|August 8, 2017
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.
George Friedman: The summer is forcing me against my will to reread books from my adolescence, mostly science fiction. But since good science fiction forces us to consider realities and possibilities, we ignore its usefulness. “A Canticle for Leibowitz” is, on the surface, a book about the millennia following a nuclear holocaust. But on a deeper level, it is about the relationship between religion and enlightenment. St. Leibowitz was a pre-war scientist who sought to save human knowledge in the face of post-war “simpletons” who sought to destroy all the knowledge that led to the catastrophe. They blamed science. It was the Catholic Church that became the depository of what knowledge remained, a task undertaken by the Order of St. Leibowitz, canonized by the church. For the church, the knowledge was invaluable because it represented man’s connection to God, but dangerous because of original sin. The knowledge became hidden and sanctified, turned into ritual rather than knowledge.
Over the centuries, the world ignored them as it passed through barbarism. Then, as the geopolitics of the American continent created powers that hungered for the knowledge embedded in math and science, the church lost control over it, while a magnificent civilization was built on it, only to create another holocaust. The church kept knowledge alive through the Dark Ages, but in saving it, perpetuated the darkness. The scientists liberated the knowledge, pushing the church aside, and created a metaphorical Garden of Eden, only to once again expel themselves into a nuclear hell. The church protects man from himself by worshiping but hiding knowledge, as it did with Aristotle’s teachings. The political powers, driven by the promise of scientists, cease it and create the tools of empire. Mankind is caught between the prudence of caution when it comes to knowledge, and the glory of knowing the secrets of all things. One leads to peace and penury, the other to war and glory. We humans can have one or the other, but not, Miller argues, both. Superbly written, this book is far less boring than this review.
Philip Orchard: Myanmar has never played quite as prominent a role in geopolitics as its location – bridging East and South Asia – would suggest. This is, in part, a result of this geography, which has left Myanmar sandwiched between two countries — China and India — that, if not always strong themselves, have routinely been pivotal to contests over the broader balance of power. As an outpost on the fringes of the British Empire, for example, Myanmar was caught between the British and French imperialists and, later, between the Allied powers and Japan. These competitions shattered Myanmar’s native power structures, deepened ethnic fault lines and laid the groundwork for the country’s long inward turn. In other words, as is often the case with contested buffer states, Myanmar’s history has rarely been its own to shape.
Today, as it emerges from nearly a half-century of international isolation, Myanmar is making halting progress toward shedding its historical baggage. But the realities of its geography remain. The fragile civilian-military alliance ruling the country’s heartland does not control its borderlands. Ethnic rebel groups along the Chinese border in the northeast give Beijing an enduring source of leverage over Naypyitaw, while the often-lawless regions bordering northeast India (itself underdeveloped and prone to centrifugal forces) expose Myanmar from the west.
As the grandson of a U.N. secretary-general, Myanmar’s national historian, and an adviser to the successive governments in Naypyitaw overseeing the country’s international reintegration, Thant Myint-U is well-suited to follow the arc of Myanmar’s historical unease with outward engagement into the country’s uncertain future. His melancholy 2006 history “The River of Lost Footsteps” explains the roots and consequences of Myanmar’s isolationist impulse, charting recurring attempts by Myanmar leaders to take control of the country’s fate by shielding it from outside forces. In 2011’s “Where China Meets India,” Myint-U dives deeper into the contributions of Myanmar’s larger neighbors, along with more distant powers, to the country’s historical siege mentality. But he also takes a cautiously optimistic look at how a modernizing Myanmar may be able to turn competition between the superpowers – and, in particular, competition between the U.S. and China – to its advantage.
Xander Snyder: “South Africa Up” is a television series that began in 1992. At the age of seven, several South African children were interviewed, and the series follows them as they grow, interviewing them again every seven years and tracking the evolution of their lives during a time of extraordinary change in South Africa. The most recent interviews took place in 2013 when the children were grown, aged 28. The series is remarkable for documenting the changes in South Africa during this period as well as its stagnation. An Afrikaner boy who was brought up to dislike black South Africans – and is recorded saying so – looks back later in his life and laments that this is what he was taught. A woman of mixed ethnicity enters medical school but is overwhelmed by the challenges facing her country’s medical system. Many of the black South Africans interviewed can afford some relative luxuries not available to them 20 years ago, such as televisions and electricity, but continue to encounter racial barriers to opportunities that many in the mid-1990s expected would by now have been more widely available. The show captures South Africa’s ongoing challenges, personified by the personal struggles faced by these individuals who have lived through a cycle of adversity, hope for change and, ultimately for many, great disappointment as that change failed to materialize.
Ekaterina Zolotova: Major changes are taking place in the global energy market – changes that make us reconsider the prospects for further development of the oil industry. The sharp fall in oil prices, the growth of shale oil production in the U.S., the change in OPEC’s strategy, the elimination of international sanctions on Iran, the increasing competition in an overstocked market, and the significant reduction in the cost of electricity produced from renewable sources – all of these factors, directly or indirectly, influence the oil sector. Yet energy security remains a key question for every country, and oil continues to play an important role and is still a geopolitical tool for many oil-exporting countries. As the name implies, this book is a great introduction to the oil industry. It explores the transformation of the oil sector and reveals many details about the oil market, including supply and demand, pricing and alternative energy sources.