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What We’re Reading: Dec. 5, 2017

What We're Reading

|December 5, 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.

On China
By Henry Kissinger

Jacob L. Shapiro: I’ve been meaning to pick up this book for a long time but only recently got around to it. I’m about halfway through, and I have a few observations. First, the first few chapters will be informative to the layman who does not know Chinese history, but it will feel like a retread for those already familiar with it. If you want to read Chinese history, Jonathan Spence is still the best for my money – in fact, you can tell that Kissinger leaned on Spence a great deal in these introductory chapters. The action picks up around chapter three, however, when Kissinger begins talking about the difference between Western and Chinese views of strategy. Particularly insightful was his explanation that China prefers to surround its enemies rather than duking it out head-to-head via strength of arms.

Kissinger then turns his gaze on Chinese geopolitics. His insights into Mao’s strengths and weaknesses are informative, and his perspective on the causes of the Korean War are novel – arguably more important than ever, now that the U.S. seems to be hurtling toward another conflict on the Korean Peninsula. So far I can say that the greatest value of this book is the way it views the world – namely, through China’s lens. For that alone it is worth reading, and it has already added greatly to my perspective on China and its recent moves on the world stage.


The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories From My Life
By John le Carre

Cole Altom: Among my first assignments in college, where I studied political science and international relations, was to read an article about language. It was about more than language, I assume, as those things tended to be, but the linguistic lesson it imparted was, for me, an only sometimes engaged student, its great virtue. The article was a first-person account of a college professor who, having interned for a while with men who could be considered her intellectual adversaries in the U.S. nuclear defense establishment, found herself acculturated to their ways. She began to speak as they did. She adopted a vernacular that, contrary to her nature, dehumanized the people her studies affected and decontaminated her trade’s grimy nature. Which makes sense. It’s easier to sleep when you think of casualties of nuclear war as “collateral damage” instead of “millions of incinerated men, women and children.” It sounds better to say “deterrence” than it does to state outright the implication of deterrence – that is, to threaten an entire civilization with nuclear holocaust.

In geopolitics and in its adjacent subjects – demography, economics, intelligence, etc. – the temptation to dehumanize is always present. No one means to reduce the value of humans but only to conveniently ignore them. I think that’s why I always find John le Carre so refreshing. Anyone who’s read “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” knows that his plotting is superb, but it’s his rendering of the people of the trade that has always been, for me, an only sometimes engaged reader, most affecting. “The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories From My Life” is le Carre at his most personal – and most human.

The stories are autobiographical. Some of them explain the genesis of le Carre’s characters. Some of them detail the politics of defection. One recounts a conversation held in opium dens. (In fact, this last one was kind of heartbreaking.) All of them, though, focus on the characters, not the politics, of spycraft, warfare and the turbulent second half of the 20th century. Even by the standards of memoirs, “The Pigeon Tunnel” has in its pages a stunning degree of intimacy, for the stories place people at the center – the company men who demonized le Carre for disparaging the Crown; the traders who risked their lives saving those orphaned by the Khmer Rouge; the Nazi con artists who persuaded their new Allied masters to spare them for the intelligence they claimed to possess; the innocent men who spent time at Guantanamo Bay but found it in them to forgive their captors.

Le Carre doesn’t reveal anything we didn’t already know about people – that they can be kind and petty, hopeful and cynical, funny and murderous. He just reminds us of what we tend to forget about them when they are only incidental to our studies.


Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age From the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane
By S. Frederick Starr

Kamran Bokhari: Central Asia is a mysterious place tucked away in the bowels of Eurasia and insulated from the outside world. To a great extent, Russian domination, which began in the 19th century and did not end until the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, left the region largely hidden from the rest of the world. Even today, Central Asia is one of the world’s most understudied regions. Media coverage remains extremely limited, and there are few books available on the subject. But the region was not always so obscure. Between the ninth century and the 13th century, Central Asia was a global leader in the sciences and commerce. In his 2013 book, noted American expert on Eurasian affairs S. Frederick Starr goes into great detail about Central Asia’s “Lost Enlightenment.” It should be read by anyone seeking to understand Central Asia today and what it could become tomorrow.


The Collapse of Complex Societies
By Joseph A. Tainter

Matthew Massee: Societies come and go. Even the most powerful nations have fallen by the wayside. “The Collapse of Complex Societies” by Joseph Tainter gives an academic explanation for why this process occurs. The book first provides a definition of societal collapse and a list of the various case studies that are used to examine societies, including the Western Roman Empire, the Mayan civilization and the Chacoan society. For each, Tainter describes the society and what made it complex. Then he explains its eventual downfall.

Societal collapse, according to Tainter, can ultimately be explained using the economic concept of diminishing returns on investment. The more complex a socio-economic structure becomes, the more expensive it is to manage the system. That is, complex societies need more investment just to maintain a steady state. Moreover, this increased complexity means increasing marginal costs. In the end, collapsing societies become unable to maintain their complexity and to provide increasing returns in areas like energy and food production. The book highlights preindustrial societies that existed with far less extensive trade networks than are present in the world today. While globalization has arguably been a game-changer, the book points out that modern developed countries are already seeing decreasing marginal returns on investments. Education, for example, is taking more years of a person’s life before he or she is able to become a wage earner.

This is not a depressing book, although as I read what I wrote above I fear that that is the impression I’ve given. Rather, it’s a fascinating study of human systems from a macro point of view. The roles of individuals are mere distractions from this vantage point. The last great shift in the global system occurred during the first half of the 20th century and lasted until the post-World War II period. Today, the global system is once again showing signs of stress, and the costs of maintaining a static state are increasing.

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