Dr Tim Huxley is the Executive Director of IISS-Asia in Singapore, where his responsibilities include coordinating the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue and IISS Fullerton Forum and developing the IISS Asia-Pacific research program. In our interview, we discussed his career path leading to IISS and his top five suggestions for young Australians looking to start a career in international affairs.
1. What is your current role, and what does the position entail?
I have been Executive Director of IISS-Asia, one of the international offices of The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in Singapore for the last 10 years. It’s the perfect job for me, as it allows me to work in the overlap between security studies and Asian area studies, the two areas of enquiry that I have pursued throughout my working life. At IISS-Asia, I play a leading part in organising the annual Shangri-La Dialogue which is essentially an inter-governmental conference for Asia-Pacific defence ministers, top defence officials, and military chiefs, with some non-governmental participation. We established this event in 2002 and it’s subsequently become a significant element of the regional security architecture. We also run an annual ‘Sherpa’ meeting to support the Dialogue, and the Fullerton Lecture series for heads of states and government, and cabinet ministers – Julie Bishop delivered the 28th in the series on the 13 March. At the same time, I am responsible for developing the IISS Asia-Pacific research programme – which includes work on China’s arrival as a great power, the domestic politics-foreign policy nexus in Southeast Asia, and regional states’ military capabilities, and – crucially – fundraising in support of these projects. My role also involves liaising with and expanding the individual, institutional and corporate membership base of the IISS in the region. We are quite a small office, usually 7-8 of us and some interns and we all multi-task like crazy. The advantage is that, while there is some important governance-related work to do, managing the office itself is not a huge task. That means that I do find time to think and write, though usually, this involves short pieces. One huge advantage of being with the IISS in Singapore, with the contacts accumulated through a decade of organising the Shangri-La Dialogue, is the level of access this provides to regional states’ politicians and armed forces. Every week, my colleagues and I have terrific conversations with people from governments in the region and beyond on aspects of regional security.
2. Going back to the very beginning of your career, what did you study at university? What was your first job when you graduated, and where did your career take you to get you where you are today?
My first degree was in Geography focusing on the discipline’s historical, social and political dimensions after which I did a Master’s degree in Strategic Studies. I was then fortunate enough to get an ANU Scholarship to support me through the PhD programme at the Department of International Relations. In those days, it was more or less a case of ‘Welcome to the Department, you are here to write a book-length thesis over the next three years or so. Good luck!’. My supervisors were helpful but undemanding, and I was pleased to be left alone to immerse myself in the Southeast Asian countries and security-related themes which have formed the basis for much of what I have done subsequently in my professional life. I took a long time to complete the thesis – on Southeast Asian states’ reactions to perceived security threats following the communist victories in Indochina – mainly because I found a series of interesting jobs. My first was a temporary post in the Defence Group of the Legislative Research Service in Canberra. This provided an excellent, arms-length introduction to the world of government. There I was at the age of 25, writing detailed briefing papers for politicians on Southeast Asian security, the war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and the Australian defence industry. It was wonderful. Soon afterwards I found my first academic post – a tutorship in International Politics at Aberystwyth, where I had done my Master’s degree several years earlier. After a research-focused Lectureship at Lancaster, where I worked on the defence policy and strategy implications of what was then called ‘emerging technology’ – the forerunner of the Revolution in Military Affairs, I took up a Fellowship at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) in Singapore. My two and a half years at the multi-disciplinary ISEAS, where I co-edited the journal Contemporary Southeast Asia, gave me an invaluable chance to get to know the region and its politics much better. After a brief post-doc at UNSW in Sydney, I moved to a Lectureship in the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Hull, where I remained for 13 years and ended up a Reader and head of department. This was another valuable multi-disciplinary experience and, although I did a lot of teaching at all levels, I also had time for research and wrote quite extensively on Southeast Asian security and defence, including a book on Singapore’s defence policy and armed forces, Defending the Lion City. Totally unexpectedly, this became something of a best-seller in Singapore, as it provided the only detailed and comprehensive assessment on its topic in the public domain. Meanwhile, I had been a member of the IISS for many years and had contributed to the Institute’s Adelphi Paper series. In 2003, I became a full-time Senior Fellow at the London headquarters of the IISS, where I stayed for four years before taking charge of IISS-Asia.
3. For our readers who are contemplating a career in academia or think-tanks, what are the main differences between the two?
Academics spend much of their time teaching and usually have a lot of time and freedom to research and write on more or less whatever they want. In theory, those who work in think-tanks should have even more time for research. But it doesn’t always work out like that. After a while, whether you’re an academic or in a think-tank, you’ll often find that you’re spending more time than you’d expected on organising other people and looking for funding to support your institution’s activities. One difference, though, between universities and think-tanks is that research in think-tanks is, to a greater or lesser degree, policy-oriented. In a think-tank, while the research process is rigorous, there usually isn’t the need to pay so much overt deference as university-based scholars do to scholarly conventions.
4. Finally, what advice or recommendations do you have for young Australians starting out in their careers in international affairs?
My first suggestion is to follow your own interests - don’t feel obliged to follow the trend of the moment. Develop niche expertise, preferably in a country or region as well as on a theme within international politics. Second, try not to be a purist in disciplinary terms: specialists in international relations and security studies can learn much from other disciplines – especially other social sciences, history and law. Third, don’t get too bound up in inward-looking theoretical arguments, which are essentially only of interest to academics and can sometimes limit the wider usefulness of your research. Fourth, read as widely as possible and build your own library of books and electronic publications. Fifth, make sure that you’re embedded in a community of scholars beyond your own institution and engage in collaborative research and writing when you find others with similar interests and analytical perspectives.
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The International Institute for Strategic Studies is a world-leading authority on global security, political risk and military conflict. They are highly regarded for their annual Military Balance assessment of countries’ armed forces and their security summits such as the Shangri-La Dialogue. Areas of expertise include promoting sound policies, research and consultancy and publications.