American media, as we expect and with rare exceptions, report on world events from the American point of view. It is useful and enlightening to consider what the world looks like to the Chinese, Indians, North Koreans, Iranians, Europeans, Afghanis, etc., not just to avoid provincialism but to evaluate whether we are using optimum strategies to achieve our national goals - indeed, even to figure out what our goals should be.
The most outstanding current book on geopolitics is America's Secret War: Inside the Hidden Worldwide Struggle Between America and its Enemies by George Friedman, founder of the respected private intelligence service Stratfor. The following summary from one of Stratfor's newsletters outlines the heart of Friedman's analysis.
Stratfor readers know our view was that the invasion of Iraq was intended to serve three purposes:
1. To bring pressure on the Saudi government, which was allowing Saudis to funnel money to al Qaeda, to halt this enablement and to cooperate with U.S. intelligence. The presence of U.S. troops to the north of Saudi Arabia was intended to drive home the seriousness of the situation.
2. To take control of the most strategic country in the Middle East - Iraq borders seven critical countries - and to use it as a base of operations against other countries that were cooperating with al Qaeda.
3. To demonstrate in the Muslim world that the American reputation weakness and indecisiveness - well-earned in the two decades prior to the Sept. 11 attacks - was no longer valid. The United States was aware that the invasion of Iraq would enrage the Muslim world, but banked on it also frightening them.
Friedman critiques presidents Bush (both) and Clinton, OBL and al Qaeda, the CIA, the military, and the key players in the key countries involved in our war. He does so with admirable clarity and objectivity, making more sense than anyone else I've read on the topic. Highly recommended.
One book cited by Friedman and virtually every other writer on geopolitics is Samuel P. Huntington's The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. I finally got around to reading it. Although it was published in 1996, its analysis of the components of our world was so clear and prescient that its framing of the issues has been adopted as the prevailing paradigm among the cognoscenti.
Religion is the primary attribute that defines a civilization here. Huntington's list of civilizations is: Western, Latin American. African, Islamic, Sinic, Hindu, Orthodox, Buddhist, and Japanese. He covers a lot of history, a lot of reasons why some civilizations get along and others go to war, and the differences between the clashes within civilizations and those between civilizations. He pointed out ten years ago that Islam is by far the most violent civilization, being involved in about as many conflicts as all other civilizations combined.
The book is somewhat dated, as is inevitable given its topic, but it remains a valuable look at the general principles governing relations between countries and regions of the world. Even if you don't want to read the whole thing, you might want to read the last chapter. It is unfortunate that our leaders are very unlikely to heed Huntington's advice (1) that the U.S. should "recognize that Western intervention in the affairs of other civilizations is probably the single most dangerous source of instability and potential global conflict in a multi-civilizational world"; and (2) that multiculturalism is our biggest danger from within. Of that danger, he reminds us that our national motto, e pluribus unum, was created by a three-member committee, namely Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams, to minimize the effects of diversity. Huntington says:
The one absolutely certain way of bringing this nation to ruin, of preventing all possibility of its continuing as a nation at all," warned Theodore Roosevelt, would be to permit it to become a tangle of squabbling nationalities." In the 1990s, however, the leaders of the United States have not only permitted that but assiduously promoted the diversity rather than the unity of the people they govern.
The leaders of other countries have, as we have seen, at times attempted to disavow their cultural heritage and shift the identity of that country from one civilization to another. In no case to date have they succeeded and they have instead created schizophrenic torn countries. The American multiculturalists similarly reject their country's cultural heritage. Instead of attempting to identify the United States with another civilization, however, they wish to create a country of many civilizations, which is to say, a country not belonging to any civilization and lacking a cultural core. A multicivilizational United States will not be the United States; it will be the United Nations.
The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman is only peripherally related to geopolitics; it is more about geoeconomics. By "flat" he means "level" in the sense of "level playing field" and his book is really about technology and the global effects of instant communication worldwide plus the interconnection of computers and software making it possible for almost anyone, almost anywhere, to compete for many, if not most, jobs. While there are many interesting examples, it's a light overview and I question its accuracy, mainly because he gets wrong one field I know well, i.e., medical transcription. Friedman reports the transcription in India of American doctors' reports as if it were a settled thing. From working in that field, I know that most organizations that have outsourced transcription to India quickly rethought their decision, partly due to Indians' difficulties with American speech and idioms, leading to gross inaccuracies, and partly due to HIPAA regulations, which require a level of security for medical records that cannot always be guaranteed offshore. A large majority of employment ads for transcriptionists today specify that no offshore candidates will be considered.
From the very general to the very particular: International journalist Robert D. Kaplan, foreign correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly for 30-odd years, has seen all of the world's trouble spots, often in hair-raising circumstances such as running with the Afghan mujahideen while they were fighting Russia with U.S. support in the 80s. (See his Soldiers of God, which has quite a lot to say that's relevant to today's War on Terror.) Kaplan has delved deeply into history and literature to try to understand the events he was witnessing, often finding that ancients like Homer, Herodotus, Thucydides, and Livy, or early moderns like Hobbes and Montesquieu, provide more insight into current events than today's analysts. His commentaries are always gracefully written and thought-provoking. He has a real knack for selecting details that give the reader the nitty-gritty feeling of being there.
This month I finished the last of his books I hadn't read: Surrender or Starve: Travels in Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, and Eritrea, originally published in 1988 with the subtitle The Wars Behind the Famine. It's the appalling story of how the dictators in the horn of African encouraged western governments and private charities to send food for their starving people, and then used it as a weapon against those same starving people, making matters far worse for them than they would have been without it. Sympathy for one's fellow man seems to be altogether lacking among the elite in that part of the world, along with paved roads, electricity, potable water and other niceties. Dated, but still relevant and excellent.
Also by Robert D Kaplan: Mediterranean Winter: The Pleasures of History and Landscape in Tunisia, Sicily, Dalmatia, and Greece
Kaplan's most recent book comes closer to being a memoir than any of his others. It describes his travels in Tunisia, Sicily, Dalmatia, and the Peloponnese while he was young and still searching for a career. Who knew Tunisia (site of ancient Carthage) was so fascinating? Kaplan does not just recite facts. He tells the stories that stick in your mind and bring history to three-dimensional life. Example: "Pharis roasted his enemies alive inside a brass bull that, through some mechanical manipulation, made a roaring sound whenever the victim writhed in agony." I highly recommend everything Kaplan has written. If you want to sample just one of his books, start with Warrior Politics. He has a new one scheduled for publication this month: Imperial Grunts, about the American soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Golden Spruce: A true Story of Myth, Madness,and Greed by John Vaillant.
The spruce of the title was a unique and gloriously beautiful tree that grew for about 300 years on Graham Island in the Queen Charlotte Islands off the coast of British Columbia, the apparent result of a mutation never seen before or since. It was considered sacred by the Haida people who are native to the islands, and it was cut down as a symbolic act by a self-appointed savior of the northwest forests who may or may not be still alive; he was or is an apparently indestructible outdoorsman named Grant Hadwin, of superlative strength and endurance, who may be hiding out from the law in Siberia after getting there by kayak. It's a fascinating story, very well told. The author describes the woods of the northwest so well you can almost smell them.
Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons by George Pendle
If you've never heard of Parsons, you have a lot of company. But isn't that odd? He was one of the founders of JPL and of Aerojet General, a prime mover in bringing rocketry from boys' backyard explosions to modern weaponry and space shots. His friends included Bradbury, Heinlein, Asimov, L. Ron Hubbard, and that crowd. He corresponded with Werner von Braun until the Nazis put a damper on the exchange. He (with a group he assembled, referred to by the Cal Tech community as the "Suicide Squad") was the first recipient of research money for rocketry from Cal Tech, and the first recipient of U.S. military grants, for rocket-assisted takeoff of WWII bombers, enabling them to use short runways.
His reputation has been obscured for two reasons: 1) he blew himself up in a 1952 explosion at the age of 37, under mysterious circumstances, possibly suicide; and 2) he was obsessed with the occult and was a devotee and financial supporter of the British mage Aleister Crowley. Parsons spent much of his family fortune and the money he earned from his scientific endeavors buying and maintaining a Pasadena mansion that housed and supported a chapter of Crowley's Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO). Parsons' beloved lady friend departed with L. Ron, who lived in the mansion for a time, leaving Parsons unable to admit his distress, since he had been preaching a message of free love and freedom from jealousy, along with conducting the OTO version of the mass and other cultish activities. These unconventional aspects of his life came to the attention of the House Unamerican Activities Committee, and Parsons lost his security clearance not long before his death, which might have been the reason for his suicide (if it was suicide).
The author is British. He uses American idioms with mixed success, and could definitely have used a better editor. All in all, it's an odd story about an odd man, but if you grew up on science fiction, it will probably interest you.
I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe
I'm a Wolfe junkie. I've read all his books. This one was better than I expected, given that so many critics panned it. I was afraid he had gone over the top again, as he did in A Man in Full, but I didn't find that to be the case. It brought back fond memories of those wild frat parties, which really haven't changed all that much. I found the book thoroughly enjoyable.