Below you will find a list of books that members of the Geopolitical Futures team are currently reading. It highlights insightful and relevant books from around the globe and the reasons we chose them.
Cole Altom: If what John Steinbeck said of Texas is true – that “it is a mystique closely approximating a religion” – then “Lone Star” by T.R. Fehrenbach, the standard-bearer of the history of the republic, could rightly be considered biblical, because Texas is at once ancient and modern, timeless and old-timey, and, in geopolitical terms, a borderland of estuarial complexity.
In the beginning, Fehrenbach writes about the prehistoric exodus into the lands that would eventually become Texas, first by the animals seeking refuge from the northern cold and then by the humans who depended on them for survival. Centuries later their descendants would form settlements, some grander than others, that were either eradicated or subordinated by colonial Europeans. Fehrenbach’s explanation of the politics, and geopolitics, of colonialism is particularly interesting. Whereas France’s interests were mostly commercial, Spain’s were largely spiritual. (The failure of Spain’s colonial experiment was the failure to Hispanicize, and thus Catholicize, Native Americans.) Their respective missions in the New World shaped the way they treated the natives – and each other.
Among the native populations that were especially difficult to subdue were the Comanche, a fixture in the Texas canon whose legacy is as indelible as that of the Spanish or French. The chapter dedicated to the Comanche is an enjoyable primer on how they became an irrepressible force of the Texas plains (the short version: horses), but for a more entertaining rendition, consider reading “Empire of the Summer Moon” by S.C. Gwynne.
All this happened, of course, before Texas became Texas. In my reading, Texas is nowhere near statehood. The United States isn’t even the United States, nor is Mexico Mexico. Only a few of the cultures that have given Texas its complexion have been accounted for. It’ll be hundreds of years, and likely hundreds of pages, before I reach Texas’ war for independence, the subsequent debate over annexation and its eventual role in the Civil War. Clearly, I’m biased in favor of the place I’m from, but Fehrenbach’s book is universal, its themes transcendent. Even those who don’t romanticize Texas the way I do will find plenty to enjoy in this rich history.
Antonia Colibasanu: This book, one of the first attempts to explain the causes of terrorism, was recommended to me at a conference I attended. It argues that Islamic terrorists target the U.S. and the West because of the Western policies toward Islamic countries. Pape supposes that stationing Western troops in Islamic countries increases the likelihood of terrorism sourced in those countries. He also argues that religion has nothing to do with terrorism. Debatable though his conclusion may be, the book is worth its salt if for no other reason than its itemization of terrorist attacks between 1980 and 1994, categorizing them by campaign. Linking those attacks to their corresponding geopolitical events was a good exercise.
Pape also provides a different, broader perception of what invasion and influence mean, definitions that are useful to a geopolitical analyst. Even if terrorism has evolved since 2005, this book gives some insight into the way it was perceived in the first years after 9/11. It tells a lot about the political stakes at the time – and, from a geopolitical analysis point of view, it taught me about how perceptions are being built.
Phillip Orchard: In “China Airborne,” longtime Atlantic correspondent James Fallows describes aerospace as an apex industry, or “clusters of businesses whose vitality signals the presence of surrounding networks of high-value skills, technologies, and operational competencies.” This makes China’s ambitious push toward a world-class civil aviation sector an apt lens through which to gauge the progress and potential pitfalls of China’s broader economic aspirations. Embedded in the sector are steep regulatory, technological, entrepreneurial and bureaucratic challenges. Mastering these practices gives way, in theory, to successes elsewhere, from the mundane business of good governance to the more prestigious cultivation of globally competitive high-tech industries. With China, these relate to some of the fundamental challenges we’ve identified facing the country: its need to move up the manufacturing value chain, to boost internal consumption, to address yawning economic imbalances between the coastal regions and the interior.
As with so many of its achievements, China has demonstrated that it has the commercial prowess, organizational talent and deep pockets to push past some of these obstacles at an unparalleled scale. The book is less than five years old, but that it already feels somewhat dated speaks to the breakneck speed of China’s aerospace development. In 2011, shortly before the book was published, China’s 12th Five Year Plan included a pledge to shovel some $250 billion into the aerospace industry. At the time, more than two-thirds of the airports being built across the globe were being built in China. Since then, the number of passengers taking to the skies annually in China has grown by nearly 200 million. In May, China’s first indigenously designed long-haul airliner, the C919, made its maiden flight. Through legitimate means or otherwise, the Chinese have acquired much of the missing technology and expertise needed to build a robust, nationwide transportation network that stretches even to its most remote and geographically impassable regions.
But China’s progress on other challenges identified by Fallows has tended to be halting at best, reflecting deep-rooted structural issues and the core anxieties driving the Communist Party’s consolidation of power. As in other Chinese sectors, the main issues in aviation tend to be related to the fine line Beijing is attempting to walk between conflicting imperatives — for example, between empowering the private sector and enterprising provincial governments on the one hand, and minimizing risks to political instability and/or central control on the other. Chinese aviation underscores the country’s staggering capacity for achievement, but also the limitations imposed by its leaders’ crippling fear of a rough landing.
Xander Snyder: This book rounds out the nonfiction portion of my reading project on South Africa. “Morning in South Africa” covers the period spanning the end of apartheid in 1994 to the present (it was published in mid-2016), finishing with an assessment of the modern state of political affairs and the author’s expectations of what will come. Campbell places several of the challenges facing South Africa in historical context and draws on research to attempt to identify some of their causes. For the most part, the author accomplishes this goal with an even hand, although at times a bias against certain contemporary figures in South Africa’s political landscape materializes. The book is aimed at a U.S. audience (although not exclusively so) that may be less familiar with South Africa’s recent history, and Campbell strikes a good balance between providing sufficient depth required for a comprehensive overview without getting bogged down in the minutia that would have added to the weight of the book.
Ekaterina Zolotova: Venezuela’s economic and social turmoil is aggravated by the political struggle between President Nicolas Maduro, the followers of his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, and the political opposition, which is becoming more powerful. Still, supporters and opponents recognize that Chavez was extraordinary and unique, a key figure in the formation of the country. Some of the actions of the former president failed, of course, accelerating the collapse of the economy, while others contributed to the development of the social sphere. This book, written by journalist Rory Carrol, who spent six years in Venezuela, includes excerpts of interviews with ministers, citizens, friends and foes, with whose help Carrol creates a portrait of one of the most charismatic leaders of recent years.