- Letter #10 - 2 December 2016
For most of the US election cycle I resisted the siren call to go pundit. However, a series of singular events forced a rethink. The first was Vice President Biden’s visit to Sydney, which came on the heels of Trump’s unlikely victory in the Republican primaries. Biden ended his stirring speech with words that would surely come back to haunt him as well as those of us in the audience: ‘And by the way, don’t worry about the election.’
- Letter #9 - 6 August 2014
I’m not sure if history repeats or merely rhymes, but after emerging from two weeks off the grid in the Canadian wilderness, only to see a Malaysian airliner shot down over Ukraine and a war in Gaza as well Cold War and 1914 analogies in the headlines, I felt like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day - or worse, Tom Cruise in Edge of Tomorrow (do not wait for tomorrow to see this sleeper). Indeed, I thought the two films better models than the game theory that seems to be driving the current crises, in particular, ‘Chicken in Gaza’ (who will swerve first?) and ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma in the Ukraine’ (will Putin opt for self-interested tactical choices rather than cooperative strategic ones with better outcomes?).
- Letter #8 - 25 April 2014
Beacons have been lighting up the Australian airwaves. When I boarded the flight back home from Singapore my seatmate looked up from his smart phone long enough to inform me the Royal Australian Navy had picked up a ping from the locator beacon of the downed Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Before I could drill deeper into the story the take-off announcement came on, instructing us to buckle up and turn off all electronic devices. Unencumbered by iPhone Location Services, our Boeing 777 - yes, the same aircraft model that had disappeared weeks earlier some 1000 kilometers northwest of Perth - taxied down the airway and headed to Australia.
- Letter #7 - 18 February 2014
In the course of seeking a nuclear weapons treaty in the 1980s, Secretary of State George Shultz and theoretical physicist and arms control expert Sydney Drell coined the term ‘quantum diplomacy’ to describe the difficulties of understanding and negotiating complex security issues under the unblinking eye of the media.
- Letter #6 - 13 January 2014
Somewhere over the Pacific on New Year’s Eve, I watched the end of the world (as we know it). But as water glasses spilt, seats shook, and the pilot laconically asked everyone to buckle up, I could not stop laughing. Like my previous flight (see Director’s Letter #5), the post-apocalyptic dominated the inflight movie choices, and mine, ‘This is the End’, with Seth Rogan, James Franco, Jonah Hill, and an all-star cast of actors and comedians playing caricatures of themselves, was profanely hilarious, satirically dead-on, and the best take-down of religious fundamentalism ever to make it past the Hollywood censors. And there’s nothing like a seven-headed beast with ten horns knocking on your door to put a little air turbulence in perspective.
- Letter #5 - 4 November 2013
Arriving at the Union Club in Sydney I experienced a Marxist flashback, some Karl but mostly Groucho, who when invited by the Friars Club famously responded that he would not join any club that would have him as a member. The trigger this time was the portrait of the Queen at the top of the stairwell. An oil of the Royals is easily offset by a chilled pitcher of martinis, but that was not an option. Greeting me at the entry my congenial host Ambassador Richard Broinowski promptly informed me that the monthly gatherings of the Harvard Club of Australia were dry; as did, interestingly, the next three Club members that I met. I settled for a virgin bloody mary - and decided before the first sip to change the topic of my talk.
- Letter #4 - 14 August 2013
At the tail end of a trip that took me from Sydney to Boston to Washington to New York and now back to Sydney, I considered a more apposite name for communiqués written over vast stretches of water... Whether or not the oceanic distances provide Australia a postcolonial exceptionalism from the game of nations is an ongoing debate.
- Letter #3 - 6 July 2013
It is a sign of busy times that the first quiet interlude to write the latest Director’s Letter comes once again somewhere over the Pacific at 30,000 feet. I’m en route to the US, with a tin cup to rattle for potential funders, a documentary on The Art of Peace to finish and several loose ends from the move to tie up.
- Letter #2 - 29 May 2013
The University of Sydney’s venerable Great Lecture Hall, its rows of hard benches steeply raked for 19th century medical classes, was filled last week with an audience interested in a different sort of pathology. Current and former members of the Australian military, journalists from the major outlets, academics from the field of security studies, and, given the stormy weather, a surprising number of intrepid citizens, had come to hear about the global threats facing Australia in the 21st century.
- Letter #1 - 3 April 2013
First impressions last. One year ago, en route to interview for this job, my seat companion took note of my reading material, the latest issue of Foreign Policy. It sported a bold cover: ‘Obama’s Secret Wars’ in block letters atop the image of an armed Predator drone. Asked for my take on the topic, I launched into a critique born of two decades studying generals and leaders who place a misbegotten faith in technological fixes for intractable political problems, the recalcitrant issues of sovereignty and international law, the likelihood of some bad blowback, and what happens when, inevitably, others mimic the US and acquire their own killer drones. I might even have evoked Robocop.