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What We’re Reading: Jan. 9, 2018

What We're Reading

|January 9, 2018

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.

Illuminations
By Walter Benjamin

George Friedman: A lifetime ago, I wrote my doctoral dissertation on a group of German philosophers who included, as an outrider, Walter Benjamin. Benjamin was both brilliant and incomprehensible. One of his great insights was published in a short piece called “The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” His argument in this case was simple. Rembrandt painted in the expectation that his work would be viewed in a setting appropriate to it. Mozart composed with the expectation of a concert hall. When Benjamin wrote in the 1920s, Rembrandt prints were available from sidewalk vendors, and Mozart was present on records. Mechanical reproduction allowed them to be viewed in homes or offices or wherever someone wished. This violated the intent and expectation of the artist. The experience of the beautiful requires ritual. The viewer must prepare. He must dress properly for the concert hall, travel there, be seated and wait for the midwife – the museum curator or the conductor of the orchestra – to deliver the beautiful for the listeners’/viewers’ contemplation. Without this ritual, the work of art loses its authenticity. Its reproduction separates the art from how the art is experienced. Listening to Mozart while cooking dinner falsifies the work of art, by separating the diamond from the setting, and the ring from the ritual of a gift.

In this sense, modern culture fragments the experience of the beautiful and makes it banal. The sense of wonder is lost. Apple now delivers almost any type of music I care to listen to almost instantly. The midwife is not the artist, but software. There is no effort needed on my part to experience the beautiful, and as such the beautiful is made inauthentic and the experience impoverishes.

When we think of modern culture, particularly the presentation of the tradition of beauty, and the manner in which mechanical reproduction has stripped it of art’s singularity in time and space, we can see clearly what we have gained – easy access – and what we have lost – the effort that forces you to recognize that what is about to happen is extraordinary.

Benjamin was not a curmudgeonly conservative, but a devoted Marxist in the age when Marxism was the unordinary religion of Europe’s intellectuals. Benjamin was an extraordinary and strange man, and given what he said, merely reading him strips his thinking of authenticity. I have always regretted that I was born too late to sit across from him in a Berlin cafe. But I can promise that having viewed Rembrandt’s “Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer” in my house and in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, there is almost no connection between the two, and it is time that I dress up and go to hear the New York Philharmonic once more. It is not just the art, but also the extraordinary and uncanny art that requires ritual.


Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime
By Eliot A. Cohen

Phillip Orchard: At GPF, we’re constantly examining constraints on decision-makers — that which separates what they’d like to do or even attempt to do, and that which they actually can do. Recently, we’ve been focusing on how leaders grapple with issues such as incomplete or distorted information flows. Leaders inevitably have to rely on imperfect information provided from below, and the sources of these information flows — ministers, bureaucrats, business lobbies, intelligence agencies, and so forth — typically have conflicting interests and thus divergent aims in shaping how the leader views the problem at hand.

This problem is inherent in any attempt by leaders to implement policy, and it becomes particularly acute during wartime, when there is unavoidable tension between civilian politicians and their battlefield commanders, and debate over how much authority civilian leaders should have.

“Supreme Command” looks at four leaders who tried to tackle these problems head on: Abraham Lincoln, Georges Clemenceau, Winston Churchill and David Ben-Gurion. The common trait between them is that all appear to believe, to varying degrees, in Clemenceau’s view that “war is too important to leave to the generals,” and inserted themselves judiciously, but decisively at key times to ensure that the war effort remained tightly aligned with the broader strategic interests of the state.


The Ember War Saga
By Richard Fox

Xander Snyder: This series has everything sci-fi fans love in a good read. To begin with, there’s a solid premise: In the near future, an extraterrestrial probe orbits Earth to determine whether human beings will have the wherewithal to withstand an invasion from an aggressive race of beings. Richard Fox strikes a good balance with his approach to technology, which is detailed enough to suspend your disbelief without getting grumpy about the science amounting to little more than magic, but not so much as to get caught up in engineering jargon.

As a good sci-fi series should, it asks deep questions about human nature, the most central being the relationship between mankind, war and the rate of technological advancement.

An interesting twist is that the “Ember War” series – which, perhaps obviously, covers the issue of warfare – is written by a former Marine who served multiple deployments in Iraq. His soldier’s perspective cuts through in the story in ways that are often surprising, but always clever. Perhaps most important, the series was great fun to read, and holds your attention throughout.


Stalin’s Curse: Battling for Communism in War and Cold War
By Robert Gellately

Antonia Colibasanu: This book, based on previously unreleased Russian documents, is not only a biography of Stalin, but also an account of the darkest period in Russian history. Western writers see Stalinism as a reaction to mistakes made by the West, while Eastern European writers tend to treat it as an aberration. Gellately tries to remain objective, treating Stalin as a Russian leader who is aware of his country’s geopolitical imperatives, and who is utterly convinced of the communist ideology and, ultimately, of his own leadership.

Using mostly German and Russian archives and firsthand accounts, the author focuses on the rise and fall of what he calls the “Red Empire.” It is less about Stalin’s personality and more about his leadership skills. Gellately describes Stalin’s actions in light of his goal of establishing communist regimes across Europe and beyond. Even what appeared to Western leaders to be irrational actions were calculated, Machiavellian moves by Stalin to support his ultimate goal. The book addresses leadership and the power structure within a nation-state by explaining the Soviet Union and how the Soviet regime was formed.

From a geopolitical perspective, some of the most interesting passages are about Stalin’s final years. They explain the anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union and describe the beginnings of a massive arms buildup, as well as how policies were being shaped under a leader who was both increasingly paranoid and a good analyst. While the book does a good job of detailing the Soviet Union’s foreign policy, it more importantly reveals what a leader can achieve in particular circumstances.

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