Michael Auslin on Books and Writing

Michael Auslin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a think tank in Washington, D.C.

This interview has been edited lightly.

Your book "The End of the Asian Century" will be published in January 2017. Would you tell us a little bit about it?

Sure. The BLUF [Bottom Line Up Front] is "don't be surprised." We have had one view of Asia for decades: a region of unlimited growth and opportunity. Really, since Marco Polo, the West has waited for the "Asian Century," and now we're convinced it has arrived. Yet from China's slumping economy to war clouds over the South China Sea, and from environmental devastation to demographic crisis, we ignore to our peril the growing risks that threaten Asia's future. In reality, far from being a cohesive powerhouse, Asia is a fractured region threatened by stagnation and instability.

When I started this book five years ago, no one was talking about the South China Sea or the startling economic slowdown in China. Now the zeitgeist is catching up, and this is the first book to provide a comprehensive account of the economic, military, political, and demographic dangers that bedevil half of our world. It argues that Asia, working with the United States, has a unique opportunity to avert catastrophe - but only if it acts boldly.

Even though the book is not yet publicly available, what sort of feedback have you gotten thus far?

The response has been extremely positive, even if people don't like the message. There were dozens and dozens of people I interviewed all around the world, or who joined roundtables and working sessions, or heard me talk about the thesis, and all of them gave me good feedback. As for endorsements, I'm humbled that over 30 senior policymakers, business leaders, and scholars offered testaments, including George Shultz, Larry Summers, Michael Hayden, Fred Smith of FedEx, Henry Kravis, Francis Fukuyama, Robert Kaplan, Robert Kagan, Garry Kasparov, Max Boot, and others (the whole list is at the Yale [University Press] book page).

How long did it take to write? Do you have a writing routine?

This is my first non-academic book; I wrote two histories, published by Harvard [University Press] while I was a professor at Yale and afterward. So this was a new experience for me. It took longer than I expected, five years, but the timing worked out perfectly, as now the risks in Asia cannot be ignored. So, while I would not usually recommend being so dilatory, in this case I lucked out.

My routine with my first two books, which were all based on archival sources, was to sit down every morning and write by hand, on yellow legal paper. I also did the multiple revisions by hand. That, to me, was the best way to write, as I could have time to think about what I was saying, and see it take shape on the page. With this book, I was more a journalist than a scholar, writing whenever I found the time, though I did usually have intense periods of writing for several weeks at a time. I wrote it on the computer, and I found that a far more efficient, but less satisfactory process. Writing by hand is much better, I think, for the author.

After finishing the draft, I set it aside for a month or so, and then started going back to revise it. Unlike the academic books, this one was continuously evolving as I wrote it, in terms of my interpretations, if not so much the evidence I was using. So, the final product is very different from where I started in 2010, which was to write a book on the conjoined future of American and Asia (which I wanted to call "Americasia," but luckily my friends stopped me from doing so).

Do you have any literary influences?

I think it would be pretentious to say, since I don't think I've yet written something that would merit comparison with anyone who is a truly great writer. I think all historians, which is what I am by training, have some feeling of affiliation with Edward Gibbon, in their desire to have both scope and depth, not to mention drama and passion in the writing. I deeply admire Robert Kaplan, who combines unparalleled firsthand knowledge of his subjects with a breadth of vision that is rare, and who is generous with his advice and support. As historians who can link the past with present concerns, I think Robert Kagan and Walter Russell Mead are models. In terms of reaching a popular audience, then David McCullough is unsurpassable.

What advice would you give to aspiring authors?

The best advice I received as a PhD student was, 'the best dissertation is a finished dissertation.' I think the same holds true for books. Just finish it, or as someone else directed me, '1. Put butt in chair. 2. Write.' But I think that holds for anything, from essays (a neglected art form) to monographs. I've become too lazy, I think, to minutely outline my chapters, but a clear outline is essential. You may think you know what you're saying, but most of the time it doesn't come across nearly as clearly to the reader.

Beyond that, however, I think having a honed critical faculty is essential. Not every piece of evidence is equal, or equally helpful. Similarly, what are you really trying to say? If you are simply taking an advocacy position, then facts and evidence may not be as important. But if you really want to make a difference, then maybe the hardest work is the mental work you have to do before writing. It's a physical pain to sit and write, and to slog through chapters, footnotes, etc. And good writing is an art, no doubt, a craft that you have to keep working at. But just as hard if not harder is the thought that needs to go into why you are writing a book, the audience you want to reach, and why what you are saying is different. There is no shortcut to that.

During a typical day at AEI, how much time do you spend reading? What news outlets do you consistently rely upon?

There's no set pattern. On a day when there's breaking news in my half of the world, then I may be reading as things develop, while trying to write something, or do media. Other times, I try to read good essays on foreign policy, ones that take time to develop arguments and lay out the case. I also have gone back to reading histories, to give me more context and background to the issues I want to discuss.

Like everyone else, I feel drowned by the amount of information that is out there. I think we all rely on aggregators to give us hopefully a representative sampling of what is being published daily. The Real Clear sites (politics, world, defense) are of course very important, and I like the Foreign Policy Initiative's Overnight Brief, along with some of the Military Times' Early Bird Brief. But I'm also trying to wean myself from needing instant shots of news or punditry. That's why I'm trying to find good long-form essays as well as books.

What do you read for fun?

Absolutely nothing related to my day job. Mostly I'm trying to make up for lost time in not reading the classics. I like 18th and 19th century criticism, especially Addison and Steele, Hume, Arnold, and Macaulay. Lately, I'm reading a lot more poetry, particularly the Romantics, like Wordsworth, Keats, and Shelley. The concentration required is surprisingly difficult for me. I also have my list of 'must read' literary classics, but if I shared those, I would be revealing just how ignorant I am of the great works of the past.