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Five books that explain the world

Five books that explain the world

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Every time I set out to visit a country in the NATO alliance when I was Supreme Allied Commander, I’d try to read a book that could help me understand the history, culture and zeitgeist of the place. It could be a novel by a native writer, a history or a work of historical fiction. Can you really understand France without reading Camus and Sartre? To comprehend Russia, including the mindset of Vladimir Putin, I’ve found more illumination in Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and above all Gogol than in most CIA reports, with all due respect to the agency.

So as 2020 ends, I want to offer five books that have helped me make sense of a confusing world in the past year.

Let’s start with a sweeping look at some of the most important global trends: “The New Map: Energy, Climate, and the Clash of Nations” by Pulitzer prize-winning analyst Daniel Yergin (disclosure: Dan is a colleague of mine at the private equity firm Carlyle Group). Yergin’s 1990 book about the oil industry, “The Prize,” is a standard text in most graduate schools of international relations. By the way, the world still depends on oil, gas and coal for 80% of its energy — roughly the same as it did when he wrote the book 30 years ago. But so much else has changed.

In “The New Map,” Yergin weaves geopolitics into his energy and climate analysis. Consider, for instance, his study of the Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea. In that massive body of water, we find vast deposits of oil and gas, close to 40% of the world’s shipping, warming water, overfishing, and increasingly dangerous military competition between the U.S. and China. Yergin lays out the need to shift to greener sources of energy, but points out how hard this is going to be — and how the competition (perhaps the conflict) between the U.S. and China will color the next two decades. This should be mandatory reading for President-elect Joe Biden’s incoming team.

A second powerful read is “The Missionaries,” a novel about Colombia by Phil Klay. A combat veteran, Klay won the 2014 National Book Award for “Redeployment,” a collection of short stories about the Iraq War, in which he participated as a U.S. marine. In “The Missionaries,” he sets his sights on the supposedly successful American intervention in Colombia over the past several decades. Having spent three years as head of Southern Command, in charge of U.S. support for the Colombian military, I can attest to the lethal accuracy of Klay’s depiction.

The novel portrays the ugly 50-year war against the FARC, a Marxist guerrilla group. It contrasts the views of a hardened, yet somehow naïve, American female journalist, an American contractor serving as liaison to the Colombian military, a couple of FARC insurgents, and a Colombian military officer. There are no clear winners here and, by the end, the reader is left to strongly question U.S. intervention. Was the point to create a cadre of true believers in the benefits of an interventionist foreign policy? This will be a central question for the new administration, and “The Missionaries” can help officials understand the costs involved.

Scott Anderson’s history about the founding of the CIA, “The Quiet Americans: Four CIA Spies at the Dawn of the Cold War — a Tragedy in Three Acts” is another important 2020 book. As we grapple with the direction of our country’s espionage efforts in this new era of great power competition, it pays to look back at how we undertook the same missions in communist times. Four fascinating characters, including the legendary Edward Lansdale, demonstrate both the successes and failures of the CIA’s early days. This is a book about finding a moral compass along with success in a vital mission, a balance that the U.S. has yet to achieve. The Biden administration will certainly wrestle with these challenges in traditional geopolitics and intelligence, as well as in the new frontiers of cyber, outer space and biotech.

Then there is veteran historian Margaret MacMillan’s broad look at conflict and the human spirit, “War: How Conflict Shaped Us.” Why has war been such a defining characteristic of human life on earth? Drawing on history, political theory, literature, anthropology, biology and a dozen other disciplines, MacMillan seeks to answer what in many ways is humanity’s existential question: Why are we so fascinated with killing one another at scale? And what does it cost us? A book like this may teach us how to essentially “reverse engineer” the phenomenon of war, and prevent more mayhem ahead. Let’s hope so.

Finally, because every book list should include a work of satire, I offer Christopher Buckley’s hilarious “Make Russia Great Again.” Buckley, the brilliant author of “Thank You for Smoking” and more than a dozen other fine novels, skewers the present administration with style. The book is ostensibly written by President Donald Trump’s seventh chief of staff (he’s actually getting close to that number), who remains improbably loyal to his ex-boss even as he writes from prison, serving time for his actions in the White House. Unlike the many unfunny Trump memoirs published this year, this novel had me laughing out loud and, by the end, shaking my head at what we’ve come to accept as normal. This book contains the answer to one of the few enduring Trump mysteries: Why does he continue to pander so remarkably to Vladimir Putin? Buckley’s answer is very funny. And after 2020, boy do we need a laugh.


James Stavridis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former supreme allied commander of NATO, and dean emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He is also an operating executive consultant at the Carlyle Group and chairs the board of counselors at McLarty Associates.


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