securing open and liberal societies

One of the main areas of my work to date is around the cluster of issues related to national security, especially in regional and bilateral contexts, and the openness of liberal democratic societies. Although this is not a research agenda that I ever deliberately set out to pursue, related topics keep finding me. Since the events of 9.11, and subsequent terrorist threats, we have all been confronted with reconciling security imperatives our more or less liberal ideas, embrace of cosmopolitanism as personal lifestyle and political and cultural identity, and often well-founded distrust in the efficacy of state authority and some who enjoy wearing uniforms to work. Being based long-term in Tokyo, with academic backgrounds in both political science and business, I inevitably end up in a lot of events relating to the bilateral Australia-Japan relationship and its regional context. This has led to me engagement with the security studies field but still not in much theoretical depth (open to suggestions on that.. I must admit to being a seeker but not yet a contented finder in the IR theory field..).

I am an unabashed political and social liberal, and a qualified economic liberal (the qualifications being mainly that there is sometimes a need for proactive competition policy, especially in smaller very imperfect markets, and my social democratic convictions re the importance of high quality universal healthcare, education, and social support and dignity for the unfortunate in life). My political liberalism is in the pragmatic vein of John Gray and Isaiah Berlin and I am very skeptical about attempts to construct natural rights-based arguments for liberalism or justice. Indeed, I think that the pursuit of better worlds for many – whether in Palestine, the poorer suburbs of affluent cities or wherever – is often little helped, and sometimes set back, by indignant appeals to rights-based reasoning that so appeals to lawyers and those who would pursue social reform through state dictates.  Appeals to international law, for instance, may enhance our personal caring credentials but usually do little to change political dynamics in a positive direction. If anything, in intractable conflicts with structurally contending claims, such critiques may impede the pragmatic pursuit of compromise.

We need a good understanding of power: the limits of it as deployed by states domestically and abroad, its importance though in speaking of rights (there are no ‘rights’ that cannot be enforced and guarded), and of the power and resilience that can be realised through the voluntary association of the few or many with complementary interests.

I am not a cultural relativist, not despite but precisely because I have lived a significant part of my adult life outside of the country of my upbringing. I have consistently found that societies that seek to uphold certain liberal democratic aspirations generally make most people better off for it. Each society has its own particularities, and often do change over time through both endogenous developments and through the demonstration effects that other societies offer. In Sweden two men can marry but the sale of hard liquor is heavily constrained. In Japan beer is freely sold in vending machines but one is supposed to be aged 20 before being allowed to drink alcohol. There is no platonic ideal of a liberal democratic state against which other societies can be measured, and reformed to emulate. I am enthralled by the search for understanding of particular historical paths that each society has taken in its cultural, institutional and economic evolution, and see path dependency as more pervasive than much of the discourse of convergence and ‘globalisation’ suggests. While all well functioning organisations and societies resolve some common core challenges, there are multiple viable models for doing so.

So while not a cultural relativist, I am convinced that the empirical reality of a plurality of value difference, institutional arrangements, and societal priorities will be persistent, if not eternally. That plurality need not be valued in itself, and to do so would be inconsistent with the ultimately universalist aspirations of liberal democratic ideals that I am comfortable with. A plurality of social arrangements has the advantage though of functioning as a governance laboratory; of allowing us to observe what kinds of social practices and arrangements are more likely to make people better off. Personal flourishing takes many forms, but the forms of social misery and its origins are all too apparent too us and have certain common elements. It is reasonable to come to normative judgements about other societal arrangements, once fully cognisant of their workings and origins, but must also be tempered by a pragmatism in what can be achieved through advocating change.

As value pluralism persists, so too will the practical imperative to be selective in who we collaborate closely with, on what terms, and to what ends. In international relations, I think that both power and values matter. Societies with similar power resources can imagine their place in the world, and a world order, in very different ways. It is entirely appropriate that societies of a liberal democratic persuasion look to work closely together, and to exercise power in a pragmatic way that advances their common values.

Neither is it naive to think that the ‘soft’ elements of a nation’s power resources – such as its cultural appeal – are also important, as I discuss elsewhere on this website in relation to my research interest in ‘promoting place’. My own initial interest in Japan was sparked by attending, as an undergraduate, a touring exhibition of art works by the monk Sengai, from the Idemitsu Museum of Art. A poster from the exhibition has pride of place in my little mountain retreat, and I have several times been delighted to learn from other visiting Australian Japan aficionados that the same exhibition had a profound effect upon them too. I have been surprised to discover how many Australian business identities and diplomatic staff have had a stint in japan in the past at Waseda or Keio and forever after have been very receptive to things and interests Japanese.

I have reluctantly come to see overriding principled commitments to procedural fairness, above all else, to be frequently  problematic. In a day-to-day sense, too many times have I seen academic and administrative colleagues quickly deploy arguments of fairness to justify indifference to the very particular needs or extenuating circumstances of particular students.

We must hold to an ideal of procedural fairness, but in the case-by-case application of a rich set of principles that allow us to accommodate the needy, the unlucky, and sometimes the gormless but well-meaning. For instance. I think we need to rethink the formulaic systems of migrant quota rationing that inevitably generate entrepreneurial attempts to game the system, but which can blind to evidence of individuals’ deep personal commitment to, and engagement with, the culture and values of the society that access to is being rationed. All bureaucratic systems inevitably have their perversions, built as they are around the very imperfect pragmatic specification of categories and association of certain rights, limitations and processes with them. (see Mary Douglas in categories).

Few immigration regimes try to gauge qualitatively the particular ‘cultural capital‘ that a person might hold in relation to the country; though Japan’s permanent resident application process that asks people to submit a statement evidencing their commitment to Japan and how they might contribute in the future is one interesting instance. Yet so many boutique selective education institutions, such as architecture and art schools,  have not hesitated to engage in such qualitative endeavours. It is the scale of the modern state’s administrative regime, and immigration programs in nations such as Australia or the USA, that has made formulaic decision-making the norm. So too with large-scale but prestigious higher education providers.

This, I feel, is not merely idle pondering. Rather, as ‘homegrown’ terrorism makes immigration programs and border control regimes more politically contentious, we should be prepared to engage in creative conversations about national values, the state mechanisms by which we arrive at judgments about who is admitted into the national club – or at least allowed to reside – and frank discussions about how societies change through the influence of migrants and other sojourners. As a long-term resident of Japan, a country with no migration program to speak of but policy aspirations to make Japan more attractive to ‘high value’ human resources and a generally user-friendly visa regime, I have plenty of opportunity to ponder the differences with my home country Australia and Israel, where I recently resided for over a year. Some 28 percent of the Australian resident population is foreign-born, and for Israel the figure is higher still. Yet Israel’s migration regime is devoted to its mission as a Jewish homeland, and Australia’s regime is primarily aimed at effecting a brain drain to Australia while extracting large rents from those who apply for permanent residence through exorbitant fees. Australian politics has also stigmatised ‘illegal arrivals’ whilst governments at the same time have added the equivalent of one percent to the population a year through a pro-growth large migrant intake.

These lines of inquiry are still tentative. Excepting a couple of book reviews and the like in the distant past on immigration policy, my published writing to date has been specifically on the organisational and security architectures of cross-border personal mobility, which built on an earlier small-scale project looking at the application of ICTs to border security and whether efficiency might be enhanced in the process. Yet my substantial work on the historical political economy of foreign investment policy placed central emphasis upon the past dual policy objectives of effecting inbound flows of both foreign capital and migrants as key planks in a tradition of national development. Both the political economy and symbolic politics of immigration interest me, especially in relation to historically settler societies such as Australia and Israel (with all the attendant issues of historical dispossession, ‘foundational sin’ set against the notable fact that Anglo-American settler societies and Israel are  strikingly economically and socially vibrant societies).