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What We’re Reading: Jan. 10, 2017

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  • Last updated: January 10
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Below you will find a list of books (and films) that members of the Geopolitical Futures team are currently reading or watching. It highlights insightful and relevant books from around the globe and the reasons we chose them.

His Final Battle: The Last Months of Franklin Roosevelt
By Joseph Lelyveld

Meredith Friedman: As an insight into Roosevelt’s foresight and complex thinking, this is a fascinating book. The author reveals Roosevelt’s ability to balance the realities of American politics and elections with his handling of our allies, the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom. He solidly believed that “whether we win or lose the war depends on the Russians.” Keeping in mind current criticisms of President-elect Donald Trump, it’s interesting to read that Roosevelt’s policymaking was “so personal and intuitive, so seemingly off the cuff, that it’s seldom reflected in documents.” Admittedly by this stage he had several terms as president under his belt. At the meetings at the end of 1943 in Tehran with Josef Stalin and Winston Churchill, Roosevelt bypassed his diplomats and flew solo. He had 70 people in his delegation but not one official from the State Department, not even Secretary of State Cordell Hull. Roosevelt’s conviction that he could forge a personal trust with Stalin that would ensure post-war cooperation with the USSR drove him in these last years. Roosevelt’s foreign policy often was based on his gut intuition. While fighting a desperate war in Europe and the Pacific, Roosevelt was “dimly anticipating the future, trying to head off a cold war, a conflict no one had yet named and few had foreseen.” This is a must-read for understanding both the geopolitics of World War II and one of our greatest presidents.

The Interior Circuit: A Mexico City Chronicle
By Francisco Goldman

David Boddiger: Goldman is one of the writers I most identify with because I occasionally feel I’m 10 years behind him in his shadow. The first book of his that I read, “The Art of Political Murder,” about the assassination of Guatemala’s Bishop Juan José Gerardi, managed to peel back the onion-like layers of the organized criminal structures in that country’s chaotic and violent period following the signing of peace accords that ended nearly four decades of civil war. At the time I read it, I walked to work every day down a narrow side street in Guatemala City, passing the scene of Gerardi’s murder on the left and military intelligence offices on the right. It was eerie. In “The Interior Circuit,” Goldman is coming to terms with his own personal tragedy after having documented decades of Central American strife. A Mexico City memoir, the book centers on a seemingly banal decision to learn how to drive in the sprawling city’s terrifying streets and highways as a sort of cathartic exercise to overcome unrelenting grief five years after the untimely death of his wife. Like his other novel about that death, “Say Her Name,” this book is deeply personal, honest and sometimes tremendously sad, but it also is a fascinating look at one of the most progressive yet impoverished, advanced but underdeveloped, densely populated yet highly functioning cities on the planet.

The Art of Intelligence: Lessons from a Life in the CIA’s Clandestine Service
By Henry A. Crumpton

Kamran Bokhari: Written by a senior and highly respected veteran of the CIA, this book is an important exposé of the challenges faced by the U.S. intelligence community in the age of jihadism. Crumpton’s narrative is based on his experiences in intelligence collection and covert operations. Given the leadership role he played in the U.S. decision to carry out regime change in Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks, the author offers a great deal of insights into how intelligence, geopolitics, war and policymaking converged to address the threats from al-Qaida, the Taliban and other jihadist actors and their enablers in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This important contribution from Crumpton is a must-read for those trying to understand the critical role of intelligence and the evolving nature of counterterrorism efforts.

Africa-US Relations: Strategic Encounters
Edited by Donald Rothchild and Edmond J. Keller

Allison Fedirka: This collection of essays looks at security, debt and disease in Africa and indicates how they are related to U.S. interests. One of the main takeaways – that the U.S.’ interest in Africa oscillates depending on how much the U.S. is affected by these issues and therefore needs to act in the region – is ridiculously simple but also frequently overlooked. Geopolitics is very attractive to those who try to extract an understanding of how the world works and why. Sometimes the simplest explanations are dismissed merely because they seem too simple to be true. During my time in South America, I was often asked why the U.S. didn’t pay more attention to the region, and I imagine if I were to spend time in Africa I’d get the same question. It’s hard to try to explain to another person that the U.S. simply doesn’t need to care, and what happens in the region matters very little to Washington. This is not to say that regional events don’t matter or that they may not gain global significance at some point. But learning to rank the importance of events and to recognize the significance of timing is key to understanding how the world works. A current example of this is the increased interest European countries such as Germany have in Africa’s economic development and stability since addressing these issues will help stem the flow of migrants north.

Directed by James Bluemel

Valentina Jovanovski: “Exodus,” a two-hour documentary aired on PBS’ Frontline, follows several asylum seekers as they escape conflict and poverty in their home countries and seek refuge in Europe. Normally, we at GPF don’t write about the human side of geopolitical issues. Although they are of course important, human interest stories are better suited for newspapers. However, “Exodus” does more than tell the individual stories of people fleeing hardship (although it does this very well). It also reveals the ease at which asylum seekers have been able to cross Europe’s porous borders, many of them landing by sea in Italy and Greece, while trying to get to their ultimate destinations in Western and northern Europe. We have written about the likelihood that European Union member states will adopt border controls as a result of the refugee crisis. This film reveals the extent to which past controls have been eliminated and the security challenges that have followed. One Syrian refugee even uses a fake passport to enter the United Kingdom after spending weeks traveling across Europe and ending up in a migrant camp known as “the jungle” in Calais, France. I was surprised that he was willing to be filmed obtaining a false passport, but after facing so many incredible dangers to get to Calais, it probably seemed like a minor risk. The refugee crisis has many humanitarian and social implications, but the associated security concerns are also undeniable.

Animal Farm
By George Orwell

Jacob L. Shapiro: I decided to revisit a classic that I have not read in many years and felt it was time to brush up on. Most of our readers have probably read “Animal Farm.” It was the first time that Orwell, in his own words, tried to “make political writing into an art.” Orwell wrote “Animal Farm” from 1943 to 1944, but had a devilishly hard time getting it published because it is an unflattering allegory for the Russian Revolution. At the time, much of the world had made its peace with Stalin’s regime out of necessity – to defeat Nazi Germany and imperial Japan, the Soviet Union was an indispensable ally. But beyond that, many admired the Soviet Union not just for its ability to stand up to Adolf Hitler’s armies but also because communism seemed a meaningful political counterweight to the true enemy of fascism. “Animal Farm” is the story of animals who take over a farm, and of the power struggle that plays out between Napoleon (Stalin) and Snowball (Leon Trotsky). Orwell’s sharp pen makes an overtly political point. However, I recommend this book not for its politics but for the depth that Orwell reaches to explain the development and nature of totalitarian regimes. I think the world today would much surprise Orwell and many other political writers of his time who saw a fairly bleak future ahead. I also think it broadens one’s perspective to revisit “Animal Farm” as an artifact of what Orwell and those like him saw and not just as a fable about the dangers of the Russian Revolution.