Published daily by the Lowy Institute


That 70s show for an Interpreter 2021 favourite

Britain’s economy has had a tumultuous ride (R Barraez D´Lucca/Flickr)
Britain’s economy has had a tumultuous ride (R Barraez D´Lucca/Flickr)
Published 22 Dec 2021 10:00   0 Comments

Our end-of-year series as the Lowy Institute staff offer their favourite books, articles, films or TV programs for 2021. More recommendations and reflections. –Eds

A reader got in touch this year to recommend Christian Caryl’s Strange Rebels. The book charts the remarkable convergence of leaders and events in 1979, which generated a profound legacy reaching to the present. Deng’s reforms in China, Khomeini’s revolution in Iran, Thatcher’s market upheaval in Britain, Pope John Paul II’s challenge to Communism from the Vatican, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan – all major developments from the year, all setting the shape of the decades to follow.

The reader was responding to my article on the importance of personality in world politics, asking whether would be quite the same without a Trump or a Xi? My reader took the question further in recommending Caryl’s book and wondered: would the Quad have happened without Abe or Modi?

The book was published in 2013 so doesn’t address such questions directly. But the message is clear about the need to account for the critical and enduring influence of individual personalities in world affairs.

The shape of the economy got me thinking about media coverage of the business community, where the influence of charismatic leaders is well understood.

Caryl was most instructive about the papal influence, a point I’d been sceptical about in the past. It was also a reminder of Britain’s tumultuous ride from a basket case economy in the early 1970s to the self-defeating obsession with Brexit.

But not to give away the ending, this factoid from Caryl struck me most. “The year 1979 marked the moment when income inequality in the United States began to increase for the first time since 1945 – the beginning of a trend that has continued to the present day.”

This point about the shape of the economy got me thinking about the media coverage of the business community, where the influence of charismatic leaders is well understood. It seems the rich personalities of an Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos can thank the 1970s for more than the establishment of technology such as email, bar codes and personal computers.


Main image via Flickr user R Barraez D´Lucca


Ear worms for The Interpreter’s 2021 favourites

Mohammad Metri/Unsplash
Mohammad Metri/Unsplash
Published 21 Dec 2021 10:00   0 Comments

Our end-of-year series as the Lowy Institute staff offer their favourite books, articles, films or TV programs for 2021. Watch for more recommendations and reflections in the days ahead. –Eds

Nobody ever accused me of being an early adopter of new tech. At least a decade after most of my peers, 2021 was the year I really embraced the podcast. Not coincidentally, this was also the year our family got a puppy, and my walks around the neighbourhood are often enlivened by these shows, some weighty and others which might offer entertainment over the coming holidays:

  • Lowy Institute podcasts: we have three titles – The Director’s Chair, Lowy Institute Conversations and Rules-Based Audio – plus recordings of our live events, and they are all excellent. Go explore.
  • Australia in the World: My old boss Allan Gyngell and his sidekick Darren Lim have found a groove. The guest episodes are good, but the real enjoyment and learning comes from listening to the two hosts debate breaking issues in Australian foreign policy.
  • Conversations with Tyler: America’s most interesting public intellectual, Tyler Cowen, asks penetrating and unpredictable questions of his guests. Highlight for me this year was the episode with philosopher Amia Srinivasan, which turns into an argument in the best possible way.

Some weighty and others which might offer entertainment.

  • The Dishcast with Andrew Sullivan: the quality is uneven because Sullivan is too panicked about Wokeism, as evidenced by his rants at Peter Beinart. But Sullivan’s conversation with Brexit architect and erstwhile Boris Johnson adviser Dominic Cummings is revelatory. So is the episode with Donald Trump biographer Michael Wolff.
  • Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend: legendary American comedian and late-night host Conan O’Brien’s tendency to constantly steer conversation towards himself is grating, but boy, what a razor-sharp comic improviser.
  • Strong Songs: A recent discovery, and one that has lifted my appreciation of pop music. Host Kirk Hamilton’s dissections of popular songs often go way over my head, but there’s so much in these podcasts even for non-musicians. I always regarded Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” as a novelty song roughly on a par with “Monster Mash”; now I know better.

How New Zealand recognises the people there first: 2021 favourites

New Zealand’s Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta speaks to the media in Wellington in April following talks with Australian counterpart Marise Payne (Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
New Zealand’s Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta speaks to the media in Wellington in April following talks with Australian counterpart Marise Payne (Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
Published 20 Dec 2021 10:00   0 Comments

Our end-of-year series as the Lowy Institute staff offer their favourite books, articles, films or TV programs for 2021. Watch for more recommendations and reflections in the days ahead. –Eds

Since reading about “The Sullivan Model” last year, the ideas have resonated with me. Jake Sullivan, President Joe Biden’s top National Security Advisor, believes a successful foreign policy agenda needs successful domestic policy – one that stitches together the deep divides pervading American society. What is then described as the Sullivan Model therefore takes the local to the global, and the global to the local. Each defines the other.

Christina Thompson’s Foreign Policy article “How New Zealand Recognises the People There First” does something similar. She artfully globalises what might otherwise be regarded as a domestic, localised issue – indigenous connection to land, or tangata whenua.

Tangata whenua can be understood as “a powerful relationship with the land”, or “people of the land”. Thompson says that people who identify as tangata whenua also identify with a worldview in which connection to land is both familial (like that between mother and child) and authoritative (locations bringing rights and socio-political or territorial power). Tangata whenua is woven into New Zealand’s political life as a concept in law and treaties.

Indigenous relationships with foreign affairs run deeper than the top.

It is through this framework that the New Zealand government recognizes its Māori – the first inhabitants of New Zealand. And it is through this framework that Māori living abroad recognise their rights – or lack thereof – to land. That is, Māori living abroad are “not tangata whenua in Australia and should not expect to receive the rights and privileges reserved for the Indigenous population there”. The same, Thompson argues, goes for other Pasifika communities living abroad, who share similar land-based connections to their own Pacific Islands.

According to this worldview, when Māori or Pacific Islanders migrate, that deep, intrinsic affinity to land is not taken with them. This is interesting in the Australian context, where labour mobility schemes bring tens of thousands of Pacific Islanders to temporarily work on Australia’s farms, and Pacific Islander communities are small but growing: while less than 1 per cent of Australia’s population claims Māori or Pasifika heritage, the rate of growth in those communities is almost a third higher than the general population. This rate will no doubt increase in response to future pressures on homelands, including from climate-based migration.

Mount Victoria in Wellington, New Zealand (Birgit Krippner/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Australia’s Indigenous population at the 2016 census was 3.3 per cent. By comparison, one in five New Zealanders claim Māori or Pasifika heritage. This goes in some way to account for why Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders continue to fight for rights to be heard and constitutionally recognised, while the situation is vastly different in New Zealand.

New Zealand’s recognition of its “people of the land” was made obvious by the appointment of Nanaia Mahuta as Foreign Minister. A descendent of Māori royalty, Mahuta was the first female MP to wear a Māori facial tattoo (moko kauae) in New Zealand’s parliament. Mahuta is also not the first Māori to serve as New Zealand’s Foreign Minister, and, Indigenous relationships with foreign affairs run deeper than the top: a Memorandum of Understanding was signed to secure a platform for Māori leaders to contribute to trade conversations with the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and Trade. In contrast, as Wiradjuri man James Blackwell says, “First Nations people are excluded from [Australia’s] external dialogue, and it is well past time this changed.”

If the recent push comes to shove in New Zealand, we may also see another obvious recognition of the Māori’s significant place in the world: changing the nation’s name to Aotearoa New Zealand.


The multilateralism menu: The Interpreter’s 2021 favourites

What’s your favourite gastronomical metaphor for regional architecture? (romjanaly/Pixabay)
What’s your favourite gastronomical metaphor for regional architecture? (romjanaly/Pixabay)
Published 17 Dec 2021 10:00   0 Comments

Our end-of-year series as the Lowy Institute staff offer their favourite books, articles, films or TV programs for 2021. Watch for more recommendations and reflections in the days ahead. –Eds.

Foreign policy analysts kept up the gastronomical foreign policy metaphors at Lowy Institute events even as our sourdough fatigue set in as the pandemic raged for a second continuous year.

There were notable mentions in the food metaphor catalogue – namely of the lattice work (usually associated with pie crusts) of alliances and partnerships Jake Sullivan mentioned in the 2021 Lowy Lecture. Here the lattice meant the different minilateral and multilateral groupings such as the Quad, AUKUS and Five Eyes that Sullivan said were an “integrated, interoperable and moveable set of alliances and partnerships designed around the 21st century’s security, economic and technology environment”.

My favourite gastronomical metaphor for the Indo-Pacific regional architecture was put forth by Professor Akiko Fukushima at Lowy’s Indo-Pacific Operating Conference of 2021 where she described the current regional architecture as a lasagna in its design due to the multiple layers of regional groupings. This is an important change in food metaphor because pre-2021 the region, specifically the Southeast Asian region, was referred to as a spaghetti bowl due to the overlapping bilateral free trade agreements that often caused fractures in overall regional trading, dividing countries’ trade into different tariff treatments, rules and regulations.

Going to regional lasagna from bilateral spaghetti is a big ask.

With the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) in 2018 and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) in 2021, there are signs that the crisscrossing strands may have evolved into a layered and multifaceted trading region.

Turning spaghetti into lasagna signifies that the Indo-Pacific economic infrastructure, particularly in the Southeast and East Asian regions, is now more integrated and less fractured. This has resulted from an increased regional convergence.

A perfectly baked lasagna would eventually mean that we can consolidate all bilateral free trade agreements into a strong regional trading bloc. Going to regional lasagna from bilateral spaghetti is a big ask as we see the geopolitical rivalries between the United States and China continue to grow, which could inhibit regional multilateralism.


Team Pacific serves up a revolution: Interpreter 2021 favourites

Pan delights, Solomon Islands (Wade Fairley/World Fish/Flickr)
Pan delights, Solomon Islands (Wade Fairley/World Fish/Flickr)
Published 16 Dec 2021 10:00   0 Comments

Our end-of-year series as the Lowy Institute staff offer their favourite books, articles, films or TV programs for 2021. Watch for more recommendations and reflections in the days ahead. –Eds

Political change doesn’t have to involve parliaments. Pacific Island Food Revolution is a movement about empowering people to take control of their lives, changing behaviours that are linked to poor health outcomes and negative social impacts, and in the process elevating traditional Pacific cultural practices.

The centrepiece is a reality television cooking competition, featuring contestants from Tonga, Fiji, Samoa and Vanuatu, as they represent their countries and demonstrate local, sustainable ways to live, connecting with us and each other through innovative takes on national cuisines, showing us a more balanced way to live. The show is a competition, as participants vie for the title of food revolution champion. But there is no acrimony.

It is impossible not to be moved by Dr Jone Hawea, as he tells a story commonly observed in the Pacific of a small village community apologising for serving him freshly caught fish and homegrown vegetables, as opposed to processed foods, which are more expensive and therefore seen as more desirable. Hawea makes an emotional plea to the contestants to flip this dynamic, to correct the problematic cultural placement of Pacific food and restore pride across the region for traditional culture.

The hosts foster a supportive environment, and the show is filled with moments of kindness, Pacific heritage, and cheeky humour. Krystelle and Pio of “Team Havetocan” from Fiji combine delicious meat-smoking practices with fresh local ingredients to create recipes bursting with flavour. For them, food is a way of keeping their connections to heritage and family through the Pacific tradition of oral history. Tina and Amazing of “Team Samoa” are best friends who want to bring original Samoan food to the world.

The show casts the Pacific not as a regional strategic space to be contested, or a basket of development challenges to be overcome, but as a vibrant, diverse part of the world.

Anyone who’s watched Australia’s Masterchef knows that reality TV food shows are not just about food. They are stories about everyday people making the courageous decision to change their lives. The plates of food they lovingly prepare are not just delicious meals, but carry with them generations of culture, history, tradition, and the contestants’ own hopes and dreams. That is why the stories are so absorbing. The universal thread of someone’s desire to share of themselves with others, deriving meaning for their own lives by connecting with other people across cultures.

As the contestants carry their plates of food to the judges, contestants are really carrying with them their deepest most vulnerable aspirations. These are precious artefacts, and the judges in the show lend them the dignity they deserve – with typical Pacific warmth and light-heartedness – as they sample the dishes.

While international travel remains a difficult and even impossible prospect for many, the visual medium of television is a surrogate for our own desire to travel to new places and experience new things. Pacific Island Food Revolution is about connecting cultures. It casts the Pacific not as a regional strategic space to be contested, or a basket of development challenges to be overcome, but as a vibrant, diverse part of the world, rich with stories of humanity and joy – and amazing people cooking delicious food.


Main image via Flickr user WorldFish


Red obsession: The Interpreter’s 2021 favourites

(Robert Hoge/Flickr)
(Robert Hoge/Flickr)
Published 15 Dec 2021 10:00   0 Comments

Our end-of-year series as the Lowy Institute staff offer their favourite books, articles, films or TV programs for 2021. Watch for more recommendations and reflections in the days ahead. –Eds

Staggering, saturated to the eyeballs in whiskey and cheap ale, a pair of untidy out-of-work thespians lurch through the front door of a genteel English tea house at closing time, plant themselves at a vacant table, and call for service. After exchanging unpleasantries with the proprietor, who instructs his waitress to call the police, the dishevelled duo make their demands:

Cake, and fine wine.
We want the finest wines available to humanity.
We want them here.
And we want them now.

So goes a scene from my all-time favourite film. And a year on from the “wholesale destruction” of the Australian wine industry, exacted in no small part by China’s trade-knobbling tariffs, the cinematic genius of Withnail and I provides a stellar example of art imitating life.

We want the finest wines available to humanity (Steven Penton/Flickr)

It was precisely 28 November 2020 when China effectively slammed the cellar door on Australian wine imports, imposing tariffs of up to 200 per cent after accusing Australia of dumping wine into their market. Despite a demonstrative love affair with Australian wine – in 2019 the Chinese quaffed $1.2 billion worth – and it representing more than 40 per cent by value of China’s favourite tipples, Beijing decided that flexing its economic muscle was more important than continuing to enjoy (in my humble opinion) some of the finest wines available to humanity.

Withnail provides a tannin-soaked nugget of cinematic insight into the current plight.

As a libation, a social lubricant, and an occasional elixir, wine has found fans since 6000 BC. And that’s why strategic denial hurts so much. With ongoing tariffs, a dearth of local fruit-picking labour in Australia, and a looming global shipping crisis, the country’s best drops are struggling to make it out of their brimming vats and into bottles any time soon. By 2025, Australia is predicted to have slipped to fifth place behind France, Chile, Spain and Italy as a wine importer into China, and that’s looking on the bright side.

While Australian wine makers and growers face the unenviable task of rebuilding or reinventing their overseas markets – most recently finding success in stronger domestic sales and regions such as North America – Withnail provides a tannin-soaked nugget of cinematic insight into the current plight. “We’ve gone on holiday by mistake,” he declares. The solution? With China imposing an unexpected vacation on its millions of wine lovers, it’s the perfect time for Australians to support the industry and enjoy the accidental fruits of Beijing’s extended leave.


From Brentford to the world: The Interpreter’s 2021 favourites

(Marco Verch/Filckr)
(Marco Verch/Filckr)
Published 14 Dec 2021 13:00   0 Comments

Our end-of-year series as the Lowy Institute staff offer their favourite books, articles, films or TV programs for 2021. Watch for more recommendations and reflections in the days ahead. –Eds.

For those of us in Australia with family, friends and work overseas, the pandemic has been particularly trying. In some ways, 2021 has been worse than 2020, and I don’t even want to think about 2022. The tyranny of distance has not been felt so deeply for a long time.

But one thing has kept me going through the darkest days of lockdown: seeing my football team, Brentford FC, make it to the English Premier League, and hold our own in the world’s most competitive sports league.

After decades of bottom-feeding, many disappointments and much drama, we were finally promoted back to the top tier of English football.

I’ve supported Brentford, an unfashionable lower league club in an unfashionable part of London, for nearly 30 years. Smarter friends, and my smarter brothers, chose to follow teams that were actually good at football and had some chance of success. I fell into supporting my nearest club.

After decades of bottom-feeding, many disappointments and much drama, we were finally promoted back to the top tier of English football in May after a 74-year absence. We started life in the Premier League with a brilliant 2–0 home win over Arsenal, a sweet success against my brothers’ team of choice, in the first match with full crowds since the pandemic began.

Since then, despite the 11 hour time difference, I’ve watched every game, sometimes staying up until 3am, at other times turning off my phone and shunning the internet until the next morning so I can watch the full replay as live without knowing the score.

It’s felt unreal watching us beat Arsenal, West Ham and Everton, draw with Liverpool and Newcastle, and outplay Chelsea (but still lose thanks to some amazing saves from their goalkeeper). Almost as if a lifetime of watching dire football was worth it.

Although we’ve made it to the top, Brentford remains a local club with a limited budget, not a global brand like Manchester City or Arsenal.

More than that, it’s given me a much-needed connection to my faraway home city. In an essay on what Brentford means to me, I quoted Pascal Mercier’s Night Train to Lisbon: “We leave something of ourselves behind when we leave a place; we stay there, even though we go away. And there are things in us that we can find again only by going back there.”

Watching Brentford takes me back to West London.

And it reminds me, after a torrid period for my country of birth, what’s good about the United Kingdom. Although we’ve made it to the top, Brentford remains a local club with a limited budget, not a global brand like Manchester City or Arsenal.

But we can still compete thanks to the ingenuity of our owner, an Oxford University-trained mathematician turned betting statistics whizz, the thoughtful, creative and dedicated approach of our Danish manager, and the level-headed endeavour of our players, who hail from Congo, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Grenada, Iran, Spain and Sweden, as well as England, Scotland and Wales.

As the son and grandson of refugees, and a “citizen of nowhere”, Brentford grounds me and reassures me that sometimes, with hard work, commitment, and an open mind, anything is possible.


The Interpreter’s 2021 favourites: reconnecting with music and art

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra at the Waldbühne, Germany (Fabian Sommer via Getty Images)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra at the Waldbühne, Germany (Fabian Sommer via Getty Images)
Published 13 Dec 2021 14:30   0 Comments

Our end-of-year series as the Lowy Institute staff offer their favourite books, articles, films or TV programs for 2021. Watch for more recommendations and reflections in the days ahead. –Eds.

Another year of lockdowns. If 2020, was the year of the sourdough ­– which by the way, we continue to make in our household thanks to lockdown last year ­– then 2021 was the year of the yarn. But my knitting languished in the back of the cupboard since May 2020. The blanket that I was so hopeful of completing before the baby was born remained incomplete.

What did we do differently in the lockdowns of 2021? I for one, picked up no new skills. I cancelled my Netflix subscription. Life continued at an unforgiving pace. But working from home this year gave me time to reconnect with music and art. With so many concert halls and museums closed for much of the past 18 months, cultural institutions had to pivot to remain engaged with the public to ensure its relevance in a post-lockdown world.

A nation’s cultural institutions and their programming and exhibitions is an insight into its cosmopolitanism, which stands in contrast to nationalism.

This year, I watched and listened to the very best orchestras in the world, including the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra from my computer screen. And I was taken on a tour of the brilliant Pre-Raphaelites Drawing and Watercolours exhibition at the Ashmolean by the curators. Lockdown gave me time to slowdown and reconnect with my interest in art and classical music.

Listening to the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra reminded me the joys of immersing myself in a piece of music – listening, humming and anticipating the next crescendo. Life’s highs and lows were echoed in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 (Emperor). The dialogue between piano and orchestra felt like the dialogue I was having with the world – moments of calm tempered by a bombardment of too much information relating to Covid-19 cases and vaccination rates.

The virtual tour of the Ashmolean’s Pre-Raphaelites Drawing and Watercolours exhibition brought back a sense of calm one feels when in the hushed surroundings of a museum. The beauty and fragility of some of the subject matter demonstrated how fleeting life can be.

As cultural institutions open-up again, it is perhaps an appropriate moment for these institutions to reimagine and reposition themselves where they are accessible to the widest possible audience. To do so will mean their relevance and importance remain at the forefront of public and government consciousness. A nation’s cultural institutions and their programming and exhibitions is an insight into its cosmopolitanism, which stands in contrast to nationalism. Covid-19 has reinforced Australia’s fortress mentality but Australia is a multicultural society, may our cultural institutions reflect that diversity and therefore our cosmopolitanism.