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What We’re Reading: Taking on Russian Oligarchs, Examining German Leadership in Europe

Weekly reviews of what’s on our bookshelves.

What We're Reading

GPF Staff |August 7, 2018

Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice
By Bill Browder

It was by complete coincidence that I picked up “Red Notice” a few weeks ago, just before Russian President Vladimir Putin invoked Bill Browder’s name at the Helsinki summit. Putin offered to allow U.S. investigators to interview 12 Russians indicted by the Mueller investigation in exchange for giving Russia access to Browder. (That Browder is now a U.K. citizen seemed to affect Putin’s request very little.) Truth be told, I have never had a book recommended to me so many times by such a politically diverse group – from an old friend back home in the solidly red hinterlands of Georgia, to a new friend I met at a conference two years ago in Orlando, to my aunt and uncle in the solidly blue stronghold of San Francisco. But now, it’s easy to see why they did.

Browder’s story is extremely compelling, and this book is a page turner, one that will take a devoted reader only a few days to read at most. Browder explains his own interesting background, his brilliant (and slightly insane) foray into the Russian economy and, eventually, the government reaction to the very forces inside Russia that allowed him to make his money in the first place. To make his fortune, Browder at times took on Russia’s oligarchs, and both he and his associates paid for it – one associate, a man named Sergei Magnitsky, with his life.

That name may ring a bell. The U.S. recently sanctioned Turkish officials under the Global Magnitsky Act, which allows the U.S. government to target individuals, companies or entities accused of human rights abuses. Browder’s perspective is unabashedly American, and I can see why some readers with radically different political viewpoints would find a rare bit of common ground in reading his story. I must point out that there is no corresponding attempt in the book to understand why Putin or the Russian system is the way it is, but that is not the type of nuance you expect from a book like this. To understand that, you’ll have to seek out a book on the history of Russia immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union and the chaos that ensued.

Even though most will be attracted to this book because of the drama and intrigue in Browder’s story, I think what Browder has most effectively done, perhaps without even realizing it, is show the mutual intelligibility that continues to define Russia’s relations with the West. Even after all these years, and even after all the conflicts, the West and Russia are still the West and Russia. Browder is not the first to be caught in that crossfire of incomprehensibility, nor will he be the last.

Jacob L. Shapiro, director of analysis

 

German Europe
By Ulrich Beck

It seems most journalists and political scientists take for granted these days that Germany is the leader of Europe. Having recently spent a great deal of time there, and having spent even more time consuming German news, I’ve started having my doubts. Without getting into the Byzantine structure of the European Union, the voting system is such that it’s impossible for anyone, even the most populous and wealthiest member, to unilaterally dictate outcomes. It’s also hard for me to take seriously a hegemon that has few operational fighter jets and transport planes, no combat-ready submarines and so on. So I wanted to learn more about this argument that Germany is actually the hegemon of Europe.

With the benefit of hindsight, “German Europe” by the German sociologist Ulrich Beck was not a great place to start. It’s a very short book, published in 2012, and two-thirds of its sections are about the eurozone’s problems and Beck’s proposed solutions. It’s not without its uses. Beck’s conception of the “risk society” – essentially social angst about change, modernity and the potential catastrophes hiding within the things too big for us to understand, which is to say, almost everything about the European Union – may be useful. When it comes to solving the eurozone’s woes, however, Beck himself admits his ideas “may well sound hopelessly utopian and naive.” Eight years later, they do. The overarching idea is that everything would be so much better and easier for Europe if people would just let go of the outdated idea of national sovereignty. He says, for example, that “banks live transnationally but die nationally.” He’s probably right – the EU’s great problems do demand European solutions – but Euroskeptic, nationalist parties are gaining strength almost everywhere. It’s just not a feasible solution right now.

The most useful part of the book was the middle section, where Beck introduces Merkiavelli – the Machiavellian tendencies of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. This is, on the human level, how Germany expanded its power during the eurozone crisis. The most interesting point of comparison was how Merkel weaponized (and continues to weaponize) hesitation. When desperate eurozone members were staring down the barrel of untold horrors, the chancellor sat silent or gave ambiguous answers about Germany’s willingness to rescue them. (She actually inspired the creation of a new German verb, “merkeln,” meaning to make no decisions or do nothing.) The result was that Germany was able to attach devastating conditions to its aid when it finally came. Careful writers, Beck included, have noted that this was not part of an effort to create a Fourth Reich. Rather, consider whether you would lend money unconditionally to someone you believed – fairly or not (Beck emphatically says not) – had behaved irresponsibly.

This is a convincing argument about German domination, but it’s also one bound up tightly with the eurozone crisis, which is, if not behind us, at least in hibernation. Moreover, if the source of German power is its economy, we should consider what happens to that power when the reckoning that GPF has forecast comes. Lastly, though the European Union has been an economic bloc first and foremost, it’s apparent that its future will be increasingly concerned with defense. Germany can hardly muster the will to hit its NATO defense spending target. Nearly every political party opposes reintroducing conscription into the armed forces. And though a few political scientists have dared propose that German society have a debate about developing its own nuclear weapons, the vast majority of the conversation has been about ways to ensure Germany’s place under the Franco-British nuclear umbrella. As Europe inevitably takes more responsibility for its own defense, it’s hard to see how its semi-hegemon doesn’t get left behind.

Ryan Bridges, editor

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