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What We’re Reading: June 12, 2018

South American geopolitics, empires of the sea

  • Last updated: June 12
  • Total word count: 881 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.

Checkerboards and Shatterbelts: The Geopolitics of South America
By Philip Kelly

It’s rare to find a book that takes a serious geopolitical approach to South America, a region that is mostly ignored, or at best is considered only at a political level. But in “Checkerboards and Shatterbelts,” Philip Kelly takes a comprehensive look at the region as a whole – not just select countries – and its relationship with the rest of the Americas. It’s a shorter book as a result of this approach, but Kelly does not sacrifice depth or intellectual rigor.

Kelly begins by bridging the regional and language gap between English-speaking North Americans and Spanish- or Portuguese-speaking South Americans. He explains how classical geopolitical theorists influenced southern scholars, who then added indigenous components and thought to develop their own geopolitical framework. He also provides an excellent summary of the most influential leaders in South American geopolitical thought. One of my favorite features was a series of maps that show about a dozen different ways geopolitical analysts from South America have defined the region.

Kelly considers South America not only on its own but also as part of the Western Hemisphere, and he provides thoughtful comparisons of the geopolitical realities facing North and South America. He discusses how and why North America developed so differently from South America and finds answers in natural resources, colonial experience, European relations, immigration and investment patterns.

Finally, the book offers a delightful look back in time. Published in 1997, it reflects a strong post-Cold War mentality coupled with the global optimism that surrounded regional integration in the early 1990s. Much has changed in the intervening 21 years. The passage of time helps to highlight the permanence of some geopolitical features and the transience of other processes. For example, it’s amazing to read about the Falklands dispute knowing now that Argentina and the U.K. are in the midst of mending ties in the post-Brexit world. Even more compelling is the treatment of international trade and economic integration, two concepts that have faced recent challenges that would have been nearly inconceivable at the time of publication.

In the final chapter, Kelly provides his own forecast for South America. Enough time has passed to judge the accuracy of parts of it, though I don’t want to spoil the ending.

Allison Fedirka, analyst

Empires of the Sea: The Siege of Malta, the Battle of Lepanto, and the Contest for the Center of the World
By Roger Crowley

I chose this book because I was looking for a historical account of the main battles between the Ottomans and the Christians in the Middle Ages. Instead, I got an explanation of what matters for a major power – what it seeks to control, why and how. Roger Crowley makes the Mediterranean Sea the centerpiece of the book. It is the space uniting all cultures and religions of the time – Christian and Muslim, Habsburg and Ottoman. All wanted to control the Mediterranean, critical as it was to trade. But they also had their own set of beliefs, values and interests.

The Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent’s dream of taking over Rome and inheriting Caesar’s mantle is the historical intrigue for the book. When Crowley discusses leaders of the time, he comments on their features only after taking into account their interests. It is their role in defending the state’s interests that matters most to him. In this sense, the book isn’t only about the geopolitics of the Mediterranean Sea, but it also analyzes how relationships between leaders matter at the tactical level, as well as how their interactions support the larger strategic purpose for each side.

In reconstructing the Battle of Malta, Crowley describes how the 6,000 knights of St. John stood against 30,000 Ottoman troops for four months, as well as the central role of the Italian traitor in the outcome of the battle. Crowley describes personalities like Jean de la Valette or Captain Miranda based on eyewitness accounts, which makes the reading even more interesting. He does the same for the great corsair Hayrettin Barbarossa. Crowley’s use of original sources, as well as his even-handed approach toward the horrors suffered by Christians and Muslims alike, makes the book a geopolitical manual for the historical period between 1521 and 1580.

As I was reading “Empires of the Sea,” I found the Mediterranean tale that Crowley constructed to be very relevant to contemporary geopolitics. While the book taught me the tactics employed in naval wars, it also made me think of the Turkish role in the Mediterranean Sea as a potential growing power. At the same time, the sometimes-unaligned European interests presented by Crowley are relevant to today’s politics of the European Union. The book also speaks about leadership and its role in defending not only strategic interests but also cultural values. The suspense Crowley manages to create when describing the battles for Malta and Lepanto gets transformed toward the book’s end into questions related to the current state of the world, to the meaning of empire and leadership today.

Antonia Colibasanu, analyst