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Favourites of 2020: Women make excellent spies

The UK Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell. Not pictured: spies (Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis via Getty Images)
The UK Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell. Not pictured: spies (Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis via Getty Images)
Published 22 Dec 2020 12:00   0 Comments

An end-of-year series as the Lowy Institute staff and Interpreter contributors offer their favourite books, articles, films or TV programs this year. Look back on more recommendations and reflections.

Okay, so 2020 wasn’t exactly a favourite year. I did learn how to bake a nice sourdough during Melbourne’s long lockdown. Didn’t nearly get through my reading pile. But I’ve been working in isolation for years now, so I really don’t have any excuses.

One book I did manage was historian and columnist Ben Macintyre’s Agent Sonya, a compelling biography of influential Soviet spy Ursula Kuczynski, a name not often heard in modern espionage folklore. While the Cold War turncoats such as the Cambridge Five or the Aldrich Ames’s typically garner most attention, Kuczynski was an agent handler in the war years, the hidden conduit to pass ill-gotten treasure back to Moscow. As a marker of Kuczynski’s tradecraft – and the damage she wrought – she was a key player in stealing the secrets to the atomic bomb.

Kuczynski is only briefly mentioned in the 2009 authorised history of Britain’s counter-espionage agency MI5, in the context of the chauvinist conceit long pervading Western security services. Even in the 1970s, official minutes recorded “agent-running was a predominantly male preserve”. Macintyre attributes such sexist assumptions along with her evident talents to Kuczynski’s success. In 1940s Britain, she adopted the outward appearance of a housewife living in the English countryside – not entirely above suspicion for the spy catchers, thanks to her past radicalism and background as a foreigner, but if anyone was to be watched, so went the thinking of the time, surely it was the husband.

“Running the largest network of spies in Britain”, Macintyre writes, “her sex, motherhood, pregnancy and apparently humdrum domestic life together formed the perfect camouflage”.

Macintyre’s book is detailed – at times frustratingly so. The array of characters, locations and connections is difficult to follow, yet satisfyingly complete when Kuczynski’s story coalesces. Born in Germany in 1907, Kuczynski was influenced by the revolutionary zeal of communism in her youth, a radicalism solidified during the disastrous Weimar Republic years in opposition to the rising tide of Nazism and the prejudice against her Jewish heritage. She spent a year living in New York as the grip of the Great Depression took hold, eventually travelling across the world to Shanghai and into a spy’s double life.

The China networks she traversed in the 1930s are fascinating, her story a glimpse of the dangerous great power jostling in the “Far East”, with consequences extending to the present. She became “Sonya”, the code name the Soviets bestowed on the woman who rose to the rank of colonel in the Red Army (she was apparently for a long while oblivious to her rank). Her story is also bound to another long-standing controversy, whether Roger Hollis, a man she may have met in Shanghai in the 1930s, who would later become MI5 chief in the 1950s and 1960s, was in fact himself a Soviet spy, a claim Macintyre gives short shirft.

Ursula Kuczynski, aka Ursula Hamburger, Ursula Bruton, Ruth Werner, code name​​​​​​ “Sonya”, in East Germany in 1972 (Andree/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

In Macintyre’s rendering, Kuczynski comes across as both warm and tiresomely didactic, contradictory traits that perhaps allowed her the compassion to establish trusting connections yet the intellectual rigidity to maintain strict faith in the cause. Her relationships are loving, whether with her children or the three men who fathered each over the years – yet always subordinate to her clandestine commitments. Neither Stalin’s vicious purges nor the loss of agents would turn her from the revolution.

Her story extends to Switzerland in the first years of the Second World War, where she furtively established a radio transmitter and dodged detection, fusing her family life to her secret one. Tedium was oftentimes a feature of her double life – the drudgery not a result of parenting, but transcribing signals late at night or muddled plans for secret rendezvous (a mistaken tree root meant as a dead-drop location to pass messages would later lead her to lose contact with Moscow for months).

It was after fleeing to Britain in 1941 that Kuczynski’s value as a non-Russian spy for the Soviet Union would be truly exploited, an “illegal” operating without the ostensive protection of diplomatic cover, exposed yet so much more difficult to detect.

Kuczynski was the secret go-between for Klaus Fuchs, the brilliant German-born British theoretical physicist as he worked first on Britain’s wartime attempts to construct a nuclear weapon, all the while handing hundreds of pages of formulas and research to the Soviet Union. She later ensured Fuchs connected to another Soviet agent in the United States after he travelled to work on the Manhattan Project. When Fuchs was eventually exposed in 1950, the net closed around Kuczynski, yet once again gendered assumptions about her true role and a little luck meant she could escape – returning to where her story began, to live the revolution as she had dreamed since a girl in a Communist Germany (East, anyway).


Favourites of 2020: Running for nothing?

(Bruno Nascimento/Unsplash)
(Bruno Nascimento/Unsplash)
Published 21 Dec 2020 12:00   0 Comments

An end-of-year series as the Lowy Institute staff and Interpreter contributors offer their favourite books, articles, films or TV programs this year. Look back on the series and watch for more recommendations and reflections in the days ahead.

Any runner with a shoebox full of medals knows that victory is sweetly remembered through the shiny keepsakes bestowed upon those of us lucky enough to cross the finish line. This year saw the rise of virtual races and perhaps the most epic challenge of all, the quarantine backyard ultra-marathon.

With no starting line-up or electric crowd atmosphere, lone runners took to their neighbourhoods. They covered hundreds of kilometres around suburban streets. A dedicated few racked up the miles back and forth with tiny laps inside the relative safety of their own homes. Covid-19 might have struck seemingly out of the blue, but for the runner who had 2020 goals in mind, the months of training for race preparation was not to go to waste.

Perhaps for the unconquerable few who trained with masks on, they will have earned a competitive advantage.

The running community have managed to build themselves a new absurd form of racing, which will likely go on to be a new tradition for the now well-connected global running “club”.

For those of us who felt isolated and left wondering how to fill the hours when the Covid-19 storm hit in March, we could be grateful that in some countries outside exercise was considered essential for physical and mental wellbeing. Although not all have been so lucky. Perhaps a collective thought should go out to the Australian runner in Beijing caught breaching strict quarantine

It goes without saying that a sense of normalcy will be welcomed with open arms in the world of running, and perhaps for the unconquerable few who trained with masks on they will have earned a competitive advantage. For them, any virtual race bling might be remembered even sweeter. Here’s mine.


Favourites of 2020: Love on the Spectrum

Lezlie/Flickr
Lezlie/Flickr
Published 18 Dec 2020 12:00   0 Comments

An end-of-year series as the Lowy Institute staff and Interpreter contributors offer their favourite books, articles, films or TV programs this year. Look back on the series and watch for more recommendations and reflections in the days ahead.

Love on the Spectrum is a documentary series which follows seven young autistic people on their quest for companionship.

A doco about love and autism? Surely it would be cringeworthy? Exploitative? I initially had misgivings, perhaps due to many common preconceptions about people on the spectrum, but found it to be nothing of the sort. 

We meet the very alert and no-nonsense Michael, who cannot wait to find his other half. He wears a suit to every date and redoes his hair upwards of 300 times before leaving the house. His cool, calm and collected younger brother writes him little notes in advance, to keep in his pocket as reminders during the night. “Mate, if she doesn’t seem interested in what you’re saying – change the subject.” 

Michael performs well, but his date, who is also on the spectrum, suffers a panic attack mid-evening and abruptly leaves the restaurant. Michael is gutted. His eyes are wide with shock as he declares, far too loudly, to no one in particular – “that was very awkward”.

The shift in public attitudes about disability has been marked in recent years. The United Nations has celebrated the “International Day of Disabled Persons” on 3 December since 1992, “to promote understanding of disability issues and mobilise support for the dignity, rights and well-being of persons with disabilities”. In Australia, a Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability has held hearings since April 2019, regularly drawing to light extraordinary stories of mistreatment.

But as much as shameful treatment must be confronted through these formal channels, shows like Love on the Spectrum also play an important role in shattering the stigmas and attitudes that cause much of the mistreatment in the first place. The series’ producers carefully but playfully reveal just how much those “on the spectrum” must confront what are really just ordinary and everyday desires and fears.

The characters let it out, they hug their mum, and then they just keep going.

Later in the series, we meet Mark. He’s a gentle and attractive young guy who often wears a pained expression. As though he’s constantly cringing about the last thing he said.

I’ll never forget the scene where his dad picks him up from a failed second date. He had been so excited after the first one – waxing lyrical to his mum. But this time, at the Australian Museum, he had gone on about the dinosaurs. Way too much. His new companion, Maddi, ends things abruptly on a bench in Hyde Park. His dad meets him at the fountain afterwards. “How’d ya go, fella?!” Mark is a good sport about it and says they’ll remain friends, but then admits through a particularly pained grimace: “I feel a bit sad, Dad, to be honest.”

There are also stories about couples on the spectrum – how they found one another, and how they accommodate one another’s quirks – whether it’s a debilitating obsession with trains, or with Mary Ann Summers from Gilligan’s Island, or the need to always be wearing socks that 100% match an outfit.

We see the characters experience the whole gamut of emotions. They’re hopeful, they’re anxious, and at times downright defeated. Not just about love – about everything. They’re brave, sometimes they’re cocky, they’re excited, and they are interested in the world around them.

Best of all – and the thing that struck the biggest chord in the hot mess of a year that was 2020 – when they screw up or when they feel dejected, they’re completely honest about it. They let it out, they hug their mum, and then they just keep going.

There’s a lesson in that for everyone.


Favourites of 2020: Evil Geniuses

Rio Vista, California, November 2008 (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Rio Vista, California, November 2008 (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Published 17 Dec 2020 12:00   0 Comments

An end-of-year series as the Lowy Institute staff and Interpreter contributors offer their favourite books, articles, films or TV programs this year. Look back on the series and watch for more recommendations and reflections in the days ahead.

Long before a certain New York real estate developer became president of the United States, political observers had a nagging question: why are so many Americans voting against their own interests?

Waves of so-called conservative politicians and activists gutted post-war American industry and strangled organised labour, while Wall Street and corporate boards were exalted to high holiness. Millions of Americans had big stakes but little say in how (or where) things should go.

In the shift to the financialising of everything, “shareholder value” became a sacred incantation rendering all other metrics secondary. As executive pay rose higher and higher (and taxes lower and lower), regular workers’ wages stayed flat as a pancake. “The Great Uncoupling” had begun.

And we can all see where it’s gone. A pandemic is killing 3000 Americans a day, at last count. But it’s just a political game. Universal healthcare? Dream on. Climate change? It’s debatable. QAnon? Absolutely.

How can this be? How do values get ripped out of a culture? What kind of country does this?

Kurt Andersen goes looking for the culprits in Evil Geniuses. And he finds a whole lot of them, a cast of familiar and not-so-familiar names who, for whatever else they may have intended, have turned America into a funhouse that for many is no fun at all.

The coup de grace was getting the suckers who’d been stuck with the bill, whose jobs went elsewhere and whose towns were hollowed out, to keep voting for politicians who kept shovelling wealth into the pockets of the privileged few, and to enlist them in the cause. Because somebody else did this to you, not us. 

This project took decades, a grinding campaign played out in think tanks and courtrooms and legislatures and speeches, but perhaps most egregiously in the media. You, too, can triumph in this dog-eat-dog world if only you believe: “Times are tough! Government can’t save you! Adapt or die!”

The driving force of this new America is greed.

In the evolving American social contract, the balance among the competing demands of liberty and equality and solidarity (or fraternité) worked pretty well for most of the 20th century, the arc bending toward justice. But then came the ultra-individualistic frenzy of the 1960s, and during the 1970s and 80s, liberty assumed its powerfully politicised form and eclipsed equality and solidarity among our aspirational values. “Greed is good” meant that selfishness lost its stigma. And that was when we were in trouble.

Andersen’s previous work, Fantasyland, dug to the roots of US history to examine how the country’s choose-your-own-reality mindset has been there from the get-go and has never gone away – the source of its greatest inventions and cruellest delusions.  

Something of a sequel, Evil Geniuses brings deep research, stacks of data and decades of experience in big-name journalism to examine the long, slow but in many ways deliberate “unmaking of America”.

Others have looked at this terrain through the lens of economics, politics or culture. Andersen looks through all of them, pointing out the all-hat, no-cattle cowboys riding across the prairie.

In this view, Donald Trump, reality-TV huckster turned president, is not such an outlier after all. If anything, he implicitly adds a cunning corollary to the slightly more fictitious Gordon Gekko’s theory of greed: Yeah, but graft is better.

There is little joy in confronting this brutal history, but Andersen’s balance of earnest inquiry and acerbic wit keeps it snappy. And, in characteristic American fashion, he ends on an optimistic note. Most Americans, on paper at least, don’t want this status quo. We’ve been in similar circumstances, a century or more ago. There was a reckoning, followed by progress, and progress is possible again.

2021 can’t come soon enough.


Favourites of 2020: The moral ambiguity of spying

Paul Wong/Unsplash
Paul Wong/Unsplash
Published 16 Dec 2020 12:00   0 Comments

An end-of-year series as the Lowy Institute staff and Interpreter contributors offer their favourite books, articles, films or TV programs this year. Look back on the series and watch for more recommendations and reflections in the days ahead.

Like the best spy novels, Lauren Wilkinson’s American Spy plays with the moral ambiguity associated with intelligence gathering. But this book stands out as my favourite of 2020 because Wilkinson elevates the genre with a Black female protagonist.

The story centres on Marie Mitchell, a young FBI agent who is recruited by the CIA in the late 1980s to spy on Thomas Sakara, the (real-life) charismatic leader of the newly born Burkina Faso, whose communist ideology made him a target for American intervention. The book opens with an attempt on Mitchell’s life, and the plot moves along quickly, alternating between Mitchell’s childhood in 1960s, her career as an FBI agent in the late 1980s and her escape to her mother’s home on the island of Martinique with her two four-year-old sons in 1992.

Mitchell tells the story through the frame of a letter to her young sons, in the event that she doesn’t survive the next attempt on her life. There’s romance and danger and extended conversations between an undercover Mitchell and Sakara on communism and how Black men such as Mitchell’s law enforcement father could serve a country that treats them like second-class citizens.

Mitchell fits the mould of the male spies who dominate the genre: she’s a loner and a competent liar capable of violence and willing to make some compromises to advance professionally. But Mitchell’s character also demonstrates a high level of self-awareness that I found satisfying and comforting this year. As a mother, she finds the words to explain how she, and those that came before her, survived and advanced and lived with their choices.

In the letter to her sons, Mitchell acknowledges that some of what she has told them will be difficult to parse:

One thing I can say for sure is that I don’t want you to be moral absolutists. If what I’m telling you of our story means to you that the people it involved are either saved or damned, then you’ll have misunderstood me.


Favourites of 2020: Homeland Elegies

.jeanmarie./Flickr
.jeanmarie./Flickr
Published 15 Dec 2020 12:00   0 Comments

An end-of-year series as the Lowy Institute staff and Interpreter contributors offer their favourite books, articles, films or TV programs this year. Look back on the series and watch for more recommendations and reflections in the days ahead.

The world has observed the United States under the Trump administration – as the country is needlessly ravaged by the pandemic and its usual political divisions and diversity grow into islands of alternate realities – with bewilderment, almost incomprehension. To those of us who know the country intimately – who have lived, worked, made friends or were raised in America – it has felt like the America we knew is slipping from our grasp.

For anyone seeking to understand the US in this moment, you can do no better than to read a new novel by Pulitzer prize–winning playwright Ayad Akhtar. This sense of displacement and unravelling is deftly explored in Homeland Elegies (Little, Brown and Company, 2020), the origins of which he traces back to the legacies of 9/11.

In Homeland Elegies, Akhtar first braids then unravels the strands that make up American identity and mythmaking – the immigrant experience, unabashed capitalism, individualism, the promise of hard work and the rule of law. In a post-truth, post-fact era, it is particularly fitting that Akhtar’s narrative purposefully obfuscates what is fiction and non-fiction, because in so doing, he clears up what has been obscured by the reflexive belief in America’s founding myths.

In his examination of post-9/11 America through the life experience and family history of a successful Muslim American, he explores what it means to be from somewhere, the notion of debt (fiscal, familial and moral), how acclaim and wealth are no guarantors of well-being and safety, and the hidden traumas of American imperialism.

Akhtar breaks down the ideal that American national identity is girded by shared ideas and values rather than a specific culture or ethnicity. But he also notes that while that fragile ideal is tarnished, America and multi-ethnic democracies around the world really have no choice but to keep striving for it to hold their citizenries together.

I read Homeland Elegies with a sense of both recognition and astonishment. The feeling of promise coupled with confusion, displacement and disillusionment Akhtar writes about so incisively are familiar to those of us who have immigrated to the United States and have been unmoored from another identity, history and place. To have it happen again in the country where you sought refuge is deeply unsettling. But it is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand how America ended up where it has and the potential for it to live up to its ideals once it has successfully re-examined and reconfigured the notion of American exceptionalism.


Main photo courtesy Flickr user .jeanmarie.


Favourites of 2020: Capturing a precarious moment

An exhibition by Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado at the Bene Taschen gallery in Cologne, 6 February 2020 (Ina Fassbender/AFP via Getty Images)
An exhibition by Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado at the Bene Taschen gallery in Cologne, 6 February 2020 (Ina Fassbender/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 14 Dec 2020 14:00   0 Comments

An end-of-year series as the Lowy Institute staff and Interpreter contributors offer their favourite books, articles, films or TV programs this year. Look back on the series and watch for more recommendations and reflections in the days ahead.

A few years ago on a flight from New Delhi to Rome, I half-watched a portion of a documentary about a photographer. I promptly forgot the film’s name, but the opening montage of photos of a giant pit teeming with working bodies stayed with me. Black-and-white images, showing thousands upon thousands of workers hauling sacks from deep in the ground, up and down ladders leaning precariously against the edges of the pit, almost vertical and seemingly held in place with nothing more than mud and hope.

During lockdown, I hunted for the film, googling various iterations of keywords, until I finally found itThe Salt of the Earth, by Wim Wenders. Nominated for an Oscar in 2015, it is about the man considered one of the greatest living photographers, Sebastião Salgado.

“When I reached the edge of that enormous hole, every hair on my body stood on end”, says Selgado of the opening images, which captured gold miners in Brazil in the 1980s.

Here in a split second I saw unfolding before me the history of mankind. The building of the pyramids, the Tower of Babel, the mines of King Solomon.

This quietly poetic descriptor sets the tone for the rest of the film, which delves into the photographer’s life’s work, examining the depths of human despair, upheaval and dispossession, told with great compassion.

The film is more than a retrospective: it goes deep inside Salgado’s life and work. Weaving together archival footage, family accounts and footage shot of Salgado as he works in places as remote as tribal parts of Papua New Guinea to Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean, the film delves into Salgado’s insights into the changing world that he has documented for four decades. Themes of dispossession, power, poverty, human rights are embedded in his work, never judgemental but quietly reflective and steeped in humanity, imbuing his subjects with dignity.

I’ve always been enthralled by the work of documentary photographers, but in particular, how they go about what they do. They work to a tough brief: they must be commanding yet agreeable, invisible yet perfectly positioned to capture that split-second moment when a subject’s true nature flashes across their face and body. They have to get close to their subjects to gain their trust but at enough of a distance to remain impartial, authoritative enough to coax sometimes disagreeable subjects to mould their bodies to the photographer’s liking. They might have to work in fading light, in a short time frame, capture the truth but also editorialise.

When all other reminders of great conflict or disaster are gone, what remains are the images.

One particularly searing section of the film covers Salgado’s time covering the plight of refugees during the Rwandan civil war of 1994. His photos are unflinching, showing rows and rows of dead bodies, in parts being lifted unceremoniously into mass pits by French bulldozers. “To see how terrible our species is”, says Salgado in the voiceover, but leaves the sentence hanging there.

Ultimately, The Salt of The Earth is about far more than one man: it is a tribute to the unerring power of the photograph. When all other reminders of great conflict or disaster are gone, what remains are the images, the perpetual reminders of the extent of what humans are capable of.

The Salt of the Earth is on Amazon Prime. Another film about a photographer is A Life Exposed: Robyn Beeche about the late Australian photographer Robyn Beeche, who worked first in London before settling in Vridavan, India, by Australian filmmaker Lesley Branagan.

An outdoor exhibit of Sebastião Salgado photography in 2016 (manuel m. v./Flickr)

Favourites of 2020: A lockdown loaf

Sourdough, by Ian Bruce
Sourdough, by Ian Bruce
Published 11 Dec 2020 14:00   0 Comments

An end-of-year series as the Lowy Institute staff and Interpreter contributors offer their favourite books, articles, films or TV programs this year. Look back on the series and watch for more recommendations and reflections in the days ahead.

A year like no other. From global pandemics to climate change to the US presidential election, there was no shortage of crises this year. We lurched from one to another. As I worked from home, the amount of news I consumed increased exponentially. Anxiety levels increased the more I read. There was a sense of helplessness – the inability to see family and friends within Australia, let alone internationally.

Sure, I can write about my favourite book, podcast, films, TV program … things consumed to take the edge off the year. But surely, the zeitgeist for 2020 has to be the sourdough.

To our family and friends in the Northern hemisphere facing a second wave and a winter like no other, keep Zooming and keep baking.

In February, before lockdown happened, I started my own sourdough starter. For those in the know, sourdough starter takes a month or so to cultivate before it is ready to bake bread. When we were ready to start baking in March, we were facing shortages. Whatever flour we could locate went to the sourdough baking/stress-buster project. Ironically, locating flour became a stress in itself.

When The Economist and Financial Times publish articles and “how-to” videos, we know we have reached peak sourdough. Even Barack Obama has his own sourdough starter.

The act of creating something with your own hands and the meditative effect of kneading the dough gives back some of the power that the lockdown took away. In the face of chaos and financial scarcity, bread making and cooking in general provide a sense of achievement and gratification.

Yes, everyone was at it and every post on Instagram was of a sourdough loaf. We might be in isolation, but when it came to baking bread, we were part of a community – sharing in the highs and lows of each loaf.

To our family and friends in the Northern hemisphere facing a second wave and a winter like no other, keep Zooming and keep baking. As Sydney eases its way out of the pandemic, we have not discarded the sourdough project – rather it has become a ritual of our household to enjoy the smell and taste of freshly baked bread each week, and it reminds us of the community we have joined.

Sourdough starter: Holger

Favourites of 2020: Casting a line in Pacific fisheries

Solomon Islands (Wade Fairley/WorldFish/Flickr)
Solomon Islands (Wade Fairley/WorldFish/Flickr)
Published 10 Dec 2020 15:00   0 Comments

An end-of-year series as the Lowy Institute staff and Interpreter contributors offer their favourite books, articles, films or TV programs this year. Look back on the series and watch for more recommendations and reflections in the days ahead.

The evolution of Pacific fisheries management is a story with a bit of everything. A David vs Goliath struggle pitting eight seemingly small and vulnerable Pacific nations up against every major fishing economy in the world. A story of persistence and personality overcoming inter-regional tensions and the rigid barrier of “sovereignty” to harness collective action. A homegrown regional agreement that unlocked ten times more revenue for Pacific nations from their most valuable natural commodity – tuna.

The evolution of Pacific fisheries management, centred around the breakthrough “Parties to the Nauru agreement” (PNA), has always interested me. How did the nations of Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Tuvalu take on the likes of the US, Japan, South Korea and Spain to increase their revenue from tuna fisheries in their near 15 million square kilometre Exclusive Economic Zones from US$60 million to $500 million in under a decade? How did they do it while somehow keeping these fisheries sustainable?

Fishing for Success: Lessons in Pacific Regionalism answered all my questions and more. The author, Transform Aqorau, has been a central figure in the evolution of Pacific fisheries management for close to three decades. The book tracks in great detail the challenges faced, and perseverance required, from a devoted core of individuals in persuading states to commit to collective action and binding rules under the PNA. Along the way, it reveals the bitter politics within regional institutions, the deep tensions among Pacific nations and the inherent conflict between Western nations acting as both development partners and arbiters of powerful fishing industries.

Aqorau charts some critical breakthroughs in Pacific fisheries management. The creation of Exclusive Economic Zones under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1982 gave Pacific nations legal rights over their waters, leading to the swift creation of the PNA in the same year. The Palau arrangement in 1992 that first applied licences and limits to bluewater fishing fleets operating in the Pacific. By 2008, this had evolved into the Vessel Day Scheme – essentially a cap-and-trade scheme whereby each PNA member is allocated a number of fishing days that they then auction to bluewater fishing fleets from any country.

The brilliance of the scheme is that it has transformed Pacific nations from price takers to price setters of over 25% of the global tuna catch, and allowed a market-based mechanism to set the true price of what was previously a shared commodity. Similar models are now being used around the world for emissions reduction. Amazingly, as revenues have increased ten-fold in the Pacific, the Western and Central Pacific is the only region left in the world in which tuna stocks are healthy, according to the South Pacific Community.

Tuna purchased at Auki market, Malaita Province, Solomon Islands. (Filip Milovac/WorldFish/Flickr)

PNA’s success did not happen in a vacuum. Donors, through their support of the Forum Fisheries Agency and other maritime policing efforts (such as the Pacific patrol boats scheme), plus improvements in technology and in particular satellite tracking, has vastly improved enforcement. A growing concern for sustainable fishing practices blunted the negotiating position of many fishing powers, while their behaviour at the negotiating table only served to further reinforce the PNA’s collective resolve. But the success of the PNA still starts and finishes with the members themselves.

Challenges are on the horizon. As demand for fish continues to grow broader, negotiations at the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission are becoming more intense. Trans-shipping on the open ocean is becoming more concerning, as are the growing bluewater fishing fleets skirting around EEZs in the open ocean. The warming of oceans from unchecked climate change threatens to undermine the patterns and volume of migration through PNA member countries.   

Regardless of the challenges ahead, Aqorau has done us all a great favour in compiling this history of Pacific fisheries management. It is a home-grown feel-good story, and an important corrective for many who perceive Pacific nations as being nothing more than weak and vulnerable nations to be economically coerced or used as geopolitical pawns. The PNA is a brilliant example of where Pacific agency, intelligence and perseverance align with commercial incentives and a little luck to make everyone better off.

And if 178 pages on Pacific fisheries is too much for you, check out the ABC Rear Vision’s podcast with Aqorau and others, and Bob Warner’s excellent review of the book. If 178 pages isn’t enough, check out Forum Fisheries Agency head Manu Tupou-Roosen’s remarks on last year’s Q&A in Suva, Josie Tamate’s PhD on the PNA, and all of the other great work done by the University of Wollongong’s Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources & Security.

Bonito, Langalanga Lagoon, Solomon Islands (Wade Fairley/WorldFish/Flickr)

Favourites of 2020: Minister of Finance Incorporated

The Tun Razak Exchange Tower in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, one of the 1MDB projects (Ore Huiying/Getty Images)
The Tun Razak Exchange Tower in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, one of the 1MDB projects (Ore Huiying/Getty Images)
Published 9 Dec 2020 14:00   0 Comments

An end-of-year series as the Lowy Institute staff and Interpreter contributors offer their favourite books, articles, films or TV programs this year. Watch for more recommendations and reflections in the days ahead.

There are few occasions in life when my “2020 books read” spreadsheet genuinely comes in handy. Fortunately, this is one of them. Clocking one of the fastest pages-per-day speeds on my list, Edmund Terence Gomez’s collaborative work Minister of Finance Incorporated: Ownership and Control of Corporate Malaysia is forensic, revealing and insightful in equal measure.

China is likely the first country that springs to mind when hearing the words “state-owned enterprise”. But governments play significant roles in many Southeast Asian economies too, with Malaysia’s infamous 1MDB scandal showing how such involvement can go awry. Launching off the 1MDB story, MoF Inc pulls back the curtain on Malaysia’s government-linked investment companies (GLICs) more broadly. The book delves into what they are (vehicles for the government to invest in companies), how they’ve been used across various political regimes (to drive development and to bail out failing private companies) and the control they have over Malaysia’s corporate sector.

Gory details of the government-linked investment companies’ inner workings are mapped alongside Malaysia’s political and economic policy history, preserving a sense of narrative to complement the minutiae.

The sheer breadth and depth of influence the GLICs hold is in itself mind-boggling. 68,000 companies in Malaysia are connected to 35 government-linked companies – which are in turn owned by seven GLICs. At the top of this pyramid sits the Minister of Finance, who controls the most influential GLIC of them all (the Minister of Finance Incorporated). The government consequently holds significant sway in the banking, media, plantations and property development sectors, to name a few, going far beyond the state simply providing public goods.

Just as formidable is the level of detail the book brings to bear on the GLICs in question. It meticulously tracks levels of GLIC equity ownership in hundreds of firms, as well as ­­the political and professional backgrounds of key directors and corporate professionals, among other variables. The result is a rich and informed snapshot of the system in its current and past forms.

Thankfully, the gory details of the GLICs’ inner workings are mapped alongside Malaysia’s political and economic policy history, preserving a sense of narrative to complement the minutiae. Doing so utilises the GLICs as a point of comparison for the different economic policy paths preferred by various prime ministers over time.

MoF Inc brings rigorous research to the ecosystem in which the 1MDB scandal broke out. Crucially, it effectively straddles the importance of individuals as well as structures and systems across Malaysia’s history. In the process, it also reiterates the importance of the country’s economic and political past to understanding the present. Pulling all of this off is no small feat, and ultimately makes for a great read to meaningfully comprehend Malaysia’s political economy.


Favourites of 2020: The politics of Tiger King

One of the 39 tigers rescued in 2017 from Joe Exotic’s G.W. Exotic Animal Park (Marc Piscotty/Getty Images)
One of the 39 tigers rescued in 2017 from Joe Exotic’s G.W. Exotic Animal Park (Marc Piscotty/Getty Images)
Published 8 Dec 2020 14:00   0 Comments

An end-of-year series as the Lowy Institute staff and Interpreter contributors offer their favourite books, articles, films or TV programs this year. Watch for more recommendations and reflections in the days ahead.

It seems like an eternity ago now, but it was only eight months ago that Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness was taking Australia and the world by storm. Released at the end of March, this timely Netflix true-crime documentary appeared just as people went into Covid-19–induced lockdown. There was, you might say, a captive audience.

The central drama of Tiger King occurs between the private zoo owners who collect big cats and the conservationists who argue the breeding parks and their “pay to play” sub-industries are abusive and exploitative. Astonishingly, there are more captive tigers in United States than in the wild globally.

This was not a show for everyone. The world it documents is intensely, overwhelmingly bizarre, containing two murder plots, drugs, guns and, of course, politics. There’s no shortage of drama – the second episode begins with a zoo worker getting an arm bitten off by a tiger.

The Tiger King world is inhabited by “colourful characters” wilder than fiction. The central player is Joe Exotic, described by another participant as a “redneck, gun-toting, mullet-sporting, tiger-tackling gay polygamist”. A rampant self-promoter, Exotic claims to breed more big cats than anyone in the country, and his cowboy-meets-Cher aesthetic is a sartorial wonder. (Little was I to know that after four months of lockdown, I too would be sporting an Exotic-style two-toned mullet.)

 

 

The key antagonist is animal conservationist Carole Baskin, who has a mysterious backstory involving a missing husband that the show attempts to shed light on.

Is this just an odd subculture? Or does Tiger King help us understand politics in America? The disconcerting aspect of Tiger King is that it seems absurdly unreal, and yet watching it during the fading months of the Trump administration, it is difficult not to draw parallels with the broader political context.

It’s difficult not to draw parallels too in the ways that both Trump and Exotic were quick to take credit for success but deny responsibility when things go wrong.

The episode “Make America Exotic Again” examined Exotic’s political ambitions. It followed his run for President as an independent for the 2016 campaign, when he came to some national notoriety after being featured on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. Perhaps America wasn’t ready for a gay polygamous zookeeper, but his run for Governor of Oklahoma was slightly more vindicating of his dip into politics: while he lost, he ran third in the primary polls as a Libertarian drawing nearly 20% of the vote. His campaign handed out condoms with his face on them. Much like President Donald Trump, Exotic’s motivations for entering politics was not entirely clear, whether it was based on misplaced confidence in his own political capacities or a publicity stunt to drum up business.

Reminiscent of Trump’s key supporters, part of Exotic’s appeal lies in a claim to authenticity. In some ways he’s Trump-lite, a charismatic, wannabe reality TV star. One voter says that Exotic is not afraid to speak his mind, or “step on toes”. It reflects the growing political culture of populism in the US, in which subverting norms and institutions and othering of conventional “elites” is perceived as authentic or telling truth to power, even if it’s built on dishonesty, narcissism and the celebritisation of politics. 

It’s difficult not to draw parallels too in the ways that both Trump and Exotic were quick to take credit for success but deny responsibility when things go wrong.  

The philosophy underpinning the campaigns and the lifestyles of these big cat parks is libertarian, although Exotic’s campaign manager admits his candidate “has no idea” what libertarianism means. This was the same person who said he knew Exotic was “batshit crazy” from the near daily conversations he’d had with him as the manager of the “ammo” section at his local Wal-Mart, before Exotic recruited him to run his campaign.

The Big Cat Public Safety Act, aimed at stamping out breeding and the pay-to-play industry, is described as “anti-American” by Exotic’s fellow cat breeder (and fellow polygamist) Bhagavan “Doc” Astle, who first appears onscreen astride an elephant, looking like a character only comedian Will Ferrell could dream up.

In this world, the American way is unabridged freedom: it’s hyper-capitalism, anti-establishment and central to it is the pursuit of fame and notoriety. In Las Vegas, the excess and the abrogation of any moral responsibility to these animals is reflected in the “jungle bus”, which provides punters the opportunity to play with cubs as they move from casino to casino.

There is a deep distrust and scepticism towards laws and institution. One of the show’s participants provides this outstanding paraphrase of Founding Father Thomas Jefferson: “Any law you think is unfair or unjust it is your obligation, your responsibility to stand up against that bullshit law.” It is a window into a world in which “taking care of ISIS” means blowing stuff up. Exotic lords over his personal fiefdom atop a grand throne, at least until the law and his dodgy finances finally catch up with him.

Possibly the moral high point in the series comes from a disgruntled strip club owner – described as a “walking Chucky doll” – who opined that in the zoo business “everyone worries about being the biggest, but no one worries about being the nicest”.

Spoiler alert: Exotic was ultimately jailed for 22 years for unsuccessfully plotting the murder of his arch-nemesis, Baskin. But the story may not be over yet: news reports suggest the Tiger King may now be hunting for a last-minute Trump pardon.


Favourites of 2020: Memes

Humorous and pithy, memes often reflect the moment we’re living in (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Humorous and pithy, memes often reflect the moment we’re living in (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Published 7 Dec 2020 15:00   0 Comments

We debated whether “favourites” was really the right word for 2020. But given it’s been a tumultuous year, we figured a little consistency wouldn’t hurt for our end-of-year series as the Lowy Institute staff and Interpreter contributors again offer their favourite books, articles, films or TV programs this year. Watch for more recommendations and reflections in the days ahead. –Eds.

Having spent most of 2020 researching and writing about American foreign policy under President Donald Trump, Australia’s deteriorating relationship with China, or the world in the age of Covid-19, there haven’t been many moments in 2020 that jump out as being memorable in a good way. When I’m not reading or watching things for work, I tend to tune out … like, really far out (I’m talking TV series like Fleabag or BoJack Horseman, so not entirely Interpreter-worthy).

Memes have an enormous impact in shaping social media and shift public opinion and understanding of political and foreign policy issues.

Of course, there have been countless unforgettable moments from 2020 – Trump’s overwhelming dishonesty about Covid-19, or China’s passing of a new national security law for Hong Kong. Both made me stop what I was doing and scream out loud in frustration. But not the sort of things my colleagues had in mind when they asked me to “pick one of my favourite moments” for this annual Interpreter series. A favourite moment from 2020 … something memorable, but which has an international dimension.

A surprisingly tough brief.

Something that has bought a smile to my face, occasionally made me laugh out loud, and just generally helped me navigate through 2020 has been the abundance of extremely hilarious – and at times incredibly intelligent – memes circulating on social media platforms. (And I’m using “memes” in a broad sense here to capture the many clever knowing twists that people include in online content rather than the staple words stamped on a photo version.)

I admit to being a Millennial so, at any one time, I have multiple virtual chats on the go that consist of nothing but the sharing of memes. A favourite is a “conversation” I’ve been having with my little brother since March on Instagram, which consists of nothing but cute dog photos and memes about the craziness of the American election.

 

 

And before you tell me, “this doesn’t exactly have an international dimension to it” – don’t. In 2020, online memes and social media jokes have emerged as cross-cultural sources of respite and community. They have cut through the shared sense of global anxiety around Covid-19 and go a long way in helping make sense of the emotional roller coaster that was 2020, and the big foreign policy issues of the day.

 

 

Looking back through several threads, I was surprised by how many have an international bent to them. Whether it’s making sense of the American election, Covid-19 or Trump – memes have an enormous impact in shaping social media and shift public opinion and understanding of political and foreign policy issues.

While spending more time online can be both exhausting and enthralling, there’s no doubt that it’s the main way we’re connecting with each other these days – and as a result, it means that internet culture is moving faster than ever, producing a wealth of memes, both humorous and pithy, that reflect the moment we’re living in.

Here are a few additional favourites from 2020.

 

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Dan Levy (@instadanjlevy)