads to human losses. [The U.S. position is that forcing Kosovo's population to remain a part of a country whose government tried to massacre it would be wrong, and numerous efforts were made to broker a compromise before secession took place. Putin argues that it would be ridiculous to make Crimea wait for its population to be massacred before seceding.]

I will state clearly – if the Crimean local self-defence units had not taken the situation under control, there could have been casualties as well. [This is doubtful, as there were no massacres anywhere else in Russian-speaking Ukraine that did not benefit from "local self-defense units".]

Stewart Patrick says the legal arguments are a distraction.


Good piece by Hugh White:

For Europe...this is a sobering moment. It marks the end of the post-Cold-War vision of a united European community stretching from the Atlantic to the Urals in which armed forces would no longer play any role in the relations between states. One should not mock that vision because it has been so successfully achieved over so much of Europe. But one can criticise the Europeans for so unrealistically assuming that Russia would easily sign up to it.

Now that Moscow has made it so clear that it hasn't signed up, the Europeans will have to start thinking strategically again about how they deal with Russia. So, two stark questions remain: where to draw the line beyond which they will not allow Russia to use force to build its influence, and how to make sure that line is never crossed.

Meanwhile, Peter Beinart says America can't afford to rescue Ukraine:

Whenever the United States debates using its money to buttress democracy and Western influence in a strategically important part of the world, commentators offer comparisons with the Marshall Plan that America offered Europe after World War II. But in today’s dollars, according to one estimate, the Marshall Plan would total roughly $740 billion. That kind of money would certainly enable far-reaching economic reforms in Ukraine, and likely anchor the country in the West for years to come. But, of course, the suggestion is absurd. Today’s Senate can barely pass an aid package 740 times as small.

We’re long past the era when America and its allies can spend vast sums to promote Western ideals and interests around the world. Except, of course, in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the U.S. is on pace to spend the equivalent of eight or nine Marshall Plans.

4 of 9 This post is part of a debate on A larger Australia

I'm going to focus on one aspect of Michael Fullilove's National Press Club address, neatly summarised in his conclusion:

Australia has a choice. Do we want to be a little nation, with a small population, a restricted diplomatic network, a modest defence force, and a cramped vision of our future? Or do we want to be larger – a big, confident country with an ability to influence the balance of power in Asia, a constructive public debate, and a foreign policy that is both ambitious and coherent? Are we content to languish in the lower divisions or do we want to move up in weight?

I have voiced similar sentiments when it comes to Australia's diminishing strategic weight in a region full of rapidly growing powers. Yet we shouldn't underestimate how difficult it would be to effect a step-change in our population. Although Australians have proven accommodating and adaptable to high immigration levels, politicians know all too well that advocating for a big boost to immigration numbers can get them in trouble with the electorate.

It is a measure of the country's wariness on this question that Bob Carr, while NSW state premier and thus the leader of Australia's 'world city', could declare that 'Sydney is full'. And this was in 2000, when the world came to Sydney for the Olympics. If even a figure such as Carr — a liberal internationalist who wants an open Australian economy and strongly supports multiculturalism — cannot face the thought of a larger Australia, then we really do face a cramped vision of the future.

But as hard as it would be to move Australia to substantially higher population levels, the more difficult intellectual and policy challenge, and one that should precede any move to boost our population, is 'what for?' If a bigger population buys us a bigger economy and thus a strengthened defence and diplomatic capability, what should Australia aim to achieve with this increased power and influence?

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In the conclusion to his speech, Michael refers to an 'ability to influence the balance of power in Asia'. I take it that this means more than just having strong military capabilities in the Southeast Asian context, because the opening of Michael's speech describes Australia's security environment (our 'predicament of proximity') in largely Sino-centric terms.

But if Australia needs the military heft to influence the balance of power with China, then as ASPI's Mark Thomson has written, its not clear that growing our defence spending to 2% of GDP, as Michael suggests, would be enough:

...even if we boosted our defence spending to 2.5% or even 3% of GDP...we would remain irrelevant to the balance of power between China and the United States...Bad things may happen, very bad things. But there is nothing that we can do about them, certainly nothing that we can do by the use of armed force. Even if the government had stuck with its plans to build its so-called Force 2030, we would remain bit players amid the emerging giants of the Asia Pacific.

Then again, Hugh White has advocated 2.5% as an appropriate target, and wants that to pay for 18 submarines and up to 200 advanced fighters for the air force. If Australia had that kind of capability today it really would make a substantial contribution to the regional balance of power; in fact, it would put us in a similar weight class to Japan. But even if the political will can be mustered, it will take decades to achieve that kind of capability, at which point China will be a far more capable force too.

And don't forget that a favourable balance of power in our more immediate region is no long-term certainty. Indonesia's economy is already larger than our own, but burdened by poor governance, Indonesia has a weak state sector and thus an underfunded and corrupt military. But those are eminently fixable problems, and in fact Indonesia has made quite a show of fixing many of its political problems since Suharto fell. Yes, reform has stagnated, but who is to say we aren't on the cusp of a second wave of reforms that further strengthens Indonesia? We can't expect Indonesia's power projection capabilities to remain indefinitely weak, and when that situation changes, the need to influence the balance of power with China will start to look like a more distant concern.

There are other questions raised by the promise of a bigger defence capability: would we use it to buttress America's slowly eroding regional hegemony? If so, won't that generate the kind of friction with China we would like to avoid? Or are we developing a more independent national strategy on the premise that American security guarantees will be less reassuring than they used to be? And are we pursuing a truly defensive (or 'non-offensive') capability that merely aims to deny an adversary the ability to coerce us, or do we want the ability to 'rip an arm off' an adversary?

The attraction of a bigger, more muscular Australia is that it keeps the country in charge of its own destiny — a security maker rather than a security taker. But I worry that the population and economic growth disparities with  Asia are so large that no reasonable amount of growth in our population will overcome them. The radical step suggested by Stephen Grenville — a union with New Zealand — may have economic advantages (though I'd argue most of them could be realised without a formal union, which would be unnecessarily damaging to New Zealand's unique political and civic culture), but I doubt it would have any impact on the strategic objectives Michael outlines.

Moreover, much of what Michael wants could be achieved without higher levels of immigration. DFAT's call on the federal budget is tiny; a rounding error, really. So we don't need a bigger tax base to have a bigger diplomatic footprint (in fact, as Michael recommends, it could come out of the AusAID budget). We can even raise defence spending substantially without breaking with historical norms.

The last thing I would point out is that the forces of inertia are strong. Should successive Australian governments do nothing of what Michael recommends, and should this result in an Australia with diminished international clout, the ride down will be very smooth. As Britain and France proved in the last century, it is possible to drop a weight class (or two) in international affairs while at the same time raising your country's standard of living. Then again, Britain and France managed their relative decline in an era when the US enjoyed massive economic superiority over its great-power adversary. The US and its allies are not in such a fortunate position today.

Photo by Flickr user Bernadette M.


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