Jared Diamond’s latest book, Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis (2019), is clearly written for a lay audience.
I took only introductory courses in Australian and Japanese history in university, but I learned almost nothing new from Diamond’s respective chapters on those countries. The chapters on postwar Germany and the 1973 coup in Chile taught me nothing I hadn’t picked in high school or from watching documentaries. The remaining chapters on Finland’s Winter War with the Soviet Union and Indonesia’s dictatorship were more informative, but only because I never investigated either.
Even by the standard of an undergraduate textbook, Upheaval falls short. Footnotes, endnotes and references are completely lacking. Anecdotes abound. If it wasn’t for a list of further reading at the back — which contains barely more than a dozen titles per country — one could be forgiven for thinking Diamond relied entirely on personal experience and the opinions of a handful of international acquaintances to arrive at his conclusions. Read more “Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis”
Now they have put their theory in a book, which goes into greater detail and explains how this asymmetry between the parties manifests itself in other areas, like the media and policymaking. Read more “Party Asymmetry in the Age of Trump”
In The Edge of the World, Michael Pye sets out to explain “how the North Sea made us who we are.” He at least succeeds in showing how, through the centuries, the lands around the North Sea were in constant communication with each other and influenced developments in law, science and trade, perhaps more than most historians assumed.
But he does so while tearing down a familiar narrative about the rise of capitalism in the region without volunteering an alternative interpretation.
Pye’s book is organized around themes: the invention of money, the writing of law, fashion, urbanization. The book as a whole covers centuries but most chapters deal with a much shorter time and dwell longer on the stories of individuals — whom we have to assume are representative of bigger trends — than they do on tying in events to produce something resembling a theory.
Deutschland 83 is Germany’s answer to the highly successful American television drama The Americans. Whereas the latter follows two well-trained KGB “illegals” in the United States, Deutschland 83 centers on a young East German border guard who is unwillingly thrust into the middle of a nuclear standoff.
When French president Charles de Gaulle agreed to Algerian self-determination in 1961, his right-wing supporters were outraged. They had returned the general to power only three years earlier so he could put down the bloody uprising in France’s most prized colony. Some of the pieds-noirs, the Algerian French, and their sympathizers in the army banded together in the paramilitary Organisation de l’armée secrète (OAS) to stop the independence process with assassinations and bombings.
In Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, Christopher Clark succeeds marvelously in explaining how a medieval backwater managed to transform itself into the driving force behind the most powerful empire in Europe — and how its very success foreshadowed its disappearance from the map.
Prussia, in Clark’s telling, largely came about as a result of the (iron?) will of its kings, the Hohenzollerns. Originally a minor aristocratic family from the south of Germany, they came in possession of Brandenburg (now in East Germany) and Prussia (roughly corresponding to Russia’s modern-day Kaliningrad Oblast) and managed to turn these territories into the most powerful German-speaking state through a combination of flexible diplomacy, military genius and occasional luck. Read more “Iron Kingdom: Prussia’s Success Foreshadowed Its Demise”
In university, I once attended a panel discussion about the Cold War where one of the organizers of the large antinuclear demonstrations that took place in the Netherlands in the early 1980s startled the audience by saying he believed President Ronald Reagan had been a “nuclear pacifist.”
Many of the students, who had been taught Reagan was a cowboy, a radical rightwinger and a strident anti-communist who spoke of the Soviet Union as an “evil empire” just as Mikhail Gorbachev set about reforming the country, found the old peacenik’s admiration of the Republican president difficult to understand. Hadn’t Reagan stepped up the arms race, they asked? Wasn’t it his administration that deployed cruise missiles in Western Europe — the very missiles he protested against at the time? Read more “Reagan’s Rebellion and the End of the Cold War”
When President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney finally left the White House in January 2009 after eight tumultuous years, the popularity of both men was at an historic low. Plagued by an oftentimes dysfunctional national-security team, Bush departed the White House with the knowledge that his case for an invasion of Iraq in March 2003 would go into the confines of history as one of the worst intelligence blunders ever recorded. When combined with the worst financial crisis in the country’s history since the Great Depression happening on his watch, it raised the Republican leader’s disapproval rating to a 71 percent high at the end of his tenure. Cheney’s numbers were even worse.
By the time Barack Obama assumed the presidency as America’s first black president, the public was exhausted from the Bush years and perhaps as divided as it had ever been in modern times. Popular parlance often painted Bush as a one dimensional cowboy who was simply overwhelmed by the job; someone who relied heavily on his vice president for wisdom, to the point of implementing whatever his deputy said.
In his latest book, Robert D. Kaplan thankfully revives an appreciation of geography’s influence on foreign policy — and just as appropriately tempers this with an enduring optimism in human agency.
The Revenge of Geography is a particularly timely volume. As America’s euphoria, that characterized the immediate aftermath of the Cold War and informed its newfound liberal interventionism, wanes and Eurasian powers increasingly challenge its supremacy on what the geostrategist Halford Mackinder called the “world island,” policymakers ought to be reminded that geography — and the history it has shaped in such farflung places as Central Asia and Eastern Europe — can have far more of an impact on world events than noble American values and intentions. Read more “American Strategy Could Use “A Modest Acceptance of Fate””