Review: Niall Ferguson, “Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe”

In Harpers, Rebecca Panovka recently reviewed the new novel from the writer Hanya Yanagihara, To Paradise. “There is a reason,” Panovka mused, “world-historical ruptures, like the one collectively experienced in the spring of 2020, tend to produce big, ambitious books…The task of the great pandemic novel, if such a thing were to exist, might be to start metabolizing the unprecedented disruptions caused by the COVID-19 response”. Let it suffice to say that Panovka found Yanagihara’s sally less than convincing.

On the other hand, Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe, the latest from multi-institutional historian Niall Ferguson, does earnestly make such a metabolic attempt. It appears the book was finished around October of last year for publication in the spring of this one. With his characteristic eye for scope, Ferguson attempts to formalize why societies throughout time and across space have struggled to deal with catastrophic occurrences – whatever that actually means. He marshals long traditions of writing in fields like economics, epidemiology, archaeology, etc etc to explore how gaps in our thinking or the unrestrained desires of elite classes or the fault in our stars lead us to bumble through disaster. Like I said, it’s a wide book.

The interested would be wise to recognize aforehand that Ferguson’s writing can be…self-aggrandizing. Part one of the introduction, “Confessions of a Superspreader,” is mostly an itinerary of Ferguson’s fantastic world-spanning travel – “I used to joke that the lecture circuit had turned me into an ‘international man of history,'” he sniffs. In that same introduction one can find a recounting of just how right he was about COVID-19 in the early days, a list of his impressive earlier books and their relevance to the book before you, details on his pandemic-induced flight from the Bay Area to “Montana” (the Bay Area’s general success in keeping COVID tame notwithstanding), and a rhetorical question asking “Why write history now, when the story is not yet over?” Why indeed.

Now I’m being overcruel; in truth, I find it hard not to admire Ferguson for precisely the panache he brings to history writing. His interview on Conversations with Tyler gave, I think, a good sense for the kind of Old World intellectual he really is, the type to talk about what AJP Taylor meant to him and to muse aloud about why the English let the Dutch come over and conquer them for free in 1688. Contemporary historians are of course rigorous researchers, doggedly devoted to unearthing minutiae of minutiae in the archives, albeit in service of arguments which seem perhaps to cleave away from their intellectual opponents’ stances less and less as time goes on. The book that won 2020’s Bancroft Prize, Andy Horowitz’s Katrina: A History 1915-2015, spends half its runtime describing the political career of the district attorney of Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, a place which has never contained more than 26,000 people.

Again I’m being overcruel – Katrina is an excellent book and the strange career of Leander Perez is a good and important story. Where Horowitz really excels, and where his book dovetails with Ferguson’s Doom is in its theory of catastrophic history. To Horowitz, the notion that Hurricane Katrina was some force majeure which caused great suffering for the residents of the Gulf Coast in 2005 and about which we all need to feel sorry is misguided. The catastrophe did not begin with a temporary intensification of windspeed in the western Atlantic ocean, nor did it end when the rains subsided and the Lower Ninth Ward could begin to drain. The catastrophe was human, and political, and tied up in the choices made by Louisianans and their leaders for a century hence. The catastrophe began with patterns of settlement encouraged by the GI Bill, and was hastened by the failure of the Army Corps to finish their plans for the seawalling of Lake Pontchartrain. It was only worsened when, in response to dramatic weather, St Bernard Parish closed the bridge to New Orleans, CNN claimed snipers and looting in the streets, and the Bush administration failed to provide relief for renters.

Ferguson realizes this essential insight as well, and as such his work investigates human responses to exogenous events. One of his strongest sections is a takedown of theories of cyclical history, which have been falling in and out of fashion since Giambattista Vico. Ferguson admires more the longue durée work of Jared Diamond, which doesn’t try to capture time until collapse as some regular function of a handful of civilizational variables; by contrast, it is useful to understand that common phenomena will enact common pressures on people no matter where or when they live. In our time, most historians will defer to climactic pressures as nudges towards catastrophe, but of course, history is always of its own time, and there’s no more reason to believe climate is the ultimate answer than any other pressure.

Another light for Ferguson is the nature of authority in crisis, and what he’d like to say about authority in our own time. Sir Keith Thomas’ Religion and the Decline of Magic is cited more than once and Ferguson suggests that where early modern religious institutions once chased away local magical superstitions, the “belief in science” mantra espoused during the pandemic, chiefly by well-meaning American liberals, may mark a return of magical thinking to modern mentalities.

So while Ferguson’s got a good head on his shoulders about all this, and manages to get the right potshots in against his pretender intellectual opponents, I find that Doom ultimately fails for lack of substance. Though it attempts a history of catastrophes, it ends up more like a literature review of intellectual traditions which might be applied to understanding catastrophe. He swings from big name to big name, one field to the other, summarizing their findings and asking the reader to go “Hmm!” but never brings the juice of historical evidence to bear on his broad theory. What’s more, it’s predictable – when he starts to discuss cognitive biases which might affect leaders in catastrophic scenarios, it’s easy enough to guess he’ll bring up Kahneman & Tversky, and indeed he does.

When history writing becomes more industrial than academic, as indeed it may have for Ferguson, I suppose it’s only fitting that one book or another will fall flat. Still, popular history, if nothing else, ought to delight and educate. Doom does neither. If you need to get caught up on the historiography of empire studies go grab this thing off your nearest shelf. Otherwise skip it.

Review: Daniel Immerwahr, “How to Hide an Empire”

In June of 1944, Dwight Eisenhower hesitated for cause of bad weather in crossing the English Channel and launching the Allied re-invasion of Nazi-controlled Europe.

In this he was following an example set some two millenia prior by Gaius Julius Caesar, at the time the scouring governor of Gaul, in both its Cis- and Transalpine flavors, and mighty Illyricum too.

In his own De Bello Gallico, Caesar described the approach to Britain:

When about eighty transports — enough, in his opinion, to carry two legions across — had been collected and concentrated, he distributed all the ships of war he had over between his quartermaster-general, lieutenant-generals, and commandants.​ To the total stated eighteen transports should be added, which were detained eight miles off by the wind, and prevented from entering the port of concentration;​ these he allotted to the cavalry…

These arrangements made, he caught a spell of fair weather for sailing, and weighed anchor about the third watch; he ordered the cavalry to proceed to the further harbour,​ embark, and follow him. They took somewhat too long to despatch the business; he himself reached Britain about the fourth hour of the day, and there beheld the armed forces of the enemy displayed on all the cliffs.​ Such was the nature of the ground, so steep the heights which banked the sea, that a missile could be hurled from the higher levels on to the shore. Thinking this place to be by no means suitable for disembarkation, he waited at anchor till the ninth hour for the rest of the flotilla to assemble there.

Julius Caesar, De Bello Gallico Book IV: 21-22

Twenty centuries of progress could not deliver Ike good forecasts for the twenty miles of sea between Dover and Calais, but they could deliver him something nearly as useful: live real-time computer-based messaging with the other top brass.

Daniel Immerwahr’s language here is neat: “Before the invasion of Normandy, George Marshall in Washington used a similar system to confer for more than an hour with Dwight Eisenhower in Europe, Douglas MacArthur in the Southwest Pacific, and John Deane in Moscow. The generals communicated by sending short typed messages, which appeared on a screen. In other words, they texted.”

Taken from George Raynor Thompson and Dixie R. Harris, The Signal Corps: The Outcome (Mid-1943 Through 1945). Office of the Chief of Military History, Washington DC: 1956.

This little contrivance is found in Immerwahr’s 2019 tour de force history, How to Hide a Nation, in the portion of the book devoted to what he refers to as “empire-killing technologies”. It’s one of the many striking anecdotes he marshals to build an alert and lively argument concerning US imperialism, its impacts on the colonized around the world, and the striking lack of impact left on mainland citizens.

Immerwahr’s book received all the praise it deserved; the New York Times called it a best book of 2019. My review, then, is not only late, but also redundant, because I feel similarly to the other, quicker (some might call them professional) reviewers. Still, I hope to bring out a few more interesting morsels from this very well-constructed book.

Hide an Empire succeeds because it is principally not about the actual land grabs with which most people are familiar from an AP US history course, neither Teddy Roosevelt carving up the decrepit Spanish Caribbean nor Seward’s folly.

No, Immerwahr did something bolder: he dared to bring us with him into the history of those new American lives and what the brutality of the 20th century visited upon them even as we mainlanders remained safe, two oceans away from the firestorm of it all.

How to Hide an Empire does what it says on the tin – it traces the capture of America’s overseas territories, their development (or lack thereof) in the period leading up to World War II, the wartime experience, and the twin processes of either decolonization or true mainland integration (via statehood) which followed the war.

It is important, I think, that Hide an Empire is not only concerned with the titular empire-hiding, which takes place in the imperial period, but also in the birth of the American empire and in the surprising new form of American hegemony developed after decolonization.

This fullness upgrades the work from “pretty good” to “great,” offering no-nonsense mechanical narratives of how wartime advances in science and technology “killed” the empire, or at least the need for the American government to administer a set of overseas territories directly.

Learning a bit of Immerwahr’s background reveals the seed of research around which the rest of the book coalesced pretty plainly. His academic career at Berkeley and then Northwestern has been made in intellectual history, and his “real historian” bonafides are unimpeachable – his first book, Thinking Small: The United States and the Lure of Community Development, won the Organization of American Historians’ 2016 award for best intellectual history.

That seed, then, must be somewhere in the tradition of American intellectual history, and indeed, some of the book’s most interesting and novel arguments come in the discussion of mapmaking and cartography in early-20th c. America. The introduction to the book is subtitled “Looking Beyond the Logo Map,” Immerwahr’s term for the cartographic depiction of the United States as merely the Lower 48, and a few chapters later he describes the impact of the successful end to the Spanish-American War on American cartography:

To McKinley…[there was] only one option: take the Philippines, ‘educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best for them, as our fellow-men for whom Christ also died.’ Resolute, he sent for the War Department’s cartographer…

The war with Spain gave rise to the only moment in US history when cartographers aggressively rejected the logo map. In its place they offered maps of the empire. Publishers, cashing in on empire fever, rushed to put out atlases showcasing the country’s new dimensions…

By 1900, such maps were common. They appeared as a matter of course in atlases, on classroom walls, in textbooks and at the front of the census report. Some showed the North american mainland surrounded by insets. Others showed the United States stretching out over the world from the Caribbean to the edge of China. Either way, the message was clear: the country had undergone a metamorphosis.

Immerwahr, How to Hide an Empire, p.74
United States of America, 1900. - David Rumsey Historical Map Collection
A map of the US, published by Rand McNally in 1904, showing the state of the country as of 1900.

This is clearly not hiding an empire – so what was? By the 1910s, once the glory of war had settled into the doldrums of occupation, the appeal of empire had vanished to the mainland audience – “a regrettable drunken binge,” in Immerwahr’s telling. First Filipino and then Puerto Rican nationalists admirably profiled in the book, like Emilio Aguinaldo and Pedro Albizu Campos, agitated militarily for independence from rule by Washington DC.

The war in the Philippines was brutal, ugly stuff, reportedly claiming more lives than the American Civil War and defying the best efforts of the nascent Roosevelt administration to bring about a swift end. “As [Aguinaldo] saw it, the point of guerrilla warfare was not to defeat the U.S. army…he hoped he might influence the 1900 presidential election.” That year’s Democratic party platform indeed called it a war of “criminal aggression,” thanks to the work of anti-imperialist activists no less prominent than Mark Twain.

As much of a push factor as the miseries of the Philippine War represented, anti-German sentiment which coalesced into a resurgence of white American nationalism pulled mainlanders away from any attachment greater than the purely imperial towards their colonies.

Woodrow Wilson declared Flag Day in 1916, just two weeks before the first offensive in the Battle of the Somme, and as Immerwahr points out, even if they’d wanted to, there wasn’t much for mainlanders in the old Stars and Stripes to celebrate about the empire:

Whereas British children were made to examine the world map [for Empire Day], U.S. children venerated the national flag, which had a star for each state but no symbol for territories.

If U.S. teachers had pulled out their maps, as many surely did, it’s not clear what they would have found on them. The ‘Greater United States’ maps in vogue a decade earlier were no doubt still hanging on some classroom walls, but by 1916 few such maps were being newly commissioned. Cartographers were returning to the old logo maps, showing only the states.

Immerwahr, p. 111-12

By this point, we’ve strayed from talk about cartography. The book does too, covering the exploits of the US in its colonies up to WW2 in the intervening period, but returns, just as Truman is unwinding the US’ territorial claims, to discuss map projections, the favorite of every devoted West Wing fan.

Pivoting from Sorkin to Immerwahr, we find the following:

In 1898 imperial expansion had inspired new maps. The 1940s wartime expansion yielded a similar burst of cartographic innovation. Writers tapped surprisingly deep reservoirs of feeling as they touched on the subject of map projections. The long-familiar Mercator map, which showed North America protected on both sides by enormous oceans, became an object of scorn. It had worked well enough in an age of east-and-west sail, but the editors of Life deemed it ‘a mental hazard’ in an age of aviation…

More popular was the ‘polar azimuthal projection’ perfected by the dean of wartime cartography, Richard Edes Harrison. It showed the continents huddled around the North Pole, a jarring angle of view that highlighted aviation routes and showed how dangerously close North America was to Germany’s European empire.

The map was an enormous hit, reprinted and copied frequently. Joseph Goebbels waved it in reporters’ faces as proof of the United States’ world-conquering ambitions. The U.S. Army ordered eighteen thousand copies, and the map became the basis for the United Nations logo, designed in 1945.

Immerwahr, pp. 221-22

While the history of cartography alone would make for a compelling read, there’s a lot more to this. In fact, the breadth of topics which Immerwahr manages to fold into his book on American imperialism in itself is startling and worth reading, let alone the actual content of those topics. This is purposeful; as he claims, the work is designed to be “perspectival, seeing a familiar history differently”.

As such, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! comes out of the history of the actual settlement of Oklahoma, especially the former Indian territory never honored. The celebrated architect Daniel Burnham, designer of the White City and author of the Plan of Chicago, is revealed to have had much greater success in American-era Manila, though many of his creations were sadly destroyed in the Philippine Campaign of WW2.

Burnham’s Plan for Manila

The late 19th-C. craze for guano islands on the Pacific drove the earliest urges of American settlement beyond the North American continent, but the pioneering work of Fritz Haber, who synthesized ammonia, made the acquisition of guano moot. For this Immerwahr calls him “arguably the single most consequential organism on the planet”.

More tragic is the story of Haber’s later career; the worthy scientific work of his wife, Clara, stalled while her husband canoodled with Albert Einstein and set up a new institute for further research. After that work led to the development of poison gas, the German military staff kept Haber on tap to supervise its first deployment on French troops at Ypres. After that war, Haber helped develop a new insecticide named Zyklon A, and which would later be redeveloped into Zyklon B, used in the gas chambers of the Holocaust.

“Clara’s relatives were among those who died in the camps,” Immerwahr writes, continuing, “Luckily, not all of them perished. Although Clara’s married name was Haber, she is today known by her maiden name, the name under which she defended her dissertation: Clara Immerwahr. Her cousin Max was my great-grandfather.”

After that rhetorical mic drop, the book tracks the story of medical practice in Puerto Rico, in what turns out to be a particularly piquant example of the perspectival thesis. All $4.1 billion of the money managed today by the Rockefeller Foundation for “improving lives and the planet” would never have been put to work if not for an an early imperial-era deworming campaign on the island. Bailey Ashford, the physician responsible for this life-saving campaign, was replaced in time by one Dr. Cornelius Rhoads as the main medical administrator on the island. Rhoads, by contrast, spent much of his time performing detestable medical experiments on unconsenting patients; racist and eugenicist private correspondence of his, discovered by housekeepers, helped stoke the flames of revolutionary Puerto Rican nationalism.

And yet while Ashford remained on Puerto Rico for love of the island, Rhoads went on to become director of Memorial Hospital in New York, then head of the medical division of the Army’s Chemical Warfare Service, for which he received the Legion of Honor. He ended his career as the director of Sloan-Kettering, and the American Association for Cancer Research later established an award for promising young doctors in his name.

“But so complete,” Immerwahr notes, “was the informational segregation between Puerto Rico and the mainland that the prize was given for thirty-three years before anyone objected…Even the donor who’d funded the award hadn’t known of Rhoads’ Puerto Rican legacy. And that’s how you hide an empire.”

I really can’t say enough about this book; if you’ve followed along to this point just go out and read it.

Notes Towards a Biography of Martin Van Buren

I’m in the middle of the rightly much-lauded How to Hide an Empire by Daniel Immerwahr – expect a review shortly. Importantly, although Immerwahr has unimpeachable credentials when it comes to academic history, Hide an Empire is not meant to overturn our understanding of belle-epoque American imperialism; it’s a popular work, briskly written, with at least a few passages that have made me gasp out loud. It’s great! And it has got me fiddling with my own American history passion project, a biography of our 8th president, Martin Van Buren.

I came to be fascinated with Van Buren from the facts of his childhood. Born Maarten Van Buren in Kinderhook, NY, he spent many years before speaking a word of English, the only president so far to pick up the language later in life. He singlehandedly reinvigorated partisan politics in the Monroe administration and schmoozed his way to the top job through decades of party politics. Other salient interesting features include:

  • His ancestors left Holland amid the Dutch Golden Age and came to be part of a large section of Dutch families in New York, whose impact is of course endemic throughout the city and state
  • He was the first one-termer not named Adams, and played dirty politics following his 1840 defeat with presidential nominations
  • Between him and George HW Bush, no vice president would take over the reins from his termed-out predecessor
  • The Panic of 1837 began barely 60 days into his administration, an economic crisis without parallel until the Great Depression
  • His vice president, Richard Mentor Johnson, was the only one elected under the provisions of the 12th Amendment
  • His foreign policy had to deal with Indian wars, Mormon wars, Upper and Lower Canadian wars, the Amistad, and Texas
  • As regards slavery, he was in modern eyes, “on the right side of history”. He lived until 1862 and strongly backed Lincoln’s efforts to persecute the war against the South

&c., &c. Anyway, if there are any desirous publishers out there, please don’t hesitate to send me over a wad of cash. You’ll get a nicely padded biography for your efforts. I can’t promise it’ll become a best-seller, but I am very interested to pursue it!

Review: Peter Zeihan, “Disunited Nations”

If geopolitics ever found itself in need of a fabulist, it could do worse than to give Peter Zeihan a call. To be fair, geopolitics today does need a fabulist – one of the wittier passages in Zeihan’s recent book, Disunited Nations: The Scramble for Power in an Ungoverned World, concerns the moment in 1990 or so when all notions of narrative were left by the wayside:

With the Soviet fall, American president George HW Bush sensed history calling. He used his unprecedented popularity in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall and victory in the First Iraq War to launch a national conversation on what’s next. What do the American people want out of this new world? He openly discussed a New World Order, his personal goal being a ‘thousand points of light,’ a community of free nations striving to better the human condition in ways heretofore unimaginable. Bush’s background – he had previously served as vice president, budget chief, party chief, ambassador, House representative, and intelligence guru – made him the right person with the right skill set and the right connections and the right disposition in the right place in the right job at the right time.
So of course the Americans voted him out of office, and all serious talk of moving the Order onto newer footing for the new age, more relevant for the challenges and opportunities of the post-Cold War era, ceased.

Peter Zeihan, Disunited Nations, p. 14

Since that magical moment when the Wall fell, Zeihan argues, geopolitical thinking has cast about fruitlessly for a new framework to latch onto, foisting Thucydidean notions of rise and decline onto China and America, Iran and Saudi Arabia, Germany and Turkey. This, he holds, is foolish. “The Americans have changed their mind about their alliance and have turned sharply more insular,” he notes [emphasis original], contrasting the post-Soviet era to the period of hyperpower competition. The impact this disengagement will have is scarcely visible, yet of the utmost importance: “Without the global security the Americans guaranteed, global trade and global energy flows cannot continue.”

From this launching point Zeihan develops a global theory of novel national competition, assessing and assigning winners and losers country-by-country. His analysis is anchored in a startlingly broad reading of history and geography. Among his most admirable guiding notions is the one given above, namely that freedom of the seas eliminated the previously insuperable problems of food and energy security. Relieving these pressures enabled population growth in the Hejaz, economic integration in southeastern Brazil, and industrialization on the Pearl River Delta. Once the American guarantee is withdrawn, however, the fight for basic provisions will drive great powers to the brink.

Among the best determinants of success in a newly competitive world will be demographics, and Zeihan deftly weaves throughout an analysis of age and sex distributions to explain who will rise and who will fall. Another major factor is the degree of industrialization. The most industrialized countries with the healthiest demographic balances (lowest dependency ratio), Zeihan forecasts, will be the best equipped to handle the return of national competition. The final components of the success function are concerned with resource endowment and geography: proven reserves of oil and gas, fertile soil and navigable inland waterways all propel nations up his list. Most dramatically, a full reckoning of these factors leads Zeihan to anticipate a total breakdown of China as we know it.

Even as things stand today, Zeihan begins, China is militarily constrained by the First Island Chain, the set of landmasses including the Sakhalin Peninsula, the Japanese home islands, Okinawa, Taiwan, the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, and the Philippines. In the early modern period, following the pioneering missions of Zheng He, this geography was hostile enough to turn imperial China entirely inward, forestalling the development of a major ocean-going naval tradition.

China's Vision of Its Seascape: The First Island Chain and Chinese Seapower  - Yoshihara - 2012 - Asian Politics & Policy - Wiley Online Library
From Yoshihara, T. (2012), China’s Vision of Its Seascape: The First Island Chain and Chinese Seapower. Asian Politics & Policy, 4: 293-314.

Many of those conditions prevail today, preventing the Chinese from projecting force away from their eastern seaboard. Their contemporary attempts at the development of a large navy are mostly laughable, Zeihan assesses:

China is utterly incapable of shooting its way to resource security or export markets or a diversified domestic economy. Just as important, the country on the receiving end would not be the United States. The Americans are out of reach, and even a mild American counteraction against Chinese interests would utterly wreck everything that makes contemporary China functional.

Zeihan, p. 126

This is an old argument which holds up well – I myself was first taught it by Arthur Waldron at Penn. John Foster Dulles advanced it in the fifties.

Turn the clock forward past the end of the American guarantee, however, and Zeihan figures we’ll bear witness to the emergence of a new Warring States Period. He writes,

If the almost magical confluence of factors that enabled China’s rise shifts out of alignment, China will suffer a cataclysmic flameout every bit as impressive as its rise to power. And since those factors were always and still remain beyond China’s control, the question isn’t if, but when.

Zeihan, p. 103

China, he finds, simply got too old before it became sufficiently rich. “Demographically, China is in a state of not-so-slow-motion collapse,” he says. This, too, is an old and well-studied fear. What’s more, its riches are predicated on freedom of the seas and hyperglobalized capitalism, which will be the first casualties of the removal of the American guarantee. He even finds the potential for breakaway regionalism in Sichuan, in Tibet, in Xinjiang, and in Guangdong, leveraging arguments I found novel about the hushed-up discovery of oil in the Sichuan Basin.

BP, China's Top Producer to Develop Unconventional NatGas in Sichuan Basin  - Natural Gas Intelligence
Oil and gas in mainland China. Some attention is devoted to those deposits south of the Yangtze.

None of this is totally objectionable, even if it is sensationalistic. His bear China case counters some of the more pearl-clutching fussiness which has come out of intelligentsia publications like the London Review of Books of late. Zeihan’s other predictions, however, may beggar belief.

Sclerotic old Japan, he thinks, will prosper as the new East Asian hegemon. The Middle East from Tabriz to Kuwait is merely Turkey’s for the taking. Germany and Russia will enter a new period of intense and potentially hot conflict, leaving France to rule the rest of the continent, the Mediterranean, and West Africa. Brazil has peaked, as has Saudi. The real cheap buy is Argentina, which he bizarrely claims has “had a couple of decades to re-consolidate internally”.

Notably absent from this analysis are the minor states of India, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Australia. The utter blindness with respect to South and Southeast Asia is the book’s most obvious flaw. The reader is left to conjecture that, under Zeihan’s hypothetical assumptions, these countries devolve into mere poverty and irrelevancy, but it would be nice to see a mention thereof.

The next most obvious flaw comes out in Zeihan’s style, which I can only at the best of times describe as colorful. He is callous in reference to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, writing, “There is good reason Japan had to be nuked to be forced into surrender.”

He seems to delight in what will become of the Persian Gulf once the Saudis are left to fend for themselves against the Iranians and others, an arrangement which he holds as “the geopolitics of arson”: “In a straight-up land war, a coalition of the kids from Stranger Things and It would rip [the Saudis] apart…”

Discussing relations across the English Channel in the era to come, he writes, “Yet Britain is an experienced sea power that can apply diplomatic, economic, financial, and military pressure nearly anywhere it wants without fear of reprisal—and it has centuries of experience applying that pressure to Europe. Payback’s a bitch.”

He compares the governance of the Chinese Communist Party to “watching a game of drunken giant jenga,” and offers in this manner an assessment of China as a whole: “China fails on all counts. Allow me to detail the full unfurling fucking disaster.”

There’s no problem with a good dose of levity in world affairs: comparing the spending habits of the Greek economy pre-crisis to those of “a Saudi prince on Instagram” is well put. But prudence dictates restraint when discussing the Fat Boy and Little Man, and after 400 pages, his juvenile style grates even on the ears of your Twitter-obsessed reviewer.

Zeihan’s editors are also guilty of missing errors, both typographical and historical in nature. The most offending comes in one of Zeihan’s assertions regarding Turkish strength, which he explains through a kind of geographical impregnability. Couching this in the history of navigation, he writes,

Well-positioned locations that could also offer some semblance of security and shelter became crossroads. And Istanbul was the ultimate example of a secure crossroads…The city has fallen to hostile forces only twice in the past thousand years – once when the Crusaders sacked it in 1204, practically burning it to the ground, and again when the Turks conquered it somewhat more gently in 1453.

Zeihan, p. 267-9

This is incorrect: from 1918 to 1923, amid the end of the First World War and the raging of the Greco-Turkish War, the Entente held Constantinople. The Greeks, aided by the British, captured substantially all of eastern Anatolia, pushing the Turks to Ankara, which is where their capital remains today.

British forces at Karaköy port in 1919.

Other errors seem borne less of inaccuracy and more of an inadequately deep interpretation. About Germany, Zeihan writes, “For a point of reference, the whole Karl Marx and world wars thing was part and parcel of the German industrialization experience.” This is a minor beef, but Karl Marx did not live in Germany after 1849, when he was only about 30, and much of his writing was done in London.

About continuity, he writes, “The French have arguably the longest tradition of operating as a cohesive culture vis-à-vis their location of any people on Earth,” a statement I imagine would go unappreciated by the people of Tamil Nadu or the Yangtze River basin.

Zeihan commits a more lacunary error in discussing the Turks of the early modern period when he writes,

The sprawling [Turkish] empire became the largest on Earth of its time, and if a European coalition had not stopped the Turks at the gates of Vienna during the Ottoman siege of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, one power would have dominated all of Europe and all of the Middle East.

Zeihan, p. 269

I am as big a fan of Eugene of Savoy as the next guy, but especially given Zeihan’s focus on seapower, it’s surprising that the spotlight is given to Vienna and not Lepanto here, where in 1571 the Venetians at the height of their power began the rollback of Turkish Mediterranean gains.

The Battle of Lepanto by Paolo Veronese.jpeg
Veronese’s The Battle of Lepanto. Clearly he thought it was a big deal.

The typographical error I noticed is also minor, but funny to report: the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul is referred to as Mato Grosso do Sol, which I suppose should cheer the sunny dispositions of all two and a half million Sul-mato-grossenses.

A number of books I’ve read recently have engaged with many of the same issues. The human cost of the failure of marginal lands was a thrilling study in Geoff Parker’s Global Crisis. The national world tour made Gaston Dorren’s lively and lovely Babel a great read. The notion of the American guarantee as critical to geopolitical harmony is a core undercurrent of Adam Tooze’s magisterial The Deluge, while cool-headed reckoning with the fortunes and vagaries of demography was among the many strengths of Doug Saunders’ Maximum Canada. And lastly, the place of pride given to an analysis of international shipping was a powerful component of Pettis and Klein’s argument in Trade Wars Are Class Wars. That one book should fold all these elements in together is worthy of praise. More praise ought be given for the stance taken against the literature of the Thucydides Trap, exemplified by Graham Allison’s recent blockbuster Destined for War, to which Disunited Nations is most directly responding. Zeihan’s efforts help put those rather antiquated notions to bed.

And sometimes Zeihan can poignantly hit the nail on the head. He fits the word “thalassocracy” into a discussion of resurgent Japanese militarism. Reading contemporary French race relations against the American system, he writes,

In many ways, the French system takes the two types of racism most prevalent in the United States and applies the worst of both. In the American South, racism takes the form of, ‘We will mingle, but we are not equal.’ In the American North, it is in the vein of, ‘We are equal, but we will not mingle.’ In France, the targets of racism are out of sight and out of mind, consigned to ghettos and at the back of the line as regards government services.

Zeihan, p. 217

But in the end, this book is a mess. Zeihan is a writer who privileges animation at the cost of sober study, whose search after contrarianism yields unsupportable conclusions. I found it revealing that the first person named in his acknowledgements is a hedge fund manager. (I won’t mention just how silly it is to write “…there are very few direct [footnotes] in this book…if I cited every obliquely contributing thought, each page would have a book’s worth of citations.”)

While I’m sure the people of NMS Capital are smart as they come, hedge funders are structurally contrarian – there’d be no reason for their clients to pay them fees otherwise. This kind of thinking is well applied to small-scale medium-term subjects, like looking for mispricings in sovereign debt curves, but less so in the evolution of literally planetwide systems. I’ll applaud Peter Zeihan for attempting to handicap a future radically different from the boring fare on usual offer at Foreign Affairs and The Economist, but bold attempts do not great books automatically make.

Selections from Toni Morrison, “Jazz”

Get it here:

This notion of rest, it’s attractive to her, but I don’t think she would like it. They are all like that, these women. Waiting for the ease, the space that need not be filled with anything other than the drift of their own thoughts. But they wouldn’t like it. They are busy and thinking of ways to be busier because such a space of nothing pressing to do would knock them down. No fields of cowslips will rush into that opening, nor mornings free of flies and heat when the light is shy. No. Not at all. They fill their mind and hands with soap and repair and dicey confrontations because what is waiting for them, in a suddenly idle moment, is the seep of rage. Molten. Thick and slow-moving. Mindful and particular about what in its path it chooses to bury. Or else, into a beat of time, and sideways under their breasts, slips a sorrow they don’t know where from. A neighbor returns the spool of thread she borrowed, and not just the thread, but the extra-long needle too, and both of them stand in the door frame a moment while the borrower repeats for the lender a funny conversation she had with the woman on the floor below; it is funny and they laugh – one loudly while holding her forehead, the other hard enough to hurt her stomach. The lender closes the door, and later, still smiling, touches the lapel of her sweater to her eye to wipe traces of the laughter away then drops to the arm of the sofa the tears coming so fast she needs two hands to catch them.

p. 16-17

That Violet should not have let the parrot go. He forgot how to fly and just trembled on the sill, but when she ran home from the funeral, having been literally thrown out by the hard-handed boys and the frowning men, “I love you” was exactly what neither she nor that Violet could bear to hear. She tried not to look at him as she paced the rooms, but the parrot saw her and squeaked a weak “Love you” through the pane…

At two in the morning, again at four, she made the trip, peered out into the dark street, solitary except for a pair of police and cats peeing in the snow. The parrot, shivering and barely turning his green and blond head, told her each time, “Love you.”

“Get away,” she told him. “Go on off somewhere!”

The second morning he had. All she saw, down in the cellar well beneath the stoop, was a light yellow feather with a tip of green. And she had never named him. Had called him “my parrot” all these years. “My parrot.” “Love you.” “Love you.” Did the dogs get him? Did some night-walking man snatch him up and take him to a house that did not feature mirrors or keep a supply of ginger cookies for him? Or did he get the message – that she said, “My parrot” and he said, “Love you,” and she had never said it back or even taken the trouble to name him – and manage somehow to fly away on wings that had not soared for six years. Wings grown stiff from disuse and dull in the bulb light of an apartment with no view to speak of.

p. 92-93

If she should rise up and claw him it would satisfy him even more and confirm True Belle’s warning about the man who saved the rattler, nursed the rattler, fed the rattler only to discover that the last piece of information he would have on earth was the irrevocable nature of the rattler.

p. 155

Only now, he thought, now that I know I have a father, do I feel his absence: the place where he should have been and was not. Before, I thought everybody was one-armed, like me. Now I feel the surgery. The crunch of bone when it is sundered, the sliced flesh and the tubes of blood cut through, shocking the bloodrun and disturbing the nerves. They dangle and writhe. Singing pain. Waking me with the sound of itself, thrumming when I sleep so deeply it strangles my dreams away. There is nothing for it but to go away from where he is not to where he used to be and might be still. Let the dangle and the writhe see what it is missing; let the pain sing to the dirty where he stepped in the place where he used to be and might be still. I am not going to be healed, or to find the arm that was removed from me. I am going to freshen the pain, point it, so we both know what it is for.

p. 158

What I’ve Been Reading

  • Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities
    • Wonderful, erudite, full of such funny tags: the triunity of Ecclesiastical Latin, Koranic Arabic, and Examination Chinese as the pillars of the religious-hierarchical pre-modern world; the importance of SE Asian history – the Malay states, colonial Philippines; the ways in which colonial social hierarchies molded individual careers eventually creating something like nationalist thought; the slow cooptation of nationalism by the ruling classes, particularly in Russia, which was unnatural, of a type; role of primary education for holding up other international models of nationalism to post-colonial activists in Africa; etc etc etc 
  • James Verini, They Will Have to Die Now
    • Quirky little read – too much unjustified Assyriology, fun as it was. War reporting somewhat lackluster. Seemed as though he really only had three or four sources, and couldn’t speak Arabic himself, so what gives? Certainly the guy was fearless. 
  • Tom Nicholas, VC: An American History
    • Dark horse candidate for coming in above expectations! Lots more good unpacking of historical anecdotes. Big problem – no evidence of any import to the historical episodes he brings up – did anyone learn or carry anything from the whaling industry which was important for later VC?
  • Julia Lovell, Maoism: A Global History
    • So so good! So much weird Mao, so much good Indonesian history (last bit I just read). She’s phenomenal. Mao making Khrushchev swim for meetings, history of brainwashing and later torture, Sukarno as the human lynchpin, international responses to Red Star over China.