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The Michael and Deborah Thawley Scholarship in International Security at the Lowy Institute and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington DC, provides an exceptional opportunity for an Australian official, officer, student, or recent graduate to play a part in the work of two leading think tanks dedicated to generating policy ideas on global strategic affairs. The scholarship provides a $10,000 award, flights, visa costs, and a small travel allowance for the Washington placement. Established in 2008 by former diplomat Michael Thawley and his wife Deborah, the scholarship supports Australia’s future strategic leaders. Successful candidates spend an initial period based at the Lowy Institute, in Sydney, followed by a placement of 8 to 12 weeks with CSIS in Washington DC, which provides direct exposure to both organisations’ work at the intersection of research and policy in international affairs, access to their research networks, and involvement in their policy work.

Information about applying for the 2022 Thawley Scholarship can be found here.


Past Thawley Scholars

2019 – Brigid O’Farrell

Brigid O’Farrell

Brigid O’Farrell is the 2019 Thawley Scholar at the Lowy Institute and the Centre of Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC. She is a Rhodes Scholar and MPhil Candidate in Modern Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oxford. Her research interests include transitional justice, human rights and women, and peace and security in the Middle East.

Brigid has worked for International Crisis Group, the Australian Mission to the Human Rights Council in Geneva, the Victorian State Government and the Parliament of Victoria. She graduated from the University of Melbourne with Honours in History. As the Thawley Scholar, Brigid’s research will focus on the recent history of Australian foreign policy in the Middle East and how traditional calculations of our strategic interests in the region are changing.


2018 – Rohana Prince

Rohana Prince is the 2018 Thawley Scholar at the Lowy Institute and a policy officer in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s ASEAN and Regional Programs Section. She has previously worked in DFAT’s Southeast Asia and South and West Asia Divisions, as well as the Department of Defence’s Regional Strategy Directorate. Rohana completed the Masters of Strategic Studies program at the Australian National University in 2015 as the T. B. Millar Scholar, and holds a Bachelor of Philosophy with Honours (Asia-Pacific) (PhB) degree, also from the ANU. Rohana completed her honours thesis in 2014 on China’s role as a driver of Australian strategic policy and has studied abroad at the University of Toronto and Peking University.

2017 – Olivia Shen

Olivia Shen

Olivia Shen was the 2017 Thawley Scholar. She is an international adviser in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet where she covers Indonesia, Timor-Leste, Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos. Most recently she worked on the 2018 ASEAN-Australia Special Summit. Olivia has previously been a visiting fellow in the office of US Senator John McCain. She is currently completing a Master of Public Policy at the ANU.

“Now more than ever, Australia needs to be ambitious and hard-headed about influencing the policy debates that matter. The Thawley Scholarship offers an invaluable opportunity to contribute to those debates. At CSIS I had the opportunity to work closely with world-class experts whose work I have followed from afar.

The dynamism of the DC policy community is very special. It inspired me to stretch myself, challenge my own assumptions and refresh my thinking as a foreign policy professional. Personally and professionally, it was an absolute privilege to be a Thawley Scholar.”

2016 – Patrick Ingle

Patrick Ingle is Special Assistant and Advisor to the President of the Asia Society Policy Institute, based in New York. Before joining the Asia Society, Patrick worked for over four years in the Australian Prime Minister’s department, where he focused on Southeast Asia, Asian regional institutions and the South China Sea. He was the 2016 Michael and Deborah Thawley Scholar at the Lowy Institute for International Policy, and visiting Thawley Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC. His research interests include US and Chinese foreign policy, Chinese strategic culture, and Australian foreign and defense policy. He holds degrees in International Relations from the Australian National University and the London School of Economics and Political Science.

“The Thawley Scholarship is a uniquely generous opportunity to spend time in two world-class research institutions. CSIS and the Lowy Institute carry serious weight in DC, and the scholarship helped me gain access to many of the United States’ most influential policymakers, researchers and academics. The conversations I had with them about my research were illuminating, stimulating and often surprisingly candid.

Given the extensive ties between our two countries, it’s important that Australians with an eye for global affairs have a nuanced understanding of international policy debates in the US. There’s no better way to do this than to live and breathe the experience of being in Washington DC. I couldn’t have gained the new perspectives I did without the support of Michael and Deborah Thawley, the Lowy Institute and CSIS.”

2014 – Jacob Berah

Jacob Berah was the 2015 Michael and Deborah Thawley Scholar in International Security at the Lowy Institute for International Policy and visiting Thawley Fellow at CSIS. Taking leave from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to undertake the scholarship, Jacob was previously posted as Third Secretary in the Political Section of the Australian Embassy in Afghanistan. Jacob joined DFAT in 2012, working across a number of areas, including counterterrorism cooperation and South America bilateral relations. Jacob holds Masters Degrees with first class honours in International Relations and Diplomacy from the Australian National University, including a semester at the Peace Research Institute in Oslo, and completed his undergraduate studies in philosophy and history at the University of Melbourne. He was also awarded the 2010 National Parliamentary-Congressional Scholarship, for which he interned for then-US Senator Richard G. Lugar.

“The Thawley Fellowship was an immensely enriching and educational experience. The program allowed me to connect and interact with the Washington foreign policy establishment and to meet with high-level and influential policymakers and commentators. Taking the time to get under the skin of Washington and live in the political cycle every day helped me to understand how Americans think about themselves and the world.

The Fellowship also provided the opportunity to get to know CSIS and the broader think tank community in Washington in a very personal and privileged way. Think tanks are, in many ways, the bridge between theory and policy in Washington, and being based at CSIS allows the Thawley Fellow to understand, and even engage, in that process. It was also a great experience to inject my own analysis and views into international policy debates by authoring commentaries published both by CSIS and the Lowy Institute.”

2014 – Adelle Neary

Adelle Neary was a Michael and Deborah Thawley Scholar in International Security at the Lowy Institute for International Policy and visiting Thawley Fellow in the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at CSIS. She is currently working in the International Division of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. Prior to taking up the Thawley scholarship, Adelle served as Second Secretary in the Political Section at the Australian Embassy in Jakarta. Adelle joined DFAT in 2010, after working as the International Business Support Lawyer to the central and eastern European offices of London-based law firm CMS Cameron McKenna LLP. She graduated with honours in law from the University of Adelaide, where she also completed undergraduate degrees in International Studies and Science, as well as a semester exchange to Universitas Gadjah Mada in Yogyakarta, Indonesia.

“The Thawley Scholarship allowed me to step outside the  public service and look at key international security issues from new perspectives.  It’s important as Australians that we understand the influences that shape and transform the US worldview and foreign policy approach. There are few better ways to develop this understanding than through immersion in the Washington DC policy community.

As a policy think-tank, CSIS has impressive influence. On crucial policy questions of direct import for Australia, CSIS helps set the agenda on US policy debates that directly shape our region. It’s a great base for the Thawley Scholar to work from – I had direct access to its impressive array of experts (many who have served in current and former administrations) and was able to sit down with them to discuss my research questions.”

2013 – Andrew Kwon

Andrew Yong-chang Kwon was formely a Program Associate of the Alliance 21 Program at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. A 2014 recipient of the Michael and Deborah Thawley Scholarship in International Security from the Lowy Institute for International Policy, he also completed internships at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), the Korea Economic Institute of America (KEI), and the Australian Institute of International Affairs (AIIA). Andrew holds a Master of International Security from the University of Sydney and a Bachelor of Arts in Politics and International Relations from the University of New South Wales.

“The Thawley scholarship is in a league of its own, there are no comparable opportunities available for aspiring strategic thinkers. By being exposed to the work of two leading international affairs think tanks, the scholarship provides recipients the chance to engage with both the best minds in the field and even the trickiest global challenges of the day. In addition, recipients will gain valuable insight on the unique role think tanks play in policy – institutions that not only craft original and practical policy solutions to influence government, but also provide insights that inform the public debate on complex world issues.”

2012 – Jack Georgieff

Jack Georgieff is an international security analyst, currently based in Wellington, New Zealand. In 2013 he was a Research Associate at the Lowy Institute where he focused on international security issues within the Indo-Pacific. Jack graduated top of his class from the Australian National University in December 2013 with a Master of Arts (International Relations) with First Class Honours. While there, he was a Hedley Bull Scholar and a New Zealand Ministry of Defence Freyberg Scholar. During 2013, he was a Thawley Scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC. Additionally, Jack taught international relations and comparative politics for several years at tertiary level in New Zealand and Australia, and has presented his research at peer conferences both at home and overseas.

“The issue I focused on as a Thawley Scholar at CSIS was alliances in the Indo-Pacific, particularly those the US has with Australia, Korea and Japan. It was striking how valued the Australian perspective on strategic issues was — many at CSIS (both senior and junior) were keen to hear my thoughts on how America was perceived in the framework of its 'rebalance'. My views on these alliances made me realise that they are more integral than ever for the success or failure of the rebalance strategy coming from Washington.

I hope to one day return to Washington DC to work and further deepen the relationships and friendships the Thawley Scholarship allowed me to develop. I particularly valued the friendship and mentorship of Michael Thawley. He and his wife Deborah really did provide an outstanding experience I will value for the rest of my life.”

2012 – Ryan Manuel

Ryan Manuel is a Fellow at the Australian Centre on China in the World and the Crawford School of Public Policy, both at the Australian National University. His most recent publication is A New Australia-China Agenda (with Geremie Barmé). 

“The Thawley Scholarship was an excellent chance to work with Linda Jakobson, a world-class China expert, and our collaboration continues to this day. I’m grateful to the Lowy Institute for instituting this program, and would encourage anyone interested in working on foreign affairs in Australia to apply.”

2011 – Esther Sainsbury

Esther Sainsbury is the Democracy and Justice Assistance Coordinator at the Australian Embassy in Jakarta. This role involves coordinating the Australian Government’s aid to Indonesia to support the rule of law, access to justice, anti-corruption, public engagement in elections and improvements to electoral management. Prior to this, she worked as an Assistant Director with the Australian Agency for International Development and as an Investment Analyst with the Australian Defence Department. Esther received the 2011 Thawley Scholarship in International Security, studying at the Lowy Institute, Sydney, and Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Washington DC. There she researched Australia-Indonesia-United States relations and helped establish the CSIS Pacific Partners Initiative, the first Washington-based policy forum dedicated to providing a sustained, high-level focus on Australia, New Zealand, and Pacific Island countries. Esther was a 2014 Conference of Australian and Indonesian Youth delegate and as an Asia Education Foundation Asia Literacy Ambassador supports educators to develop Asia literate young Australians. Esther holds a Bachelor of Asian Studies (Specialist-Indonesian)/Hons Degree and Master of Strategic Affairs from the ANU and is an alumni of the Australian Consortium for In-Country Indonesian Studies program, studying at Gadjah Mada and Muhammadiyah Universities.

“The scholarship provided a valuable opportunity to develop my understanding of relations between the US and Australia, our mutual interests, possible areas of divergence and, as a young professional in the Australian Defence Department, to consolidate my research interests and professional experience.”


Rohana Prince
2018 Thawley Scholar, International Security Program

Latest publications

What needs to happen before the 2018 ASEAN-Australia leaders summit

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's pledge to hold an ASEAN-Australia leaders' summit in 2018 is a sign that Australia intends to take a more proactive and public role in shaping the Southeast Asian regional order. With a focus on strengthening economic ties and boosting links between Australian and ASEAN-based businesses, Turnbull hopes the summit will build on the Australia-ASEAN strategic partnership inked by leaders in November 2014.

But the 2018 meeting needs to be preceded by a solid plan to lift our strategic ties with ASEAN and its member states. Australia must devote serious attention to Southeast Asia's strategic and political architecture in the forthcoming foreign and trade white paper. Keeping a new White House constructively engaged should also a top priority.

Before his visit to Laos, the Prime Minister said 'Australia's future prosperity and stability are best served when we engage actively in our region and shape its course'. This sense of initiative needs to be seized upon and turned into a coherent and ambitious program of engagement with ASEAN. This rhetoric is a marked change from the passive stance of the 2003 White Paper, in which the government pledged to simply 'seek opportunities for Australia to participate in the broader dynamic of regional cooperation in East Asia in whatever practical ways become available'.

The regional strategic environment has changed a great deal since 2003, and the imperative and demand for Australia to play a leading role is stronger than ever. One of the ways Australia could do this is by encouraging the ASEAN-led East Asia Summit to morph into a freer exchange between leaders. Views should be more liberally aired, instead of constricted by bureaucratese and tightly-scripted statements.

There is something to be said in favour of the consensus-driven 'ASEAN way'; as the Economist notes, ASEAN summits are the only game in Asia, and allow regional leaders rare trust-building opportunities. But it's not a great use of time to bring together the leaders of ASEAN states, along with the US, China, Japan, India, Russia, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand, to read out prepared statements once a year. A dynamic, reformed and strategically engaged EAS needs to be front and centre of our ASEAN strategy, and is key to keeping the group relevant and able to deal with the region's challenges.

While bringing Southeast Asian leaders to Australia is a solid first step, the ASEAN-Australia summit probably won't take place for 18 months. Much is likely to change between now and early 2018. The Prime Minister needs to back up Australia's ambition by traveling to Southeast Asia more often, and not just for the mandatory multilateral summits. 

Notably, no Australian prime minister since John Howard has paid a standalone visit to Vietnam, one of our largest trading partners and a critical strategic player in the South China Sea. Political instability notwithstanding, the same goes for Thailand, another major trading partner and key ASEAN player. John Howard went in 2003 to mark the conclusion of the Australia-Thailand FTA negotiations, but no PM has paid a separate bilateral visit since then. 

In contrast, a steady stream of Southeast Asian leaders have visited Australia in the last five years, including those from Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, Myanmar, Brunei, Malaysia and Singapore. We've rightly devoted significant leader-level attention to our relations with Indonesia, ties with Singapore are particularly strong, and the MH370 and MH17 disasters drew us closer to Malaysia. But Australia shouldn't forget about the importance of developing links with ASEAN across the board.

Not only must Australia pursue closer engagement, it needs to encourage the new US administration to remain closely engaged in Southeast Asia. Under President Obama and the pivot, the US has significantly stepped up its engagement, including through the US-ASEAN Sunnylands meeting held in February 2016 (an event largely ignored in Australia). It's uncertain whether this focus on Southeast Asia will be kept up under the next White House. The rebalance is certainly more likely to be sustained under a Clinton Administration, but a recent report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies argues there is confusion about its purpose and how it's being executed; not a good sign for such a high-profile policy initiative. Australia will need to play a significant role in convincing a new president to stay constructively engaged in regional institutions and in the neighbourhood more generally.

Australia has serious depth of expertise on Southeast Asian economic, strategic and political matters. We have the advantage (or predicament) of geographic proximity to boot. But the long-term benefits won't appear without effort. Australia needs to do more hard thinking about what we want the regional order to look like, how we're going to get there, and what Australia's place in it should be. The first step is to redouble our ties with ASEAN and Southeast Asia.

Patrick Ingle is the 2016 Thawley Scholar in International Security at the Lowy Institute for International Policy. He is currently on leave from the Department of the Prime Minister & Cabinet. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of the Australian Government.

Photo: Getty Images/Anadolu

Iran deal shows that Congress is making it harder for America to manage China's rise

With the Obama Administration having secured sufficient votes in the US Senate to ensure the nuclear deal with Iran stands, the toll of this bitterly fought contest can now be taken. During what has been a particularly bruising debate even by American political standards, it was by no means clear the agreement was going to survive efforts to have Congress repudiate it. 

Secretary of State John Kerry and former Senator Richard Lugar, 2 September. (Flickr/US State Department.)

Proponents argued that the deal was the best available option for preventing Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons, and failure to approve it would favour Iran's nuclear and regional ambitions far more than any gaps in the agreement. Opponents argued that Iran cannot be trusted, that the deal is full of loopholes, and that Iran would translate the lifting of sanctions into greater regional power and support for terrorist groups. They portrayed the deal as a capitulation and the Obama Administration as weak on Iran. 

Israel's visceral opposition to the deal was another major factor galvanising congressional Republicans and putting pressure on a number of Democrats. Both sides were pushed to extremes in their denigration of the opposition; deal supporters were accused of inviting another Holocaust, and deal rejecters of holding common cause with anti-American Iranian hardliners

Republican opposition to a nuclear arms agreement negotiated by a Democratic president is nothing new. I witnessed this for myself when working in the office of then-US Republican Senator Richard Lugar in 2010, when he fought a grueling bipartisan battle alongside then-Senator John Kerry against fellow Senate Republicans to ratify the New START disarmament treaty with Russia. Lugar and Kerry succeeded, but only barely. 

The old adage that politics ends (or should end) at the water's edge was never completely true, but it nonetheless reflected the view of many in the political establishment that domestic politics should not significantly undermine the national interest, the international credibility of the state, or key alliances and relationships. Rejection of the Iran deal would likely have isolated the US, and left key negotiating partners high and dry, calling into question the diplomatic efficacy and good faith of the world’s superpower..

To debate in good faith what is or is not in the national interest in the domestic political arena is right and proper; to obstruct, deny and reject simply to deprive the other side a win is not. While there were important risks associated with the Iran deal that deserved to be raised, the political nature of much of the opposition is impossible to ignore. The intensity of the furor surrounding the deal, and the fact that the Administration's opponents came so close to blocking one of its key foreign policy initiatives, is cause to reflect on the extent to which partisan politics is limiting policy options in Washington — in particular, policy options that involve compromise.

As a statesman with a long history of working across the aisle on matters of foreign policy and international security, the now-former Senator Lugar is acutely familiar with the brutal reality of modern American politics. Lugar was ousted from the Senate by a Tea Party-backed Republican challenger who attacked, in part, his record of bipartisan cooperation. Almost five years after he and Kerry pushed the New START Treaty uphill through the Senate, I caught up with Lugar to ask whether he thought the political space for diplomacy in Washington has shrunk.

The Senator said he remains optimistic about the ability of the US Government to conduct rigorous foreign policy. Behind the scenes of the more controversial, media-saturated issues, Democrats and Republicans on legislative bodies such as the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations (on which Lugar served as Chair and Minority Leader on many occasions) still find sufficient common ground to avoid gridlock. But on politically charged issues such as the Iran deal, Lugar lamented the increasingly obstructionist political environment in Washington as a major challenge.

All of this is concerning, because it suggests partisanship in Washington could inhibit high-stakes diplomacy at a time when the US manages one of the most important and consequential security relationships in its modern history: that with a rising and more assertive China. 

Cyber attacks, island-building in the South China Sea, disputed territories, human rights and economic spill-over from China's slowdown are all issues likely to increase political attention on America's China policies, especially leading into the 2016 presidential election. While the Iran deal has taken up a lot of the foreign policy oxygen in the primary contests to date, the candidates have already made aggressive forays on China policy, and this is likely to increase over time.

The controversy over the Iran deal raises the spectre that as key points of contention with China become the subject of politicised debate in Congress and on the campaign trail, the ability of the executive to conduct deft diplomacy in response to tensions with China will be curtailed. In particular, an environment where acts of significant diplomatic compromise, concession or accommodation are portrayed as capitulation will make it increasingly difficult for US leaders to find creative ways to solve disputes and avoid escalation with China. Already the stagnant opposition to US ratification of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) arguably weakens US credibility and limits policy options on territorial disputes and island-building in the South China Sea.

One does not need to subscribe to an 'accommodationist' school of thought on US policy towards China to at least acknowledge that diplomatic compromise is an option that the US needs to keep open as it manages growing Chinese ambitions in the region. The concern is that is getting harder and harder to make that case in Washington.

Afghanistan: Mullah Omar's death won't cripple the peace process

Much has been made of the recent 'shock' announcement of Mullah Omar's death over two years ago, either in Pakistan or Afghanistan depending on who you believe. In particular, the revelation has been widely interpreted as a major challenge to peace talks.

Shashank Joshi was right to point out (Mullah Omar dead? Afghanistan Peace Talks Under Threat if News is Confirmed) that, given the timely Eid endorsement of the peace talks supposedly from Mullah Omar (or more likely, from those in the Taliban leadership controlling the messaging from the apparently already-dead leader), the leaking of his death may well have been a direct challenge to the proponents of peace. Forcibly destroying the myth that the reclusive leader of the movement was still alive, in command and in support of the peace talks could be seen as an attempt to stop those talks in their tracks.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. (Flickr/USIP.)

If the admission of Mullah Omar's death sparks an internal power struggle to replace him, talks will probably stall in the short term. Given reporting on Mullah Omar's former deputy Akhtar Mansour's power play for the top job, the subsequent announcement of insurgent leader Jalaluddin Haqqani's death, Tayeb Agha's resignation as head of the Taliban Political Office in Doha, and the walk-out and even possible (unconfirmed) murder of Omar's son and leadership challenger Yaqoob, the leadership drama is already starting to play out like an episode of Game of Thrones.

As I argued in my last analysis of the prospects for peace, however, we must resist the temptation to interpret every setback as a cause to write the obituary of the peace process.

The announcement of Mullah Omar's death and its possible consequences present a potential spoiler in the peace process, and it will be instructive to see how both President Ghani and the pro-peace elements in the Taliban manage the first of many possible spoilers on the road to peace. But the truth about Mullah Omar needed to come out, and it's probably a good thing that it happened now rather than later.

As I told Danielle Moylan in her insightful article for the ABC on the implications of Mullah Omar's death for Afghanistan, his absence would have been a constant elephant in the room during talks with the Afghan Government. For the Taliban to publicly negotiate under the authority of a dead man would have been an act of diplomatic bad faith, and played extremely negatively both to the Taliban rank-and-file as well as the Afghan public who will eventually be asked to accept any peace deal.

If we assume the announcement was correct and that Mullah Omar in fact died years ago, as the Kabul rumour mill has long conjectured, then it was a matter of 'when' rather than 'if' his death was revealed. Although the announcement will probably stall talks for now, it was better to have gotten this out of the way early, before talks progressed and the foundation of a negotiated agreement was hammered out. Announcing his death later in the piece would have likely been far more disruptive, potentially calling into question what had already been negotiated and sending the peace process back to square one.

Getting the admission of his death out of the way now allows the leadership issue in the Taliban to be resolved before talks are too far developed and for a more sustainable basis of legitimacy for peace to be consolidated within the movement. If Mansour retains the leadership, reports that he generally supports the idea of engaging in peace talks are positive. There is debate about the extent to which he and other moderate elements in the Taliban genuinely support peace or whether they have been strong-armed by Pakistan. But the West has been urging Pakistan for years to exert pressure on the Taliban to come to the table, and if it finally has, then that is a good thing.

While the leadership battle could cause a split that fragments the Taliban along pro and anti-peace lines, this may have been an inevitable consequence of pushing ahead with peace talks in any case. There were always going to be irreconcilable elements of the Taliban that would not accept peace. Disgruntled defectors may well raise the black flag of ISIS as they have previously, and the possibility of greater numbers flocking to ISIS is cause for concern. But for now, ISIS is not a strategic threat in Afghanistan, nor is it clear that it will become one.

What remains to be seen is whether Mansour (or whoever takes over the leadership) has the inclination to continue to engage in the peace process, and the charisma, influence and leadership to bring enough rank-and-file fighters with him to make a peace deal meaningful. While uncertainty continues to characterise the road ahead, the possibility of a negotiated settlement to this conflict remains real.

Peace talks in Afghanistan: The case for optimism

There were reports last week that the Afghan Government has officially met with the Taliban for the first time in years in Islamabad to discuss the beginning of formal peace talks – talks which could start as soon as the end of Ramadan later this week. This follows a series of unofficial meetings held throughout the first half of the year between a variety of Afghan officials, High Peace Council members, and other stakeholders (including prominent women) with Taliban representatives in China, Norway and Qatar.

This could mark a turning point in the long, haphazard peace process in Afghanistan, although there have been false starts before; most notably, the collapse of the Taliban office in Doha in 2013.

There will be understandable scepticism about this latest tilt at peace. Reports of the meeting in Islamabad were accompanied by news of another car bombing of a NATO convoy in Kabul. While its representatives attend meetings, the Taliban presses ahead with its campaign against the Afghan National Security Forces, making advances throughout the provinces and conducting terrorist attacks against major targets, including the Afghan parliament in late June. Commentators instinctively question how the Taliban could be serious about peace while at the same time attacking the national legislature.

Certainly it remains unclear how much of the senior leadership or the rank-and-file of the Taliban support a peace deal. But it is wrong to equate continued attacks with a failure of the peace process. The Taliban will want to negotiate from the strongest possible position, and that means pressing ahead with its military campaign. Just as we would expect the Government to continue its counter-insurgency and military operations in the absence of any agreement, it would be unreasonable to expect otherwise from the Taliban.

Additionally, elements within the Taliban opposed to negotiating a settlement may try to derail talks through provocative acts of violence. Indeed, questioning the validity of the peace process every time there is a major attack could empower the hardliners.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has said emphatically that the Afghan Government is ready to talk peace, and there are good reasons to believe that the Taliban (or at least elements within its leadership) also feels the time is right to cash in its chips and make a deal.

Ghani's outreach to Pakistan, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and China to build regional support for the peace process has increased diplomatic pressure on the Taliban to engage. A thawing of relations between Kabul and Islamabad in particular, and a shift in mood in Pakistan about its relationship with the Afghan Taliban following the Peshawar school massacre, may have raised concerns among the Taliban leadership about overstaying their welcome in Pakistan.

With the group's finances strained and fighters weary of the long war, the Taliban's military capability is unlikely to improve in future fighting seasons. Despite its strong showing in the 2015 fighting season, the Taliban cannot hold territory for long periods and it is unlikely to win an outright military victory in the foreseeable future. The Taliban's success this year may be an opportunity for it to negotiate from a position of strength.

A spate of defections to ISIS in the last 12 months may also increase the pressure to make a deal before the Taliban loses more numbers to this new competitor in Afghanistan. Contributing to this concern would have been Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's recent announcement that Hezb-e-Islami will now fight for ISIS against the Taliban, raising the spectre that ISIS could grow to become a serious military threat to the Taliban.

Taliban engagement this year is a cause for optimism. The most recent informal meeting hosted by Pugwash in Qatar produced a statement indicating the Taliban may be willing to consider compromising on its traditional red-line issues of women's rights and education, modifications to the Afghan constitution, and the departure of foreign troops. Its willingness to meet publicly on so many occasions is itself a positive change.

If the Islamabad meeting does lead to peace talks, it marks the beginning of a long and difficult process rather than the end of one. In the meantime, we can expect more violence, breakdowns and resumptions of talks, and mixed messages from within the Taliban as competing factions jostle for power and airtime. Forbearance from all sides, including Western coalition partners sceptical after years of disappointments, will be needed if the peace process is to stand a chance.

Photo by Flickr user Ash Carter.

A new US Secretary of Defense: How hard could it be?

Within hours of US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announcing his resignation, candidates to replace him were being named. Within a day, two out of the top three rumoured candidates removed themselves from contention. So the quest to find a new Secretary of Defense is becoming a case of 'who's left?' Given the challenges abroad, and more importantly at home, this is understandable.

Tom Switzer pointed briefly to the 'gruelling confirmation hearings' that await a Secretary of Defense nominee before the now Republican-controlled US Senate. The reputation for intense scrutiny experienced during these sessions has already forced high profile Obama Administration candidates to reconsider.

But to say the domestic concerns of a new Secretary of Defense end there would be incorrect. Consider for a moment the unenviable position of managing the world's most powerful military amid budgetary uncertainty and while conducting a military campaign in the Middle East.

But perhaps the greatest domestic challenge confronting a new Secretary of Defense is his or her place within the Obama Administration. The resignation of Chuck Hagel has led some informed commentators to believe he was a victim to what is seen as the White House's increasing centralisation of national security decision-making. Tom Ricks of Foreign Policy wrote:

Unless you have total White House backing in the first place, the job is almost impossible. Without such a commitment, it is just a nightmare.

Obama's eventual nominee will reflect a desire to either increase or decrease this trend of centralisation. Obama can pick a Secretary of Defense either because he/she will advocate and execute White House policy, or because he/she can be trusted to work in relative autonomy. These qualities are not mutually exclusive, but they won't always synchronize. The President's eventual choice will reflect his preferences and determine the direction of US National Security policy for the foreseeable future.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user US Department of Defense.

Congress, midterms and the TPP

US mid-terms elections will take place on 4 November, with polls suggesting the Republicans will re-take control of the Senate. President Obama's next steps on the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), which his Administration says is the key economic plank of the rebalance to Asia, will be heavily influenced by the outcome of this election. A Republican majority probably bodes well for President Obama's chances of finalising the TPP.

President Obama delivering the State of the Union address, 28 January 2014.

As a key component of Obama's foreign policy legacy, the rebalance to Asia enjoys more or less bipartisan support. Congress understands the necessity of it, though it has from time to time put forward ideas about how it might be alternatively resourced.

Free trade, however, does not attract broad bipartisan support. Complicating matters, Congressional assent is required for ratifying trade deals; the Republicans are traditionally pro-trade, whereas the Democrats are not. When negotiations heat up, a wide range of well organised and resourced interest groups apply targeted pressure to members of Congress, which leaves those from trade-sensitive electorates vulnerable to a backlash from campaign funders and constituents if they come out in support of trade. 

Consequently, trade policy debates in the US tend to be more divisive than in Australia, where a bipartisan consensus is by now broadly entrenched. This is despite a recent Pew Research poll showing that a majority of Americans say they support free trade (even if they are not quite as optimistic about it as some other countries). 

Another striking difference between the Australian and American conversations about TPP is that in the US, the economic rationale for the deal only forms one part of its overall appeal. All branches of the US government see the TPP as a crucial geopolitical move that will cement American economic power in the Asia-Pacific region. A common refrain in Washington DC foreign policy circles is that 'the rebalance is in serious trouble without TPP'.

The unfortunate confluence of all these factors means the TPP sits at the uncomfortable nexus between US foreign policy and domestic constituency politics. Even members of Congress who understand the geopolitical imperative of the rebalance are unlikely to cast their vote with the US national interest on their minds. Instead, members' votes will largely be cast based on the putative impacts trade agreements will have on their electorates.

President Obama has not enjoyed a particularly good relationship with Congress and has been widely criticised for his lacklustre approach to pursuing the TPP. His sharpest critics say that, for a President who has placed the rebalance to Asia at the centre of his foreign policy, he has been decidedly unwilling to spend political capital on bringing it to reality. One Senate staffer quipped recently, 'it's clear when the President wants something, and it's not clear he wants this.'

Because of the way the legislative process works in the US, presidents generally need Congress to give them Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) before they can finalise a deal, otherwise it risks being picked apart by Congress, leaving it open to unlimited amendments on any subject. TPA, also known as 'fast-track authority', gives the President a set of parameters within which to negotiate and ensures a simple yes or no vote on the final bill. 

Granting of TPA, sooner rather than later, would be a confidence boost for other TPP member countries, reassuring them that any agreement would be likely to pass Congress and therefore worth their own domestic political pain. But Obama has not moved to secure TPA yet, and some commentators are beginning to speculate that he will simply submit the TPP, as a bill, to Congress. This would mean that members get to have it both ways; they'll be able to say they support the deal and the rebalance, while voting down the bill for specific reasons.

Perhaps encouragingly, potential presidential candidates from both the moderate and conservative wings of the Republican Party have highlighted free trade as one of a handful of issues they would be willing to work on with Obama after the mid-terms. This would also give Republicans, many of whom have spent the past two years ensconced in 'Nobama' campaigning, a chance to demonstrate that they have a positive agenda and are ready to govern.

On the Democratic side of the house, Obama was apparently chastened by Democrat Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's emphatic rejection of his trade agenda earlier this year. In line with Reid's reprimand, Obama's recent low-key approach to the TPP is an apparent attempt to insulate Democrats from losses in tight House and Senate races. Nevertheless, a solid handful of those re-elected will need to commit to supporting the TPP if the President is to have a chance of persuading Republicans to back the deal (even though Republicans are generally pro-trade, they will face blowback too).

Meanwhile, as the Administration appears to tread water, US trade diplomats from the United States Trade Representative (USTR) are working overtime on advocacy. US Trade Representative Michael Froman has written pro-TPP articles for both the Financial Times and Foreign Affairs in recent weeks. USTR negotiators have been working intensively with their Japanese counterparts in Washington DC last month, and in Sydney this month, on some of the agreement's most sensitive elements. 

But most observers agree that leaving the heavy lifting to bureaucrats will not finish what is increasingly a political job for the White House. Finalising the TPP will require the type of political compromise that has eluded President Obama since his 2012 re-election. A Republican majority in both houses, while otherwise corrosive to his agenda, means he has a greater chance of doing the deal if he can find an acceptable way forward. But this won't come easily, and a strong possibility remains that Republicans won't be able to resist kicking the President while he is down.

Optimists are looking for a sign after the mid-terms, when it becomes clear who will control the Senate, whether Obama will come out all guns blazing in pursuit of his foreign policy legacy on the rebalance to Asia and, within that, the TPP. They hope he will move quickly to ask Congress for TPA before empowering his negotiators to brace for the end game. 

Pessimists, on the other hand, don't think he has the 'ticker' to broker the compromise, leaving US TPP partners, including Australia, high and dry. 

Regardless of whether Australia sees finalising the TPP as a crucial component of the rebalance to Asia, it would be a shame to see five years of negotiations sacrificed to US Congressional politics. We should also, therefore, keep watching closely for a sign that President Obama is ready to spend political capital on cementing his foreign policy legacy.

Photo courtesy of the Flickr user The White House.

Kim Jong-un's health: Just the facts

The prolonged absence of Kim Jong-un and the surprise arrival of a high powered North Korean delegation for the closing ceremony of the Asia Games in South Korea have re-energised the tired old practice of North Korean leadership speculation. Much of the coverage has followed a familiar pattern: theory and rumour based on limited evidence or unidentified sources.

Unsurprisingly, this means there is much less to the two most prominent theories than meets the eye.

1. Imagining a coup

Among the most histrionic claims to emerge, based on statements by unnamed North Korean officials turned defectors, is that Kim Jong-un has been overthrown in a coup. Defectors are often useful sources of information, but objective observers must be wary of their biases. Defectors rejected the North Korean system and are motivated by a desire to see its overthrow. So in talking about a coup, they are perhaps describing what they want rather than what is.

As uncomfortable as it is to admit, much of the ruling class remains in North Korea for a reason: the status quo ensures their preservation, as well as stability, power and wealth. How the elite feel privately about Kim Jong-un is irrelevant; so long as he remains central to the maintenance of order, they will not have a motive to threaten him.

2. In sickness and in health

The most plausible explanation for Kim Jong-un's absence is health problems. However, though there are factors that point to a simple explanation, this hasn't stopped the spread of obscure rumours and theories, such as an allergic reaction to Swiss cheese.

A relatively fair assessment about his health can be made based on plain observation. Kim Jong-un is overweight and a smoker. But perhaps the most recent evidence that suggests health problems was the 20th anniversary of Kim Il-Sung's death in July, where one can see Kim Jong-un limping on and off stage. Based on these facts, we can posit that Kim Jong-un is likely convalescing due to a leg injury, which may have been caused or complicated by a poor lifestyle.

This episode again reminds us of how little the world knows about North Korea. Unfortunately, this has encouraged many to use the lurid and comical to find meaning, reinforcing a buffoonish perception of the country. But North Korea is a deadly serious business, and poses real problems to both regional and international security. Policy on North Korea has to be based on sound judgment of the limited available information. Speculation based on bias, rumour or media sensationalism is not helpful.

Japan's cabinet reshuffle: Domestic policy gets priority

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has just announced the makeup of his new cabinet. Faced with a range of tough issues and falling approval ratings, the new line-up indicates that the Prime Minister is preparing for a hard period of legislating before next year's party elections, when Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) prime ministers can be unseated by MPs and party members.

Abe has decided to do something a little different with this reshuffle.

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

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

Perhaps highlighting concerns over potential resistance from the agricultural sector to economic and trade efforts, Abe has appointed former Minister for Agriculture Shigeru Ishiba as Minister of Regional Economic Revitalisation and Koya Nishikawa, the leader of the LDP agricultural caucus and a key interlocutor during Australia-Japan FTA negotiations, as Minister of Agriculture. Ishiba  and Nishikawa are seasoned, firm hands, and by putting them in charge, the Prime Minister seems intent on heading off any disruption in this oft sensitive area.

In other areas, Abe seems to have grasped the need for energy, appointing Yuko Obuchi as Minister of the Economy, Trade and Industry. Among the most powerful positions in the Japanese government, Ms Obuchi's rise to this post holds both symbolic and political importance. Besides being an example of the Prime Minister's efforts to include more women in the economy and in positions of leadership, the appointment also signifies faith that Obuchi has the ability, and the gumption, to bend the disparate economics-related parts of the Japanese bureaucracy into alignment with the Government's agenda.

What of relations abroad?

The new cabinet is geared towards a tough fight on the home front. The cabinet retains a good mix of stable leadership, experience and drive that will help against the inevitable resistance to reform across the Japanese domestic landscape. Unfortunately, this may come at the expense of relations with neighbours.

The new cabinet includes individuals noted for some controversial views. A principal example is the new Minister of Defence and Defence Legislation, Akinori Eto. As a former Vice-Minister for Defence and member of the Diet committee on National Security, Eto is an ideal candidate to drive through legislation on that front. However, his support for the right of Diet members to visit the Yasukuni Shrine will do little to allay suspicion or endear Japan to either China or South Korea.