Lowy Institute
US presidential race 2016

My apologies for lowering the tone, but would it help if I told you that the term 'bullshit' has some academic pedigree, primarily thanks to a famous essay by the philosopher Harry Frankfurt? Here he is on the important distinction between bullshitting and lying:

The liar is inescapably concerned with truth-values. In order to invent a lie at all, he must think he knows what is true. And in order to invent an effective lie, he must design his falsehood under the guidance of that truth. On the other hand, a person who undertakes to bullshit his way through has much more freedom. His focus is panoramic rather than particular. He does not limit himself to inserting a certain falsehood at a specific point, and thus he is not constrained by the truths surrounding that point or intersecting it. He is prepared to fake the context as well, so far as need requires. This freedom from the constraints to which the liar must submit does not necessarily mean, of course, that his task is easier than the task of the liar. But the mode of creativity upon which it relies is less analytical and less deliberative than that which is mobilized in lying. It is more expansive and independent, with mare spacious opportunities for improvisation, color, and imaginative play. This is less a matter of craft than of art. Hence the familiar notion of the 'bullshit artist.'

Doesn't that describe Mr Trump pretty well? Trump, when you consider his rhetoric, seems little concerned with truth and falsehood; he's working on a larger and more impressionistic canvas, trying to create archetypes (Lyin' Ted, Crooked Hillary) and set a particular mood. I suppose all politicians do that, but Trump is definitely at the extreme end.

Frankfurt's essay comes to mind in light of an enlightening new profile of Donald Trump in the The Hollywood Reporter. Here's the key passage:

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It is hard not to feel that Trump understands himself, and that we're all in on this kind of spectacular joke. His shamelessness is just so...shameless. So how much, I ask — quite thinking he will get the nuance here — is the Trump brand based on exaggeration? He responds, with perfect literalness, none at all. I try again. He must understand. How could he not? "You've talked about negotiation, which is about compromise and about establishing positions that you can walk back from. How much about being a successful person involves...well, bullshitting? How much of success is playing games?"

If he does understand, he's definitely not taking this bait. I try again: "How much are you a salesman?"

Salesman, in the Trump worldview, is hardly a bad word, and he is quite willing to accept it, although, curiously, he doesn't want to be thought of that way when it comes to real estate. But as a politician, he's OK as a salesman. In this, he sees himself — and becomes almost eloquent in talking about himself — as a sort of performer and voter whisperer.

Yes, a performer and a voter whisperer. That's exactly the argument Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams has been making about Trump for months now:

Note that Adams concludes no-one can beat Trump. Blogger Jason Kottke, who has also written on Trump the bullshitter, says if Trump is to be defeated, it won't be in the realm of fact:

Much of what I read from people who oppose Trump attempts to counter his rhetoric with facts. That hasn't worked and is not going to work. The truth is not the antidote for bullshit. So how do you defeat the bullshitter? This has been a genuine problem for his political opponents thus far. Frankfurt doesn't offer any advice in the video (perhaps his book does?), and I'm at a loss as well, but I do know that factual refutation will not make any difference. I hope someone figures it out soon though.

Scott Adams has bemoaned the fact that Hillary Clinton's campaign seems to have no idea how to counter Trump, though according to the NY Times, Clinton's latest speech, in which she attacked Trump on multiple fronts, 'came after weeks of study by Clinton aides to determine which attacks by Mr. Trump’s Republican rivals had not worked.' We will see if their research has paid off.

Election Interpreter 2016

Admittedly, it is crashingly boring for policy analysts to complain that their pet issue gets too little attention from our political leaders. But last night's leaders' debate was notable for the fact that the outside world barely intruded into the discussion. Apart from a brief segue on border protection (and perhaps you could argue that the entire 'boats' issue is a proxy for Australian anxieties about globalisation), and a passing mention of the Australia-China FTA, the only direct reference to how global affairs affects Australia was in Prime Minister Turnbull's introduction:

We live in remarkable times. An era unprecedented in human history where the pace and scale of economic change is pre-eminent and unprecedented. China 40 years ago, barely part of the global economy, now the world's largest single economy and our largest trading partner. Within a few years half of the world's middle class will be living to our north in East Asia.

We have seen the pace of change in technology as great businesses and great industries are overtaken by newcomers. These are times of enormous opportunity and uncertainty. These are times of great challenge. These are times when we need a clear economic plan to secure our future. To ensure that Australians remain a high wage, generous social welfare net, first-world economy. And I have that plan.

So why do the epochal events to our north — the once-in-a-century shift of global economic and strategic power from the Atlantic to the Pacific — have so little impact on Australia's domestic political debate? (Immodesty alert: the following three links are all to pieces I have written). One reason is that political leaders and policy specialists have a hard time articulating how this shift actually impacts Australians in their day-to-day lives.

Another reason is that it is hard for politicians to tell Australians that they ought to pay more attention to Asia, because it makes them sound condescending.

A third reason is rational ignorance: voters are busy, so they apportion their attention to things over which they have a direct influence. And for the vast majority, their level of influence over national policy extends no further than their vote, which means the likelihood that they can have any substantial impact on policy is tiny. And that's just in the domestic sphere, where politicians, elected by the voters, can implement laws which are then enforced by the state. When it comes to events beyond our shores, the influence any single voter yields is diluted still further, because those same politicians are working on a stage where they have no legislative power and few means of enforcement. The only tools they have to shift events are persuasion, influence and occasionally military force.

So it's natural that voters don't focus heavily on international events, and that our politicians follow their lead.

Photo: Mick Tsikas - Pool/Getty Images


Looking for a universal, all-purpose hypothesis for the weirdness that is Trump, Sanders, Brexit, Austria's near-miss with a far-right presidency, and the worldwide decline in democracy? How about neoliberal globalisation?

The neofascist reaction, the force behind Trump, has come about because of the extreme disembeddedness of the economy from social relations. The neoliberal economy has become pure abstraction; as has the market, as has the state, there is no reality to any of these things the way we have classically understood them. Americans, like people everywhere rising up against neoliberal globalization (in Britain, for example, this takes the form of Brexit, or exit from the European Union), want a return of social relations, or embeddedness, to the economy.

Personally, I prefer this explanation from economist Tyler Cowen, though as others have noted, it is a highly speculative piece:

The contemporary world is not very well built for a large chunk of males.  The nature of current service jobs, coddled class time and homework-intensive schooling, a feminized culture allergic to most forms of violence, post-feminist gender relations, and egalitarian semi-cosmopolitanism just don’t sit well with many…what shall I call them?  Brutes?

Quite simply, there are many people who don’t like it when the world becomes nicer.  They do less well with nice.  And they respond by in turn behaving less nicely, if only in their voting behavior and perhaps their internet harassment as well.

Female median wages have been rising pretty consistently, but the male median wage, at least as measured, was higher back in 1969 than it is today (admittedly the deflator probably is off, but even that such a measure is possible speaks volumes).  A lot of men did better psychologically and maybe also economically in a world where America had a greater number of tough manufacturing jobs.  They thrived under brutish conditions, including a military draft to crack some of their heads into line.

Reminds me of the small torrent of articles produced in the US in 2009 on the so-called 'man-cession' or 'he-cession' because job losses in that downturn were felt so disproportionately among men. There were wider implications, argued Reihan Salam at the time:

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The great shift of power from males to females is likely to be dramatically accelerated by the economic crisis, as more people realize that the aggressive, risk-seeking behavior that has enabled men to entrench their power—the cult of macho—has now proven destructive and unsustainable in a globalized world.

Indeed, it’s now fair to say that the most enduring legacy of the Great Recession will not be the death of Wall Street. It will not be the death of finance. And it will not be the death of capitalism. These ideas and institutions will live on. What will not survive is macho. And the choice men will have to make, whether to accept or fight this new fact of history, will have seismic effects for all of humanity—women as well as men.

Photo by Flickr user Jason St Peter.


'The decision to lift the ban was not based on China or any other considerations,' Obama said today:

Precisely no-one, including the Chinese, believes this. So what was achieved by maintaining this fiction?

This is not meant as a naive question. I recognise there are plenty of occasions in diplomacy, as in life, when it is inadvisable to tell the unvarnished truth. There are even occasions when it is mutually beneficial to maintain a patently false facade so that both sides in a diplomatic crisis can save face (see 'This is Why Governments Don't Comment on Intelligence Matters'). But how does this situation qualify?

One possible justification is that such a blunt denial shuts down any potentially awkward questions from the media. But he's the US President. He can handle it, can't he? And surely the whole point of lifting the embargo is to send a signal to China, so why would he want to avoid questions anyway?

Perhaps the clinching reason is that Obama simply didn't want to speak so openly while in Vietnam, and standing right beside his Vietnamese counterpart, who has a delicate balance to maintain in relations with Beijing. If that's the case, perhaps Obama will speak more openly after his departure.


In light of the news that Chinese fighters conducted what the Pentagon calls an 'unsafe intercept' of one of its reconnaissance aircraft flying over the South China Sea on Tuesday (according to the US, the Chinese jets flew within 50 ft of the the American plane, forcing it to descend), it is worth revisiting an Interpreter piece by eminent American security analyst Bonnie Glaser from September last year on the then-newly agreed US-China accord on 'Rules of Behavior for Safety of Air-to-Air Encounters.'

It was an agreement which was supposed to put a stop to these kinds of incidents. Here's one interesting extract from Glaser's piece:

Especially noteworthy is the section that establishes responsibilities for aircraft when an intercept takes place. According to the agreement, the aircraft commander initiating the intercept should maintain safe separation while the operator of the aircraft being intercepted should avoid reckless maneuvers. The distance between aircraft that constitutes safe separation is not spelled out; rather it is dependent on circumstances. While this is sensible, it leaves split-second decisions up to the discretion of Chinese fighter pilots, who often lack experience.

It's important to note that we so far only have the American version of what occurred on this occasion. The Chinese statement will no doubt differ.

Speaking of aerial shows of strength, the Pentagon has just released more footage of Russian fighter-bombers and helicopters buzzing a US Navy destroyer in the Baltic Sea on 11 and 12 April. (H/t Alert 5.)

Election Interpreter 2016

Fairfax's Daniel Flitton today identifies four important areas of foreign policy difference between Labor and the Coalition: the East Timor boundary dispute, nuclear abolition, freedom-of-navigation exercises in the South China Sea, and Israel-Palestine.

I  wonder if we saw a fifth factor open up yesterday with Opposition Leader Bill Shorten's criticisms of Donald Trump: 'I have to say that if I was in America I'd be voting for Hillary Clinton...Whoever America elects we'll deal with, but there is no doubt in my mind that Trump would be very difficult, I think, to deal with.'

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop responded in what struck me as rather unwise terms, by putting herself in the position of seeming to defend Trump: 'Mr Shorten should explain the precise areas of difficulty that he believes would arise from a Trump presidency.'

I suppose Shorten could start with Trump's comments on Japanese nuclear weapons. But really, the point is not so much policy as it is character, temperament and basic suitability for high office. Australians have made it clear through Lowy Institute polling that they share these doubts about Trump, with 45% saying 'Australia should distance itself from the United States if it elects a president like Donald Trump', so Shorten is on pretty solid ground (unlike John Howard, who was pulling against the prevailing mood when he criticised then-Senator Obama in 2007).

The US-Australia alliance has always been more than a practical arrangement for common security; it is also based on deep cultural affinities and historical ties. But as I've argued previously, in Australia in recent years it seems to have evolved (or perhaps calcified) into an ideology, a political totem before which anyone with pretensions to being politically mainstream must genuflect.

Yesterday we hosted Greens leader Richard Di Natale, who made made some stinging criticisms of the alliance. I have a number of reservations about the Greens' foreign policy ideas (I mentioned one in my question to Di Natale yesterday; listen from listen from 37:23), but the unhinged reaction to Di Natale's remarks from sections of the media, and Bishop's response to Bill Shorten's comments, reinforce the point about the totemic status of the alliance.

If there is a silver lining to the Trump phenomenon for Australia, it may be that this ideology will be subjected to some overdue scrutiny.

Photo by Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post via Getty Images

US presidential race 2016

Given how often we're now hearing about the parallels between Donald Trump's campaign and reality television (even President Obama is discussing it), it's worth highlighting this brilliant two-and-a-half minute evisceration of The Apprentice, the show Trump fronted for 14 seasons. It's a 2009 sketch by the British comedy duo Mitchell & Webb:

Incidentally, by presenting this video I don't mean to dismiss Trump or his methods. In fact, Trump's ability to persuade Americans has been disastrously under-estimated up to this point, something which the cartoonist Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame) has been writing about on his blog for some time. He's well worth following.


This looks amazing:

Ang Lee directing and Steve Martin in a dramatic role is is enough to whet my appetite, but it looks like the film also explores the phony 'thank you for your service' patriotism that the Lowy Institute's recent guest James Fallows has written about in 'The Tragedy of the American Military'. In fact, that article contains a reference to the book Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain, which Fallows calls 'The most biting satirical novel to come from the Iraq-Afghanistan era'.

For an Australian take on the same phenomenon, I recommend James Brown's Anzac's Long Shadow.


After last October's state visit to the UK by President Xi Jinping, the respected China watcher Kerry Brown wrote on The Interpreter that the structure of Sino-British relations for the past several decades was 'of a persistent veering between concord and discord', a pattern set in the '80s by tensions over the future of Hong Kong:

The question with the current Xi Jinping visit to London is whether we are just seeing a high point in the usual cyclical pattern, and that we should expect the usual dip fairly soon.

That question may now have been answered, given Beijing's cool reaction to the Queen's criticisms of Chinese diplomats, caught on camera (see above).

The end of Brown's piece is also worth quoting in the circumstances:

The UK has pushed the boat out for this visit. It has a lot to lose, with its allies in particular, if this does not work. If a steady, strong flow of good economic collaboration starts, and Europeans, Americans and Australians see knock-on benefits, then this story has a good ending. But if another dip happens in the next few months or year, it will be proof that the UK and China have profound problems that they have still not managed to overcome.


Here's David Cameron yesterday in a major speech on the Brexit referendum (my emphasis):

It’s barely been 20 years since war in the Balkans and genocide on our continent in Srebrenica. In the last few years, we have seen tanks rolling into Georgia and Ukraine. And of this I am completely sure. The European Union has helped reconcile countries which were once at each others’ throats for decades. Britain has a fundamental national interest in maintaining common purpose in Europe to avoid future conflict between European countries.

But here he is in January 2013, when he launched the referendum process:

What Churchill described as the twin marauders of war and tyranny have been almost entirely banished from our continent. Today, hundreds of millions dwell in freedom, from the Baltic to the Adriatic, from the Western Approaches to the Aegean. And while we must never take this for granted, the first purpose of the European Union – to secure peace – has been achieved and we should pay tribute to all those in the EU, alongside NATO, who made that happen. But today the main, over-riding purpose of the European Union is different: not to win peace, but to secure prosperity.

To be clear, Cameron hasn't changed his position on Brexit; he's always been against it. But those two quotes on the EU's role in maintaining peace in Europe are directly at odds. 

Photo: Getty Images


It's an Oliver Stone film, so it's no surprise to see a trailer that reflects the paranoid-conspiratorial strain in Stone's political views.

Stone has ideological enemies who made much of the director's historical over-reach in JFK (1991). The problem for those critics now is that Stone's wild theories about an unaccountable national-security establishment which secretly runs the country (and can even assassinate a sitting president) look slightly less fanciful in the age of XKeyscore.

Stone is a fringe figure these days, but JFK was a major success in part because it tapped into Americans' sense that the system was rigged (The X-Files was big in the early '90s too). In the age of Trump and Sanders, it is hard to argue that that feeling has diminished. Maybe Snowden is a film for the times.


The Lowy Institute has published a major new report on China's behaviour in the South China Sea. 'Shifting Waters: China's New Passive Assertiveness Asian Maritime Security' finds that China has changed its tactics in recent times: there are fewer confrontations at sea with the constabulary and naval forces of other claimants, and more 'passive assertiveness' such as island-building.

Co-author Ashley Townshend says this is partly a good-news story, because it reduces the chances of violent conflict. But in this interview recorded yesterday, Ashley also says that although the tactics have changed, China's strategic goals have not:


A clever YouTube user has mixed audio of a BBC report about a military parade to mark Kim Jong Un's birthday with footage of a military parade in honour of Queen Elizabeth II:

Before you get on your high horse, I don't think the point here is to say that Britain is just like North Korea. Rather, think of this as an illustration of the 'framing effect', defined by Wikipedia as 'Drawing different conclusions from the same information, depending on how that information is presented'. When the language typically used about North Korea is framed with new images, it reveals some implicit biases we hold about that country.

(H/t Kottke.)


So Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbll has announced that the next generation of Australian submarines will be built by French firm DCNS.

The big political story is that this announcement will help secure the Government a number of South Australian seats in the upcoming election. The big strategic story is not so much who won this bid but who lost it: Japan. The Interpreter has debated exhaustively the strategic implications of this decision: would a sub deal with Mitsubishi Heavy Industry bring us closer to Japan? Would we form a quasi-alliance that might entangle us in Japan’s increasingly fractious relationship with China? What does that mean for our China-exposed trading industry?

Over coming days we may well see stories emerge of Chinese relief at this decision, and maybe even implications that Australia has buckled to Chinese pressure not to choose the Japanese bid. But one thing to keep in mind as you read these stories is that Australia is still doubling the size of its submarine fleet from 6 to 12. Whether the contractor is French, German, Japanese or other, that is still a substantial statement of Australia’s strategic anxieties, which inevitably centre around China’s long-term intentions. 

Granted, it will be decades before we actually field a 12-submarine fleet, and as I have argued previously, it may not make much difference to the larger strategic balance, which is shifting away from Australia. But nevertheless, it is a dramatic gesture which we might find alarming had it been made by any of our close neighbours. 

Perhaps the reason our neighbours have not expressed concern is that they understand perfectly well what this build-up is about. They too are alarmed at the growth of Chinese power and its increasing assertiveness in the region. And they too recognise that submarines are highly effective tools to counter that growing military strength. 

In the end, none of this may matter to China, since its growth trajectory, and its tenacity and resolve, may see it gradually assert its authority over the South China Sea and beyond, whether countries like Australia re-arm or not. As Hugh White has written, the question is ultimately about the balance of wills, rather than the balance of arms. But if the military capabilities of US allies such as Australia do weigh on Chinese decision-makers, then today’s announcement should be cause for reflection in Beijing, not celebration.

Photo courtesy of Australian Defence Image Library.

Editor's Note: This article was erroneously posted early today. The content is unchanged.


Today Australians pause to remember those who have served, and fallen, in wartime. Normal service will resume tomorrow on The Interpreter.

Photo by Flickr user Department of Veterans' Affairs.