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What We’re Reading: Nov. 14, 2017

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  • Last updated: November 14
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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.

Vietnam: Rising Dragon
By Bill Hayton

Phillip Orchard: Vietnam has become a somewhat overlooked player in East Asian affairs since the United States exited the country in the 1970s. This is, in part, because it’s something of a black box. It doesn’t have much in the way of an independent press, and it doesn’t draw the level of scrutiny from the international community that its larger ideological sibling directly to the north does. Yet, postwar Vietnam is in many ways punching above its weight geopolitically by, for example, building up relatively powerful naval capabilities, cultivating military ties with a range of outside powers, and willingly taking part in U.S.-led strategic initiatives in the region. Its military culture has been forged in fire throughout history. With the world’s 15th-largest population and a rapidly modernizing economy, it has ample potential to increase its clout. And its position on the front lines of the South China Sea dispute gives it little choice but to find ways to do so. To the extent that its internal politics enter the spotlight, the discussion is generally framed around its purported divides between conservative, broadly pro-China camps based in the north and free-wheeling, pro-Western entrepreneurs and liberalizers based in the south. This framing isn’t entirely groundless, with regional cliques and deep divides often producing paralysis at the highest levels of power in Hanoi.

The reality inside Vietnam is, of course, more complicated. Bill Hayton’s 2010 “Vietnam: Rising Dragon” is an excellent primer on the power dynamics, regional oligarchs, and demographic and economic pressures that make the country tick and shape its behavior on the geopolitical stage. Hayton sheds light on Vietnam’s economic and political transition since the 1980s. This transition’s successes and side effects – rising wealth, corruption, pollution and expectations – echo those that are stressing the Communist Party of China’s own grip on power.

Trotsky (miniseries)
Directed by Alexander Kott and Konstantin Statsky

Ekaterina Zolotova: In 2017, Russia marked the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution. To commemorate the anniversary, this eight-part miniseries looks at the personalities that played a significant role in the revolution, including Leon Trotsky. According to the creators, the miniseries is based on archives that were previously unreleased. It touches on significant events that have influenced Russia’s development, including the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the civil war that followed the revolution, the establishment of the Red Army and the execution of the imperial family.

I was particularly interested in how the miniseries portrayed Trotsky. Historian Alexander Reznik said he believes that Trotsky was intentionally demonized in the miniseries to discredit the opposition in Russia today. Trotsky biographer Joshua Rubenstein criticized the view that Trotsky was the central figure of the revolution and responsible for the execution of the imperial family. I’m still trying to figure out Trotsky’s rightful place in Russian history. But at the very least, this miniseries made me re-examine some key events in Russia at the beginning of the 20th century.

Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet
By Karen Armstrong

Antonia Colibasanu: In geopolitics, understanding religions is critical because they can have important political and cultural implications. For this reason, I decided to learn more about Islam. I knew little about the religion before I read Karen Armstrong’s biography of the Prophet Muhammad. She describes the prophet as a social and political reformer, as well as the foundation of Islam and the key to its dissemination and popularity. The author discusses the spiritual elements of Islam but also outlines the geographic, social and historical factors that were key to its spread. This helps Armstrong explain a complex phenomenon – the birth and evolution of Islam – in a very accessible way for the reader. Learning about the prophet’s life is useful not only for understanding the beginnings of Islam, but also for understanding how it evolved into one of the most popular religions in the world today.