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What We’re Reading: Feb. 14, 2017

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  • Last updated: February 14
  • Total word count: 901 words


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.

Beyond Repair: The Decline and Fall of the CIA
By Charles S. Faddis

George Friedman: This book was written by an old hand at the CIA, asking the question of why the CIA has declined in effectiveness. His answer is in part the rise of professional management. Management is a necessary evil, but it inevitably puts people in charge of an organization who are good at organizing things but not necessarily good at executing what they organize. At the CIA, tension exists between the management of vast resources and the experience of being out in the field, alone, needing to make decisions and take action. Good management is about creating rules and expectations. Intelligence is about reacting to the unplanned. The world is chaotic, and understanding chaos (or bits of it at least) and prudent management are incompatible. The path to success at the CIA is through becoming a manager. The path to success in the field is through being comfortable in chaos. Those who are best at that don’t get to become managers. Managers are not drawn from those who embrace the chaos but from those who want to move beyond it. The result is constant tension between management and operations. I don’t know that it can be fixed. The CIA is too large and has too much money, and both of those demand careful management. Among Faddis’ many excellent points is his conclusion that the danger of good management is the loss of autonomy by those at the tip of the spear.

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia
By Rebecca West

Antonia Colibasanu: In continuing my journey through the Balkans’ history, I’ve taken on West’s travel book. I read some chapters of her book when I was writing my thesis, which dealt with the economic reasoning for the Balkan wars in the 1990s. But I hadn’t read it in full. Her writing includes descriptions of the landscape and the cultural background of each ethnic group she met during her travels to Yugoslavia in 1937. She links geography to history and social problems while also observing the advance of Nazi Germany in Europe. Through reading this book, I also learned a lot about the role of customs, which are still very relevant today in the region, and how they affect politics. Another lesson is the importance of detail: how the Ottoman or Russian influence is present in everyday life in the region, from the merchandise available at the marketplace to the way people relate to each other in ordinary settings and speak of their society. An interesting takeaway is the idea that boundaries are not just geographical – they also refer to divisions between communities, political elites and classes. The way these divisions intersect with each other defines politics, governance and ultimately conflict in the Balkans. I am only halfway through the book, but I’m enjoying it as much as I would enjoy traveling through this region.

Without You, There Is No Us: Undercover Among the Sons of North Korea’s Elite
By Suki Kim

Cheyenne Ligon: North Korea is both a fascinating and frustrating country to examine from a geopolitical standpoint, largely because it is incredibly isolated. Information about North Korea is hard to come by. This is especially true when it comes to personal details: What are the people really like? How do they actually feel about Kim Jong Un’s regime? What do North Koreans know about the outside world? In this book, American journalist Suki Kim tells the story of going undercover as a Christian missionary in 2011 to teach English at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, an all-male college for the sons of North Korea’s elite class. Through Kim’s interactions with her students, the reader is able to get a better understanding of what life is like in North Korea for elite members of society. Though they are typical college students in many respects, Kim’s students are deeply loyal to the regime, and their misperceptions of the world beyond Pyongyang and seemingly instinctive hatred of North Korea’s enemy nations demonstrate the breadth and effectiveness of indoctrination and propaganda.

Nothing much really happens in this memoir, but it provides the reader with a sense of the country’s atmosphere and looks at a group that is not often featured in documentaries or books about North Korea. I recommend this book to anyone hoping to gain a better understanding of life in the country.

Introducing (a graphic guide series)
By Icon Books

Chloe Stern: I love this series because it distills giant ideas to their essence and presents the most important thoughts that created and developed certain theories, changing the way the world thinks. They are also fantastic cheat sheets for dinner party conversation. These books run the gamut from “Introducing Aesthetics” to “Introducing Wittgenstein” (unfortunately, no “Introducing Zen” yet). The three on my shelf are “Introducing Chaos,” “Introducing Semiotics” and “Introducing Levi-Strauss and Structural Anthropology.” Of course, our analysts have to read the original texts and deeply ponder their meanings. I just like to get a good grounding in the basics. I think my next one will be “Introducing Epigenetics.”