Head, Strategic & Defence Studies Centre.
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Religious worldviews can shape the thinking of senior officials in profound ways - take YOLO, for instance. ‘You only live once’ is an expression encouraging a life lived on the edge. Canadian rapper Drake coined the phrase in 2011, and High School Musical star Zac Efron has the acronym tattooed on his hand. For Professor John Blaxland, it’s a useful anecdote to illustrate the influence of religion in strategic thinking. “It’s premised on the Judaeo-Christian or post-Christian worldview, which is you either go to heaven, go to hell or go to nothingness,” he says. But for Theravada Buddhists in Thailand, where Blaxland recently concluded three years of surveying officials, to think that you only live once is nonsensical - because of the belief in reincarnation. “That shapes a lot of how you behave and how you view the world, how you think about the world, how you rate your place in the world and then interact with others,” Blaxland says. “It’s a factor that’s overlooked in the rationalist, western and secular view of great power relations.”
As he and his colleague, Greg Raymond, go through three years of data from about 1800 survey responses, the question of a Buddhist worldview is one Blaxland would still like to answer. Granted Minerva Research Initiative funding by the US Department of Defence in 2014, Blaxland and Raymond sourced survey responses from various academies in Thailand. “That gave us three years of data from which we could draw some pretty compelling observations about the nature of great power dynamics at play as seen by up and coming military and government officials in Thailand,” Blaxland says. So far, Blaxland and Raymond have turned that data into a Centre of Gravity paper in November 2017, and an East Asia Forum Quarterly article in February this year. To draw it all together, a book project is being planned.
From how Thailand envisions its role, to what it thinks of its neighbours, Blaxland’s research contains revelations that can speak to Australian policy priorities for engagement in the region. “As people reflect on the findings that Greg and I have come up with, it’s actually opening other doors,” Blaxland says. “There are parallel opportunities to explore these kinds of questions for other Southeast Asian neighbours.”