There are three books reviewed here along with links (in their titles) to the books on Amazon. All three of the reviews are also (and first) posted on Amazon. My reader might wonder why I chose to assemble these three together. The first two are pretty obvious. They are both about the present “world order”, the relation between nations and other entities with global impact. The third book is not about the world order but rather about its systematic undermining. When intelligent and fair-minded people look at what is happening in the world one cannot help but want to improve things, to smooth out conflict, keep commodity prices stable and supplies reliable, insure that people have enough to eat and clean water to drink, and so on.
Nations and other actors, in effort to improve the situation for themselves and sometimes for others, instead, make things worse. But why would anyone want, deliberately, to make things worse? No sane person would, and yet with the election of Donald Trump thanks in large part to the efforts of Steve Bannon that is precisely what is now happening. The government of the United States appears to be deliberately destabilizing the global system. Why this should be is a good question, one I hope here to answer.
To say the world situation today is precarious would surely not meet with much disagreement no matter which end of the political or social spectrum you happen to inhabit. Indeed one could argue that the world situation has been precarious for one reason or another throughout human history. But we are privileged to be living in a particularly dangerous time, and at root, population and energy access (the latter tied directly to the wealth disparity problem) are the main demographic and economic drivers of the problem. The world population continues to rise at a dangerous pace dividing the resource pie into ever smaller pieces. Yet rising populations, today all in Africa, South, and Central America are only part of the problem. In every continent other than the two just named, populations are aging and declining. Most of these are the more advanced industrial and post industrial societies on earth. Ironically, the social saftey nets for a growing cohort of elderly people in these places all depend implicitly on an also growing cohort of working age people to support them. One cannot of course have it both ways. Both cohorts cannot, together, grow indefinitely.
Dr. Kissinger’s book focuses mostly on nations. His aim is to rationalize foreign policy by, among other things, making us realize that not all nations are “like us” in wanting the same things for their peoples. He wants especially to hammer home this truth over the American tendency to idealize every international relation. Dr. Haass also recognize this fundamental difference in national interests and how their own governments view them, but he broadens his view of the pertinent actors to include non-governmental organizations both secular and religious, a role for cities, and regional resource issues: water scarcity, mineral and energy availability, climate change, and the wealth gap. Both authors address non-state-actor terrorism corroding international relations the present and future impact of technology, and changing world demographics.
Both men are, however, broadly on the same page. The trend over the last 40 years toward an integrated global economy is not enough by itself to smooth over the frictions of international relations, but it gives everyone a stake in the process of keeping the whole afloat. We cannot go backwards. First because we cannot return the world to the way it was as concerns populations, the distribution of industrial activity, and so on anyway. Too much has changed. Second, even a nuanced attempt to turn back the clock will result in huge economic dislocations everywhere and a general increase in everyone’s costs. In 1970 the “Chinese supply chain” feeding into American products hardly existed. Even if one could bring these sorts of jobs back into the United States, the people who hold the jobs in China, Vietnam, or Bangladesh (now hundreds of millions more of them than 50 years past) are not going to just go away.
What makes “The Devil’s Bargain” of interest here is that in the character of Steve Bannon is an agent bound and set to doing just this, dismantling the existing international economic system and not in any nuanced way either. Bannon wants to “burn it all down”. “Devil’s Bargain” is not a foreign policy or international affairs book like the first two. In today’s world there are people who understand that such policies will hurt millions and yet deliberately set out to do it. It illustrates how much damage can be done (it is only beginning) in a short time and how such damage degrades the prospects of many while enriching a few. A few chemicals properly mixed and put in the right place can bring down a bridge, building, or airplane. It turns out that a few people in powerful political positions, reinforcing one another’s desire to destroy those they hate, whether for petty revenge or self aggrandizement, can quickly unravel that which has (mostly) held our peace and economy together now for three generations.
What ties “Devil’s Bargain” in with the other two books is its illustration of the systematic undoing of what the first two authors take to be the only approach to maintaining peace and raising standards of living on a crowded planet. It is almost as if Bannon, reading Haass, decided to systematically do the opposite of his recommendations. Of course Bannon’s distaste for a global order in which the United States is not the sole power able to do what it wishes was settled long before Haass wrote his book. Trump was not Bannon’s first attempt to put in place a figurehead who would cater to his bigotry. He began with the “Tea Party” and Sarah Palin. But Trump proved to be the key to the political organization of the extreme right and Bannon knew an opportunity when he saw one. The book ends with Bannon’s firing less than a hundred days into the Trump administration. But Bannon chose well. Trump shares his various bigotries and did, after all, win the election. Trump is most surely continuing along a course that Bannon, if he did not set it in detail, still very much approves.
The philosophical angle here is postmodernism. “Devil’s Bargain” illustrates that lies can over power truth when a large political cohort believes that “the truth” is whatever they say it is. There is nothing historically new here. Hitler did very much the same thing as Bannon (Goebbels being “Hitler’s Bannon”) to win his election in 1932. Postmodernism may have been named in the latter part of the 20th century, but its roots go back as far as Pilate. But truth does matter. A global system built on lies cannot stand for long. We are witnessing now its accellerated destabilization. Most of us will not survive it.
A World in Disarray by Richard Haass 2017
Richard Haass did not reach the heights of power of a Henry Kissinger (World Order) but his work over several administrations at the State Department and other institutions, presently the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, give him as much exposure to the process of policy making and the demands of the international environment, if not the gravitas to have his ideas seriously considered, as the Secretary of State. Dr. Haass here writes from much experience. His view of the world situation is well nuanced, enough so that he knows there are problems in many places and on many levels. Some have no realistic hope of resolution any time soon.
In broad outline this book is like that of Dr. Kissinger’s. Dr. Haass begins with a broad review of how we got where we are beginning as so many of these books do with the Treaty of Westphalia in the mid 17th Century. But Haass quickly breaks things down into small chunks encompassing not only the world’s regions and nations in those regions but multiple factors cutting across those divisions. Culture, history, geography, technology, economics, identity politics, human migrations, income disparity, demographics, education, trade, and more are all examined singularly and with regard to their interacting impacts. Haass appears to understand both the central importance of the United States (the world’s largest single economic and military power), and the limits of even an “engaged America” on the trajectory of world affairs.
Dr. Kissinger made broad recommendations and so does Dr. Haass. In fact the two men are very much in line with one another broadly speaking. But Dr. Haass also makes numerous specific recommendations some going some way towards resolving issues, others merely managing the presently unresolveable. His recommendations are all thoughtfully helpful. Some are broad, some very narrow, all difficult to achieve in the present world. Haass’ politics appears to be a little more conservative than mine. On the subject of income disparity for example he says that [absurd] concentrations of wealth are not in themselves bad, the problem rather is that there are too many people with too little. It’s hard to argue with the last part, but for some reason he does not connect up the impossibility of spreading the wealth as long as so few individuals and corporations hoard (and he admits hide) most of it.
On the whole he and I agree, cooperation is, barring gross violations of human dignity, better than competition and conflict. His recommendations are mostly common sense. If any half of his recommendations were to be implemented I’m sure the world would be a better place. The chance that even some half of them will come to any fruition however is almost zero. Even before the election of Donald Trump. This book was published in January 2017 just prior to Trump’s inauguration. Even then, the global situation was deteriorating (had been for some years) with competition more and more coming to replace cooperation. My Kindle edition (not sure of the other formats) has, in addition an afterword written some ten months into Trump’s presidency. As Haass ticks off Trump’s policy implementations the reader cannot help but note that not only are things getting worse but now at an accelerated rate, and not only globally, but also inside the United States. Trump is undoing even that which, however imperfectly, was helpful prior to his election. With almost 9 billion people on the Earth, “globalism is not a choice, but a fact”. We will not survive without major conflict for much longer under the present global effort to dismantle it.
The book is a good and comprehensive take on what should be done, what must be done, and what America could do to stave off disaster. Not only are we not going in the right direction, we are very much deliberately going in the wrong one.
World Order by Henry Kissinger 2014
Surely there are few people in the world more qualified to write a book about geopolitics, present or historical, than Henry Kissinger. For a time of some 20 years he was directly involved in the decisions of American presidents on this very subject. Taking a broader view, Dr. Kissinger is involved in his subject (as I understand it even speaking to D. Trump since his election) even today and going back some 50 or more years!
Without being too long, the book surveys the history of historical political orders in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, South America and Europe both Eastern and Western. He pays particular attention to the European “Peace of Westphalia” following the 30-years war in 1648. There is a theme here. Though there have been many European wars (and revolutions) since the 17th century they all occurred in a Westphalian context. Sometimes the context is respected, and sometimes violated, but even in the latter case, the peace process following the wars has either returned to a Wesphalian context and been, at least for a substantial time, successful in preserving the peace, or it ignored and violated that context leading rapidly to another war. The Marshall Plan following WWII an example of a return to Westphalian principles also the preservation of the French State after the depredations of Napoleon. By contrast, in contravention of those principles, French and English retribution against Germany following WWI resulted rather rapidly in WWII.
Kissinger’s focus on Westphalia sets up the problems he sees with Europe’s and America’s relation to the rest of the world. From the Western vantage point we look out on a world of nation-states and think to ourselves that as different as Asia, the Middle East, and Sub-Saharan Africa might be, they all, in the end, want to preserve their statehood in relation to other states. One of Kissinger’s observations is that this is not at all the case. China for example sees itself as the premier culture on Earth and lives within the present Westphalian system of nations for reasons of practical accommodation. The Middle East, and by extension the whole of the Islamic World, sees itself as the only legitimate and righteous inheritor of the entire world order!
In Islam the Westphalian matrix is the most jumbled with nations like Saudi Arabia and Iran accommodating it for practical reasons, while others, particularly non-state actors, try actively to undermine it leaving thousands dead in their wake. Sub-Saharan Africa (with the exception of South Africa) is yet another story. The nations there are the result of recently (20th century) abandoned colonialism and though nominally nations, are riddled with leadership interested in little more than their own personal aggrandizement. Failed or failing states cannot participate coherently in such world order as presently exists let alone contribute to something better.
Kissinger’s first main point is that it is a mistake to continue treating with these nations AS IF they implicitly accepted the Westphalian context of nation states all “getting along”. This doesn’t mean we can stop working with these nations, but we have to be smarter about it and stop assuming they want merely to be like the Western world. Kissinger’s other main point is that technology, the global issues it has already wrought (climate change for example), and the issues that have yet to fully manifest (mostly related to computers and biology), are stressing the existing system to a degree unparalleled in history. One is left with the impression that it is already too late. The existing “world order” has already become too inflexible, its momentum too great, to apply, and ENFORCE, global solutions to global issues. Kissinger doesn’t say disaster is inevitable, but I do not see how any other conclusion is possible.
In roughly the middle of the book Kissinger spends some time on the global effect of U.S. foreign policy from Theodore Roosevelt to Barrack Obama. He makes a number of observations here about the difference between the historical U.S. approach to foreign policy versus European statecraft, and notes of course that the foreign policy pendulum in the United States has shifted from episodic engagement to continuous engagement following the second world war. The force of U.S. engagement is derived from both economic and military power and importantly our willingness to use the latter now and then, though as it turns out mostly with inconclusive results.
I notice he elides his own personal involvement in what might be termed “nations behaving badly” back in the 1970s and 1980s, but aside from this lacuna his point, his final point in the whole book, is that whatever else it does, the United States cannot now withdraw from the world order, even such as it is, without destabilizing everything! This book was written in 2014 the middle of Obama’s second term. I wonder what he thinks now?
Devil’s Bargain by Joshua Green 2017
This is a book about how and why Donald Trump won the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Primarily it all comes down to three people: Trump himself, his instincts regarding his base, Bob Mercer (and his daughter) and his money, and Steve Bannon, the central figure whose decades long ambition to see the United States rid itself of anything smacking of a global brotherhood of nations (not to mention a world at peace) manifest itself in all of his projects effectively harnessed to elect Donald Trump.
This is a book about Steve Bannon. There is a bit of biographical history, but nothing fully explains his turn to virulent nationalism made in his younger years. Events, like the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, that precipitated the turn yes, but many people were exposed to that and did not become xenophobes. Green gives us Bannon’s fascination with fringe 19th century philosophers coupled with wide reading of history. Bannon became the quintessential postmodernist man. No truth was worth preserving if it stood against a political victory for his views however intolerant and hurtful they might be.
Bannon had been acting on the far right political fringe long before he met Trump. In the early stages of the 2016 election cycle he wasn’t particularly a Trump fan. But he came to see Trump as the closest thing to a manifestation of his (Bannon) vision of an intolerant, isolated America, and as Bannon saw his opportunity he took it and carried it through. Evil people are not, after all, automatically dumb.
By the time the campaign really got going in early 2016, Bannon had four institutions under his control and/or guidance, all directed toward defeating Hillary Clinton and elevating Donald Trump. To be sure, Hillary was not the best Democrat to go against Trump. This had much to do with various corruption scandals (some legitimate, many made up by her haters since the 1990s) in which she and her husband were constantly embroiled. None of this would have mattered as much against any opponent other than Trump because the others would have distanced themselves from Bannon’s lies (every national politician has some corruption in their background somewhere) while Trump embraced and amplified them. No one other than Bannon realized how much a significant cohort of long-time Democrats disliked Hillary in particular.
Bannon had a four pillar strategy, all funded by Mercer money. First, Breitbart News, the pro-Trump propaganda machine. Second, the Government Accountability Institute, presided over by Peter Schweizer author of the devastating “Clinton Cash”. The GAI was Bannon’s anti-Clinton machine and to Bannon’s advantage there was real dirt to be found. Third was a film company Glittering Steel, a minor player in the drama, and the fourth Cambridge Analytica whose knowledge of tens of millions of racists and xenophobes, Trump’s base, fed exploitable data to the other three pillars. These four organizations together brought Hillary down, her own campaign utterly failing to realize how much anti-Clinton invective existed among democratic voters, with Comey’s revelation in the closing days of the campaign putting the final nail in her coffin.
Like Wolff’s “Fire and Fury” and Woodward’s “Fear”, “Devil’s Bargain” is a superb piece of investigative journalism. But it is more. It is a dissection of a political campaign achieving its ends mostly by ignoring truth and firing up tens of millions of Americans whose focus in life is to hate anyone who isn’t them. It details a strategy that has to be the envy of every autocrat on the planet.
4 thoughts on “Three Books on the World Order and its Undoing”