Books in Brief: The Latest Reads on the Financial Crisis, the Rwandan Genocide, and What It Means to Be a Nation
Also: Works on India’s rise, the history of U.S. trade politics, and social media’s role in modern conflicts.
Read Foreign Policy staffers’ reviews of recent releases on the political fallout of the global financial meltdown, the notion of nationhood, the history of U.S. trade politics, France’s role in the Rwandan genocide, India’s rise, and social media’s role in modern conflicts.
Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World
What do the 2008 financial crisis, the eurozone debt crisis, Brexit, and the election of U.S. President Donald Trump have in common? Quite a bit, it turns out.
In Crashed, Adam Tooze presents a grand unified theory of how we woke up to a world in seemingly headlong retreat from the liberal, democratic, free-trading, ever more prosperous globalized order the West broadly promised at the end of the Cold War. The key to it all? The devastating financial crisis of 2008.
“The political in ‘political economy’ demands to be taken seriously,” writes Tooze, who earlier chronicled the Nazi economy — for which he won the Wolfson History Prize — and the star-crossed emergence of the United States as the world’s economic superpower. That is to say, the global economy doesn’t run on autopilot, despite its vast web of international connections and rules and institutions. It runs on conscious political choices with concrete political consequences. And that’s what Europe and the United States are reaping now, Tooze explains.
Battered by the largest economic meltdown since the Great Depression, policymakers in Washington in 2008 and 2009 took aggressive emergency measures, including a big stimulus tax package and the Wall Street bailout. The banks and the global economy were saved, but the consequences included the birth of the Tea Party, the modern-day Republican Party, and, for that matter, the Bernie Bro phenomenon.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, economic conservatives in Germany and at the European Central Bank refused to take desperately needed corrective action to jump-start the spluttering eurozone economies for years. The delay created “one of the worst self-inflicted economic disasters on record,” Tooze writes. By forcing austerity on tens of millions of people, Europe’s financial and economic chiefs ensured the bankruptcy of centrist parties and the rise of far-left and far-right populist groups across the continent.
The results were dire: Hungary and Poland all but threw off liberal democracy. Spain flirted with the far-left, and Greece embraced it. Far-right parties surged in France, Germany, and the Netherlands. In Britain, a once-fringe Euroskeptic party harnessed xenophobia and nationalist longings to drive the country out of the European Union. In the United States, voters largely jettisoned establishment policies; candidates such as Donald Trump successfully tapped into wholesale frustration with the broken promises of a generation of globalization.
Tooze isn’t hopeful about the aftermath of the aftermath. The questions the world asked after the nightmare of 1914, when it stumbled into World War I, are in many cases the same it’s asking now. What caused this sudden earthquake? Is flawed global capitalism at fault? Is there any path back to order? “They are,” Tooze concludes, “the questions that haunt the great crises of modernity.” —Keith Johnson
Invisible Countries: Journeys to the Edge of Nationhood
What makes a country a country? And who gets to decide? Those questions are at the heart of Joshua Keating’s new book about places that are almost, but not quite, countries. Keating, a staff writer at Slate and a former Foreign Policy editor, has written a book as informative as it is readable and, yes, funny. Invisible Countries takes us to separatist, breakaway, and occupied territories — places such as Abkhazia in Georgia, Somaliland in Somalia, Iraqi Kurdistan, and Akwesasne, a Mohawk community that straddles the New York-Ontario border. Keating watches 12 teams participate in the little-known World Football Cup — an event like the World Cup but for countries that, as Keating explains, “don’t meet the threshold of statehood required for membership” of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), the International Olympic Committee, or the U.N. General Assembly. He gets a flat tire in Somaliland. The countries may be invisible to the untrained eye, but Keating sees them.
The author doesn’t champion any independence movements. That said, he does come across as sympathetic to some of their causes, as when he presents the Abkhaz claim that if the territory didn’t have certain political alignments (it opposes Georgia and is in bed with Russia), it would enjoy Western sympathy, as Kosovo does. He also rails against what he describes as the world’s indefensible refusal to recognize Somaliland. Still, he doesn’t necessarily think that creating new borders is a good idea.
But he has a point to make: Countries are made, not born, and it is worth thinking about how and why the ones the world recognizes came to be — and why those still teetering on the edge of nationhood are condemned to their liminal fate.
It’s a timely book. Separatist movements are roiling politics in Great Britain, Spain, and Iraq. Would-be states such as Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transnistria are kindling for broader geopolitical conflicts, especially between Russia and its neighbors.
And Keating makes a final point: The fact that the current world map has remained largely unchanged for the last quarter century is a historical anomaly. Just as the end of history was heralded prematurely, there’s no reason to think we’ve reached the end of country formation. All the more reason to think about how, and by whom, those borders get decided. —Emily Tamkin
The Wealth of a Nation: A History of Trade Politics in America
During the U.S. Civil War, in the midst of one of the country’s many protectionist benders, a man named Joseph Wharton successfully lobbied for high tariffs on imported nickel. It made sense for him: He owned the nation’s only working nickel mine. He also got Congress to mandate a new 5-cent coin so there’d be a market for his monopoly. But Wharton is perhaps best known for endowing the world’s first business school, to which he assigned a clear mission: “to advocate economic protectionism unequivocally,” writes C. Donald Johnson in The Wealth of a Nation.
Perhaps it’s due to a certain Wharton graduate that protectionism has stomped back so noisily into the center of American politics. Or perhaps it’s a national design flaw. After all, American colonists initially rebelled because of British mercantilism and then turned around and did the mother country one better by becoming masters of the tariff wall and government coddling of industry, nearly starting their own civil war decades ahead of schedule.
Johnson, who worked as a trade official in President Bill Clinton’s administration and then as a lawyer, set out to chronicle the central role trade politics have always played in the United States. He largely succeeds, bringing the historical debates to life with a cast of characters from Henry Clay to Cordell Hull, though at times he wades too deeply into the minutiae of congressional horse-trading and international trade talks.
From the outset, Johnson stresses, U.S. politics have been a variation on a theme. Economic nationalists such as Alexander Hamilton wanted high tariffs to shield certain domestic industries. Free traders warned that farmers and workers would end up paying the price of that protection. Time and again, most memorably with the infamous Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930, Republican Congresses gleefully ignored the cries of farmers, merchants, big exporters, and laborers and gave a few well-connected firms steep tariffs to hide behind. Now, thanks to expanded presidential trade authority, Republican presidents get to do the same thing.
With the Trump administration starting trade wars and bringing protectionism back, the book couldn’t be timelier. But then, as The Wealth of a Nation makes clear, the wonder isn’t that protectionism returned — it’s that free traders ever won a few rounds along the way. —Keith Johnson
Rwanda, la fin du silence (French)
In June 1994, Guillaume Ancel, a French Army captain fresh off a mission to Cambodia, was dispatched to Rwanda with the French Foreign Legion. He was to serve in Opération Turquoise, a French-led military operation under the mandate of the United Nations meant to protect civilians and displaced people as a genocide ripped the tiny country apart.
In simple, direct prose — a rarity among French writers — Ancel recounts how his unit was ordered to stop the advance of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a largely Tutsi military force fighting the murderous Hutu-led government. But in July 1994, the airstrikes he was coordinating were suddenly called off, and Ancel received another mission: to establish a humanitarian safe zone in territory not yet controlled by the RPF.
While maintaining this safe zone, the French stored weapons in shipping containers before sending them across the border to refugee camps in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), where forces loyal to Rwanda’s genocidal regime could obtain them. The French military also let Rwandan government troops and Hutu forces pass through the safe zone without fear of retribution, let alone any martial or judicial reckoning.
Rwanda, la fin du silence, not yet available in English, is an attempt to come to terms with what Ancel has called the French military’s “culture of silence” and its complicity in the Rwandan genocide. Late last year, the Rwandan government published a damning independent report alleging that French troops armed the Rwandan military in defiance of an arms embargo, provided it with training, and shielded it from reprisal until the end of the genocide.
Ancel uses the lens of personal experience to reconstruct an obscure part of France’s recent history. Most important, he puts it squarely in the context of a long tradition of official French lies and equivocation concerning its behavior in its former colonies. He traces that pattern back to France’s failure to recognize the human rights abuses it committed during the war in Algeria and a refusal at the highest levels of the government and military to give up the country’s colonial aspirations.
Our Time Has Come: How India Is Making Its Place in the World
It seems India has been about to take its place in the sun ever since independence. In the early 1950s, the country’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, said he sensed a “certain leadership is thrust upon India.” India’s first attempt to build a blue-water navy in the 1970s led many, at least inside the country, to herald its emergence as a great world power. And when it tested a nuclear weapon in 1974, India gatecrashed a very exclusive club.
But decades of closed-door economics, endemic poverty, and ambivalence about exercising military muscle always kept India from truly reaching great-power status — until, perhaps, now. Our Time Has Come is a sweeping analysis of India’s remarkable recent transformation into one of the world’s biggest economies and militaries and an increasingly confident player on the global stage.
Alyssa Ayres, a former State Department official now at the Council on Foreign Relations, spent decades tracking India, from a college study abroad program to her service in President Barack Obama’s administration. She ably charts the country’s emergence from the straitjacket of socialist policies, which helped breed a fetish for self-reliance and stifled Indian firms’ ability to compete in the global economy.
While there is still plenty left to do — labor market and land reform, for starters — India is finally unleashing the economic potential of its largely young population of 1.3 billion. “The long road from Nehru’s ‘socialistic pattern of society’ to [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi’s ‘business runs in my blood’ captures the epic scale of change in India,” Ayres writes.
That economic foundation is midwifing another equally important change for India: a chance to finally assume its “rightful place” in the world. China is a spur in more ways than one. Like China, India is seeking to revise a Western-dominated global order in institutions such as the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund, and the two countries are creating new institutions to supplant the old, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
But China’s eruption into India’s neighborhood — including increased border incursions in the north and especially a growing Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean — has pushed New Delhi to assume a more prominent security role and nudged it closer to Washington.
That doesn’t mean India and the United States are allies, or will be anytime soon, Ayres takes pains to stress. India may have formally shaken off its “nonaligned” stance of decades past, but it still cherishes its strategic autonomy — especially as it charts its newfound place in the world. —Keith Johnson
War in 140 Characters: How Social Media Is Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty-First Century
Many commentators these days like to proclaim that conventional military strategy is passé and war is now waged via smartphones and Facebook feeds. But what does that actually mean in practice? Journalist David Patrikarakos’s new book chronicles in granular detail exactly how social media has transformed the way that modern wars are fought. Pxatrikarakos argues that narrative war has become more important than physical war as a result of new technologies. Crucially, the spread of social media has brought about a “virtual mass enlistment” that gives civilians as much — and sometimes more — power as state propaganda machines. He is clear-eyed about this leveling of the playing field. “The state will always fight back,” he writes — and it has.
Patrikarakos goes to great lengths to show both sides of each conflict he covers. His chapter on Israel’s 2014 war against Hamas in Gaza, known as Operation Protective Edge, first brings us into the home of Farah Baker, a 16-year-old Twitter activist who became the voice of Gaza during the Israeli bombing campaign. We then follow the author into the inner sanctum of the Israel military and see how the defense establishment adjusted, slowly, to fighting a new enemy and a narrative war.
In Ukraine, Patrikarakos meets a middle-aged mother and former public relations executive who uses Facebook to source boots and body armor and then drives them to the front line in subzero temperatures. The author joins her there, under threat of artillery fire, as she delivers the supplies. On the other side of the battlefield, Russia’s state-sponsored trolls wage a concerted counterpropaganda effort. Rather than simply justifying its actions, Patrikarakos writes, the Kremlin’s online army aimed to flood the zone with conflicting information and “sow as much confusion as possible.”
Virtual mass enlistment can strike a blow at even technologically savvy states such as Russia. It was a group of obsessive internet sleuths who proved that a Russian-made missile likely shot down a Malaysia Airlines jet in Ukraine in 2014. What is most remarkable about this episode, he writes, is that “the Russian government was forced to publicly battle a group of mostly unpaid civilian volunteers … a battle that would have been both unnecessary and unthinkable just ten years ago.”
As Patrikarakos is well aware, the social media weapons described in War in 140 Characters may soon be out of date, just like the book’s title. (Twitter went to 280 characters soon after the book went to press.) But the profound questions this book raises about the future of warfare will remain relevant for years to come. —Sasha Polakow-Suransky
These reviews originally appeared in the April 2018 and July 2018 issues of Foreign Policy magazine.
Martin de Bourmont is a journalist based in Washington. He was formerly an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @MBourmont
Keith Johnson is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @KFJ_FP
Sasha Polakow-Suransky is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. He is the author of Go Back to Where You Came From: The Backlash Against Immigration and the Fate of Western Democracy and The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa. Twitter: @sasha_p_s
Emily Tamkin is the U.S. editor of the New Statesman and the author of The Influence of Soros, published July 2020. Twitter: @emilyctamkin