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What We’re Reading: Sept. 12, 2017

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  • Last updated: September 14
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Editor’s note: A review misstated the location in “How Green Was My Valley.” It has been corrected on site.

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.

The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War
By David Halberstam

Jacob L. Shapiro: It’s no accident that I’m including David Halberstam’s book on the Korean War for a second time. My earlier review reflected only my initial impressions of this very long book, and now that I’m further along, I figured it might be helpful to serialize reviews for one book rather than to pen one paragraph on something I’m only pretending to read.

In that spirit, there are three main things I have learned from “The Coldest Winter.” The first is the impermanence of military power. The U.S. was an overwhelmingly dominant global military force in 1945. By 1950, that force had gone home and had been replaced in large measure by an overconfident and ill-prepared generation. When North Korea first pushed south in 1950, it was militarily superior to the United States. That is a cautionary tale, not just in understanding international politics but for a company like GPF, which bases a great deal of analysis on the relative military power of different countries. The second is that Gen. Douglas MacArthur is a complicated man, admired by some, reviled by others. Everyone seems to agree he was brilliant, but beyond that the agreement stops. Halberstam paints a picture of a general who was as indispensable as he was insubordinate. The third is that I did not properly appreciate just how important China was in domestic U.S. politics after World War II. The communist victory in the Chinese civil war shocked the United States and weakened the position of President Truman and the Democrats. The propaganda that formed Chiang Kai-shek’s image in the U.S. – building him up into something he probably was not –  arguably affected the geopolitical relationship between the U.S. and China, raising questions about what the difference is between a constraint and a mistake.

A History of the Ottoman Empire
By Douglas A. Howard

Kamran Bokhari: In the coming decades, Turkey will be the country to bring order to the Middle East. We expect it to become more influential in the Black Sea region and in Eastern Europe, as Russia and Europe become less influential. These are the very same regions the Ottoman Empire, the modern Turkish Republic’s predecessor, held at its height from the 15th century to the 18th century. Understanding how Turkey will expand in nearly every direction requires understanding how the Ottomans were able to project power in these various directions in the past.

Douglas Howard’s book is an excellent addition to the body of literature on the most significant imperial dominion established by the Turkic peoples. More than 400 pages long, Douglas’ book – based on many years of research of primary and secondary source material – provides a sense of how the Ottomans viewed the world around them. It offers an empathetic view of the Ottomans – a perspective necessary for geopolitical assessments. To get a sense of the future trajectory of Turkey, one must read Howard’s rendition of the rise and fall of the Ottoman Sultanate.

How Green Was My Valley
By Richard Llewellyn

Allison Fedirka: This book was suggested, written and read with a strong sense of nostalgia that I later realized, in some ways, may be misplaced. I picked up this book because it’s my fiance’s favorite novel. It captures parts of his family history that he holds dear. The book follows the lives of a coal mining family and their community, and the author writes with a reflective tone about his younger years. Even in the episodes of challenge or despair, there is a sense of longing for the past. As I read the novel, I shared that longing and placed the story in a world that existed in the distant past – except the timing of the story did not occur in the distant past but rather about a century ago. I describe my nostalgia as misplaced because I realized all it takes is a simple drive through rural environs to see that similar types of small-town, blue-collar communities still exist, even in the U.S. We at GPF often write about overlooked communities, and it was these kinds of communities Donald Trump largely appealed to during his presidential campaign. The novel made me aware of their contemporary issues in ways I had not been before. A lot can change in 100 years, but novels such as this one can teach us that societies endure despite, if not because of, those changes.

China on Strike: Narratives of Workers’ Resistance
Edited by Hao Ren, English edition edited by Zhongjin Li and Eli Friedman

Valentina Jovanovski: Labor protests are one indication of social instability we often look for in countries in which we anticipate destabilization. We’ve noted evidence of labor unrest in China, but evidence can be hard to verify in a country that does its best to quash any sign of dissent. For this reason, “China on Strike” is a valuable tool for anyone interested in workers’ rights and labor movements in China. It’s a collection of personal accounts of struggles against injustices ranging from low wages to factory closures. The stories come from migrant workers in Guangdong’s Pearl River Delta. Interestingly, most of the stories pertain to strikes against low wages. The editors conclude that labor unrest in China has exploded as astronomically as the country’s gross domestic product. They also say that activism by workers themselves is the most effective method of bringing about changes to labor conditions in China. Ultimately, this book provides anecdotal evidence to support the conclusion, made by other labor organizations, that worker unrest is growing in China.