Geography is Hard

by Kieran Healy on January 21, 2006

Via “Max”: comes a Washington Post column on The Realities of International Relations by “Robert Kagan”: who apparently is a “transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund.” But not, it seems, a transpacific one:

bq. China’s (and Malaysia’s) attempt to exclude Australia from a prominent regional role at the recent East Asian summit has reinforced Sydney’s desire for closer ties.



Kenny Easwaran 01.21.06 at 12:56 pm

Hey, maybe New South Wales wants to forge its own diplomatic ties independent of the federal government! Especially with people that are excluding the nation as a whole!


otto 01.21.06 at 1:10 pm

Doesn’t Sydney matter more than Canberra anyway, on this policy issue and maybe all policy issues? If you were writing about US government policy towards Cuba, would you be forgiven for saying that X had reinforced Miami’s desire to continue the blockade?

Not that there’s any evidence that Kagan was thinking this way…


dp 01.21.06 at 1:23 pm

Gee, I dunno. Sydney does sound an awful lot like Ad-el-aide. I mean, it’s an easy slip to make.


John Emerson 01.21.06 at 1:25 pm

What a fool. Everyone know’s its’ Wellington.


otto 01.21.06 at 1:39 pm

Well, the capital of Australia is London, but that’s a different discussion…


Robert Kagan 01.21.06 at 1:43 pm

We neocons don’t need to know foreign capitals, their capitals are where we say they are; this is the American century, dammit.


almostinfamous 01.21.06 at 1:46 pm

hey, give the man some credit…at least he’s aware that there are countries outside the US. more importantly, this piece indicates a suspicion that the planet is a sphere(oid) and not really flat.


Walt Pohl 01.21.06 at 2:17 pm

Is Kagan an American? If so, you need to hold him to a lower standard. I’m an American, and it took me several reads before I realized what was wrong with the quote.


nick s 01.21.06 at 3:31 pm

Is Kagan an American? If so, you need to hold him to a lower standard.

He is, however, the ‘World Correspondant’. Look, I found out that my (American) wife didn’t know the capital of Canada the other day — thanks to the Daily Show — but she doesn’t write on world affairs.

The WaPo copyeditors obviously didn’t catch it either. Dear me. Obviously they should defer to the paper based in the nation’s capital, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.


nick s 01.21.06 at 3:37 pm

‘Correspondent’. Gah. Anyway, the irony here is that a paper based in the world’s first planned federal capital (at least, the first to my knowledge) didn’t catch it.


Gene O'Grady 01.21.06 at 4:01 pm

C’mon. If Kagan were really tuned into American military history like he and his ilk claim to be he’d know that Canberra was the only foreign capital to have a major American warship named for it — and he’s know why.


dp 01.21.06 at 5:59 pm

Well, the capital of Australia is London

and John Howard is the mayor, right?

So who’s that imposter Blair?


Hodgepodge 01.21.06 at 6:09 pm

Er, since when are Austalia’s current neighbors not part of the same region as Austalia? The relevant field is politics, not plate tectonics.

Here’s a map:

Please explain to me how we can determine that Australia is not part of this region in a political sense?


Hodgepodge 01.21.06 at 6:12 pm

Oh, d’oh. All that, and I didn’t notice the actual mistake Kagan made. Apologies.


Matt Weiner 01.21.06 at 6:24 pm

Kagan gets all his info from the blogs.


dr ngo 01.21.06 at 8:22 pm

Please explain to me how we can determine that Australia is not part of this region in a political sense?

Assuming this is a legitimate question, not a rhetorical device, the answer is fairly simple, if not entirely happy. “Regions” are defined by their constituent parts along whatever lines they feel like. Turkey may or may not be part of Europe, depending on what the EU thinks, and at least part of their thinking is racial/cultural. Similarly, Australia may or may not be part of Asia, and is primarily opposed by those thinking in racial/cultural terms. This viewpoint – associated most prominently by Malaysia’s former PM, Muhammad Mahathir – is, in my opinion, an unfortunate one, but there’s nothing particularly illogical, much less illegitimate, about it.

After all, if Australia is part of Asia, then what’s to stop Asia there? Why not New Zealand? Fiji? Tahiti? Chile? (Once you’ve dabbled in the field of “Pacific Rim” studies, your mind gets easily twisted this way.)


Laura 01.21.06 at 8:40 pm

Re the last comment, there’s a good case to be made for Australia’s growing integration with Asia in “racial/cultural terms” – e.g. after English, Chinese is the most common language spoken in Australian homes.


Walt Pohl 01.21.06 at 10:25 pm

Nick S: You are assuming that there are any Americans who know what the capital of Australia is. I thought it was Canberra, but I wasn’t 100% sure until I looked it up.


Gene O'Grady 01.22.06 at 12:35 am

Hey Walt,

I’ve known that Canberra is the capital of Australia since I was four years old (and Harry Truman was president then).

If it isn’t out anyone’s span of interest, I would be curious from the Australians that frequent this weblog to know if they (or their grandfathers) were offended that (a) the USN named a replacment ship for the HMAS Canberra that was sunk at Savo Island, (b) some rather poor recon work and communications had to do with the Canberra being sunk, and (c) the replacement treaty cruiser that Australia got from the British kept its name as “HMAS Shropshire.”

I remember seeing the Canberra docked in San Francisco when SF was still a big navy town. Still, the most beautiful warship I ever saw was the New Zealand cruiser Black Prince (another retained name, I’m sure) the year before it was scrapped.


Brett 01.22.06 at 1:37 am

Gene, I’m an Aussie – I’ve always felt it an honour that USS Canberra was named after HMAS Canberra. Though I’ve often wondered exactly why it was – it’s not a very common practice, I think? (And it’s a big ship too.) To honour a fallen comrade, sure, but Canberra can’t have been the only allied ship sunk in a combined operation. Was there an element of guilt, perhaps, because of (b)? Though I wouldn’t hold any grudge against the US because of that, these things happen in war and anyway, we are used to being poorly led by our allies :D As for the HMAS Shropshire, I don’t know but I suspect keeping the name would have been a nod to the pretence that all the British Commonwealth navies were part of some notional Imperial navy.

I’m only speaking for myself here, I’m sure that 99% of Australians have never heard of HMAS Canberra or Savo Island; if they’ve heard of any Australian warship in WWII it would be the Sydney, which crops up in the news from time to time. I mentioned that the USN had named a ship after the HMAS Canberra during a seminar class on WWII in the Pacific a couple of years ago, and none of the other students (nor indeed the American lecturer) knew this.


Laura 01.22.06 at 2:24 am

I wonder how many of the fraction of non-Australians who know about Canberra’s existence also know how it’s pronounced.


American in London 01.22.06 at 3:28 am

Give the guy a break. At least he managed to name a city in the right country.


Tom Womack 01.22.06 at 5:46 am

dr ngo: I can see something of what you’re saying, but I can’t help thinking that the Pacific Ocean is significantly wider than the Torres Strait for these purposes.

On a third hand, of course, Australian exports to Guangzhou are likely to go round the side of the Phillipines rather than over New Guinea by land …


Nabakov 01.22.06 at 7:57 am

The US Government doesn’t know where the capital of Australia is either. At least I assume that’s the reason why they’ve left the position of US Ambassador to Aus vacant for over a year.


Blar 01.22.06 at 2:05 pm

A plurality of the Millionaire audience can’t be wrong. Right?


floopmeister 01.22.06 at 9:42 pm

Nabokov: here here. I was going to point that out, but you got there first…


dr ngo 01.23.06 at 2:54 am

I (an American) actually do know how Canberra is pronounced, because I lived there for four years. (Basic rule I learned for pronouncing all Aboriginal names in Okker: accent the first syllable, mumble the rest. Try it on, e.g., Woolloomooloo.) Nice place, Canberra. Pity it’s so far from town.

Meanwhile, on the other subtopic: In my own view it would be good for Australia to be included in various “Asian” networks and organizations, for many of the reasons others have already expressed. But it’s not my call. It’s not for us (non-Asians) to say who is Asian, whether based on the width of various bodies of water, the languages spoken, or the patterns of trade, any more than I, a non-Catholic, should decide who is a member of the Catholic church based on my understanding of their doctrine. It’s not unreasonable for them to have their own rules and their own interpretations thereof, however wrongheaded they may at times appear to us.


ajay 01.23.06 at 8:20 am

I suspect keeping the name would have been a nod to the pretence that all the British Commonwealth navies were part of some notional Imperial navy.

Simpler than that – it’s just very, very unlucky to rename a ship. That’s how the British ended up with a ship called “Temeraire” – captured from the French – and the French with the “Swiftsure” – vice versa.

HMAS Canberra actually ended up being sunk by the US navy – not accidentally, but after being irreparably damaged. That was probably a bit politically embarrassing, and naming a ‘Baltimore’ after Canberra would have helped mend fences.


Brett 01.23.06 at 9:29 am

It may well be considered unlucky to rename ships, but it happens all the time. Eg the aircraft carrier HMS Terrible was renamed HMAS Sydney when commissioned into the RAN in 1948. There are many, many other examples. Of course, that particular example does for my “Imperial navy” theory too.

Ah, interesting: a couple of web sites say that Shropshire was originally intended to be renamed Canberra, but as the US Navy had already decided to name a ship after the Canberra, they decided to keep the name Shropshire! I guess to avoid possible confusion then?


Jeff R. 01.23.06 at 1:00 pm

The USS Canberra was a heavy cruiser (13,600 tons), so it was a fairly large ship (see
It’s highly unusual for the US Navy to go out of their naming scheme: heavy cruisers were named after large US cities. Canberra was originally named Pittsburgh. Also according to Wikipedia, the Royal Navy has had five ships named “Black Prince.” The fourth was sunk at Jutland with all hands. The fifth was transfered to New Zealand after the WWII. I don’t know about the luck in renaming ships; it happens frequently when ships are transferred to different countries. And wasn’t “Exxon Valdez” renamed? Maybe an unlucky ship needs a new name.

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