Lowy Institute

University of Texas academic Alan Kuperman, a specialist on humanitarian military intervention, has a scathing essay (paywalled) in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs:

In retrospect, Obama’s intervention in Libya was an abject failure, judged even by its own standards. Libya has not only failed to evolve into a democracy; it has devolved into a failed state. Violent deaths and other human rights abuses have increased severalfold. Rather than helping the United States combat terrorism, as Qaddafi did during his last decade in power, Libya now serves as a safe haven for militias affiliated with both al Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). The Libya intervention has harmed other U.S. interests as well: undermining nuclear nonproliferation, chilling Russian cooperation at the UN, and fueling Syria’s civil war.

Despite what defenders of the mission claim, there was a better policy available—not intervening at all, because peaceful Libyan civilians were not actually being targeted. Had the United States and its allies followed that course, they could have spared Libya from the resulting chaos and given it a chance of progress under Qaddafi’s chosen successor: his relatively liberal, Western-educated son Saif al-Islam. Instead, Libya today is riddled with vicious militias and anti-American terrorists—and thus serves as a cautionary tale of how humanitarian intervention can backfire for both the intervener and those it is intended to help.

Also in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, an essay co-authored by Interpreter contributor Tom Switzer, who writes with Bates Gill on the deepening of the US-Australia alliance

...for Washington, the U.S.–Australian partnership has become a special relationship with few equivalents in the world. But few outside a small circle of policy elites seem to have noticed.

Photo by REUTERS/Darren Whiteside.


The National Geographic has a great piece on why so many reasonable people refuse to accept the scientific consensus on issues such as water fluoridation, child immunisation and of course, climate change:

We live in an age when all manner of scientific knowledge—from the safety of fluoride and vaccines to the reality of climate change—faces organized and often furious opposition. Empowered by their own sources of information and their own interpretations of research, doubters have declared war on the consensus of experts.

So why do so many people cling to positions so contrary to science?

...Even when we intellectually accept these precepts of science, we subconsciously cling to our intuitions—what researchers call our naive beliefs...as we become scientifically literate, we repress our naive beliefs but never eliminate them entirely. They lurk in our brains, chirping at us as we try to make sense of the world...

...The “science communication problem,” as it’s blandly called by the scientists who study it, has yielded abundant new research into how people decide what to believe—and why they so often don’t accept the scientific consensus. It’s not that they can’t grasp it, according to Dan Kahan of Yale University. In one study he asked 1,540 Americans, a representative sample, to rate the threat of climate change on a scale of zero to ten. Then he correlated that with the subjects’ science literacy. He found that higher literacy was associated with stronger views—at both ends of the spectrum. Science literacy promoted polarization on climate, not consensus. According to Kahan, that’s because people tend to use scientific knowledge to reinforce beliefs that have already been shaped by their worldview...

There's also a social/peer group dimension:

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...Science appeals to our rational brain, but our beliefs are motivated largely by emotion, and the biggest motivation is remaining tight with our peers. “We’re all in high school. We’ve never left high school,” says Marcia McNutt. “People still have a need to fit in, and that need to fit in is so strong that local values and local opinions are always trumping science. And they will continue to trump science, especially when there is no clear downside to ignoring science.”

But this part is not quite right:

Meanwhile the Internet makes it easier than ever for climate skeptics and doubters of all kinds to find their own information and experts. Gone are the days when a small number of powerful institutions—elite universities, encyclopedias, major news organizations, even National Geographic—served as gatekeepers of scientific information. The Internet has democratized information, which is a good thing. But along with cable TV, it has made it possible to live in a “filter bubble” that lets in only the information with which you already agree.

Yes, people live in information bubbles, but they always have — Green Left Weekly has always been purchased mainly by people of the left, and The Spectator by people on the right. We all like to read things that reinforce our prejudices. But, if anything, this bubble is now easier to penetrate, given that contrary information and opinion is a single click away, and mostly free. In the days of the gatekeepers, one would have needed a subscription to break that bubble.

(H/t Browser.)


A few initial reactions to Prime Minister Abbott's National Security Statement, delivered this morning at AFP Headquarters in Canberra.

'The terrorist threat is rising at home and abroad', said Abbott in his introduction: this claim is really the bedrock of the speech and the various policy measures announced in it — after all, none of this would be necessary if the terrorist threat was diminishing.

Let's focus on the 'abroad' part of the claim. According to the Global Terrorism Index, '17,958 people were killed in terrorist attacks last year, that’s 61% more than the previous year.' Which is horrific, of course, but 82% of those deaths occurred in just five countries: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria and Syria. As you can see in the graph, deaths from terrorism in the rest of the world have been pretty stable since the peak in 2001:

Still, the PM's claim that ASIO has over 400 high priority cases under investigation — double the number from last year — is alarming. And of course the rate of deaths from terrorism does not take account of plots that were foiled, of which Abbott listed several. Note though the words of former National Security Legislation Monitor Bret Walker this morning, who said Australia was not facing a terrorism crisis, but rather that the terrorist threat was a permanent state of affairs that requires continuous effort to counter.

'In Australia and elsewhere, the threat of terrorism has become a terrible fact of life that government must do all in its power to counter', said Abbott. Just like when an airline tells you that 'safety is our number one priority', this is one of those reassuring statements which doesn't actually withstand much scrutiny. If airlines made safety their top priority, their planes would never leave the ground. And if governments did all in their power to stop terrorism, we'd be living in a police state with a dying economy. As Abbott acknowledges later ('We will never sacrifice our freedoms in order to defend them'), the fight against terrorism is, like all public policy, a trade-off. We can't have perfect security, just as we can't have perfect freedom. We would have a much saner public discourse on terrorism if our leaders acknowledged this simple fact from time to time.

It would also help if governments stopped constantly elevating terrorists to a status they do not deserve. Why did Abbott need to refer to the Martin Place siege instigator as a 'threat to our country'? He was merely a criminal, and our leaders should take every opportunity to point this out, so that copycats get the message that there is no glamour attached to such acts. As Paul Buchanan has argued, terrorism should whenever possible be treated like a crime, not elevated to a war-like act.

On the proposal regarding dual citizenship, I would point readers to two Interpreter pieces from immigration expert Peter Hughes, who argues strongly that the policy is a weak weapon against terrorism.

Abbott's lines about Islam are going to make waves:

 I’ve often heard Western leaders describe Islam as a ‘religion of peace’. I wish more Muslim leaders would say that more often, and mean it. I have often cited Prime Minister Najib of Malaysia, who has described the Islamist death cult as ‘against God, against Islam and against our common humanity’. In January, President al Sisi told the imams at Egypt ’s al Azhar university that Islam needed a ‘religious revolution’ to sweep away centuries of false thinking.

Note the sceptical tone around that 'religion of peace' reference. Even George W Bush routinely used that line, yet Abbott can't bring himself to endorse it. Instead he calls for Islam to undergo a 'revolution', with a supporting quote from none other than that noted Islamic scholar and political moderniser, Egyptian military strong-man al Sisi.

Abbott closes with the claim that 'My government will never underestimate the terrorist threat.' Is that really a concern for anyone? For those worried about the erosion of civil liberties, about the growth of our intelligence agencies, about military adventurism in the Middle East, and about the distortion of our national security priorities (why is a speech billed as a 'National Security Statement' devoted solely to jihadist terrorism? Is that the only threat to Australian security?), overestimation of the terrorist threat is a more serious concern.

Side note: it's a dreadful shame this speech was not delivered to parliament. Abbott clearly saw it as an important and even solemn task. Why would he not honour Australia's most important national institution — its parliament — by delivering his remarks there? Our democracy is slightly diminished as a result.


Yesterday I joined the chrorus of critics against Prime Minister Abbott's attempt to link Australian aid to the Chan-Sukumaran case. But today's Waleed Aly column prompts me to reconsider:

...perhaps Abbott didn't grasp the gravity of suggesting that Indonesia "reciprocate" for our aid with clemency. 

But that's the problem. Abbott isn't running talkback. He's running international diplomacy. And in that world of maddeningly polite, highly coded speech, this is a rhetorical bomb. It says our aid is conditional, that it imposes obligations and that if we feel those obligations haven't been met, we might just withhold it in future. 

That's a hell of thing to imply, even in private. 

Is it, though? If Australia takes its objections to capital punishment seriously, why would it be so outrageous to reconsider our aid effort for a country that directly affronts our values? Waleed Aly himself seems to have deep moral misgivings about capital punishment, so why is he so scandalised by the suggestion that Australia could rethink its aid program if Chan and Sukumaran are executed? It would be surprising if the Government is not already getting calls from NGOs and the public to take precisely that action.

The larger problem here is the aid program itself, which unavoidably creates the stigma of inequality in the relationship. It casts one side as poor and weak, and the other as wealthy and strong. As I said yesterday, when it comes to the Australia-Indonesia relationship that's already a fiction, though our belief in it is sustained by the fact that Indonesia is still poor in per-capita terms and has a weak government. But that state of affairs is not likely to last much longer.

Waleed Aly's claim that the Australia-Indonesia relationship is in 'disrepair' strikes me as a substantial exaggeration (if we're at 'disrepair' now, how would he have described the state of the relationship when Indonesia withdrew its ambassador in light of the Snowden leaks?). But in any case it misdiagnoses the problem. If we continue to measure the state of the relationship on how well the latest crisis has been negotiated (whether it involves drugs, beef, boats or spies) then it is probably always going to look a little messy. The real measure of success is whether we can build a relationship now with a country that will, in the next three decades, become the fourth-biggest economy in the world. Can we create a sense of shared interests in a region of economic and strategic giants? Can we together build a stable and peaceful regional order as the balance of power shifts?

We can't begin to do that until we stop thinking of Indonesia as a charity case. As Abbott's hamfisted attempt to use aid as political leverage demonstrates, we would be better off if we started treating the Indonesians as equals.

PS. Some further bugbears with this column:

  • It's not fair to say that the Navy's incursions into Indonesian territory are 'the kind of thing we forget and dismiss'. Australia unreservedly apologised to Indonesia for those incursions.
  • Waleed Aly parses Tony Abbott's words for politically inspired subtext, yet he takes the Indonesian foreign ministry's claims of deep offence at face value. But is it possible that the Indonesians too are playing to numerous audiences?
  • In a similar vein, he recounts Indonesia's leaking of a transcript of Marty Natalegawa's conversation with Julie Bishop, but treats it purely as an example of Australian perfidy. (Note of clarification: what I'm trying to illustrate here is that Waleed Aly applies a highly critical perspective to Australian behaviour but doesn't seem to grant that Indonesia too might behave cynically from time to time.)

Mike Callaghan writes that, according to a new PwC study, 'Indonesia will likely be the fourth-largest economy in 2050'. By that time, Australia will rank 28th. How would a diplomatic dispute, such as the one occurring now over the impending execution of two Australians, play out if Australia was by far the weaker power?

It's far from an unthinkable scenario. In fact right now, Australia ranks 19th on PwC's same scale, with Indonesia in ninth place.

That Indonesia is already a larger economy than Australia may itself surprise many Australians, who tend not to think of Indonesia as an equal or even as a normal country. When Indonesia impinges on the Australian consciousness at all, it is either as a source of trouble (drugs cases, beef exports, boat arrivals) or as a charity case which ought to be grateful to us (Indonesia is budgeted to get $605 million in Australian aid in 2014/15). 

Given Indonesia's economic weight, that attitude already looks out of step with reality. But it is probably sustained by the fact that Indonesia remains much poorer than Australia in per-head-of-population terms, and also because the Indonesian state, including its military forces and foreign-policy apparatus, is so weak.

If the Indonesian state is not reformed, then even a much larger 2050-era Indonesia would punch well below its weight in diplomatic and strategic terms. In fact, without a more capable state sector that provides better health care, education, economic regulation, and infrastructure, Indonesia may not even achieve the projections made by PwC.

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But Indonesia has come a long way already, so we would be wise to bet that it can overcome such challenges. That means, instead of dealing with an economy more than twice Australia's size, as we do now, we could be dealing in 2050 with an economy roughly four times as large as ours, and overall the fourth-largest in the world behind the China, India and the US (again, using PwC's scale).

That's a very different world to the one Australia is used to living in; we would have a bona fide world power on our doorstep.

Yesterday Prime Minister Abbott unwisely suggested that Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran ought to be shown mercy as a form of reciprocity, given Australia's generous aid in the aftermath of the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami. Presumably this was a piece of political theatre designed for domestic consumption, because as could easily have been predicted, it has gone down badly in Jakarta. In thus playing to a domestic audience with little apparent regard for how Jakarta might respond, Abbott is echoing his Government's approach to 'stopping the boats', an approach whose confident nationalism was first defined by John Howard's boast that 'we will decide who comes to this country, and the circumstances in which they come.' It was meant to suggest to Australians that the Government would have complete control over Australia's borders, but that has never been accurate; Australia under Labor and Coalition governments has had to cooperate intensively with Indonesia to implement its policy.

As Indonesia grows, it is becoming harder for Australia to maintain the pretense of control in our relations with Jakarta. The 'we will decide' era is over. Jakarta won't necessarily be hostile to Canberra's interests in future, but when the Indonesian government oversees the fourth-largest economy in the world, it will be much harder to sway, and it will have many more tools at its disposal to influence and constrain Australia's foreign policy choices. What of our confident nationalism then?


Late yesterday I talked with Lowy Institute East Asia Research Fellow Aaron Connelly about the Chan-Sukumaran case.

Aaron is pretty unsparing about talk of a so-called Bali boycott: he says its an empty threat because Bali gets plenty of tourist traffic from elsewhere. But it is nevertheless dangerous — when foreigners threaten Indonesia, it just causes Indonesians to close ranks. Still, Aaron points out that there has been some domestic pressure in recent years to remove the death penalty from drugs cases, though that progress is obviously now being reversed.

NB: Since the interview was recorded, events have moved on a little, and we know that the two men are not being moved to the execution site imminently, as I say in my opening question. The ABC reports that the executions will almost certainly not occur this month.

NB2: Aaron tells me there are 64 drug offenders on death row in Indonesia, not 60 as he states in the interview.


Last week Lowy Institute Executive Director Michael Fullilove bemoaned the state of Australian governance in a column for the Financial Times:

It was not always this way. Between 1983 and 2007 Australia enjoyed a quarter-century of stable, effective government. Labor administrations under Bob Hawke in the 1980s and his successor Paul Keating in the 1990s remade the economy, developed innovative social policy and managed to win five elections at a time when conservative political parties governed most of the developed world. A stream of social democrats — including a young Tony Blair and Gordon Brown — made the pilgrimage to Canberra to look and learn.

The coalition government of John Howard (1996-2007) ran up four election victories. Tory leaders William Hague and David Cameron were admirers of Mr Howard’s deft political management and his record of capable economic stewardship.

It's been said before that Australia can be most influential on the international stage by acting as an exemplar of good public policy. If Michael is right about the state of Australian politics, then clearly Australia's soft power in this area is in decline. But to the British investigative humourist John Oliver, at least, Australia is still setting an example in at least one policy area (warning, some NSFW language):


On 2 February, Lowy Institute economist Leon Berkelmans said revised Indian GDP calculations suggested that:

...if we were to take these numbers at face value, then India is growing almost as fast as China. India could be the next hot economy. These revisions have made me more optimistic that the future is indeed bright, although I remain cautious.

Now I see the Wall Street Journal is reporting that:

...recent recalculations indicate that India has already dethroned China as the world’s fastest-growing big economy. Late Monday, India’s statistics ministry surprised economists when it unveiled the new numbers for the growth of India’s gross domestic product. It ratcheted up India’s GDP growth figures using a new methodology that pegs expansion in Asia’s third-largest economy at 7.5% last quarter and 8.2% the quarter before that. Economists and the ministry, using the old methodology, had originally said growth was closer to 5.5% during those quarters.

Important caveat:

Of course, China’s economy is still four times the size of India’s. “There’s no comparison between these growth rates because of the size of the economy of China,” said Ashish Kumar, director general of the Central Statistics Office as he announced the new GDP growth numbers.  “If this kind of growth continues and China continues to perform at a lower level, then still it will take 20 to 30 years to catch up.”


A quarter-century of political stability and effective government gave Australia an international reputation that attracted future leaders such as Tony Blair and David Cameron to Australia to learn from the likes of Hawke, Keating and Howard. But with five prime ministers in eight years, Australia is now inviting comparisons with Italy.

Below you can hear my conversation with Lowy Institute Executive Director Michael Fullilove about his Financial Times opinion piece on Australia's political dysfunction, and what it means for our place in the world. I also ask Michael: when does this era of leadership instability end? And more importantly, how does it end?


Barack Obama's media advisers have always been pretty new-media savvy, and now they have their boss doing interviews with the relative newcomer Vox; a Buzzfeed interview is on the cards too. Here's a short video in which Obama explains his foreign policy philosophy, with distracting and gimmicky graphics courtesy of Vox:

Here's an extended clip:

Here's the transcript for the longer clip.

(Thanks Steph.)


Less than a month ago I somewhat incredulously noted a prediction from the Council on Foreign Relations' Joshua Kurlantzick that Tony Abbott would be ousted as Prime Minister in a Liberal Party revolt in 2015.

Kurlantzick must be feeling pretty good about that prediction right about now.

We'll see after Tuesday's leadership spill whether Abbott survives, but meanwhile, Kurlantzick has written a follow-up post saying Tony Abbott has to go:

Abbott’s policies have been all over the map, and the lack of coherence has often made the prime minister seem ill-informed and incapable of understanding complex policy issues. In press conferences, Abbott has offered mixed public messages about some of the health care reforms that were at the center of his agenda, and sometimes has seemed unsure himself of what health legislation has actually been passed on his watch. He also has seemed unsure of what he promised in the past regarding Australia’s major public broadcaster – he promised not to touch it – before he went ahead made cuts to it. He also looked completely baffled on climate change issues at the G20 summit in Australia last year.

We'll have more international reaction to the Government's leadership woes next week.


A reader responds to my post on the retirement of blogger Andrew Sullivan:

Thank you and rest assured, The Interpreter is not going anywhere.


Some time tomorrow, Sydney time, Andrew Sullivan will post his final entry on The Dish, the influential and hugely popular blog he started in 2000.

Most (not all) of the reaction in the US has been laudatory. In fact, Sullivan has been praised not just as a pioneer of a new form of journalism, but as the most influential public intellectual of the last 20 years.

Sullivan's blog has meant a great deal to me, personally (read about my meeting with Andrew Sullivan), and you can see the Dish DNA in The Interpreter. Most importantly, The Interpreter has tried to encourage the spirit of conversation that Sullivan argues is so central to blogging ('The blogger...is—more than any writer of the past—a node among other nodes, connected but unfinished without the links and the comments and the track-backs that make the blogosphere, at its best, a conversation, rather than a production). Our Debate thread feature is to my knowledge the first of its kind and was designed to encourage just the kind of conversation Sullivan describes.

Yet as Ezra Klein points out, that spirit of conversation is getting harder to sustain in the age of social media. The Interpreter still has strong traffic flows to our homepage, but increasingly, readers are arriving via back doors, individual posts recommended to them via links on Twitter, Facebook or email. Those readers are interested in the story you are telling; they are not loyal to the masthead. So you can't assume they are aware of what else has been happening on your site, thus making conversations strung out over a number of posts harder. These readers want self-contained material, which encourages magazine-style writing with a clear beginning and end rather than the debate and discussion (laden with links to previous installments) that blogging encourages.

In truth, The Interpreter has always been more magazine than blog; yes, we publish in the bloggy reverse-chronological format, but we have an editorial team, a commissioning process, a cadre of regular columnists and other trappings of an online magazine. Yet that doesn't mean we have to let go of the conversational style that makes blogging so attractive as a form of writing, and The Interpreter will keep that spirit of conversation alive through our regular debate threads.


International observers must be astonished that Australian politics is tearing itself apart yet again. With Prime Minister Abbott's leadership now seemingly in near-terminal decline in the wake of his decision to award a knighthood to Prince Philip, Australia's 'coup culture' has returned. In fact, it never really left. As the astute anonymous blogger and tweeter The Piping Shrike points out, 'Basically in five years we have had about 8 months when the PM hasn't been "embattled".'

Although this is largely a domestic farce (or is that tragedy?), it has a decidedly international dimension.

Paul Kelly's account* of the 2009 leadership spill that deposed Malcolm Turnbull and brought Tony Abbott to the leadership and eventually the prime ministership argues that climate change was at the core of the leadership contest. Turnbull wanted to deal with the Rudd Government on an emissions trading scheme, but Senator Nick Minchin threatened that this would lead a dozen Liberals (and the entire National Party) to cross the floor, resulting in the most significant internal split since the Liberal Party's founding. The dispute over climate change 'went to the identity of the party', says Kelly.

When Turnbull called for a vote on the leadership in late 2009, Abbott put himself forward as a candidate who would oppose emissions trading and thus hold the party together. He won the ballot by a single vote.

Now, we are told, Malcolm Turnbull is a leading candidate to replace Tony Abbott as Liberal leader and prime minister, thus raising again the ideological split that led to Turnbull's downfall in 2009. Phillip Coorey writes:

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While members of the junior ­Coalition partner have no say in who leads the Liberal Party, some have sought to remind the Liberal Party that the Coalition nearly fell apart in 2009 just before Mr Turnbull was ousted as leader and replaced by Tony Abbott. The Nationals played a significant role in Mr Turnbull’s demise by running a guerrilla campaign against his intention to do a deal with Kevin Rudd on an emissions trading scheme. So poisonous did the relationship become that by the end of Mr Turnbull’s reign, the Nationals were threatening to quit the Coalition and many Liberals were willing them to go.

And here's Paul Kelly today:

As for Turnbull, he brings three serious defects to the job. Many MPs believe he cannot hold the Liberal Party together, that it would shatter under his leadership in a 2009 replay and that his progressive values will fracture the conservative side. Second, the Nationals distrust him, thereby creating a coalition friction. Third, Turnbull cannot crusade against Labor’s carbon pricing policy, a big problem.

In Turnbull's favour is the fact that the international ground has shifted appreciably on climate change since 2009. In fact, that shift happened in part right here in Australia when President Obama last November gave a blistering speech on climate change in Brisbane which rocked the Abbott Government with its thinly veiled criticism of the Government's climate-change stance. Obama was on a roll after signing a major emissions agreement with China just before he arrived in Brisbane. Coalition governments always pride themselves on their fidelity to the US alliance, and this was a pronounced breech — in the history of the alliance, had there ever been such an obvious difference in sentiment on arguably the major international issue of the day?

Should the Liberal Party return to Turnbull, he would probably have to soften his stance on climate change to mollify the right of his party and the Nationals. But how? His political persona is framed around his principled stance on this issue. As he said in 2009: 'How can I change the principles I have championed? What reputation would I have left?' (UPDATE: Lenore Taylor sees a way out of this dilemma.)

Should the party stick with Abbott, it will for the time being continue to be able to suppress its internal divisions on climate change. But for how long? If the international momentum created by the US-China agreement last November continues into the Paris conference in November-December, we might just get that elusive legally binding  and universal agreement on emissions. That still looks an unlikely bet, but should it happen, it would make Australia's stance look even more anachronistic than it does now.

It's not unprecedented for issues with an international dimension to split major Australian political parties — it happened to Labor in the 1950s when it split over communism. Could climate change do the same for the Liberals?

* Most articles from the Australian are paywalled. To get around it, just Google 'How the Liberals were reborn in the party crisis of 2009' and click on the top link.

Photo courtesy of the Liberal Party.


Yesterday evening in a busy hotel lobby I talked with the head of the UK's Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Sir Simon Fraser. Fraser is UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond's senior adviser, and they are in Sydney for the annual AUKMIN talks, which involve foreign and defence ministers from both countries.

We discuss the fight against ISIS, the state of UK-Russia relations in light of Moscow's aggression against Ukraine, and lastly I ask about the AUKMIN talks themselves. As you can see, the Joint Ministerial Statement from the talks runs to just six paragraphs, so I asked Sir Simon whether there is really enough substance to sustain an annual ministerial dialogue: