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Retreat from Pythagoras

The life of Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) is a study in the strenuous effort during the 20th century both to establish a bedrock of demonstrable truth through logic and mathematics and to apply reason to both personal and public life. Ray Monk's monumental biography of Russell, in two volumes, documents and analysts this life better than anyone has done before. It is itself a model of rational inquiry. What it shows is a little disconcerting. Russell failed to establish the bedrock of truth in theory and was often erratic in applying reason to his life or to public affairs in practice. He never to his own satisfaction reconciled his emotional and religious needs with his rationalist philosophy and his political writings exhibit extravagances and inconsistencies that are at times astonishing. By his own account, his youthful passion for the beauty of 'eternal forms' and philosophic certainty, inspired by the myth of Pythagoras, gave way to a 'retreat from Pythagoras' into scepticism and uncertainty. Where does this leave us? With a world of conjectures and refutations a la Popper, in which the horizon is open and the day after tomorrow is provocatively uncertain. [AFR, 30 Jun 06]


There is an old chestnut known as the Shakespeare Authorship Question.
It's been around for well over 200 years. It goes like this: William Shakespeare of Stratford on Avon cannot have written the poems and plays attributed to him, because he lacked the education, languages, political access, travel experience and life history that plainly characterized whoever did write them. Who, then, was the Author? In the past year, four books have been published purporting to be biographies of the Author. Each makes a case for a different individual; one argues that it was in fact the man from Stratford. At least three of these books must be in error. The beauty of the case is that it is not obvious which one is correct. If you think you know, keep thinking. We have here a delightful study in the nature of evidence and reasoning.  AFR, 17 Mar 03


Umberto Eco might well have chosen the long lost poems of Catullus, instead of Aristotle's treatise on comedy, as the centre piece for his novel The Name of The Rose. Lost for a thousand years, after the downfall of the ancient world, Catullus's single book of verse had been a sensation in early imperial Rome and has been enormously influential in the West ever since it was 'digitally remastered', in the Italian Renaissance, some 500 years ago. Especially loved have been his poems to 'Lesbia', the great passion of his life, whose real name was Clodia. Peter Green's new bilingual edition of The Poems of Catullus is a book to be prized. AFR, Dec 23 05

Reflections on our Existential Struggle with Islamism

We face an existential struggle with Islamism, not of our declaring but of theirs. Even if French specialist on Islam, Gilles Kepel, is correct and Islamism is, at present, less formidable than it aspires to be, we should not be complacent. Many people in the 1910s thought fascism and communism to be in check and many in the 1920s and even early 1930s did not take Hitler's Mein Kampf seriously. And what should we ourselves aspire to? An enlargement of enlightened civilization. We should juxtapose the claims of the Islamists less with the Koran 'correctly' interpreted than with the scepticism and humanity of Omar Khayyam - as does Iranian exile Mehdi Aminrazavi, in his new book The Wine of Wisdom.

Foxes, Hedgehogs and Algorithms

Experts in political and geopolitical forecasting should be treated with the same scepticism with which the well-informed now treat stock market analysts, argues psychologist Philip Tetlock, in a book length study of the subject. Tetlock has spent a generation painstakingly examining the forecasting performance of world class experts. His findings suggest that their hit rate is little better than random, their confidence in their abilities seriously misplaced and their defensiveness about their performance riddled with double standards and special pleading. This is a sober book and should be read by anyone with a stake in doing forecasting and living with its consequences.  AFR, 25 Nov 2005

Rethinking China: Australia and the World

Address given at launch of Thunder from the Silent Zone at Asialink, 7 September 2005.

Mao - The Great Hell's Man

Mao Zedong was an odious tyrant, responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of his own people. In arguing this in her new biography of Mao, Jung Chang, is not telling the world anything new. In presenting the story to a wide readership in highly digestible form, however, she is doing the world a service. She and her co-author, husband Jon Halliday, could, nonetheless, have done a better job. In particular, they should have been more rigorous in their use of data on the staggering death toll from Mao's misrule - and that of the Communist Party, which still rules China in his name.

Revolution in Defence

The Australian Defence Force is being reshaped from a continental defence force into a mobile joint force for a spectrum of 21st century operations. This reshaping entails a major overhaul of the force structure, reforms to the defence department and sustained work on doctrine and training for the armed services. It will take place over the next decade or so. The reforms in question have their roots in a decade of serious thinking, led by the best minds in the military and pre-eminently by those in the Army. There will be imperfections in the reforms, as there are in those of the biggest and best militaries, but there is movement and it is in more or less the right direction. AFR, 8 Jul 05

Making Sense of China

When I was appointed head of China analysis at DIO a decade ago, I found that the Australian government was ill-equipped to do China analysis, because there were so few people in the government who knew even the most basic things about either China or analysis. Today, our education system faces a comparable challenge. The study of China is under-resourced and far too subject to urban legends and the conventional wisdom. The study of China must become an integral part of a new form of 21st century classical education and it must impart to students that China came neither fresh nor free to its current surge of economic growth. 
An Address to the AEF National Forum “Engaging Young Australians With Asia”

Things Have Changed

Four years ago, in an essay titled ‘Twelve Questions for Paul Dibb’, I argued that we needed a major debate on Australia’s strategic policy. That debate is now well under way. To get depth of perspective on it, we need to do more than look back at the internal concerns of Australia and the history of its overseas deployments. We need to take stock of the major changes that have been going on in the world since well before 9/11. Once we do that, we can appreciate that we are in need of and are going through a paradigm shift in the way security itself is perceived. This is true not for us alone, but for states around the world. Address to the inaugural Vernon Sturdee Symposium, Royal Military College, Duntroon, 12 April 2005.

Capone or Malone

The editors of The Torture Papers, just published by Cambridge University Press, claim that this 1,300 page book of documents presents damning evidence of pernicious plotting against human rights within the Bush Administration since 2001. They compare this ‘plotting’ to Nazi plans for the Holocaust. Actually, the documents show something else entirely: the Bush Administration carefully exploring the legal implications of practical steps to tackle al Qaeda and its allies in the aftermath of an attack on the United States that violated all the laws of war. A good mental model for understanding their thinking is Brian de Palma’s 1987 film The Untouchables, in which Jimmy Malone tells Eliot Ness that to get Al Capone he will have to be prepared to intimidate him. The clearest precedent for what they have done is Abraham Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus and detention of thousands of suspected rebels and subversives in 1861, early in the American Civil War.  AFR, 8 Apr 05

Defusing Nuclear Iran

Iran has been developing nuclear weapons under the cover of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Tensions are building and there has been speculation that the United States might invade Iran as it did Iraq. That is improbable, given the formidable costs it would entail. However, the momentum for political change in the Middle East triggered by the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq could provide the catalyst for regime change in Iran without invasion.  (AFR, 11 Mar 05)

Children of the Revolution

Zhao Ziyang, the former premier of China, died in January. The Chinese Communist Party has been trying to prevent any commemoration of his life and ideas. We should disregard its censorship. Zhao was a remarkable man with a vision for political reform in China. Such political reform is badly needed in China and there is no justification for postponing it. The leaders of the Party now know this; Premier Wen Jiabao not least, because he was a close aide to Zhao in the late 1980s. The task will be difficult and they deserve our sympathy in tackling it, but more than our sympathy, they need our honesty. The reform must come for China’s sake and for the sake of the rest of us. The children of the revolution - the current Party leaders - must be induced to take the reform path.  AFR 11 Feb 05


John Carroll's Irrational Anti-Humanism

John Carroll thinks that Western culture has wrecked itself over the past five hundred years, by embracing reason in place of ‘the darkness of faith’. Seeing the past 500 years as an era of failure and decline in Western culture requires an heroic inversion of reality and Carroll’s argument is unconvincing. But his problem is not just that he gets his history confused. It is that he rejects reason itself as, in Luther’s words, ‘the Devil’s whore’ and knowledge as futile. That being so, he has no business trying to reason with us, or use the fruits of a liberal education to do so. He is lost in the labyrinth of the past and we need not chase him there. (AFR, 17 Dec 04)

Dangers Just As Great

In a national summit in Canberra, on 13 August, Paul Dibb stated that al Qaeda-style terrorism has not transformed the strategic environment and is nothing like the kind of danger that the old Soviet Union was. Philip Bobbitt, a scholar of formidable erudition and practical experience in international security affairs, disagrees. In his magnum opus, The Shield of Achilles, published in 2002, Bobbitt argues that we have entered a whole new epoch of war. In this talk, delivered at the Land Warfare Development Centre, Puckapunyal, on 8 September, Dr Monk looked at the Australian strategic policy debate through the lens of Bobbitt's work.

U.S. Forces

Over the next six to ten years, the United States will redeploy substantial forces from Western Europe and East Asia, as it reshapes its military commitments to adapt to a radically changed strategic environment. The nature of its redeployments could be seen as evidence of imperial overstretch. It is better understood as evidence of a capacity for pro-active strategic thinking at the highest levels of the Pentagon. Those charged with formulating Australian strategic policy and force structure priorities should take note and rethink our own commitments on comparable lines. Saturday Essay, AFR 21 August 2004.

The Red Queen and the Slingshot

For millennia, human beings have pondered the origins of something called 'the mind' and puzzled over the so-called 'mind-body problem.' Is there a physical world and also a metaphysical one? A real world and a merely apparent one? Which was which? How could we know? How could such puzzles be reconciled with what we had learned in the past century and a half about biological evolution of the human species? Quite recent advances in the cognitive and archaeological sciences are throwing new light on the evolutionary origins of structured thinking, which is at the core of what 'mind' is. William Calvin is in the forefront of this research. His new book, A Brief History of the Mind, is an ambitious and stimulating introduction to the subject.  A version of this essay appeared in AFR, 6 Aug 2004


Successive national inquiries have concluded that neither George Bush, nor Tony Blair, nor John Howard misled their countries in making the case for going to war to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Yet the failure of the Iraq Survey Group to find any evidence that Saddam had had deployable WMD or even active WMD programs, combined with the official findings that he did not have a strategic partnership with al Qaeda, have led critics of the war to insist that they lied and that the war has been shown to have been unjustified. The matter is not as simple as that. In an era in which terrorism and the need to pre-empt it are likely to be enduring realities, we need to think harder than most people are doing about the judgments involved in the Iraq case. Saturday Essay, AFR 17 July 2004.

Abrupt Climate Change

We normally think of history as something that began around 5,000 years ago in the early Bronze Age, but 'really' got going only about 2,000 years ago, with the rise of the Roman and Chinese empires. Natural history gives us an utterly different perspective on the history of our species and of our world. But we have had almost no understanding of it until very recent times. One of the most remarkable things we have learned, just in the past ten to twenty years, is that, over the past few million years, the Earth's climate has been doing great flip flops every few thousand years, at breathtaking speed and with awesome consequences. It's time we started to integrate this into our common understanding - to achieve what Edward O. Wilson calls 'consilience': an intelligent integration of the humanities with the natural sciences.

Enhancing our Grasp of Complex Arguments (with Tim van Gelder)

An overview of the use of argument mapping to augment our capacity to handle complex reasoning and argumentation, and to improve deliberative judgment. This paper was presented by Paul Monk as a plenary address to the 2004 Fenner Conference on the Environment, Australian Academy of Science, Canberra, 24 May 2004.

Troy: Legends of the Fall

Wolfgang Petersen's Hollywood epic is a missed opportunity for a really powerful piece of cinema on the nature of war. Homer is far headier stuff than this melodrama allows. And the history behind Homer is even more remarkable. Philip Bobbitt titled his acclaimed 2002 treatise on war and peace, The Shield of Achilles, in homage to the great tradition. But Petersen's film sells out that tradition, instead of tapping into it.  A version appeared in the AFR, 13 June 2004

Collins Class Intelligence

The Collins affair has been taken up with gusto by The Bulletin, which has backed calls for a Royal Commission into the intelligence system. Collins's allegations, however, appear to be confused and the call for a Royal Commission even more so. The intelligence system is not perfect, but a Royal Commission would be a most inefficient way of doing anything about this. Only a cool-headed and sustained concentration on better intelligence work is likely to improve the system over time.  A version of this essay appeared in The New Observer. That magazine has, however, now ceased publication.

Taiwan's Options

The claim by China to sovereignty over Taiwan is rooted in historical grievances and strategic ambitions that could yet lead to war. Such a war would be a disaster for all concerned, but that does not justify merely capitulating to China's obsession in this matter. What it calls for, instead, is a dialogue about constructive possibilities, rooted in a fuller understanding of the histories of both China and Taiwan than almost anyone involved in the matter tends to exhibit. This is an address given by Dr Monk to university students in Tainan, southern Taiwan, and Ilan, north-eastern Taiwan, in April.

The Clock Chimes Thirteen

Richard Clarke’s was head of counter terrorism at the National Security Council under the Clinton administration. He continued in that role under the Bush administration until after 9/11. He resigned in the wake of the war in Afghanistan and has written a polemical book denouncing the Bush administration for mishandling and misrepresenting the war against al Qaeda. His main premise is that there was no link whatsoever between Iraq and al Qaeda. Yet he fails to establish this premise and provides a demonstrably and seriously flawed account of what is a substantial intelligence puzzle. Former CIA chief James Woolsey described this as like a clock chiming thirteen. When a clock does that, you know something is fundamentally wrong with it.

The Malady of Islam

Abdelwahhab Meddeb is a sort of French Tunisian Harold Bloom - a secularized literary critic who writes eruditely and flamboyantly about religion. He writes that radical Islam is the malady of the Arabic world. His book is one of a number of recent books by scholars of Muslim origin calling for an end to Islamic fundamentalism and a modernization of the Muslim world. (A version of this appeared in the April/May 2004 edition of The Diplomat.)

Iraq and WMD: An Absurd Paradox

Hans Blix was the head of UNMOVIC, responsible a year ago for trying to find Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. He did not find any stockpiles of WMD, or any signs of prohibited activity. The Iraq Survey Group after the war also failed to find stockpiles of WMD, but found abundant evidence of prohibited WMD activity. Blix declares that the coalition suffered from a deficiency of critical thinking, but his own reasoning is flawed and the case is not closed on Saddam's WMD.  This essay appeared in the AFR, 18 Feb 2004

Meriwether and Strange Weather

John W Meriwether and his quants set out to create the world's greatest hedge fund. They failed to hedge, though, becoming too certain both of their mathematical models (which were flawed) and their intuitive judgment (which was even less reliable, especially as their overconfidence grew). Their failure was spectacular and is worth reflecting closely on. (Originally a dinner speech to an Australian Taxation Office conference on Risk Management and Intelligence, in Canberra, on 10 February 2004, this paper was subsequently published in Quadrant in April 2004, pp. 8-14)

Sound Analysis Lies in Reassessing Mindsets

Rejecting David Brooks' suggestion in the New York Times that the CIA's failings are explained by too much "scientism" and rational analysis, this essay argues that the problem is that appropriate methods of rational analysis, as described in Richards Heuer's book The Psychology of Intelligence Analysis, are not being properly applied; and that to better avoid future lapses, intelligence agencies should invest heavily in "heueristics."  A version of this essay appeared in AFR, 14 Feb 2004

Dark Thunder from an Ancient War

When Thucydides the Athenian wrote his history of the Peloponnesian War, 2,400 years ago, he stated that he had written it not to entertain the multitude, but to be something that would last forever. It has. It is one of the very greatest classics. It is the first work of really serious history and is still instructive and sobering in the 21st century. Donald Kagan's newly published update, The Peloponnesian War, is a tribute to the masterful original. It completes it in point of detail, but leaves its inimitable qualities untouched. A version of this essay appeared in AFR, Jan 30 2004

North Korea's Nuclear Program: Getting Perspective and Weighing Policy Options

How one attempts to solve a problem often depends on how the problem itself is defined. North Korea is openly and actively seeking to complete a nuclear and ballistic missile arsenal. Why is this a problem? What implications does it have? Should it be stopped? Can it be stopped? If so, how? The situation is open to various interpretations, each of which leads to a different definition of the problem. Before looking at what might be done, it is important to look at the situation from different angles, if only to ascertain whether our initial assumptions about it are sound. This is a paper delivered at the University of Melbourne and published under its auspices, in December 2003, as the fourth in its Melbourne Asia Policy Papers series.


Know Ye Not Poetry

Don Watson's Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language has been getting a lot of publicity since its recent release. Yet it is a disappointing book. It lacks structure. There is no discernible argument in it. The author contradicts himself, jumps around from topic to topic without any apparent plan, expresses indignation at a bewildering number of real or imagined trends and calls for 'resistance' without specifying who is to resist what, or how. A version of this essay appeared in AFR, Dec 23 2003

The Bible and the Risen Ape

The story of the creation and fall of mankind, at the beginning of the Bible's book of Genesis, is the foundation of three great religions. Between them they still command the loyalties of about two billion people. Yet the story is untrue. We are not a fallen species, but a risen one. We need to take account of what we now really know and rethink all the Biblical religions. A version of this essay appeared in AFR, Dec 12 2003

Hu Jintao and China

Hu Jintao's visit to Australia was historic. Who would have
thought that the political heir of Mao Zedong would ever come to
Australia singing the praises of markets, investment, comparative
advantage and international cooperation? Yet he has just done so. He faces major challenges to maintain China's economic growth, to democratize
China and to deal with the question of Taiwan.  We need to develop deeper perspectives on how he might be expected to deal with those challenges. AFR, Oct 31 2003

North Korea: Waco or Bargain?

A paranoid and starving North Korea is clinging to its nuclear weapons program and threatening war, if the rest of us try to disarm it. If we push it too hard, we could have a gigantic Waco on our hands. Cool heads are necessary. It's security fears are not completely irrational. What is called for is a sustained effort to bring it out of its isolation and induce it to embrace rational economic and political reforms. AFR, Sep 26 2003

ONA: Analyze This

Andrew Wilkie resigned from the Office of National Assessments (ONA) over the government's decision to join the war against Saddam Hussein. Did he know better than the PM about Iraq's WMD? Don't leap to conclusions on the basis of what you think of the PM. Consider these anecdotes about ONA. AFR, Sep 5 2003

Santamaria: The Price of Freedom

B. A. Santamaria's book The Price of Freedom (1964) is a collection of essays and addresses dating from 1958 to 1963. It is worth turning back to as a way to get a sense of perspective on current debates about Australia's national security, strategic policy and political parties. An address given at the Land Warfare Studies Centre, Royal Military College, Duntroon, 3 September 2003.

Natural History and the Apocalypse

We live between ice ages and between abrupt climate flips from warm and wet to cool and dry. The average warm period between ice ages, for three million years, has been 10,000 years. We've had 15,000 years. Climate flips have occurred every few thousand years for three million years. There hasn't been one for 11,000 years and we don't know why. The implications are startling. AFR, Aug 8 2003

Judgment and the Solomons

In January, Alexander Downer declared emphatically that Australia would not be intervening in the Solomons. Now we are doing so. What is the reason? The closest we have to a public articulation of the case is a 68 page study published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI). It's a most incomplete study. It needs to be supplemented by a good deal of deeper thinking. Absent such thinking, our intervention would have to be described as more ASPI-rational than well conceived.  Appearing in The Diplomat.

Aiming Higher vs Hitting the Target

Labor's new higher education policy paper is called 'Aim Higher: Learning, Training and Better Jobs for all Australians'. It is conceptually flawed. It talks up the woolly idea of creating "a world-leading system of life-long learning for all Australians." It should be aiming, instead, to lift standards, so that higher education can achieve its real goal: equipping gifted people to take responsibility for the complex challenges our society faces. Published in AFR, Aug 4 2003

Sun-tzu and Science

Sun Tzu's The Art of War has been urged upon the thinking business manager for decades. It's fine. Apart from anything else, it's short and fairly easy to read. But cognitive science has much more to offer. Here are five maxims from cognitive science to set beside five famous maxims from Sun Tzu. Published in BOSS, AFR, 11 July 2003

Rethinking the Defence of Australia

Since at least 1986, Australia's defence policy has been disproportionately shaped by Paul Dibb. The Dibb era is coming to an end. It is doing so because he and his protgs, especially Hugh White, have stuck to their doctrine and failed to rethink it to meet the requirements of the new century. It's important to understand just where their doctrine is coming to grief and why. Published in the AFR 6 June 03.

Aligning Learning With Earning

Brendan Nelson's higher education financial reforms should stimulate both accountability and competition. That's to the good. There is, however, a serious problem in regard to intellectual standards in university education. The key issue is the development of basic cognitive abilities. We need new approaches to bringing this about.  Published in the AFR 19 May 03 as 'Time to develop minds, not indulge'"

On Angels and the Art of Possibility

"Mark Waller is an artist with a vision. He wants to generate what he calls ripple effects. A ripple effect is when some small generous act prompts emulation in an ever widening circle, like a pebble cast into a pool. This brings into being possibilities barely conceivable by the person who undertook the first small act - cast the first pebble, as it were. Having had a remarkable experience of this phenomenon over the past two years, Waller now intends to turn ripple effects into an art form."  (AFR 24 Apr 03)

Dealing in North Korea Futures

Is North Korea next on George Bush's hit list? Could be. North Korea is being shown by Washington that its days of blackmail and recalcitrance are about to end. Regime change in Pyongyang is vital to North Korea's future. The question is, will it come by suasion peacefully, or will Kim Jong-il drag his regime and his country - possibly the North East Asian region - over the precipice? (AFR 15 Feb 03)

The Rhetorical Rules of Engagement

Written on the eve of the 2003 war against Saddam Hussein, this essay sets out the case that there were powerful arguments both for and against going to war. Whatever your own instinctive or considered judgment, you should have weighed the matter by considering as many arguments against your position as you could think of. You should also have been prepared to alter your opinion as new evidence came in. The essay was well received as something that helped various readers to form a more considered, more balanced judgment of the matter. (AFR 21 Mar 03)

The United Nations at the Cross Roads


Defectors and Tyrants' Secrets

Does Saddam really has weapons of mass destruction? Defectors who have worked in the system have dramatic tales to tell. We can get perspective by comparing them to defectors from the Soviet Union. (AFR 21 Feb 03)

War and the Lying Machine

Daniel Ellsberg was one of the brightest analysts in the US in the 1960s. He had extraordinary access to the secret world. His memoir of that time is a remarkable story of the collision between his conscience and his bureaucratic loyalties. (AFR 14 Feb 03)

On Remaining Human

Philip Noyce’s film of The Quiet American - based on Graham Greene’s classic novel of 1955 - is not a great film. It falls flat because Noyce’s politics are too simple-minded and transparent. The dilemmas that confronted the characters in Greene’s novel, set in Vietnam in 1952, are with us today in the wake of the Bali bombing and in regard to the probable war in Iraq, but Noyce’s film has little to offer those seeking to think through where they stand on such matters in 2003. Published in The Diplomat February 2003.

Of Beethoven and Chinese Freedom (AFR 3 Jan 03)

Lee Tenghui deserves greater international recognition as the elder statesman of freedom in the Chinese world. He doesn’t get it, because China’s present rulers fear his example. At his inaugural as the first democratically elected head of state in Chinese history, he had Beethoven’s Ode to Joy played. Perhaps, in 2012, the centenary of the founding of the Republic of China will be marked in Beijing by a democratic festival accompanied by the overture to Beethoven’s opera about freedom and tyranny, Fidelio? Come the day! In the meantime, the world should know about Lee’s achievements - and those of several other elderly champions of freedom living in Taiwan: Peng Ming-min, Bo Yang and Ruan Ming.


Silly, Mr. Downer? Keep Thinking.

In the aftermath of the Bali bombing, it will be terribly easy for policy makers under pressure to make errors of judgment. Alexander Downer, Robert Hill, Greg Sheridan and David Martin Jones, among others, have said or written things in the past fortnight that should cause alarm bells to ring. Here's thinking about it. Published in the AFR, 1 Nov 2002.


John Harms has written a delightful little book about growing up as an Aussie Rules fan. It's called Loose Men Everywhere. He thinks footy is like religion - about fundamentals. He's right, but there's even more going on here than he allows.

Seven Pillars of Wisdom

Last year, immediately after the astounding events of 9/11, I wrote an essay for the Australian Financial Review called 'Seven Theses of War'. How do the seven theses stand up in the light of twelve months of developments since then? Quite well. The biggest challenges remain theses six and seven. The first of these requires defeating al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein without triggering a wider and degenerative disorder. The second requires rising above the cultural despair to which various people in the West have given voice in the past year. Our enemies have acted out of cultural despair, we should not respond in kind.

Rethinking Fixed Ideas

We very easily take our perspective on things for granted. This is simply demonstrated by looking at a something called a Necker Cube, which challenges our perception and judgment because of indeterminacy regarding what corner of the cube a dot is in (see illustration). As regards the vexed question of Taiwan's future, there is a problem of this nature. Policy here, in China and in the US is governed by three fixed ideas. if we are to avoid drifting into a tragic and unnecessary conflict over this matter, we would do well to rethink these three ideas. I gave this address in Canberra on Friday 23 August to a gathering of senior Australian businessmen and government officials, at the annual Australia Taiwan Business Council/Government forum.

Rhodes to Ruin: Mugabe as Tyrant

Robert Mugabe has brought his country, Zimbabwe, to the brink of economic chaos and famine. He and his cronies are determined to cling to power whatever the cost to their fellow citizens. This is a political tragedy. Years ago, many people thought Mugabe might prove to be a visionary and statesmanlike leader in a country considered the jewel of Africa. He has betrayed every hope placed in him. That betrayal is an object lesson in what constitutes tyranny and what constitutes good governance - whether one is black or white.

Coming to the Party: Transparency in the Political and Economic Life of China

China has been touted for years as the next economic superpower and the economic powerhouse of the 21st century. An increasingly vigorous set of well-informed critics are suggesting that this is an illusion; that China is actually set for a big crash. Their arguments are interesting and the subject of great importance. In this address to Transparency International, delivered at Freehills' Melbourne offices on 25 July, I explained what their arguments are and made some cautionary remarks about critical thinking on this matter.

Sea Power

Sea power has been the most tangible means by which the Western powers have dominated the world since the sixteenth century, first breaking it open and then ruling the waves. Explorations opened the Western mind, even as they opened up the world to Western depredations, trade and colonization. This maritime supremacy was the indispensable pre-condition for what we now call globalization. English has been its dominant language for several centuries and still is. Critical reason is what has gradually brought about its more rational institutional articulation. That's what gives so much significance to American naval supremacy in the Pacific and to its incipient naval confrontation with the rising power of China in the Taiwan Strait.

Wei Jingsheng

When the famous Chinese dissident and democratic activist Wei Jingsheng visited Australia in early 2002, I met him several times and talked with him about both his own experiences and the prospects for democratization in China. The encounter was written up and published in the Australian Financial Review.

A Beautiful Argument About War

Lawrence Keeley and Raymond Kelly, in their debate about the origins of human warfare, not only tell us a great deal about the real human past, but set a fine example of scientific debate and rational inquiry. Published in AFR, 10 May 2002.

Three Dinosaurs and a Dragon

Gough Whitlam, Malcolm Fraser and Hugh White have all argued that Australia should do whatever it can to ensure that Taiwan accepts reunification with China, lest any move to legitimize Taiwan's de facto independence lead to a war which we should want no part of. I argue that they are mistaken in a number of ways. Published in Quadrant, May 2002.

Empathizing with Fanatics

Jon Ronson's Them: Adventures Among Extremists, is a funny and chastening little tale of the author's journeys among extremists of various stripes. It is characterized above all by its remarkable intellectual restraint and compassion. Ronson seems almost like a Jesus figure walking among the intellectually possessed, obsessed, blind, lame and leprous. Published in AFR, 24 May 2002.

Quemoy: At the Frontier of the Possible

During a recent visit to Taiwan, I visited the old military stronghold of Quemoy, or Kinmen, an island right up against the coast of China, which has been held by Taiwan ever since 1949. It's exceptionally interesting history is well worth reflecting on as we look at alternative possible futures for China and Taiwan, to say nothing of tiny Quemoy. Published in the AFR, 28 June 2002.

Memories of Santa and Franta

Growing up in a Catholic family, with a father who was a dedicated and active follower of Bob Santamaria and his National Civic Council, was a legacy to wrestle with at University. One of the teachers who made it possible to do so productively was Dr Frank Knopfelmacher, a Holocaust survivor and ex-Communist, who was a friend and ally of Mr Santamaria's throughout the Cold War. Published in Quadrant, July/August 2002.

Catholicism and Liberalism

The essay 'A Good Time to Get Religion Straight', in the Easter edition of the Australian Financial Review, attracted quite a few responses. Most were favorable. One Catholic school teacher even declared it had been very valuable to him. Another Catholic, Stephen Magee, thought, on the other hand, that the essay was grossly unfair to Catholicism and went "completely off the rails". This led to a lively exchange with Magee. This is the text of the exchange.

From Zorroastrologism to the Berlin Bonker

If you want a good laugh, read Anders Henriksson's new book, Non Campus Mentis. It's an edited collection of howlers written by North American college students in term papers and blue book exam essays on world history. He has collected these little gems since 1983. The book deserves instant classic status alongside the never out of print masterpiece by Sellar and Yeatman, 1066 And All That, which was published in 1930. This review of the book, 'From Zorroastrologism to the Berlin bonker' appeared in the Australian Financial Review on 19 April 2002. Henriksson himself later described the review as being as funny as the book itself.

Getting Religion Straight

Archbishop George Pell, in Sydney, declared in March 2002 that we all need to "get religion". Easter is a good occasion to reflect on whether this is so and on what, precisely, "getting" religion might entail in a liberal society. Pell presumably had Catholicism in mind, above all other religions. Catholicism may well have a large and dignified role to play in 21st century civilization, but that role is complex and rendered problematic by the fact that no religion can now claim to have the revealed truth. We simply know too much now about the evolution and nature of the human species to credit the creation, fall and salvation myths of the Biblical religions.

Breaking the Addiction to Secrecy

One of the most persistent problems in contemporary Western democracies is governmental obsession with secrecy. Secrecy, past a quite minimal point, is intrinsically damaging to both sound policy making and democratic norms. The case against it has been made well and often, but the time has come to do something about it. Australian Financial Review, 1 March 2002

Green Island Elegy: Human Rights in the Chinese World

When they took over Taiwan from the Japanese, in 1945, the Chinese Nationalists (Guomindang) so misgoverned it that there was an uprising against them. They crushed it brutally and imposed martial law for forty years. Now, though, Taiwan has become a paragon of human rights. Paradoxically, the man who opened the way for this to happen, in the 1980s, was Chiang Ching-kuo, son of Generalissimo Chiang Kaishek, who had organized much of the repression for his father, from 1949 onward. A serious new biography of the younger Chiang throws considerable light on his motivations for lifting the heavy hand of Guomindang dictatorship.

Looking into the Forbidden Image

Contemporary museums give off an odor of the death of art. In his luminous history of artistic iconoclasm from Plato to Mondrian, Alain Besancon inquires as to why this should be so. He writes in the great Western intellectual tradition, not in the style of the notoriously French obscurantism of recent decades. Yet he struggles to find a way forward. There is one, but not in Plato or Hegel, on whom he draws for most of his inspiration.  This essay appeared in the Australian Financial Review, Jan 1 2002


Mapping the Future of Argument

Broad historical/philosophical overview of argument mapping and its place in human intellectual development.  Argument mapping is a new graphical technique for displaying the structure of complex reasoning.  A version of this essay appeared in the Australian Financial Review.

Democracy in Taiwan

Taiwan's legislative elections, on 1 December 2001, were historic. They demonstrated that democracy rules in Taiwan. They should mark a turning point in the way both China and the rest of the world relate to Taiwan. Australia should set an example in embracing it.

From Pillar to Post

The former deputy director of the CIA's Counterterrorism Center, Paul Pillar, published a book just before 11 September, called Terrorism and US Foreign Policy. In it, he stated that there is no international Islamic organization coordinating terrorist jihad against the West and its allies in the Middle East. He was very much mistaken. There is such an organization. It might be called The Khomeinitern, after the Leninist Comintern of the 1920s and 1930s. It is large, ruthless and a very serious problem.  AFR, Nov 2001

Thinking Outside the Chinese Box

A long essay, published in Quadrant, November 2001, about resolving the strategic deadlock across the Taiwan Strait. Virtually all parties to this dispute are locked into a way of thinking about it that admits of no solution other than war or Taiwanese capitulation. Neither would be satisfactory and the former could well prove disastrous in a number of ways. A new way of thinking about the problem is called for. It's time for China to broaden its horizons and embrace Taiwan, instead of trying to coerce it into submission.

A Stunning Intelligence Failure

This is a reflection on the background to a stunning US intelligence failure in the months and years before the 11 September attack on the World Trade Center. There were bells ringing, but the key people did not hear or heed them. One of the most remarkable failures was the apparent failure to see that the Bojinka Plot - prepared in 1994 by the masterminds of the 1993 and 2001 World Trade Centre attacks and exposed in early 1995 as involving hijacking and blowing up a dozen US passenger aircraft and flying others into major US public buildings - had any implications in the summer of 2001. It would appear to have been filed and forgotten well befoe then.

Thinking Grand Strategy

A reflection on Sino/US relations and the emerging strategic environment in which Australian security policy will have to be made. Includes critical remarks on three recent books, one of which was a study put together under the auspices of the Australian American Leadership Dialogue that concentrated on the future of America's alliances with Japan, South Korea and Australia. This essay was published in The Australian's Review of Books in November 2000.

Empire and Araby: Five Classic Passages

Passages from St Augustine, Edward Gibbon, Steven Runciman, T. E. Lawrence and Bernard Lewis, which throw some historical light on the current Islamic terrorism problem. By drawing on such deeper historical perspectives, we may be able to temper our judgments and see both ourselves and our enemies in a different light than otherwise.

Seven Theses on the War of Terror

The destruction of the World Trade Center and the attack on the Pentagon have stirred enormous anger in the United States and around the world. The US Government is gearing up for a war with terrorism. Here are seven key things that we might do well to think about before making up our minds about what should be done, or what the real challenge is in this stunning situation. This essay appeared in The Australian Financial Review on Friday 21 September 2001.

Twelve Questions for Paul Dibb

A critical response to Paul Dibb's winter 2000 reflections on Australia's strategic outlook. This essay was especially well received among strategic thinkers in various arms of government and in several think tanks, as well as in the armed services. It included an open invitation to Dibb to respond in detail and set out his views more clearly. He has never done so. Published in Quadrant April 2001.

Stranger Music: Leonard Cohen's Lyrical Judaism

A reflection on the poetry and songs of Leonard Cohen and the strong influence on them of his religious Judaism. Published in the Australian Financial Review 8 June 2001. Subsequent to the publication of this essay, a number of Cohen fans got in touch from around the world, including one from Finland. One declared he'd sent a copy of the piece to Cohen's office in Los Angeles. A Queensland based fan club invited the author to a Cohen birthday bash the following September.

International Bloody Murder

Under Thomas Watson, its presiding genius of the first half of the 20th century, IBM supplied Adolf Hitler with the information technology that made his racial censuses, slave labor program, blitzkrieg and genocide technically feasible. IBM's top management did this in full knowledge of what Hitler was doing, pocketed the profits and has never been held to account. Edwin Black's new book shows all this. The implications of the case go to the heart of major current debates about free trade and technological innovation, humane values and civilization. AFR late August 2001.

Mary McCarthy: A Truly Sexy Intellectual

A new biography of Mary McCarthy, the 'First Lady of (American) Letters', as Norman Mailer called her, shows why she was and should remain a cultural heroine and role model for young women. She combined great personal glamour with great intelligence and never became a tribal, or politically correct, ideologue throughout a long life in writing and public debate. AFR 3 August 2001.

Overcoming the Confucian

With the demise of Communism, considerable energy has gone into attempts to revitalize Confucianism as the Chinese tradition. We should be wary of mystification or ideological mumbo jumbo here. It's better to see Confucius and the other Chinese sages, such as Mencius, in the deeper context of the global rise of human civilization. An address by Dr Monk to the Cranlana program in Leadership for the 21st Century on 4 June 2001, the twelfth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. The talk was revised and published in the July/August 2001 issue of Quadrant.

Ends and Bloody Means

Seminar paper given at ANU, 13 March 2001, on proposed book called Ends and Bloody Means. (A project put on hold while Austhink was assembled and not taken off the backburner thereafter. Perhaps to be revisited in future, given the ongoing significance of the subject matter).

Thirteen Days on the Brink

A review of Roger Donaldson's excellent new film, Thirteen Days. Published in the Australian Financial Review Friday 25 May 2001. The film is a drama, not a documentary, and isn't completely accurate; but it's a great introduction to a very serious subject. After viewing it, preferably more than once, citizens of the contemporary world might well be prompted to delve into the serious historical and theoretical literature on the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Nietzsche's Pagan Epiphany

A reflection on Nietzsche's last year, in Turin, 1888, during which he wrote five stunning books and crowned a short life's creativity, before suffering a complete mental and physical collapse. Prompted by Leslie Chamberlain's Nietzsche In Turin.

Rome and the East

A critical reflection on Warwick Ball's Rome in the East: The Transformation of an Empire. Ball argues that the acquisition of the eastern provinces led directly to the rise of Rome. He is wrong. Roman institutions, not Asia, made Rome great.

Thunder from the Silent Zone

An analysis of The Tiananmen Papers, secret Chinese documents about the famous events of 1989 recently published in the US. Appeared AFR 12 April 2001.

Remembering Phryne, Loving Thais

Feature for the Australian Financial Review on Massenet's opera Thais and the Western attitude to courtesans since classical times. Published in the AFR, 19 Jan 2001.


On Secret Intelligence and Realpolitik

A feature article, 2,500 words in length, which appeared in the Australian Financial Review New Year Special, 29 Dec 2000.

A Slippery Slope to Complicity (pdf file)

A 13,000 word seminar paper given at ANU, 5 Dec 2000. The paper was very well received at the time. One of the ANU's senior historians remarked afterwards that it was refreshing to hear a presentation which began with the observation that the author had begun with a hypothesis, tested it against the evidence and found he had to revise it. "I didn't think that happened any more", he said. Professor Fox, head of the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, took the paper across to DFAT a few days later and recommended it to Allan Taylor, then still head of ASIS. He reported that Taylor declared "I've already read it and consider it the best thing I've read on the subject." It seems there must have been an 'under cover' ASIS officer at the seminar!

Practical Genius and the Higher Sodomy

A reflection on Robert Skidelsky's three volume biography of John Maynard Keynes. The third volume is the weakest of the three, but the biography is inspirational. Keynes was a practical genius and a many-sided modern individual.

Balibo: Murdani and the Memory Hole

Essay on the mystery of Balibo and signals intelligence. Published in Quadrant, Nov 2000.Its precise line of inquiry currently being followed by confidential Government inquiry.

The Emperor and the Assassin

Essay on Chen Kaige's stunning new film The Emperor and the Assassin. Shows how he used Ssu-ma Ch'ien's classic story about the First Emperor to critique the Communist Party. Appeared in Quadrant Dec 2000.