Out With The Old: New Books on Collusion, Civil War, Doomsday, and Other Happy Tidings

FP staffers learn how democracies die and why Mussolini wrote a bodice ripper.

Foreign Policy is back with another installment of book reviews, following those we did in the summer and fall. Ring in the new year with a peek at new titles on everything that’s going wrong and a few things that are going right.


Windfall: How the New Energy Abundance Upends Global Politics and Strengthens America’s Power — Meghan L. O’Sullivan (reviewed by Keith Johnson)

Kings and Presidents: Saudi Arabia and the United States Since FDR — Bruce Riedel (reviewed by Keith Johnson)

The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner — Daniel Ellsberg (reviewed by Sharon Weinberger)

How Democracies Die — Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt (reviewed by Dan De Luce)

Civil Wars: A History in Ideas — David Armitage (reviewed by Rhys Dubin)

The Infernal Library: On Dictators, the Books They Wrote, and Other Catastrophes of Literacy — Daniel Kalder (reviewed by Robbie Gramer)

Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money, and How Russia Helped Donald Trump Win — Luke Harding (reviewed by Elias Groll)

Women & Power: A Manifesto — Mary Beard (reviewed by Amie Ferris-Rotman)

Dinner at the Center of the Earth: A Novel — Nathan Englander (reviewed by Emily Tamkin)

Windfall: How the New Energy Abundance Upends Global Politics and Strengthens America’s Power

Meghan L. O’Sullivan, Simon & Schuster, 496 pp., $29.00, Sept. 12, 2017

Energy is one of the most important — but least understood — drivers of international affairs, notes Meghan L. O’Sullivan in Windfall, before setting out to make it a whole lot better understood.

If you haven’t followed every twist and turn in the American energy revolution over the last decade, Windfall is a great primer on the historic transformation of the United States from, as O’Sullivan puts it, “energy supplicant to an energy super producer.” And it is a trusty guide to all the ways in which energy (especially oil and natural gas) impacts international relations, for good and for bad.

O’Sullivan, who served several years in the George W. Bush administration as deputy national security advisor and is currently running the Geopolitics of Energy Project at the Harvard Kennedy School, is a good sherpa: She’s been across the table from many of the key players who populate the book, from Saudi princes to NATO chiefs to Russian oligarchs.

But what makes Windfall especially interesting is right there in the subtitle: It’s all about the American-made energy boom that has unleashed huge amounts of oil and gas in the last 10 years. The specter of energy scarcity, O’Sullivan notes, drove all sorts of tectonic shifts in the past, from the Japanese attack in 1941 to the OPEC oil embargo in 1973. What’s new this time around is that the era of energy abundance is redrawing the playing board.

That’s especially good news for the United States, she writes. The boom kickstarted economic recovery at home and has given it more strategic options overseas. Even more interesting are the second-order impacts of the new energy landscape.

The flood of U.S. energy has made natural gas, especially, a buyer’s market, weakening the power of energy suppliers like Russia. While Russia wants to find new markets in Asia, that’s tough to do as long as U.S. energy exports can flow there freely. Greater U.S. oil production makes it easier to implement tougher energy-sector sanctions, whether on Iran or Russia, without fears of strangling the global economy.

When it comes to China, O’Sullivan makes one very bold claim that may be harder to justify: The energy revolution, by making energy markets work better, is convincing China to abandon mercantilism in favor of the existing, market-based international order. While Beijing may have throttled back its overseas resource acquisitions in recent years, it’s not clear that it fully intends to become a responsible stakeholder and uphold, rather than blow up, the U.S.-designed international order.

Then again, it’s not clear the United States intends to hold up the international order, either. With a flood of recent titles focused on American decline or a world in disarray, Windfall is a refreshing and illuminating examination of one thing that’s going right. — Keith Johnson

Kings and Presidents: Saudi Arabia and the United States Since FDR

Bruce Riedel, Brookings Institution Press, 251 pp., $25.99, Nov. 21, 2017

Ever since Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ibn Saud met on a U.S. cruiser in the Suez Canal in the waning days of World War II to cement the basic bargain of the two countries’ relationship — basically, security for oil — it’s been, as Barack Obama once said, “complicated.”

It’s also hugely important, as Bruce Riedel notes in this brisk, engaging history, especially now that Saudi Arabia is undergoing significant political and economic upheaval and the broader Middle East continues to roil.

Kings and Presidents offers a quick and insightful tour through decades of ups and downs, from the oil embargo in the 1970s to Iran-Contra in the 1980s to the scars of the Arab Spring. Better yet, Riedel, a former CIA officer who advised several presidents, calls on years of U.S. government experience to pepper his story with plenty of firsthand recollections and anecdotes. (Lunch with then-Crown Prince Abdullah in 1988, Riedel writes, was a scene straight out of Dr. No, with the diners flanked by a 75-foot aquarium filled with sharks.)

The fundamental tension in the relationship, he writes, is that there really isn’t that much to bind an open, democratic society to a closed, intolerant monarchy. “Absent a bedrock of shared values, the alliance has always been defined primarily by shared threats and enemies,” Riedel writes. That was true then — and is certainly true today, as concern over Iran’s resurgence worries policymakers in Washington and Riyadh equally.

But that absence of shared values means that the relationship can quickly go south once a shared threat is dispatched. The high point of the relationship, Riedel says, was the 1990-1991 Gulf War and speedy U.S. defense of the kingdom, threatened by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The downside? That deeply unpopular decision to invite U.S. military forces inside Saudi Arabia galvanized many of the believers in extreme versions of Islam that Riyadh had spent years promoting. The violent blowback came just a decade later and reverberates to this day.

With the Middle East in turmoil, and the Iranian-Saudi rivalry gaining force, the U.S.-Saudi relationship will continue to be crucial, even though the recent U.S. energy boom makes Saudi oil itself less vital. And the book’s last chapter on Saudi Arabia’s uncertain future is worth the price alone.

“Superficially,” Riedel writes, “Saudi Arabia is a force for order in the region.… But in the long run, by trying to maintain an unsustainable order enforced by a police state, the Kingdom may, in fact, be a force for chaos.” — Keith Johnson

The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner

Daniel Ellsberg, Bloomsbury, 432 pp., $19.99, Dec. 5, 2017

Daniel Ellsberg’s latest book starts with a tease and a reveal. Imagine if, in addition to the Pentagon Papers, the world’s most famous leaker had stashed away another trove of secret documents — and that they far eclipsed the Vietnam-related cache in size and importance.

“The fact is,” Ellsberg writes in The Doomsday Machine, “that from the fall of 1969 to leaving the RAND Corporation in August 1970, I copied everything in the Top Secret safe in my office—of which the seven thousand pages of the Pentagon Papers were only a fraction.” Those additional pages included some of the nation’s most closely held secrets on the command and control of nuclear weapons. Ellsberg provides his own spoiler early on: It turns out that those documents, buried along a bluff in the town dump, were lost forever during a hurricane, leaving Ellsberg’s leak on the Vietnam War as his key legacy.

That doesn’t mean his new book isn’t worth reading. Ellsberg, pairing memories, personal notes, and documents released under the Freedom of Information Act with his sharp intellect and crisp prose, has a keen eye for the absurdity of the system that risked humanity’s existence for strategic advantage.

Among the book’s many frightening details is “Project Retro,” which allegedly involved securing a thousand rocket engines horizontal to the ground so that that their thrust would be opposite the Earth’s rotation. In case of a nuclear missile attack by the Soviet Union, the engines would be ignited in the hope of stopping the Earth’s rotation for a brief moment so that the attacking missiles would overfly their targets. Ellsberg, who recalled seeing the Air Force proposal in 1960, thought at first it was a joke. It turned out the idea, presumably never pursued, was deadly serious.

More than just a historical footnote, Project Retro’s craziness reflects what Ellsberg sees as the problem of the larger Doomsday Machine, which remains firmly in place more than 50 years after he snuck thousands of pages out of his classified safe.

“We are,” he writes, “in the grip of institutionalized madness.” — Sharon Weinberger

How Democracies Die

Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, Crown, 320 pp., $26.00, Jan. 16, 2018

Democracies are fragile creatures, requiring constant care and feeding. And they can perish without a shot being fired. Two Harvard University scholars, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, have spent their careers studying how democracies have unraveled, from Germany in the 1930s to Venezuela in the 2000s.

In How Democracies Die, they turn their sights to America and conclude that there is cause for alarm: The election of Donald Trump is merely a symptom of a deeper, decades-long deterioration of American politics and democratic norms.

Democracies, they find, often die from the actions of elected governments, not from tanks in the streets. In most cases since the end of the Cold War, authoritarians simply hijack democracy’s “referees” — courts, law enforcement, intelligence, tax, and regulatory agencies — to crush or silence opponents and then rewrite the rules of the game in their favor.

“The tragic paradox of the electoral route to authoritarianism is that democracy’s assassins use the very institutions of democracy — gradually, subtly, and even legally — to kill it,” they write.

Political polarization and the unrestrained exercise of legal authority are the two key killers, Levitsky and Ziblatt argue. The idea that political opponents are legitimate, and that governmental powers must be handled with restraint, is the glue that keeps a democracy intact. They warn that those unwritten customs have been steadily eroding in the United States: Trump’s election is simply a result of the poisonous “politics as warfare” ethos that has taken root since the 1980s and 1990s.

The authors offer a chilling diagnosis but few practical remedies, other than getting politicians to somehow transcend the partisan divide and build new coalitions. They also suggest that the Republican Party must be either reformed or refounded, which they admit is a tall order. America is attempting to succeed where others have failed. “Few societies in history have managed to be both multiracial and truly democratic,” they write.

In the meantime, a serious crisis, especially a major terrorist attack, could give Trump an opening to bolster his authority and restrict civil liberties.

“In our view,” they write, “this scenario represents the greatest danger facing American democracy today.” — Dan De Luce

Civil Wars: A History in Ideas

David Armitage, Alfred A. Knopf, 368 pp., $27.95, Feb. 7, 2017

Since the end of the Cold War, nearly all the world’s wars have been civil, and at any given time there are a score of intrastate conflicts going on. Yet our mental equipment to make sense of these conflicts is sorely lacking, laments Harvard University professor David Armitage in his masterful and enriching survey Civil Wars. Karl von Clausewitz, he notes, wrote On War, not On Civil War; the very notion itself is slippery, political, and fraught with danger.

“What, in short, is civil war?” Armitage asks as a prelude to a deeply satisfying intellectual journey from ancient Rome (no Greek stasis for him) to 17th- and 18th-century Europe to 19th-century America and then to civil war’s modern usage as a tool of politics, statecraft, and diplomacy.

Armitage tackles with evident relish the complex task of unpacking how the concept of civil war was constructed, used, and abused within each historical moment — with all sorts of uncomfortable echoes in today’s polarized political climate. Eighteenth-century Swiss thinker Emer de Vattel wrote about civil strife that “produces in the nation two independent parties, who consider each other as enemies, and acknowledge no common judge.” And endlessly trying to hash out who’s to blame is of little help. “Forgetting is the best defense against civil war,” said one Roman historian scarred by decades of factional fighting.

Few are asking for forgetting in the heated debate over Confederate statues in many American cities, and Armitage’s examination of the slippery semantics of civil war rings terribly true across the ages. “It’s easy to perform the conjugation,” he writes. “I am a revolutionary. You are a rebel. They are engaged in a civil war.”

The U.S. Civil War — or War of the Rebellion, or War Between the States, for labels matter greatly — still casts a dark shadow over American politics, of course. But politics is a natural venue for civil strife — perhaps the natural venue. Near the end of the book, Armitage returns to Clausewitz to invert his famous axiom: “Politics itself was always a form of civil war by other, less deadly means.” — Rhys Dubin

The Infernal Library: On Dictators, the Books They Wrote, and Other Catastrophes of Literacy

Daniel Kalder, Henry Holt and Co., 400 pp., $32.00, March 6, 2018

When they’re not bending the arc of history, dictators have a tendency to write. And they’re terrible at it. Doctrines, manifestos, autobiographies, memoirs, poetry, even romantic fiction — dictators have written them all. Sometimes, as with Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, the works outlive their authors to be picked apart by historians for years to come. More often, the rambling and incoherent works are deservedly tossed in the dustbin of history.

But what are we missing if we cast them aside? That’s what Daniel Kalder set out to discover in The Infernal Library. Kalder, a journalist who formerly wrote for the BBC and the Guardian, spent years reading the works of dictators, from Joseph Stalin’s Soviet manifestos to Benito Mussolini’s bodice-ripping romantic novel, The Cardinal’s Mistress, without overlooking Robert Mugabe’s “Prime Minister Addresses State Banquet in North Korea, Oct. 6, 1980,” which apparently was so riveting that it needed to be turned into a book.

It’s a Herculean task, but Kalder does tease out some fresh insights and analysis. Saddam Hussein’s clumsy attempt at romantic fiction, Zabiba and the King, arguably offers a better glimpse into the mind of the Iraqi leader than many of his speeches and nonfiction books. In Turkmenistan, the stranger-than-fiction rule of Saparmurat Niyazov was best exemplified in Ruhnama, his rambling, incoherent autobiography-turned-history-turned-spiritual guidance.

But if there’s a larger meaning or a common thread to be drawn out from all these works, Kalder doesn’t find it. He also spills plenty of ink recapping the already well-known lives of Stalin, Lenin, Hitler, and Mao Zedong, space better used for long-overdue literary analysis of lesser-known monsters such as Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), François “Papa Doc” Duvalier of Haiti, or António de Oliveira Salazar of Portugal.

Still, even if scattered, many insights are there — and seem all too relevant at a time when authoritarianism is on the upswing and terrible people keep writing (or getting ghost writers to write) terrible books.

“This is the danger of dictator books,” Kalder writes in the section on Mein Kampf. “They hide in plain sight, and their sheer awfulness makes it impossible to believe in their power to infiltrate and transform brains until it is much too late.” — Robbie Gramer

Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money, and How Russia Helped Donald Trump Win

Luke Harding, Vintage, 368 pp., $16.95, Nov. 16, 2017

There are two contradictory takeaways from Luke Harding’s fascinating new book. It either makes the strongest case yet that the Kremlin and Trump campaign operatives conspired to vault the former reality television host into the White House — or makes plain that even when all of Donald Trump’s many ties to Russia are tallied up, it’s not clear what they really add up to.

Collusion comes in a fever-dream moment in American politics, when the idea that the president could be a wholly controlled entity of the Kremlin remains an open question, and Harding’s book provides something of a pocket guide to a scandal that may yet eclipse Watergate. The reader meets Trump’s many loyal henchmen, learns of their deep ties to Russia and the former Soviet states, and how Trump traveled to the Soviet Union in the 1980s, a journey likely organized by the KGB.

A former Moscow correspondent for the Guardian, Harding knows these characters well, and he isn’t shy about the book’s central contention: that Trump’s ties to Russia and its underworld represent a fact pattern that any thinking adult would call “collusion.”

That claim should be taken skeptically, not least because the book is so heavily indebted to the so-called “Steele dossier,” a collection of raw intelligence reports produced by the former British spook Christopher Steele. The dossier contains the most scandalous — but unverified — allegations that the Kremlin has kompromat, or damaging information, on Trump. Harding builds his book around the dossier, and reading it can sometimes feel like a hall of mirrors: Do we really know what we think we know?

The book is at its best when it shines a light on Trump’s relationship with Deutsche Bank and on the German financial institution’s long and recent record of laundering money on behalf of Russian clients. Trump relied heavily on Deutsche for financing after other lenders abandoned him, but as Harding reveals, a cloak of secrecy surrounds the real estate mogul’s relationship with the bank.

The most intriguing questions about Trump and Deutsche, including how much money he really owes, remain unanswered. But they are a central part of Collusion’s biggest contribution: assembling in one place the astounding amount of evidence suggesting deep ties between Trump and Russia. Elias Groll

Women & Power: A Manifesto

Mary Beard, Liveright, 128 pp., $15.95, December 2017

At this moment of reckoning, Mary Beard’s latest book on women and power — and the former’s practical exclusion from the latter — could not be timelier.

Women and Power is compact and concise, the fruit of two lectures Beard delivered in London in 2014 and 2017, but packs a powerful punch. Drawing examples from the ancient world to today, Beard shows how women are shut out from the public realm and especially public speaking, which is kept as a male preserve. The relatively few women who venture into it are silenced and abused — something Beard is all too familiar with. In recent years, she has been on the receiving end of vicious, at times violently threatening, gender-specific trolling, mostly via Twitter.

“[R]ight where written evidence for Western culture starts, women’s voices are not being heard in the public sphere,” writes Beard, Britain’s preeminent classicist. Silencing women, she argues, is part and parcel of Western culture, ingrained for nearly 3,000 years. Just as Telemachus in the Odyssey told his mother, Penelope, to shut up after she aired an opinion or Penelope’s tongue is ripped out so she can’t speak of her rape, abuse today “is about keeping, or getting, women out of man’s talk.”

Beard is thorough, and her writing is energetic and compellingly peppered with her signature wry wit. Reading her manifesto, it is easy to get disheartened or downright furious. But Beard has a bold proposition to redefine the very nature of power, which will mean fewer men in leadership positions. She’s prepared for the uproar: “[S]ocial change always has its losers as well as its winners — I am happy to look those men in the eye.” — Amie Ferris-Rotman

Dinner at the Center of the Earth: A Novel

Nathan Englander, Alfred A. Knopf, 272 pp., $26.95, Sept. 5, 2017

There are few, if any, conflicts one can write about that are more likely to upset readers than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On both sides of the divide are people deeply entrenched in their views and deeply invested in viewing things — and people — in a certain way.

Fortunately, novelist Nathan Englander is not trying to please readers in Dinner at the Center of the Earth — he simply enchants them.

The book jumps back and forth from place to place and across the years but ultimately is about an American Jew who grows up to work as an Israeli spy and comes to see the situation rather differently than his employers intended — and who ends up giving information to the Palestinians.

It is not a story of seeing both sides. It is story of seeing every side. That of the Israeli government and intelligence agents; that of Palestinian people tired of seeing their people die; that of American Jews raised with the siren song of Israel (not unlike Englander himself, who lived there for a time); that of older people and younger people; and that of people so in love they no longer care for the particulars of geopolitics. And Englander treats each side — every side — with empathy and humanity.

It’s not timely and important now just because the conflict is as entrenched as it’s ever been. It’s important now because there is a need for more writing, fictional or otherwise, that looks at every side of this and other conflicts and sees the people there, imagines the lives they lead, and writes them with every inch of the humanity that they have — or are denied — off the page.

There is no shortage of hot takes and studied arguments and weighty tomes on Israel and Palestine. But there surely cannot be enough writing like what Englander gifts us in Dinner at the Center of the Earth. — Emily Tamkin

FP Staff