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All reviews in alphabetical order by title


  • "Age Of Discovery"
  • "The Age Of The Strongman"
  • "The Audacity Of Hope"
  • "Beyond A Fringe"
  • "Black Wave"
  • "Border Wars"
  • "The Changing Face Of China: From Mao To Market"
  • "Counterknowledge"
  • "The Crisis Of Islam"
  • "Culture Smart! Colombia"
  • "The Cyprus Problem"
  • "Don't Get Fooled Again"
  • "Globalisation And Its Discontents"
  • "Hard Choices"
  • "How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered The World"
  • "Jews Don't Count"
  • "Jihad vs McWorld"
  • "A Journey"
  • "Kenya: Between Hope And Despair, 1963-2011"
  • "The Kurdish Spring: A New Map Of The Middle East"
  • "The Long Game"
  • "Mexico: What Everyone Needs To Know"
  • "Murder In Samarkand"
  • "The No Nonsense Guide To Globalisation"
  • "North Korea: State Of Paranoia"
  • "The Other"
  • "People Who Live In The Dark"
  • "The Power Of Geography"
  • "Prisoners Of Geography"
  • "A Promised Land"
  • "Seven Ways To Change The World"
  • "The Spirit Level"
  • "Stepping On White Corns"
  • "The Storm"
  • "Taliban"
  • "Ten Lessons For A Post-Pandemic World"
  • "This Divided Island"
  • "Time To Start Thinking"
  • "21 Lessons For The 21st Century"
  • "When China Rules The World"
  • "Why Do People Hate America?"
  • "Why I'm No Longer Talking To White People About Race"
  • "Zone Of Crisis: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran And Iraq"

  • "Age Of Discovery" by Ian Goldin & Chris Kutarna (2016)

    This impressive and inspiring work is sub-titled ""Navigating The Risks And Rewards Of Our New Renaissance". The theme of the book is that, since around 1990, we have been living in a time which is in effect a New Renaissance and we should learn some of the lessons from the original Renaissance of 1450-1550. In the introductory chapter, the authors write: “For the first time ever, the number of poor people in the world has plummeted (by over one billion people since 1990) and the overall population has swelled (by some two billion) at the same time. Scientists alive today outnumber all scientists who ever lived up to 1980, and – in part thanks to them – average life expectancy has risen more in the past fifty years than in the previous 1,000.”

    Goldin & Kutarna, both academics at Oxford University, set the scene by examining how, both in the original Renaissance and now, trade, finance, technology and people have brought the word together and argue that today we are not so much "connected" as "entangled". They point out that "One in every four dollars earned worldwide now comes from selling merchandise to other countries" and that the value of that merchandise has risen between 1990-2014 by over 500%. Over the same period, real per capita income rose in 146 of the 166 countries and territories for which data is available. In a balanced assessment of global trends, they acknowledge that nearly one billion people still live on under $2 per day but, detailing increases in incomes, life expectancy and literacy plus the improving status of women, they insist that "for more people in more places than ever before, now is the best time to be alive".

    So why are - especially in the developed world - so many people so downbeat about their lives? The authors point out that: "The media we consume tends to under-report and obscure the broad positive shifts that underlie the present age. These shifts - to new heights of human health, wealth, education, and entanglement - are slow-moving relative to our favourite television dramas and they're expressed in statistics instead of celebrity tweets."

    The final chapter of this book, with its unusual span of history, geography, politics, economics, science and art, contains a kind of mini-manifesto for how we can best develop the positive trends in the New Renaissance at a global level.

    Goldin & Kutarna advocate a shift to more progressive taxes and the closing of tax loopholes, the use of taxes to discourage public bads like congestion and pollution, the removal of perverse energy and agricultural subsidies, and a rise in inheritance taxes. They argue that we should upgrade overburdened nodes in public infrastructure such as power grids, help poorer countries to strengthen their public health systems, put in place carbon taxes to discourage fossil fuel use and slow climate change, and invest heavily in the world's poor and young so that they can take part in the global gains being made around them. Sounds good to me. More controversially, they recommend: "We should aggressively liberalize migration, which would reinvigorate aging advanced economies and increase the positive spillover of rich world incomes, knowledge, skills and institutions to the poor."

    "The Age Of The Strongman" by Gideon Rachman (2022)

    Rachman is the chief foreign affairs columnist for the British newspaper the "Financial Times". He has written a well-researched, immensely informative, very readable and - at least for my liberal sensibilities - insightful and balanced review of the rise over the past two decades of a series of political figures whom he calls the strongmen but who - at least in countries with elections - could be called populist or nationalist politicians.

    Who are they? The main individuals profiled are Vladimir Putin of Russia, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, Xi Jinping of China, Narendra Modi of India, Viktor Orban of Hungary, Jaroslaw Kaczynski of Poland, Boris Johnson of the United Kingdom, Donald Trump of the United States, Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of Mexico, and Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia.

    It is a genuinely worldwide spread, but Rachman acknowledges immediately that these strongman leaders are "part of a continuum". At one end are unchallenged autocrats like Xi and MBS; then there are those who are subject to some kind of constraint such as Putin and Erdogan; and there are those who operate in democracies but subvert them as exemplified by Trump and Modi. What they have in common are the following behaviours: "the creation of a cult of personality, contempt for the rule of law, the claim to represent the real people against the elites, and a politics driven by fear and nationalism". They have little or no regard for the truth, they are contemptuous of all opposition, and they have a psychotic belief in their own righteousness. As a result of their global power and influence, Rachman asserts: "We are now in the midst of the most sustained global assault on liberal democratic values since the 1930s".

    Why have strongmen come to power in so many countries? Rachman sees economics as a major factor: "the dislocating effects of a period of rapid globalisation - including mass migration of people and industries - have increased the nostalgic appeal of a more stable, homogeneous and nation-centred past". In many countries - especially in the developing world - there is a sense that "corruption has ensured that the gains of globalisation have gone overwhelmingly to a connected elite". But it is not just about economics: "It is when economic grievances are linked to broader fears - such as immigration, crime or national decline - that strongman leaders really come into their own".

    So how and when will the age of the strongman come to an end? Rachman looks at the efforts of liberal politicians - notably Angela Merkel in Germany, Emmanuel Macron in France and Joe Biden in the USA - and global leaders - especially George Soros - to provide an alternative agenda. Although he admits that "All efforts at historical periodisation are slightly artificial", he opines that post-war politics have tended to follow three distinct eras, each lasting around three decades: the stability and growth of 1945-1975, the stagflation and neoliberalism of the next 30 years, and the age of populism and autocracy in which we now find ourselves. If this model has validity, then the current age of the strongman - which he sees beginning with Putin in 2000 - should come to end around 2030.

    Rachman is ultimately optimistic: "strongman rule is an inherently flawed and unstable form of government. It will ultimately collapse in China and most other places where it is tried. But there may be a lot of turmoil and suffering before the Age of the Strongman is finally consigned to history". Broadly speaking, I share this analysis, but I suspect that China will be the last to embrace liberalism and it will not be in this decade.

    "The Audacity Of Hope" by Barack Obama (2006)

    When this bestselling book was first published in 2006, Barack Obama had spent just two years as a United States Senator, the only African American in the upper chamber; by the time I read it in the summer of 2008, he was the presumptive Democratic nominee in the presidential election and the favourite for the White House. The title comes from a sermon by Obama's then pastor Rev Jeremiah Wright whom the politician was forced to repudiate in the course of the Democratic primary, while the sub-title is "Thoughts on reclaiming the American dream".

    Whereas Obama's first book "Dreams From My Father" was biographical and written almost in the style of a novel, this later work is essentially a set of nine political essays - over 360 pages covering Republicans and Democrats, values, the US Constitution, politics, opportunity, faith, race, the wider world, and family - although there are many personal anecdotes and the style is remarkably fluent. The overall impression is of a thoughtful, perceptive, measured and caring politician who in American terms is refreshingly liberal and empathetic. This is a man whose life experiences ensure that he understands poverty in the USA and in the world and sides with the disposed and the powerless.

    He sees government more as part of the solution than the problem, favours provision of healthcare and abortion rights, backs affirmative action for minorities and trade union representation for workers, wants greater investment in education, science and technology, and energy independence, and believes than America should be less autocratic abroad and more willing to talk to opponents as well as allies. But he supports the death penalty in limited circumstances, understands the cultural meaning of guns in rural communities, and generally shows respect for the views of his political opponents. There is little detail to his policies but he sets out his principles very clearly and eloquently. His main theme is "the gap between the magnitude of our challenges and the smallness of our politics - the ease with which we are distracted by the petty and trivial, our chronic avoidance of tough decisions, our seeming inability to build a working consensus to tackle any big problem".

    For a top level politician, his frankness is astonishing - he admits at different times in his life to "a chronic restlessness", "self-indulgence and self-destructiveness", and a "style of communicating that can be rambling, hesitant and overly verbose", and even acknowledges that "of all the areas of my life, it is in my capacities as a husband and father that I entertain the most doubt". What drives him? "My fierce ambitions might have been fueled by my father - by my knowledge of his achievements and failures, by my unspoken desire to somehow earn his love, and by my resentment and anger toward him".

    "Beyond A Fringe" by Andrew Mitchell (2021)

    In 1971, for the first time I read a memoir by a Conservative politician: "The Art Of The Possible" by Rab Butler. As a lifelong member of the Labour Party, it has taken me exactly 50 years to repeat this experience. My 'excuse' is that my son - who works in the international development sector and has recently collaborated with Andrew Mitchell on matters of mutual interest - attended the launch of "Beyond A Fringe" and brought me back a (signed) copy. I have to say that I found it a thoroughly enjoyable read, enlivened by plenty of amusing anecdotes and some self-deprecating observations. It is, however, a strange political memoir: first, because it is not actually that political (which should win it a wider readership than many more ideological treatises) and, second, because the work exhibits a major bifurcation in which the writer becomes something of a different politician and indeed a different person.

    Let us start with the politics.

    Strangely there is no discussion of why Mitchell wanted to go into politics and why he choose the Conservative Party for his ideological home. It is true that his father was a Conservative MP but the book contains very few references to his parents. It is almost as if his classic upper middle-class life - prep school, public school (Rugby), Oxbridge (history at Cambridge), army (a short service commission) and the City (the investment bankers Lazard) - led him to Centre-Right politics without the need for thought. There is a fascinating chapter on his three years in the Whips' Office (whipping is so important to British politics but rarely illuminated), yet this period was all about cajoling fellow Tories to vote with the Major Government and there is barely any talk of the actual policies they were being asked to support. There is then his first rung of the ministerial ladder when, as a junior minister at the Department of Social Security, he was responsible for the infamous Child Benefit Agency. He explains how he promoted managerial changes to improve the working of the agency, but there is no consideration of the government's role in tacking family poverty.

    The best period of Mitchell's career was his seven and a half years as Opposition spokesperson on International Development and Secretary of State at the Department for International Development (DfID). He was industrious and committed in both roles and can rightly be proud of his record. But when he talks of developing "a centre-right British international development policy", it seems to me that his changes were more about efficiency and focus than about ideology - which is as it should be. Since he ceased to be a minister, Mitchell has worked especially hard on three areas: international development, human rights and civil liberties. Yet again these are not issues on which there is an obvious or clear Left/Right divide.

    Now that bifurcation.

    Mitchell acknowledges in his preface that "Mine is without question a privileged life". For decades, everything fell into his lap without too much effort or travail. His epiphany came with his appointment - initially by Michael Howard - to the international development portfolio. He admits "I had little experience of my new brief" and "it was not one of those issues I had contributed to in the House of Commons". But he read widely, he consulted extensively, and above all he travelled. In Uganda: "It was my first experience of real poverty". He was especially moved by what he saw in Rwanda: "Throughout the long journey back to Kigali, I cried for one of the few times in my adult life". He founded 'Project Umubano' - the Kinyarwanda word for friendship - which took Conservative volunteers to Rwanda and acknowledged that "It changed our lives - it certainly changed mine".

    Where Mitchell's deep involvement in international development humanised him, the shock of 'Plebgate' - a contentious altercation with policemen guarding the entrance to 10 Downing Street - humbled him. He admits: "It was my weakness - arrogance, indeed - that started it all off". It changed him financially (he faced legal bills of around £2 million) and emotionally (he suffered serious depression and sought medical help). The trauma set the seal on his disenchantment with the Establishment of which he had been a fortuitous member. He writes: "in the process, I found that I'd resigned from the British Establishment". Indeed the subtitle of his memoirs is: "Tales From A Reformed Establishment Lackey". In the final chapter, he states: "I have somehow become more internationalist, less Anglocentric, less trustful and less respectful of the organs of the state and generally less certain".

    One of the enjoyable features of a political memoir is seeing observations on other politicians. To the surprise of many colleagues and friends, Mitchell supported Boris Johnson when he ran for the Conservative leadership. He does not assert that Johnson is a serial liar, but he does not need to. The inference is unavoidable: Johnson clearly indicated that he would return Mitchell to office (he lied), he agreed to keep DfID as a separate department (he lied), and he promised to stick to the UK commitment to spend 0.7% of GNI on overseas aid (he lied). Mitchell speaks kindly of both Tony Blair and David Cameron and describes William Hague as "the best Prime Minister we have never had" and Michael Gove as "the cleverest man in the government". His comrade-in-arms and closest political friend is David Davis.

    As for Mitchell himself, I venture to suggest that he would make a better Foreign Secretary than any member of the current Conservative Cabinet.

    "Black Wave" by Kim Ghattas (2020)

    Ghattas is a Lebanese writer and Emmy Award-winning journalist who covered the Middle East for 20 years for the BBC and the "Financial Times". The 'black wave' of the title is the tsunami of Islamic fundamentalism that has flooded the Middle East and her informative and insightful book covers developments over the last 40 years in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Pakistan with references to Afghanistan, Yemen and Turkey. It is an ambitious scope with a good deal of information, but Ghattas is an accomplished writer who enlivens her narratives with stories of brave individuals seeking a more inclusive and humanistic Islam.

    Too many people in the West see recent events as a clash of civilisations between the rational, democratic world and the inexplicable Islamic world and have an massively inflated fear of Islamist-inspired terrorism. In reality, as Ghattas, states: "The largest number of victims of jihadist violence are Muslims themselves within their own countries". The theme of this book is that there is in effect a civil war within Islam itself between the majority Sunni world and the minority Shia world and, within each section of Islam, between minority fundamentalists and the majority of tolerant Muslims. In national terms, this conflict is a titanic battle between Saudi Arabia and Iran who are ruled by adherents of very particular and extreme versions of respectively Sunni and Shia thought.

    The schism goes back to the death of the prophet Muhammad in 632. What we now call the Sunni tradition believes that the succession from the prophet should be determined by selection, commencing with the prophet's close companion Abu Bakr, and that the prime authority should be a ruling caliph. What we now call the Shia tradition believes that succession should be through the prophet's descendants, starting with his cousin Ali, and that the prime authority should be the local imam.

    Today, in Saudi Arabia, the controlling Al-Saud dynasty follows a particular version of Sunnism based on the teaching of the 18th century religious preacher Ibn Abdelwahhab (hence the term Wahhabism) which is part of the Hanabali school, the strictest of the four main schools of jurisprudence. Meanwhile, in Iran, almost all Muslims are Twelvers, named after the Twelfth and last Imam who lives in occultation and will reappear as the promised Mahdi, and, since the revolution of 1979, the country has had a version of Shism which merges religion and politics and places power in the Supreme Leader and the Guardianship of the Jurist.

    Saudi Arabia seeks to dominate the Middle East through the use of vast sums of oil money to fund madrassas and organisations that propagate its peculiar view of Islam. For its part, Iran projects its influence through military means via use of its Revolutionary Guards in Syria, its sponsorship of Hezbollah in Lebabon, and its support for proxies in Iraq. Currently the two powers are indirectly locked in a brutal conflict in Yemen with the Saudis backing the Sunni government and Iran supporting the Shia Houthi rebels.

    This is a story of what Ghattas calls "the sectarianisation of faith"" where "despair drives people to faith" and yet, as she points out: "In all of the 6,236 verses of the Quran, there is not a single verse calling on Muslims to silence blasphemers by force". In a short concluding chapter, Ghattas writes: "Travelling around the region to conduct my reporting for this book, I oscillated between despair and hope ... Between despair and hope, I ultimately settled on hope". It would be encouraging to learn that there is meaningful evidence for such hope, but really her hope is based on no more than a belief in the courage of selected reformers, even though the last chapter of the book is about the savage killing of her colleague and friend Jamal Khashoggi.

    "Border Wars" by Klaus Dodds (2021)

    Ever since the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, we have seen an increasing dominance of the notion of the nation state in geo-politics. If you look at a globe or an atlas, every patch of land on the planet is claimed by (at least) one nation with neat black lines defining who owns what. The problem is that mother Earth was not created to facilitate the tidy parcelling up of territory on political grounds. Mountains are not easily divided, rivers and lakes can change their shape and flow, and people of the same ethnicity or religion are often on different sides of the lines. Klaus Dodds is Professor of Geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London and writes perceptively on all the myriad problems thrown up by borders.

    Even where borders are accepted and well-defined, there are often massive difficulties in enforcing those borders with a growing industry of guards, walls and surveillance. Think of USA/Mexico with its 2,000 mile border, UK/continental Europe with channel crossings almost daily, North and South Korea with its DMZ. Then there are underground aquifers with many hundreds being trans-boundary and every country wanting supplies of water.

    But, in many cases, borders are not universally accepted. Sometimes the issues go back to colonial days or the Second World War; in other cases, the break-up of the Soviet Union has created a host of disputes. Think of North and South Cyprus, Morocco/Western Sahara, Russia/Georgia, Russia/Ukraine, Israel/West Bank, China/Taiwan, China/India, India/Pakistan, all the disputes in the South China Sea. Seven nations lay claim to parts of Antarctica and more may join them.

    Whether existing borders are accepted or disputed, nature is changing borders. This has always been happening with changing river flows, land slips and erosion, but climate change will have dramatic impacts with melting glaciers, rising sea levels, and drying rivers, lakes and aquifers. Some low-lying island nations - such as Kiribati, Tuvalu and the Maldives - could simply disappear.

    As if all these problems were not headache enough, Dodds looks at 'border' issues beyond land: the high seas (where right of passage and fishing are issues), the sea bed (where security of communication cables and mining of mineral resources are issues), the outer space enclosing our globe (where access to favourable positions and security of satellites are issues), and even the moon and the planets.

    It is a fascinating book. Dodds examines each of the cases mentioned in this review and explains the issues very clearly, but he has no new ideas for how these problems can be addressed more peaceably beyond development of existing UN and global treaties and greater support for more open borders. He writes: "The myths of exclusive sovereignty and the fixed border are dangerous. We need to cultivate a radically different view of borders that is alive to the complex realities of earthly change and the likely mass migration of people in an era of intensifying climate change and conflicts." Some chance in the current geo-political climate.

    "The Changing Face Of China: From Mao To Market" by John Gittings (2005)

    Gittings was China specialist and East Asia editor for the "Guardian" newspaper from 1983 to 2003 and in 1996 wrote a book titled "Real China: From Cannibalism To Karaoke". A decade later this latest similarly-titled work is an up-date on a nation in which more people are experiencing more change at a faster rate than at any other time in the history of humankind. The subject is fascinating and the book ought to be similarly so, but Gittings - who describes himself as "a semi-academic journalist" and provides a bibliography of almost 100 works - manages to make rather dull so much of his review of the changing political and economic policies of post-war China.

    The best chapters are the last three and the first. The last chapters begin with a more personal account of the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 1989 when several hundred protesters were shot down by the People's Liberation Army, at least 3,000 were injured, and subsequently thousands were arrested. The next chapter looks at economic change, social change, urbanisation, rural developments, the workers' plight, the environmental threat, and the challenge of HIV-AIDS. Finally China's place in the world is examined as problems like Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang remain unresolved, human rights become of more concern, and the country joins the WTO and experiences globalisation. In a sense, China is becoming less different from the rest of the world - a process Gittings calls "de-sinicisation" - and an American adviser is quoted as rightly asserting that "managing China's emergence as a great power could well prove to be the defining foreign policy effort of this era".

    Strangely the most interesting chapter is the first where Gittings poses four immensely challenging questions:

    "Counterknowledge" by Damian Thompson (2008)

    Thompson credits crime novelist Stav Sherez with coining the term "counterknowledge" which Thompson himself defines as follows: "The essence of counterknowledge is that it purports to be knowledge but is not knowledge. Its claims can be shown to be untrue, either because there are facts that contradict them or because there is no evidence to support them. It misrepresents reality (deliberately or otherwise) by presenting non-facts as facts."

    The book devotes a chapter each to four main targets:

    Thompson describes "credulous thinking" as "spreading through society as fast and silently as a virus" and blames the Internet for a situation in which "millions of people have unconsciously absorbed postmodern relativism". He feels that "we could be moving towards a world in which ideological and even religious struggles are replaced, or at least shaped, by battles between real and confected evidence".

    Perhaps surprisingly, Thompson is editor-in-chief of the "Catholic Herald". His writing is clear and sharp, his targets well-chosen, and his assertions well-evidenced but, except for a final reference to "guerrilla attacks from the blogosphere", he exhbits little faith in our ability to counter counterknowledge. This short (162 pages) and elegant work would have been strengthened by the addition of a brief toolkit on critical thinking.

    Link: book's web site click here

    "The Crisis Of Islam" by Bernard Lewis (2003)

    Bernard Lewis was born in Britain but he is now emeritus professor at Princeton University and widely regarded as the world's leading Islamic scholar. In November 2001, he wrote an extended essay for "The New Yorker" magazine which he has now developed into this short, but immensely informative and perceptive, book published in March 2003. Essentially the message is that Islam has a rich and honourable history but now suffers from "a failure of modernity" and, if we are going to combat the terrorism emanating from fundamentalist Islam, we need to understand much better both the past and the present of the Muslim world.

    What is Islam? Lewis puts it succinctly: "The word Islam .. denotes more than fourteen centuries of history, a billion and a third people, and a religious and cultural tradition of enormous diversity" and he emphasises that: "Islam is not only a matter of faith and practice; it is also an identity and a loyalty - for many, an identity and a loyalty that transcend all others".

    He reminds us that: "Under the medieval Arab caliphate, and again under the Persian and Turkish dynasties, the empire of Islam was the richest, most powerful, most creative, most enlightened region in the world and, for most of the Middle Ages, Christendom was on the defensive". This history is known and remembered by Muslims today and "References to early, even to ancient, history are commonplace in public discourse".

    In 1918, the Ottoman sultanate - the last of the great Muslim empires - was defeated. Today - as Lewis demonstrates - on a wide range of economic, industrial and social indicators, Muslim countries are an underdeveloped backwater, compared not just to Europe and America but also to thriving Asian economies such as Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore. There are 57 member states of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference but, except for Turkey, democratic institutions are unknown in these nations. Hence it can be concluded that sadly: "Almost the entire Muslim world is affected by poverty and tyranny".

    So, is Islam a threat to the West? Lewis's examination of this question is both lucid and balanced and he concludes: "Islam as such is not an enemy of the West, and there are growing numbers of Muslims, both there and here, who desire nothing better than a closer and more friendly relationship with the West and the development of democratic institutions in their own countries. But a significant number of Muslims - notably but not exclusively those whom we call fundamentalists - are hostile and dangerous". He is clear that the kind of horror we saw on 9/11 "has no justification in Islamic doctrine or law and no precedent in Islamic history".

    "Culture Smart! Colombia" by Kate Cathey (2011)

    Before I visit a new country, I like to read about the place and, in the case of a tour of Colombia, this book proved to be a short but comprehensive guide to the country's history, politics, economy, customs and traditions. However, the book was published before a landmark peace deal between the government and the main guerrilla movement FARC which has reduced the violence and encouraged tourism.

    Since Colombia obtained independence from Spain in 1810, this South American nation - which is now a country of approximately 45 million - has had a violent history: no less than eight civil wars in the 19th century, 20 years of bloodshed called "La Violencia" from 1948 onwards, and an undeclared civil war known locally as "the armed conflict" which culminated in a peace settlement in 2016. But only once has there been a military coup: in 1953-57 when General Rojas put an end to "La Violencia". Meanwhile the country has been blighted by the violence and extortion of the huge illegal drug trade (90% of the of the cocaine that crosses into the USA is processed in Colombia).

    Although Colombia is a multi-ethnic country, political and economic power has always been held by the European minority and politics has been expressed through two major establishment movements called Liberals and Conservatives and influential families known as "power dynasties". Income and wealth are spread very unevenly with the country exhibiting some of the worst poverty in the world and class hierarchies and racial inequality so ingrained that "they are seen as the normal order of things".

    So, why go there? Cathey - who lives in Bogotá - writes that "This is a magical country, full of spectacular landscapes, exotic wildlife and rare ecosystems, succulent tropical fruits, salsa and cumbia music, and kind, fun-loving people". The guerrilla war is largely over, drug violence is localised, while economic development is transforming cities like Medellin and there are wonderful colonial gems like Cartagena. Cathey explains that "Colombians say their country is a first-, second-, and third-world country all at the same time" and that "Collectively, Colombians are going through a period of self-discovery".

    "The Cyprus Problem" by James Ker-Lindsay (2011)

    Before I visit a new country, I like to read about the place and, in the case of a holiday in Cyprus, it seemed essential to familiarise myself with the issues around the partition of the island and this short and balanced account by an academic at the London School of Economics fitted the bill. In five chapters occupying around 120 pages, Ker-Linsday poses and answers just over 70 questions, presenting the material in convenient bite-sized junks.

    Cyprus is a small nation: an island in the eastern Mediterranean which at its extremes is just 150 miles long from east to west and 100 miles wide from north to south. The estimated population is only just over a million - barely half that of Northern Ireland - although there are almost as many Cypriots living off the island as on it. In spite of its small size, its location has given it a complicated history with successive occupations by the Persians, Egyptians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Franks, Venetians, Ottomans, and British. Independence came in 1960 with a constitution which shared power between the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities in the ratio 70:30. But the new state lasted less than a decade and a half when Turkey invaded the north of Cyprus in 1974 occupying 36% of the island.

    Ker-Lindsay explains that, in the absence of recent data, the figure of 78% is still widely cited as the approximate size of the Greek Cypriot community which is largely located in the south of the island known as the Republic of Cyprus, while 18% is still generally used as the size of the Turkish Cypriot community which is largely located in the northern part of the island which calls itself the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. He summarises a succession of failed efforts to resolve the Cyprus problem, most notably the Annan Plan of 2004 which envisaged the establishment of a bizonal, bicommunal, federal republic.

    Ker-Lindsay concludes his book with an examination of the key issues to be addressed in any settlement and the different models that have been proposed to reconcile these issues. On the one hand, he acknowledges that "The current situation can continue indefinitely. After all, there is no conflict on the island." On the other hand, he argues: "the continuation of the status quo appears to be increasingly unviable. There is a clear imperative for the two sides to reach an agreement". He admits of the Cyprus problem that "it appears to be stubbornly immune to all peacemaking initiatives" and notes: "A wit once said that the Cyprus issue is essentially a problem of thirty thousand Turkish troops faced off against thirty thousand Greek Cypriot lawyers. (Or, as someone else put it, while the Turkish army uses warfare, the Greek Cypriots use 'lawfare'.)"

    "Don't Get Fooled Again" by Richard Wilson (2008)

    The author of this work - subtitled "The Sceptic's Guide To Life" - has a degree in philosophy and works for Amnesty International and his commitment to logic and evidence and his passion for human rights imbue every chapter in a highly readable book which represents a refreshing gale of common sense and rationality. Wilson critiques a wide range of contemporary nonsense including:

    Wilson helpfully identifies some of the many factors that permit and indeed encourage such acts of irrationality including wishful thinking, over-idealisation, demonising perceived enemies, moral exclusion, and groupthink. In a spirited defence of rationality, he asserts: "The basic principles of logic, consistency, evidence, and 'inductive reasoning' are common to every human society and present in all belief systems".

    Link: author's web site click here

    "Globalisation And Its Discontents" by Joseph Stiglitz (2002)

    This critique of globalisation is not particularly original and the prescription for reform is not very well developed, but what has rightly made this work an international bestseller and led to its translation into more than 25 languages is its authorship. Joseph Stiglitz was a member of the Council of Economic Advisors under President Clinton, he then became the Chief Economist at the World Bank, and he is a Nobel Prize winner for economics. If he states that globalisation is failing, then the world's politicians and financiers should take note.

    Stiglitz points out that, since the Second World War, close to 100 countries have faced financial crises. Today 1.2 billion people around the world are living on less than $1 a day and 2.8 billion people are living on less than $2 a day. In the face of such enormous challenges, the so-called Washington Consensus of the 1980s and 1990s promoted financial austerity, privatisation and market liberalisation. The consensus over-emphasized inflation and financial market liberalisation and under-emphasized land reform and financial sector regulation.

    Above all, the IMF adopts a policy of market fundamentalism and pursues the interests of (American) financial institutions. The catastrophic result of excessively rapid privatisation in Russia was a fall in GDP by 54% and a collapse in industrial production of 60%.

    The book examines in some detail how the International Monetary Fund - the chief butt of Stiglitz's criticisms and indeed anger - handled the transition of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe from centrally planned to free market economies and how it responded to the East Asia financial crisis of 1997. His central argument is that those countries that followed the IMF's policies - such as the Czech Republic, Thailand, Indonesia, Brazil and most especially Russia - experienced a collapse in output, employment and living standards - while those countries that pursued a more independent economic programme - such as Uganda, Botswana, Malaysia, Hungary, Slovenia, Poland, Vietnam and most especially China - fared much better in terms of transition or recovery.

    Stiglitz favours changes to the governance of the IMF and the World Bank to give developing countries a stronger voice, more transparent policy formulation and decision-making by bodies like the IMF and the World Bank, more consultation with countries about their development strategies, more attention to the sequencing and pacing of economic reforms, greater provision of bankruptcy and standstill arrangements, and interventions to reduce excessive short-term capital flows.

    Stiglitz is frank: "Globalisation today is not working for many of the world's poor", But he is clearly an optimist: "I believe that globalisation can be reshaped to realize its potential for good and I believe that the international economic institutions can be reshaped in ways that will ensure that this is accomplished". Sadly, however, he does not explain how this is going to be achieved practically, given the powerful forces at work in the American political and financial establishments. It is going to require a massive and sustained social movement.

    "Hard Choices" by Hillary Rodham Clinton (2014)

    This is quite a tome: some 600 pages (thankfully no footnotes or end notes). But it covers a lot of ground: the four years (2009-2013) that Hillary Clinton spent as Secretary of State during the first term of the Barack Obama presidency. Her natural abilities, plus a book team of three, ensure that it is well-written, informative and thoughtful, but there are no significant differences of opinion with Obama or criticisms of world leaders because Clinton is keeping her options open for a run at the presidency in 2016. Will she run? She simply states" "I haven't decided yet". I hope she does and I hope she wins. This was my position before reading her memoir and my view is simply reinforced by reading the book.

    When Clinton failed to win the Democratic primary race against Obama, she famously declared: “Although we weren’t able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it’s got about 18 million cracks in it”. When Obama won the presidential contest, she had no interest in becoming Vice-President and every intention of returning to the Senate. Then, when Obama invited her to become Secretary of State, she was “floored”, turned it down, and took two weeks to be persuaded.

    Obama kept his promise of access and she reckons she was at the White House more than 700 times during her four years in office. In the book, she mentions very few differences with the White House, perhaps the most important being her wish to arm rebels in the Syrian civil war and Obama's decision not to support this approach. It looks to have been a relationship that quickly developed mutual trust and at the end Obama declared that they had gone from "a team of rivals" to "an unrivalled team". She ended up visiting 112 countries and travelling nearly one million miles with more than 2,000 hours (equivalent to 87 full days) in the air. She claims that, over the years, she had developed the ability to sleep almost anywhere at any time (me too).

    She describes Secretary of State as being three roles - the country’s chief diplomat, the president’s principal adviser on foreign policy, and chief executive of a department of 70,000 personnel - and she characterises the nation’s foreign policy are comprised of the 3 Ds – defence, diplomacy and development. She makes the usual distinctions in foreign policy between 'hard power' (military forces in its various forms) and 'soft power' (diplomatic, economic and cultural influences) and advocates an approach of what she calls 'smart power' - the right combination of different elements of hard and/or soft power for each particular situation.

    After a couple of introductory chapters, “Hard Choices” does not follow a chronological approach but instead the bulk of the book (some 450 pages) comprises a series of chapters on different countries and regions around the globe: after a general chapter on Asia, specific ones on China, Burma, Afghanistan and Pakistan; then chapters on Europe, Russia, Latin America, and Africa; and, after a general chapter on the Middle East, dedicated chapters on the 2011 Arab Spring revolution, Libya, the 2012 death of the US ambassador in Benghazi, Iran, Syria and Gaza. Only at the end are there a few thematic chapters on global challenges such as climate change, energy and human rights. The book is dotted with some fascinating facts and figures on different countries and issues.

    A key feature of the Obama/Clinton partnership was the so-called "pivot strategy", an effort to re-focus American attention more towards Asia and so, in a break from precedent, Clinton's first trip was to Japan, Indonesia, South Korea and China with a first ever visit by a US Secretary of State to ASEAN. Understandably she expresses concern about tensions especially in the South and East China Seas where China is increasingly flexing its growing military muscle. Another distinguishing feature of the new administration was an attempt to “reset” relations with Russia and Clinton even presented a mocked-up reset button to Russia’s Foreign Secretary Lavrov. However, the button was labelled ‘peregruzka’ (overcharged) rather than ‘perezagruzka’ (reset) and the effort soon ran into Putin's belligerence.

    For anyone interested in international affairs or global politics - like me - this is a really interesting read which takes us through all the major trouble spots of the world, almost all of which - perhaps most notably the Arab-Israeli conflict, Iran's nuclear aspirations and the assertiveness of Russia - remain active. In each case, Clinton sets out the historic background to the challenge and then describes her efforts to improve the situation. Although inevitably in a memoir, the account is somewhat self-serving and there is very little in the way of rethinking, it is a sensible and sensitive review which reflects considerable knowledge, commitment and passion for social justice.

    The only real expression of a change of view is in relation to a decision before she even ran for the Democratic nomination: the vote to authorise military action in Iraq. She writes: "I came to deeply regret giving President Bush the benefit of the doubt on that vote" and "While many were never going to look past my 2002 vote no matter what I did or said, I should have stated my regret sooner and in the plainest, most direct language possible".

    The theme of the book - captured in the title and alluded to many times - is that all decisions in international affairs are complicated and difficult trade-offs of principle and pragmatism. As she puts it: "Keeping America safe, strong and prosperous presents an endless set of choices, many of which come with imperfect information and conflicting imperatives". She refers to "our classic dilemma" and asks" "Should we do business with a leader with whom we disagreed on so many things in the name of advancing core security interests?".

    As she explains: "The question of nations working together on some issues while clashing on others is part of a classic debate within foreign policy circles" and "Straight up transactional diplomacy isn't always pretty, but often it's necessary". In the end, she insists: "As you've seen throughout this book, there are times when we do have to make difficult compromises. Our challenge is to be clear-eyed about the world as it is while never losing sight of the world as we want it to become".

    "How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered The World" by Francis Wheen (2004)

    I enjoyed this book enormously because it reflects so well my own mode of thinking and it is written with such erudition and panache. The varied samples of 'mumbo-jumbo' attacked by Wheen include the neoliberalism of Reagean and Thatcher, the blandness of too much of Blairism, the exuberance of the 1980s stock market and the dot com bubble, the current version of globalisation, the dominance of the military-industrial complex, the popularity of self help manuals and motivational gurus, deterministic views of history, creationism, astrology, complementary and alternative medicine, unidentified flying objects, Christian fundamentalism, Islamic fundamentalism, and the excess reaction to Princess Diana's death. The whole thing is eloquently written (his vocabulary is huge) and eclectically sourced (his reading is immense).

    I do have some reservations though. First, the whole thing reads like an extended essay (very extended since it runs to over 300 pages) with a seemingly endless series of targets and the work would have benefited from tighter organisation and focus. Second, we know that, in contradiction to all this 'mumbo-jumbo', Wheen stands for the values of the 18th century Enlightenment - especially scientific empiricism - but it would have been a better-balanced book if he had spelt out more the practical tools and positive benefits of a rational way of thinking. Third, the title and tone of the work is too defeatist - 'mumbo-jumbo' has not conquered the world, although rational thought may be in (hopefully temporary) retreat, and we need to celebrate the causes of science as well as condemn the absurdities of mysticism.

    “Jews Don’t Count” by David Baddiel (2021)

    I read this book because, in his own review of it, a good Jewish friend encouraged all his non-Jewish friends to do so. I’m glad that I did and I would endorse his recommendation. It is a short work (just 123 pages) but compelling and important.

    Baddiel, who is a Jew best known for his comedy, writes with passion and fluency to present a case which, for me, is utterly convincing. The case can be simply stated: too many progressives who (rightly) are quick to condemn sexism, homophobia, transphobia, disablism and especially racism, have a blind spot when it comes to recognising and calling out ant-Semitism.

    He provides example after example, many from the world of Twitter, which is not a forum on which I personally spend much time, and finishing (sadly for me as a lifelong member of the Labour Party) with the report of the Equality and Human Rights Commission following its investigation of anti-Jewish discrimination in the party.

    So, why do so many progressives fail to call out ant-Semitism?

    For Baddiel, the basic answer is that, while other communities facing racism are seen as disadvantaged, “Jews are the only objects of racism who are imagined – by the racists – as both low and high status”. So while Jews are perceived as dirty and vile, they are also seen as privileged and powerful and – in the classic conspiracy theory – in control of the world.

    Another factor which Baddiel identifies is that Jews are often seen as white and therefore privileged compared to other ethnic minorities. Yet, when it suits the racists as it often does, Jews are portrayed as non-white with swarthy skin and big noses. He writes: “being white is not about skin colour, but security”.

    A third factor is what Baddiel calls a “hierarchy of racisms”: a view of some progressives that, while Jews might have problems, they are somehow less discriminated against and therefore less deserving than other ethnic minorities. Baddiel emphasises: “I am arguing not for another person’s experience of racism to be lessened in significance but for the awareness of something similar happening to Jews to be heightened”.

    I was particularly struck by Baddiel’s reference to his lived experience: “the lived experience of a Jew who feels as most Jews do that the reaction of progressives, to ant-Semitism, is that it doesn’t matter very much” or – to use the title of his book – “Jews don’t count”.

    We live in a challenging age in which offence is less about the intention of the offender and more about the feeling of the offended. As someone with what has been described as a white-male-cis-het perspective, I am aware of my privilege and of the need really to listen to Baddiel and my Jewish friends when they talk of their lived experience.

    "Jihad vs McWorld" by Benjamin R Barber (1995)

    My friend Catherine Waters advised that I read this book originally published in 1995. It's not a particularly easy read because it's long - 370 pages, of which 60 are notes - and the style is somewhat academic - Barber is an American professor of political science. But it is definitely worth the effort.

    Probably deliberately, Barber never defines the terms 'Jihad' and 'McWorld', although he uses them from the second page and on almost every page from then on. 'Jihad' is shorthand for tribalism and intolerance, whether of the religious or political kind, and represents opposition to technology, markets and modernity itself. 'McWorld' is a metaphor for free markets and mass consumption plus the global players who exploit the former and create the latter.

    Barber regards the two as not simply in opposition to one another, but interactive with each other, and he is incisive with his criticisms of both as antipathetic to civic society and democratic institutions. This is an enormously erudite analysis with an astonishingly eclectic range of sources and the standpoint is profoundly liberal and libertarian.

    However, in my view, Barber is overly pessimistic about the ability to choose and reject elements of 'McWorld' in particular, fails to appreciate the transforming effects of the Internet and electronic commerce, and offers too little prescription as to how countervailing forces - like the trade union movement and social democratic political parties - could arrest the apparent juggernaut of global markets.

    "A Journey" by Tony Blair (2010)

    Why is this memoir, by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, given the rather low-key title "A Journey"? He uses the noun to describe three transformations. First and foremost, how he started as one kind of leader and finished as another - a leader who was sensitive to and reflective of public opinion to one who felt he had to do what he thought was right however strong public opposition. Second, how Labour used to be one type of political party - factional, conflicted and traditional - and was transformed into another - more united, progressive and modernising. Third, how his governments initially saw reform of public services as about the setting of the right multiple standards but then came to appreciate that it was necessary to create new structures that fostered choice and competition.

    To begin this review, some overall comments on the book.

    It is long, too long. It runs to almost 700 pages. On a number of occasions, he writes "but I digress" and he does. The book should have been much more tightly edited and in consequence a more manageable length. He wrote it all by hand over three years and probably took no account of the word count.

    It is well written in a style that is almost spoken and rather engaging. However, it is rather verbose and florid too, with much use of alliteration and constant use of three adjectives and three phrases which, while colourful, is probably more appropriate to a speech or an article than to a memoir.

    It is thematic rather than strictly chronological. This means that there is a focus on key subjects - like the invasion of Iraq and reform of public services - but he often wanders and much is missed out.

    Now to the substance of the book.

    In terms of foreign policy, Blair's wars are central to his memoir. Kosovo and Sierra Leone were striking examples of the beneficial power of his policy of liberal interventionism; Afghanistan was probably inevitable after 9/11 but it has been prolonged and inconclusive; Iraq of course is where his record has been a matter of savage attack and he does not dodge the criticisms.

    Blair devotes over 100 pages of the 700-page volume to the Iraq war. There are no new facts or revelations because - whatever many critics think - there was no cover-up or conspiracy, but he does explain at length his thinking and motivations.

    There can be no doubt that Iraq was in breach of United Nations Security Council resolutions and Blair lists nine with which the regime was in non-compliance. Whether there was UN authority to invade is highly debatable legally but Blair makes his case. Whether there were weapons of mass destruction (WMD) was widely debated but mostly assumed to be the case.

    He records: "We the key allies had no doubt that Saddam had an active WMD programme" but concedes that: "The intelligence on Saddam and WMD turned out to be incorrect. It is said - even I have said - that how this came to be so remains a mystery." Somewhat at odds with the "mystery" remark, he adds: "The intelligence was wrong. We admitted it. We apologised for it. We explained it even."

    He writes: "The military campaign of conquest was a brilliant success. The civilian campaign of reconstruction wasn't" and concedes: "That the planning for the aftermath was inadequate is well-documented".

    He writes: "So the aftermath was more bloody, more awful, more terrifying than anyone could have imagined. The perils we anticipated [use of WMD] did not materialise. The peril we didn't [the insurgency] materialised with a ferocity and evil that even now shocks the senses."

    He insists: "I can't regret the decision to go to war" but adds: "I can say that never did I guess the nightmare than unfolded" and "The truth is we did not anticipate the role of al-Qaeda or Iran". He concludes: "All I know is that I did what I thought was right. I stood by America when it needed standing by. Together we rid the world of a tyrant. Together we fought to uphold the Iraqis' right to a democratic government."

    In terms of domestic policy, the overwhelming theme is one of what he calls simply "modernisation" (and who could oppose that?) and he refers to his "boundless, at times rather manic, lust for modernisation". He describes his efforts to reform all our public services, acknowledging that he was not bold enough in his first term and that he did not receive the enthusiastic support of his Chancellor Gordon Brown in his second and (abbreviated) third terms. The mantra was 'investment and reform together' (New Labour) as opposed to 'investment without reform' (Old Labour) or 'reform without investment' (Thatcherism).

    As a result of this approach, he pushed through academies and trust schools, university tuition fees, foundation hospitals, benefit and welfare reform, changes to the legal and criminal justice systems. Everywhere he favoured choice and competition and greater use of market mechanisms. It was a controversial programme and, as the Coalition Government builds on those reforms, it has become an even more controversial one.

    The settlement in Northern Ireland - to which he devotes a whole chapter - was a huge achievement and his part deserves praise.

    Surprisingly Blair says comparatively little about his constitutional reforms, such as devolution to Scotland and Wales, incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights and reform of the House of Lords, but comes out as totally against the landmark Freedom of Information Act ("I quake at the imbecility of it").

    Blair writes constantly of "New Labour" rather than simply Labour and of "progressive politics" rather than Left or even Centre-Left politics. He sees contemporary politics as less about Right versus Left as right versus wrong or what works contrasted with what does not work.

    He defines New Labour as an understanding of, and support for, aspiration. He is clear that: "Labour won when it was New Labour. It lost because it stopped being New Labour." - which many will regard as an oversimplification.

    He argues that "progressives have to be as proud of policies that lead to efficiency as much as those that lead to justice". He asserts "I was and remain first and foremost not so much a politician of traditional left or right but a moderniser" and he admits "In order to circumvent the party, what I had done was construct an alliance between myself and the public".

    He is generous in his comments on almost all his party colleagues and political associates, even finding substantial praise for Gordon Brown. He describes "the Gordon problem" as "the combination of the brilliant and the impossible". This is a man who likes people and not a man who bears grudges.

    The overall impression of the memoir is of a man driven by passion and principle, a man of almost messianic mission. Tellingly, he writes: "I have always been more interested in religion than politics". Tony Blair might just have been the least ideological occupant of 10 Downing Street in its long history. In spite of accusations to the contrary, it is clear from this memoir that he is a caring and compassionate man but equally a calculating and cunning one and tough, very, very tough.

    Three years after his (effectively forced) resignation, Tony Blair's legacy is still viewed by many largely through the prism of Iraq which is itself an unfinished story. In years to come, his legacy will be revisited and his programmes of domestic reform - both public services and constitutional affairs - and their influence on the succeeding Coalition Government will be viewed more sharply and probably more positively.

    In the meanwhile, what cannot be denied is that Blair was a unique leader of the Labour Party: someone who became Prime Minister without ever previously holding any ministerial position, someone who at 43 was the youngest Prime Minister since 1812, someone who won three successive General Elections with large majorities when Labour had never previously won even two full terms, someone who never lost a bye-election to the Conservatives during his entire term of office, someone who served as Prime Minister for 10 tough years and took the country into four wars, someone prepared to take huge political risks again and again, and someone who - largely for the better - has changed the face of British politics.

    "Kenya: Between Hope And Despair, 1963-2011" by Daniel Branch (2011)

    Between visits to Kenya by President Barack Obama and Pope Francis in the second half of 2015, I made my first trip to the country and was recommended to read this book to understand better this nation of some 45 million with no less than 42 different tribes, most notably Kikuyu 22%, Luhya 14%, Luo 13%, Kalenjin 12%, Kamba 11%, Kisii 6%, and Meru 6%. This post-colonial history of nearly half a century is a tale of three presidencies: those of the Kikuyu Jomo Kenyatta (1963-1978), the Kalenjin Daniel arap Moi (1978-2002), and the Kikuyu Mwai Kibaki (2002-2013).

    Daniel Branch is associate professor of African history at the University of Warwick in the UK and his meticulously researched work is sadly a depressing read because of the events he records and examines. The main theme of his work is that politics in Kenya has not been about the redistribution of resources between different social classes as in most democracies, but about the calculated assignment of power and influence to different ethnic groups - what is called the politics of recognition rather than redistribution.

    He laments: "Elites have encouraged Kenyans to think and act politically in a manner informed first and foremost by ethnicity, in order to crush demands for the redistribution of scarce resources." The result - which Branch narrates in grim detail - has been continual ethnic conflict (often promoted by political elites and tolerated by police and security forces) which have frequently resulted in hundreds of deaths and considerable displacement, constant repression of any opposition to the controlling elites with regular political assassinations, corruption of a ubiquitous nature and on a massive scale, and for most of the populace deep-seated poverty and lack of education.

    Branch describes Kenya as "a half-made place" with a public life of "amnesiac collusion" and " a schizophrenic political system". He explains: "On the one hand, it has a vibrant political society and a free press that routinely exposes corruption scandals and demonstrates the links between senior political figures and electoral violence. On the other hand, groups like Mungiki [a militia supporting Kikuyu politicians and communities] thrive and its politicians are accused of crimes against humanity." Somewhere between hope and despair, he concludes: "Kenya may never be prosperous or be a nation; but armed with a government that it deserves, it can be a state whose citizens live side by side in peace and enjoy equal opportunities."

    Since this book was published, Kenya has had another general election and chosen a new leadership: Uhuru Kenyatta (Kikuyu) as President and William Ruto (Kalenjin) as Vice-President. In 2010, both men were accused by the International Criminal Court (ICC) of crimes against humanity relating to the violence which followed the 2007 elections that killed more than 1,100 people and displaced 600,000.

    "The Kurdish Spring: A New Map Of The Middle East" by David L Phillips (2015)

    Who are the Kurds and what is Kurdistan? Phillips - formerly a senior adviser to the US Department of State during three presidencies and now an academic at Columbia University - explains just how differentiated are the Kurds – “the largest stateless people in the world” – geographically, linguistically and religiously.

    The total area of Kurdistan is about 600,000 square kilometres, roughly equal to the size of France, and the total number of Kurds is an estimated 32 million. But there are four major geographic sectors:

    Around 75% of Kurds are Sunni Muslims. Most of the rest are Shia Muslims but there are significant pockets of Alevi, Sufis, Yazidi and Christian.

    The core of this book is two sets of four chapters describing the experience of the Kurds in Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran respectively. The first quartet summarises the history of these groups from the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 and the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 up to around the time of the invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003. The main themes are the repeated betrayal of Kurdish aspirations for autonomy and independence and the multitudinous factionalism of the Kurds themselves (there are 16 Kurdish parties in Syria alone). The second quartet looks at the events in these countries in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq. The main theme is that the Kurds in Iraq are set for independence at last, although none of the countries in the region or the USA wants this and formidible obstacles will have to be overcome for an independent Iraqi Kurdistan to be viable.

    The Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), now led by Masoud Barzani (the son of the founder), was established as long ago as 1946. Its principal rival, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), was founded in 1975 and is led by Jalal Talabani. In 1992, the KDP and the PUK created a unity administration for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) - although they fought a brief civil war in 1994 - and now represent by far the most stable part of Iraq and the most effective opponent of ISIS. Phillips avoids criticism of his friends in Iraqi Kurdistan (where there is a great deal of corruption) but is not averse to challenging the policy of his own country, calling the US approach "self-contradictory", referring to Obama's "ambivalence", and characterising the President's foreign policy as "too deliberative, cautious, and defined by limitations".

    "The Kurdish Spring" is immensely informative with lots of names, dates, and events but it is quite heavy-going because of the multiplicty of organisations and acronyms and the sense of despair about the problems of this region. Overwhelmingly this is a work of narrative with little analysis, but an overt sympathy for the plight of the Kurds everywhere and clear support for independence statehood for the Iraqi Kurds.

    "The Long Game" by Rush Doshi (2021)

    Important and informative though "The Long Game" is, it is not an easy read. There are 400 pages of small and dense text with a good deal of repetition and almost 1,500 notes. But Rush Doshi knows what he is writing about and what he is writing about is of huge geopolitical significance. Doshi is the founding director of the Brookings China Strategy Initiative and, since completing this book, he has become Director for China on President Biden's National Security Council. The work is a review of the rise and rise of China over the past three decades and, in the words of the sub-title, "China's Grand Strategy To Displace American Order". A distinguishing feature of the book is its use of an original and digitised database of authoritative Chinese-language Communist Party (CCP) documents personally excavated by Doshi who is proficient in Mandarin.

    The central thesis of "The Long Game" is that China has sequentially adopted three "strategies of displacement" of American power, each triggered by sharp discontinuities in global politics.

    First, following Tiananmen Square, the Gulf War and the Soviet collapse, from 1989-2008 it sought to blunt America's power in Asia - a process known as "hiding capabilities and biding time". Second, following the Global Financial Crisis, from 2009-2016 it endeavoured to build a regional hegemony in Asia - a position dubbed "actively accomplishing something". Third, following Brexit, the Trump presidency and the coronavirus pandemic, since 2017 it has attempted to expand its blunting and building efforts worldwide under the banner "great changes unseen in a century". In respect of each strategy, Doshi looks in detail at what the CCP documents say and what the country does under three headings - military, political and economic - and emphasises how these three elements are closely co-ordinated to further the grand strategy.

    Doshi dismisses the regular suggestions that American is in fundamental decline but argues that the US needs to counter China's grand strategy in an asymmetric fashion that does not attempt to compete "dollar-for-dollar, ship-for-ship, or loan-for loan". Instead he presents - rather briefly and broadly - a series of (costly) recommendations for blunting Chinese order and building America order.

    In the course of China's 3,000 year history, the so-called "century of humiliation" (1839 to 1949) is seen as an aberration which can and and must be corrected with China's return to a central position in world affairs. Doshi suggests that China's economy will equal that of the US by 2028 and that the CCP intends to complete this process of "national rejuvenation" by the centennial of the founding of the People's Republic of China in 2049. Can this be achieved without armed conflict? Since Doshi wrote his book, Russia has invaded Ukraine and you can be sure that military strategists in Washington and Beijing are already assessing the lessons for any move by China to regain Taiwan.

    "Mexico: What Everyone Needs To Know" by Roderic Ai Camp (2011)

    I read this book on a holiday in Mexico in 2016. It was an easy and informative read because it takes the form of mini-essays answering 104 questions, an accessible format but one that necessitates a little repetition.

    It starts with the headline issues of security and violence and then looks at political, economic and social developments, before backtracking to give quite an extensive historical background to these current issues and developments. Finally there is an examination of Mexico's democratic transition from 71 years (1929-2000) of rule by the same semi-authoritarian political party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), to the present situation where there is now a genuine contest for power and experience of non-PRI presidents.

    Camp is very clear what are the three most important challenges facing Mexico today and how these challenges are inter-related.

    First is "its ability to increase its economic growth while simultaneously reducing high levels of poverty". Reasons given are the absence of competitiveness in numerous economic sectors, the lack of labour flexibility, the low levels of transparency, and the high levels of corruption.

    Second - which "receives far more attention from American policy makers" - is its security situation. Camp (an American) emphasises that the security problem is in large part created by the economic situation and argues that both Mexico and the United States "are spending most of their resources on the consequences of crime and poverty, not on the causes".

    The third issue is the effect that the economic and criminal problems are having on the process of democratisation. The lack of accountability and transparency seriously undermine the rule of law and the promotion of human rights.

    It is not a pretty picture but Mexico is a wonderfully vibrant nation.

    "Murder In Samarkand" by Craig Murray (2006)

    Craig Murray had already been a career diplomat with the British Foreign Office for 20 years when he obtained his first ambassadorship in 2002. Uzbekistan had only recently gained its independence from the former Soviet Union and was still ruled by the former Communist hard man Islam Karimov, but it was now on the 'right' side in the 'War on Terror', offering base facilities to the Americans for their operations in Afghanistan. So this was a sensitive appointment and one can only wonder why the Whitehall mandarins put such a character in such a place at such a time.

    Murray had valuable experience in Poland and Ghana, but his flamboyant style included plenty of drinking and leering, blunt language, and a direct and unorthodox 'can do' approach to issues. Although married with two children, he admits to a string of earlier liaisons and in Tashkent fell hopelessly in love with a women half his age on first sight. This is not your conventional ambassador and, at some point, his career was bound to implode.

    Yet on the substantive issues at the heart of Murray's differences with the FCO - that Uzbekistan was making no genuine moves to liberalise the economy or respect human rights and that political prisoners were being tortured and the tainted evidence that resulted given to MI5 and the CIA - he was right. Of course, the Foreign Office chose to tackle him more on procedural than substantive issues and he was charged with a list of 20 misdemeanours. Ultimately, 17 of these were dismissed with no case to answer, two were judged to be unsupported by the evidence, and the one substantiated charge was Kafka-like that he spoke to embassy staff about the allegations. In 2004, he was compelled to resign.

    Murray's book - like his career - is not what one would expect of a former senior diplomat. It is written like a novel with lots of reported conversations, making it very readable but overlong (its 383 pages could have been trimmed by a third). Also the bluntness and even profanity of his language are certainly unorthodox in what is really a political memoir. Indeed one suspects that he would have been a better Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament than an ambassador in Central Asia.

    Murray repeatedly makes clear that his book has been censored and that he was not allowed to quote key documents. He professes to have circumvented this restriction by posting the said material on his web site but, when one accesses the site, one finds that most of the documents have had to be removed following a threat of prosecution from the Treasury Solicitor. However, all the documents can still be seen on the Blair Watch site. A few comments by Murray on his own site since publication of the book make one wonder about the balance of his judgement, but his book does raise sharply some important issues about how democratic countries fight terrorist forces that threaten our lives and our liberties.

    Craig Murray site click here
    Blair Watch site click here

    "The No Nonsense Guide To Globalisation" by Wayne Ellwood (2001)

    The advocates of globalisation argue that it prevents the protectionism and economic collapse that we saw in the late 1920s/early 1930s, that it promotes economic efficiency and therefore economic growth, that it maximises the creation of wealth, that it promotes world-wide communication and technological advance, and that ultimately economic freedom leads to political freedom.

    The opponents of globalisation insist that at best it accentuates the gap between rich and poor and at worse lowers overall living standards, that it promotes gender inequality through its adverse impact on women, that it undermines human rights by damaging trade union and worker organisations, that it massively strengthens corporate - especially multinational - power, and that it damages and even destroys the local and world environment.

    Canadian writer Wayne Ellwood, in this contribution to the "New Internationalist" [click here] series of "No Nonsense Guides", is clearly in the latter camp. In this short but informative review, he starts by summarizing the colonial history of globalisation and explains the nature of its current institutions:

    Ellwood explains the nature and impact of the structural adjustment programs (SAPs) imposed on debtor countries by the World Bank and the IMF and reminds us that in the 1990s most years debt interest paid by developing countries actually exceeded new loans to those countries. He traces the five-fold increase in the debt of the non-oil producing Third World between 1973 and 1982, the melt-down of the Russian economy in the early 1990s, the 1997 collapse of Thailand, Taiwan, Malalyia, Singapore & South Korea, and the Brazilian crash of 1999.

    The figures are mind-blowing: total Third World debt is now around three trillion (million million) dollars, while every day an estimated 1.5 trillion dollars is traded on global currency markets. Today some 50 of the top 100 economies of the world are not those of nation states but of multinational corporations, while average income in the very poorest countries is less than one dollar a day.

    In the face of this compelling evidence, it is impossibe not to draw the conclusion that globalisation is in crisis and needs serious reform. Ellwood himself does not offer a cohert and comprehensive programme; instead he hands over the final chapter of his book to five activists who each set out one particular reform:

    Of course, none of this will come about without a mobilisation of opinion and pressure world-wide to demonstrate to the global power élite that trade must be fair as well as free.

    Link: Trades Union Congress globalisation site click here

    "North Korea: State Of Paranoia" by Paul French (2014)

    In the global community, no nation is as closed and inscrutable and unpredictable as North Korea, often called 'the Hermit Kingdom' but officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). This is why I was keen to read French's book. It is a well-written and insightful work, but rather repetitive (it runs to over 400 pages). More seriously, much of the data - and French admits "essentially no reliable statistics have been published by the DPRK since 1965" - is a decade old (especially on the economy on which he writes at length) and the book has the feel of something written 10 years ago and up-dated only minimally.

    What the book does tell us is deeply troubling. Throughout its life-time, the DPRK has been ruled with utter totalitarianism by a succession of three dictators:

    All of them have followed a peculiar political philosophy called ‘Juche’ said to be Kim Il-sung’s “original, brilliant and revolutionary contribution to national and international thought”. French describes it as ”an indigenous revolutionary doctrine fusing the basic tenets of Marxist-Leninism with elements of Maoism and Confucianism and traditional Korean social systems”. The theory is that popular masses are placed in the centre of everything and the leader is the centre of the masses. In practice, it is an attempt to make the nation self-reliant and self-sufficient and involves a policy of ‘military first’ in terms of power and resources.

    The reality is that North Korea is desperately poor and massively dependent on international aid. While it seeks to develop nuclear arsenals, its populace is constantly on the edge of famine. Aid agencies have estimated that up to two million people have died since the mid-1990s because of acute food shortages caused by natural disasters and economic mismanagement. French is clear that no significant political or economic reform is possible within the strict terms of 'Juche' and observes that "Juche has become, in effect, the state religion and thus major revisions are unlikely".

    The last chapter - ironically number 13 - is titled "How will the story end?". French explores a few scenarios - such as mass exodus, economic collapse or military takeover - but concludes" 'It is anyone's guess, however, whether the demise of North Korea will be peaceful or violent, gradual or immediate." Meanwhile North Korea remains what the book's conclusion calls "the world's most dangerous tripwire" with the South Korean capital of Seoul a mere 37 miles away from the DPRK's formidable battery of artillery and missiles.

    French repeatedly criticises American policy towards North Korea as being episodic and reactive and there is little sign of that changing. The country which most fears a collapse of the DRPK and is most likely - we hope - to reign in its military escapades and stimulate meaningful economic reform is China.

    "The Other" by Ryszard Kapuściński (2008)

    In so many disciplines - philosophy, anthropology, psychology, sociology, politics - there is a fundamental difference between the Self and the Other. This slim volume of just 80 pages of text on the Other brings together an English translation of six thoughtful and enlightened lectures and essays by the renowned Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński with an introduction by Scottish journalist Neal Ascherson. There are many ways of distinguishing the Other and Kapuściński focuses on race, nationality and religion, while other ways would include gender, sexual orientation, and ableism.

    Kapuściński (1932-2007) travelled extensively in Africa, Asia and Latin America and this book critiques the Western idea of the Other: the non-European and non-American idea that the Other is inferior and indeed dangerous. This Western-centric approach has been increasingly challenged as, in the second half of the 20th century, two-thirds of the world's population was liberated from colonial dependency and as, since the advent of modern electronic communications, the word of nations has become a global village. Kapuściński subscribed to the view that "there are no superior or inferior cultures - there are just different cultures which satisfy the needs and expectation of their members in different ways".

    Kapuściński underlines that fundamentally there are three possibilities when a man encounters the Other: "he could choose war, he could fence himself behind a war, or he could start up a dialogue". He views it as a moral imperative to take the last of these three courses - to engage in dialogue wherever and whenever possible. I am with Kapuściński on this which is why I love living in a city like London, travelling to other countries, and learning about other cultures.

    "People Who Live In The Dark" by Andrew Blick (2004)

    The sub-title of this work is "The history of the special adviser in British politics" and the odd title is a quote from a critic of such advisers who believes that they operate surreptitiously. I approached the book with a personal interest and somewhat subjectively because I served as a Special Adviser at the Northern Ireland Office (1974-76) and the Home Office (1976-78), in both cases when Merlyn Rees was the Labour Secretary of State, while at the beginning of 2005 my son Richard became a Special Adviser at the Department for Education and Skills, working for the Labour Secretary of State Ruth Kelly.

    In his 'note on historiography and sources', Blick states that "There is no comprehensive history of the special adviser". Well, now there is because his work is a careful and chronological account of the use of such advisers by successive British governments over the last four decades. While the governments in power in both the world wars used outside advisers, effectively the system of special advisers - or political advisers appointed to give temporary and partisan support to senior ministers - was introduced by Harold Wilson in his governments of 1964-1970. Although the Heath administration made modest use of such advisers, the system really came into its own with the Wilson/Callaghan governments of 1974-79 when I spent four years in Whitehall. The Thatcher and Major administrations continued the practice, but the Blair governments have made the most extensive use of special advisers in terms of both numbers and influence.

    The system has worked well overall and it is now a permanent feature of British politics. Critics argue that the system is now too large, but Blick points out that, even under Blair, the total number of special advisers is only around 80 compared to 3,500 senior civil servants and a professional civil service of 400,000 in all. The same observers frequently claim that such advisers are too powerful, but their influence has been grossly exaggerated by a sometimes hysterical media and, in so far as they do achieve some authority, this is because their democratically-elected ministers want them to.

    Blick's book is not a racy read, since he is scrupulously cautious in his judgements and prodigiously comprehensive in his sourcing. There are over 1,500 footnotes, including ones referencing articles I wrote for the "Times" in 1974 and 1978. If the whole thing looks and reads somewhat academically, then this is clearly because it started life as a PhD dissertation, but it is a fascinating insight into the nature of government in the last half of the 20th century.

    “The Power Of Geography” by Tim Marshall (2021)

    Following the (deserved) success of "Prisoners Of Geography" - sub-titled “Ten maps that tell you everything you need to know about global politics” - Marshall has now produced this companion work subtitled " Ten maps that reveal the future of our world". While it is true that there are 10 double-page maps, there are another 15 smaller maps and the maps are supported by 325 pages of text. As before, it is immensely informative and bang up-to-date; it covers so much material in a commendably concise text; and the writing is clear while the judgements are insightful – all these attributes reflecting Marshall’s experience and skill as a British media reporter of international affairs and global conflicts.

    Marshall takes the view that that overwhelmingly geo-politics has been, and largely still is, shaped by the geographical characteristics of nations and their neighbours. While previously he looked at the major players in geo-politics - most notably, Russia, China and the USA - this time he focuses on some particular nations that sit at key points in the global political battlefield, since now : "We are entering a new age of great-power rivalry in which numerous actors, even minor players, are jostling to take centre stage”.

    This assertion is illustrated in detail through 10 chapters looking at different nations, one region and space:

    Australia: Although it is the sixth largest country, about 70% is uninhabitable and almost 50% of the population live in just three cities by the south-east coast. Yet it is a key ally of the United States located on the edge of a region in which the emergent super-power China is seeking to assert ever-stronger control. Consequently the country has to perform "a careful balancing act in which a misstep could have serious and lasting consequences in a region now considered to be the most economically important in the world".

    Iran: This is a country larger than Britain, France and Germany combined that is surrounded by mountains making it "a fortress". Effectively the leader of the Shia Islamic world, it has spent 20 years creating "a corridor to the Mediterranean" through substantial influence in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, while fostering various Shia terrorist groups and trying to develop a nuclear capability. Marshall believes that: "Eventually there will be either an uprising which replaces the current establishment, or the establishment will slowly wither, but at the moment the authorities still have the upper hand".

    Saudi Arabia: Ever since the Saud family created the nation by force of arms (1902-1932), this country has achieved its wealth and power through its massive oil reserves, but the world is moving away from fossil fuels, so diversification and modernisation are belatedly on the agenda. The Saudis see themselves as the leaders of the Sunni Muslim world, but the fundamentalist version of Islam that they promote (Wahhabism) is followed by less than 40% of Saudis themselves and has spawned the likes of Bin Laden and ISIS.

    The United Kingdom: Marshall seems relaxed about the impact of Brexit: "The UK remains a leading second-tier power in economic, political and military terms". But he thinks that there is a real possibility of Scotland leaving the UK and opines "a case can be made that if Scotland does leave, the damage to the UK's international standing would be worse than that caused by it leaving the EU".

    Greece: This is a country which includes over 6,000 islands, most of them stretching across the Aegean Sea to the very coastline of the ancient enemy Turkey. Historically the Greeks remember some four centuries of occupation by the Ottomans, the Greek War of Independence of 1821-1829 and the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-1922. Today the country sees itself as a defence against a hostile Russian Navy trying to break out of the Black Sea, a front line in Europe's migrant crisis, and a crucial transit route for gas pipelines coming out of the eastern Mediterranean.

    Turkey: All that remains of the once huge and long-lasting Ottoman Empire is modern-day Turkey, but Marshall believes that "There are clear signs of 'neo-Ottomanism' in its ambitions to expand its control and influence as power is once more being projected in all directions with significant repercussions in Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia". Perhaps most immediately there is the problem of Turkey's truculent position in NATO and he argues that "Turkey is now at best a 'semi-detached' NATO member".

    The Sahel: This is a region of Africa south of the Sahara and north of the rainforests which embraces most notably large parts of Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad and Sudan. Marshall describes it as "one of the most troubled, poor and environmentally damaged places on the planet" and he highlights the growth of radical Islamic terrorism and the struggles over natural resources including rare-earth materials.

    Ethiopia: This is the second most populous country in Africa (after Nigeria) with nine major ethnic groups and more than 80 languages. Water defines its geopolitical position: it has no coastline and frequently suffers droughts, but the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile is Africa's largest hydroelectric power plant and could improve the nation's economic standards and mitigate its ethnic divisions.

    Spain: This kingdom - twice the size of the UK - brought together in the 1500s is still haunted by "the spectre of violent regional nationalism", most notably in Galicia, Catalonia and the Basque Country and to a lesser extent in Andalusia. As Marshall underlines: "An independent Catalonia would embolden those campaigning for an independent Corsica, Scotland, Flanders, Sicily, Bavaria etc".

    Space: In a final chapter which sits rather oddly in a book on geography, Marshall takes a fascinating look at space and posits two models: national competition (all 12 men to have walked on the moon were American) or international co-operation (more than 240 men and women from 19 countries have visited the International Space Station). He considers the weaponisation of space and argues that "War in space could be earth-shattering".

    “Prisoners Of Geography” by Tim Marshall (2015)

    The sub-title of this book makes a bold claim: “Ten maps that tell you everything you need to know about global politics”. While it is true that there are 10 double-page maps, there are another 10 smaller maps; the maps do not, of course, stand alone, but are supported by some 240 pages of text; and “everything” is inevitably a subjective judgement.

    Having said all that, this is an exceptionally accomplished work with many admirable features: it covers every continent and major nation (except Oceania); it is immensely informative and bang up-to-date; it covers so much material in a commendably concise text; and the writing is clear while the judgements are insightful – all these attributes reflecting Marshall’s experience and skill as a British media reporter of international affairs and global conflicts.

    The main theme of the book – reflected in the title – is that overwhelmingly geo-politics has been, and largely still is, shaped by the geographical characteristics of nations and their neighbours. As he puts it: "… the choices of those who lead the seven billion inhabitants of this planet will to some degree always be shaped by the rivers, mountains, deserts, lakes and seas that constrain us all”.

    This central argument is illustrated in detail through 10 chapters looking at different nations or regions:

    Russia: He explains the strategic thinking of the biggest country in the world that perceives two military weaknesses. First, the North European Plain that has been the route for successive invasions of the country since the Poles in 1605, leading the Russians to want a buffer of friendly nations to its west. Second, the lack of a warm-water port with direct access to the oceans that was one of the major factors behind the take-over of Crimea so that it retained clear control of the port of Sevastopol.

    China: He sets out the importance to China, the most populous country in the world, of the province of Xinjiang conquered in the 18th century and the territory of Tibet annexed in 1951, so that it has secure borders on all sides. Now China is building a Blue Water navy to assert its power in the East China Sea and the South China Sea and it is investing throughout Asia, Africa and South America to create strategic assets like ports and acquire strategic minerals, metals and sources of energy.

    USA: He argues that this is the nation most blessed by geography: a huge expanse of territory with no threatening neighbours, vast resources with plenty of navigable rivers and extensive infrastructure, and access to and protection by two massive oceans. He is not one of those commentators suggesting the imminent decline of America: ”The planet’s most successful country is about to become self-sufficient in energy, it remains the pre-eminent economic power and it spends more on research and development for its military than the overall military budget of all the other NATO countries combined”.

    Western Europe: He spells out the geographical reasons for Europe becoming the ‘First World’: mild climate, the right soil, navigable rivers, natural harbours, and no deserts or frozen wastes. As for modern times, he sees the European Union as having "worked brilliantly" in locking France and Germany together and preventing further European wars.

    Africa: He is not optimistic about the future of the continent. Geography is against it with lots of hostile climates, a lack of navigable rivers, and nation states artificially created by former colonial powers. He describes the Democratic Republic of the Congo as ”the great black hole” that has been home to the world’s most deadly conflict since the Second World War.

    The Middle East: He explains the problems created by the drawing of artificial lines on the map by Britain and France after the First World War, the nature of the Arab/Israeli conflict, the failure of the so-called Arab Spring, the nature of the Sunni/Shia divide in the Muslim world, and the growth of jihadist movements which ”may be the Arab version of Europe’s Thirty Years’ War”.

    India and Pakistan: He reminds us that these two nations – once a single British colony – have fought four major wars and many skirmishes with the Kashmir issue remaining the most serious area of conflict. He despairs of Pakistan which has been in a state of civil war for more than a decade but is hopeful about the continuing economic growth and political power of India.

    Korea and Japan: He sets out the territorial disputes over control of various islands between Japan and Russia, China and South Korea respectively, but understandably sees the greatest risk of conflict between nuclear-armed North Korea and South Korea, although he is confident of the superior strength of South Korea and its ally America.

    Latin America: Like Africa and for similar geographical reasons, he is not optimistic about the future of the 20 countries in this region. The rainforest, the mountain ranges, the lack of navigable rivers, the lack of cooperation between nations, together with the poverty and corruption, do not auger well for this southern section of the globe.

    The Arctic: He explains how climate change has allowed easier access to the region and the discovery of large energy deposits leading to new interest in this part of the world, especially by an aggressively assertive Russia. But the Arctic region includes land in parts of eight countries and there are currently at least nine legal disputes and claims over sovereignty.

    This is a work that should be read by every national and international politician (especially in the USA). If it is the only such book they read and they can take all the messages on board, they will have achieved a great deal of wisdom and insight.

    Inevitably, one wonders whether geo-politics will continue to be as shaped and constrained as it has been by geographical features and, at the beginning and the end of his book, Marshall hints at some of the factors which may be loosening the bars of these 'prisons', such as air power, the Internet, climate change, and space. For now though, geography remains the most powerful influence on everything from national wealth to military strength and this book is a wonderful primer on geo-politics.

    "A Promised Land" by Barack Obama (2020)

    Long before Barack Obama became President of the United States, I read his two books: “Dreams From My Father” [my review click here] and “The Audacity Of Hope” [my review click here]. Then, more recently, I read Michelle Obama’s work “Becoming” [my review click here]. I’m a huge fan of the Obamas and looked forward immensely to Barack Obama’s memoirs of his time in the White House. “A Promised Land” made ideal reading for the third UK lockdown of the coronavirus pandemic.

    In a preface, Obama tells us that he drafted the work with pen and pad rather than a computer. He explains that he envisaged the project would take a year and cover maybe 500 pages. In fact, he found that his memoirs will take two volumes and this first part alone is some 700 pages. Whenever he mentions a new person in his narrative, he provides a short pen portrait and, whenever he turns to a policy topic or nation state, he sets out some history and context. He writes with great fluidity and style and, for all its length, this is an immensely enjoyable, as well as informative and contemplative, read.

    Conventionally, one might have expected a presidential memoir to start with a high note of his time in office: in Obama’s case, perhaps the passage of the Affordable Care Act or the killing of Osama bin Laden. Then the text would jump back in time to his arrival at the White House or perhaps even further to the start of his presidential election campaign. But Obama is different. The opening pages are not about him but about the White House groundskeepers. Then the flash-back is all the way to his childhood in Hawaii. He reminds us that he only met his Kenyan father once. So many driven individuals seem to have had a father absent from the home and I guess that includes me. Obama found his refuge in books – as I did.

    In fact, it is 200 pages into the 700 page text before he wins the presidency. First, he tells us about his time at Columbia University in New York, his work as a community organiser in Chicago, his studies at Harvard Law School, his period as a Illinois state senator, and his unsuccessful attempt to enter the House of Representatives. He is frank about the strain that his political ambition put on his marriage to Michelle. He admits that “we began arguing more” with “my marriage strained”. Yet, two years after his defeat, he runs for the US Senate – a decision he acknowledges represents “brashness” and “sheer chutzpah” – and wins easily in a race that “felt charmed”. Fascinatingly, one of his initiatives in the Senate was “funding to safeguard against a pandemic outbreak”.

    As if such a meteoric rise was not enough, just two years into what should have been his first six-year term as a senator, Obama decided to have a go at the White House. In these memoirs, he spends more space describing the tough battle to win the Democratic nomination against Hillary Clinton (85 pages) than he does narrating his easier fight in the general election against John McCain (50 pages).

    Barack Obama’s presidency began at the height of the subprime mortgage fiasco in the housing market which occasioned a triple economic crisis: the worst recession since the Great Depression, a near collapse of the banking system, and an impending bankruptcy of America’s leading car manufacturers. The stock market had lost 40% of its value and unemployment would eventually reach 10%. The recession was addressed by the 1,073-page American Recovery and Reinvestment Act which was passed in the first month with “precisely zero Republican votes” in the House and just three GOP votes in the Senate in spite of Obama’s heroic efforts to reach across the aisle.

    The housing crisis was countered by the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP) and the Home Affordable Refinance Program (HARP). The banking system held up following a bold formula of institutional stress tests carried out by the Federal Reserve. And the car industry survived with General Motors being restructured and Chrysler going into partnership with Fiat.

    Obama acknowledges that “my administration’s handling of the financial crisis still generates fierce debate“. He explains that: “For many thoughtful critics … the fact that I had engineered a return to pre-crisis normalcy is precisely the problem – a missed opportunity if not an outright betrayal”. He is honest with readers: “I wonder whether I should have been bolder in those early months”. But he concludes: “my first hundred days in office revealed a basic strand of my political character. I was a reformer, conservative in temperament if not in vision”.

    There is a famous quote, usually – but wrongly – attributed to the German politician Otto von Bismarck, which was in fact written by the American poet John Godfrey Saxe: “Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made”. This observation was in my mind as I read the 50 pages which Obama devotes to explaining the tortuous process which finally led to the enactment of his signature legislative achievement: the Affordable Care Act (ACA), often called Obamacare.

    To most non-Americans, the case for reform would look compelling: in spite of the US spending a lot more money per person on healthcare than any other advanced economy, the results were similar or worse and, in spite of Medicare for seniors and Medicaid for the poor, more than 43 million Americans were uninsured. Even Obama thought the argument was powerful: “When I think back to those early conversations, it’s hard to deny my overconfidence. I was convinced that the logic of healthcare reform was so obvious that even in the face of well-organized opposition I could rally the American people’s support”.

    But the legislative process in the US is much more complicated than in other democratic nations, mainly because of the constitutional dispersal of power, the financial clout of lobbyists and campaign funders, and the bitterest political divide in the nation since the civil war. So the process took over a year and the Bill of 906 pages was only passed with a final vote margin of seven. Even then, a substantial series of compromises was forced on Obama, such as abandonment of ‘the public option’. In spite of four years of Trump’s efforts to destroy Obamacare, it survives and President Biden now has a foundation on which he can build.

    Obama campaigned for the White House as an anti-war candidate: he had opposed the invasion of Iraq and, in the presidential election campaign, he argued that the war in Afghanistan had been neglected as a result of the focus on Iraq. Once in the White House, however, he quickly found himself having to back the withdrawal plan for Iraq signed by Bush a month before inauguration and agreed an extra three months for withdrawal of combat troops compared to the timetable he had proposed in the campaign. He took longer to review the situation in Afghanistan but eventually agreed to the deployment of 30,000 extra troops there.

    Obama had something of a reputation for taking his time to make decisions and being very deliberative about the process. In these memoirs, he explains that, over two months, he presided over a series of nine two-to-three-hour meetings in the Situation Room to evaluate the military’s plan for Afghanistan. The irony was that, a mere nine months after becoming president, Obama was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace. He acknowledges “the tension between getting a peace prize and expanding a war”.

    Large sections of the last 250 pages of the book are devoted to different areas and aspects of foreign policy. In so far as it is fair to summarise Obama’s approach in a single sentence, that would be his assertion that: “I was determined to shift a certain mindset that had gripped not just the Bush administration but much of Washington – one that saw threats around every corner, took a perverse pride in acting unilaterally, and considered military action as an almost routine means of addressing foreign policy challenges”.

    As well the issue of climate change, he takes the reader through relations with Iran, Russia and China followed by discussions of the Middle East and the Arab Spring. As his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton does in her memoirs “Hard Choices” [my review click here], he explains some of the many conflicting considerations in any decision. “The world was messy”, he writes, and “in the conduct of foreign policy, I had to constantly balance competing interests, interests shaped by the choices of previous administrations and the contingencies of the moment”.

    After the soaring expectations of Obama’s election, he concedes that “For most of my second year in office, we were in the barrel”. The reason was clear: “The economy still stank“. He refers to “the cumulative effects of exhaustion” and acknowledges that “Everybody was sleep deprived”. The mid-term elections are usually bad news for the party holding the presidency, but this time it was a disaster: “The Democrats had been routed, tracking towards a loss of 63 House seats, the worst beating the party had taken since sacrificing 72 seats at the mid-point of FDR’s second term”.

    However, this volume of memoirs concludes with a chapter on the killing of Osama bin Laden, an action which was very popular with the US electorate. It is a dramatic conclusion to the book, but it is only two and a half year’s into the first term of the Obama presidency. So the second volume of these fascinating and eloquent memoirs will have to cover the next five and a half years.

    "Seven Ways To Change The World" by Gordon Brown (2021)

    In these troubled times when so many are depressed and even in despair about our world, it is a rare pleasure to read a book that addresses head-on most of the major problems that we face, that describes the challenges so eloquently and offers solutions that are so practical, and that is imbued with such optimism and hope. The author spent 13 years as Chancellor of the Exchequer and then Prime Minister in the United Kingdom and is now something of an elder statesman and the timing of his work could not be better coming in the middle of the most severe global pandemic for a century.

    What are the seven problems that Brown addresses in a series of individual chapters?

    1. How can we combat global pandemics like Covid-19 and transform global health through a more equably-funded World Health Organisation?
    2. How can we revive the global economy in a way that achieves greater growth, addresses poverty, and avoids recessions?
    3. How can we resolve the climate emergency and achieve a zero-carbon future through measures like carbon pricing?
    4. How can we unlock the potential of the world's billions through a revolution in education at each stage of childhood and adulthood?
    5. How can we achieve the UN's Sustainable Development Goals of 2015 by reducing both absolute poverty and relative inequality?
    6. How can we abolish tax havens so that corporations and the rich pay fair taxes that enable governments to fund much-needed public services?
    7. How can we prevent nuclear proliferation and reduce the existential risk of nuclear war?

    For all the merits of Gordon Brown's tome of almost 500 pages, he needed a good editor or, if he had one, he needed to have listened to that editor. Too often, he is repetitive and meandering and every chapter could have been shorter and should have ended with a summary of his actual proposals. The last two chapters - on the conflict between the USA and China and on the the need to turn nationalism to patriotism - are worthy but could have been saved for a different book. However, the central message of the work - global problems need global solutions - may seem self-evident but his arguments are compelling and his proposals are both radical and realistic.

    "The Spirit Level" by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett (2009)

    This is one of the most important books that I have read in five decades of reading because its scope is so wide and its message so compelling and because it resonates powerfully with my own political principles and passion for social justice. The authors are both British academics who are personal as well as professional partners. Both are professors specialising in epidemiology, but Wilkinson originally studied economic history while Pickett started in the field of physical anthropology, and this expertise in a range of disciplines infuses this fascinating work.

    The core message can be simply stated: on a whole range of significant social indicators, countries with less inequality do markedly better than those with greater inequality. Hence the subtitle for the hardback edition of "Why more equal societies almost always do better" and the subtitle for the paperwork edition (which I read) of "Why equality is better for everyone" (perhaps the stronger second formulation derives from what the authors describe as "the extraordinarily positive reception to the hardback edition").

    So what are the indicators that are examined by Wilkinson & Pickett? For the key graph showing the powerful relationship between lower income inequality and better outcomes, they construct an index of health and social problems made up of level of trust, mental illness (including drug and alcohol addiction), life expectancy and infant mortality, obesity, children's educational performance, tenage births, homicides, imprisonment rates, and social mobility. In subsequent chapters, they explore these indices in more detail. In the course of the book, over 400 sources are referenced. The only social problem which is found to be more common in more equal countries is, perhaps surprisingly, suicide.

    What are the countries compared for this study? The thesis of the authors is that, once a nation has reached a certain level of development, further rises in overall income make little difference to health and happiness; instead what matters is the distribution of income within the country. Therefore the focus of their work is nations which are developed and for which robust and comparable data is available: a total of 23 rich countries, most of them in Europe and North America. A vital sub-section of their thesis is that, lower levels of inequality provide better social outcomes not just for the less privileged in a country but for those at all levels of the economic hierarchy (although, of course, the poorest gain the most). The authors find that the same conclusions apply to the individual states of the USA which could be thought of as 'a nation of nations'.

    So who does best and who does worst? Wilkinson & Pickett show repeatedly that the most successful countries are Sweden, Norway, Finland and Japan, while the least successful are the UK, the USA and Portugal. Among the states of the USA, those which perform well are New Hampshire, Minnesota, North Dakota and Vermont, with those doing least well being Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama.

    The case for a strong correlation between lower inequality and better outcomes is powerful and evidenced again and again and again. The case that we have here not simply correlation but causation is not proven beyond doubt, but a chapter discussing causation finds no other credible explanation for such dramatically different and consistent outcomes. At the heart of the explanation is the assertion that we define our sense of worth by how we perceive ourselves in relation to others who are doing better or worse than us and when there are wide inequalities more people are likely to become mentally ill or commit serious crime and so on.

    Where "The Spirit Level" is weak is in relation to the actions necessary to bring about greater equality and better social outcomes. While there are brief references to some of the policies which governments ought to pursue, there is no detail. Instead there is much enthusiasm for employee share ownership and participation and a call for a larger non profit sector of the economy which, while desirable, would hardly be sufficient to reduce and reverse the massive inequalities of income, wealth and power which we see in nations like the UK and the USA. They argue: "At this stage, creating the political will to make society more equal is more important than pinning our colours to a particular set of policies to reduce inequality."

    To their credit, Wilkinson & Pickett have not just written a book. They have created the Equality Trust with the aim "to create a groundswell of opinion in favour of greater equality".

    Link: the Equality Trust click here

    "Stepping On White Corns" by Jim Moher (2007)

    Two years after I moved to the London borough of Brent (where I still live), in 1986 the borough became politically infamous for bitter racial divisions sparked by the suspension of Maureen McGoldrick, the headmistress of Sudbury Infants School, for an alleged racial remark. At the time, my son was a pupil at Sudbury Junior School which was located on the same site (since 1999, the two schools have been combined) and suffering from the chronic teacher shortages that were a major feature of the chaotic education policies of the borough.

    Two decades later, the episode and its wide ramifications have been written up by a local Labour politician who played an active role in many of the debates at the time and whom I have known since moving to to the borough. Jim Moher obtained his PhD with a thesis on the history of the millwrights and he has brought to this political history all the research and forensic skills that he deployed on that thesis.

    "Stepping On White Corns" is a formidable work: almost 300 pages of close text representing a meticulous chronicling of events, a diligent noting of comprehensive sources, and a genuine attempt to present different viewpoints, although he admits that it is "somewhat subjective"”. It is an account enlivened by a vast cast of characters, colourful in both senses of the word, and some - like Ken Livingstone, Paul Boateng, and Trevor Phillips - still around the political scene.

    The spark for the traumatic events was an angry and unrecorded telephone conversation between McGoldrick and a junior town hall official called Shelagh Szulc. Moher's personal conclusion is that "she [McGoldrick] may have said something which was capable of misunderstanding or misinterpretation in a heated telephone conversation" but he is very clear (as I am) that the headmistress was not racist and had not made a racist remark.

    Sadly for McGoldrick and many others, the potent mix of politics and race - combined with personal ambition and many misunderstandings - of that time exploded into what Moher calls Brent's "nervous breakdown". Of course, the borough was not alone - especially in the capital - in acting with possibly good intentions but often political obsessiveness. He writes: "Those were looney days in Brent and London in many ways. People caught up in these events acted strangely and, in most normal people's eyes, were quite mad to be involved at all in such activities".

    Reading "Stepping On White Corns" is a sobering and often disturbing reminder of a dreadful time for politics and education in Brent. Fortunately my son managed to secure good examination results and the borough now is what Moher describes as "a model of social and multi-racial, multi-cultural cohesion".

    [The book has been published privately and is available from the author at 51 Medway Gardens, Wembley, Middlesex HA0 2RJ price £11.50 including postage & packaging.]

    "The Storm" by Vince Cable (2009)

    If there were a coalition government in Britain, a prime candidate to be Chancellor of the Exchequer would be the Liberal Democrat economic spokesman since 2003, Vince Cable. First of all, he has the knowledge: he was Chief Economist for Shell from 1995-1997. Second, he has the reputation: up to and during the global economic crisis which started in 2007, he has been an impressive voice of reason. So this book - his take on the crisis - has to be welcomed. It is commendably short (just 170 pages), no doubt mainly because he is an active politician who wrote it "in some haste in the gaps left in a very busy few months in the summer and autumn of 2008". It is lucid and balanced but ultimately somewhat disappointing in not providing a clear set of policies to avoid such 'boom and bust' in the future.

    Cable puts the current 'credit crunch' into perspective in two important respects. First, he shows that it is only the latest, if one of the largest, in a succession of economic crises over several centuries - arguably the sixth since the Napoleonic Wars - and therefore should not have been as surprising as it was to most politicians and financiers. Second, he demonstrates how this perfect economic storm is in fact a set of interlocking failures in the global financial system which makes a solution neither obvious or easy.

    The components of the crisis - as he identifies them - are:

    As a British commentator, Cable obviously devotes special attention to the crisis in the UK economy which has led to the bail-out of Northern Rock, the effective nationalisation of Royal Bank of Scotland/NatWest and HBOS, and a minority government stake in Lloyds TSB. He asserts: "few now question that the Anglo-Saxon model of finance was deeply flawed, unstable and unsustainable". A shame then, that he does not offer a clearer and more radical policy alternative.

    "Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil And Fundamentalism In Central Asia" by Ahmed Rashid (2001)

    Rarely can a book have been so timely and so topical. Rashid is a Pakistani journalist who has been writing about Afghanistan for over 20 years. His book was published in 2000 to critical acclaim but a limited readership. Then, on 11 September 2001, there came the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington and the book became required reading for anyone wanting a better understanding of the complex politics of Afghanistan and the wider region. I was only able to start reading the work as the American bombing commenced and the collapse of the regime proved so surprisingly swift that I was struggling to finish the text before the Northern Alliance finished the Taliban.

    Rashid describes the history of Afghanistan as "one of the greatest tragedies of this century”" and reminds us several times that the invasion by the Soviet Union and the subsequent civil wars have cost some 1.5 million lives in a desperately poor country of some 20 million where life expectancy is just 43 years. The Taliban appeared almost out of nowhere when they took over Kandahar on 5 November 1994. The capital Kabul fell to the Taliban on 26 September 1996 and, if it had not been for American intervention, who knows how much longer the reign of terror would have lasted.

    The tragedy of Afghanistan is its position - surrounded by many neighbours with their own agendas - and its ethnic mix, providing plenty of proxies for the adjacent states to use to their own ends. The Taliban would never have arisen, but for the support of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia - supported by the US - who wanted to use the Pashtun ethnic group to block the influence of the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Turkmen who eventually formed the Northern Alliance, backed by Iran, Turkey, India, Russia and most of the Central Asian Republics.

    The Americans created a Frankenstein regime that later harboured Osama Bin Laden, because the USA forgot about Afghanistan once the Soviet Union withdrew and was content to leave matters to its Pakistani and Saudi friends. As Rashid puts it: "The pipeline of US military aid to the Mujaheddin was never replaced by a pipeline of humanitarian aid that could have been an inducement for the warlords to make peace and rebuild the country".

    Rashid's book is particularly fascinating in explaining how this regional stand-off has at its heart the issue of access to the oil and gas riches of land-locked Central Asia, the last untapped reserves of energy in the world today. Indeed I learned so much from this articulate and well-informed book, including the meaning of the term 'Taliban' (students of Islam) and the proper interpretation of the word 'jihad' (the inner struggle of a Muslim to become a better person).

    If we want lasting peace in Afghanistan, we have to be prepared for a long haul: "Ethnicity is the clarion call of the modern era. Trying to resolve ethnic problems and keep states together needs persistent and consistent diplomacy rather than virtual bribes to keep various warlords quiet".

    "Ten Lessons For a Post-Pandemic World" by Fareed Zakaria (2020)

    Zakaria is an Indian-American political scientist who hosts CNN's flagship international affairs show. His book - published in October 2020 with information as recent as July 2020 - is immensely topical, informative and thought-provoking, even if there is nothing terribly original or radical in it and too few proposals for practical change. My effort at summarising the 10 lessons is as follows:

    1. Global capitalism is so open and so fast that it is inherently unstable, promoting a clash between people and nature that has caused zoonotic diseases like Covid-19, and we need to build in some security and resilience through measures like better regulation of markets, stronger public health systems and a new carbon tax.
    2. In the United States, the weakness of the federal government and the multiplicity of state and local units has made a concerted effort to tackle issues like coronavirus almost impossible, so that the country needs not so much larger government as better government with more professional expertise and better learning.
    3. Reliance on free markets to provide comprehensive health, access to education & training, and social mobility - the Reagan-Thatcher model - is not working and a better approach is the 'flexicurity' model of Northern European economies (classically Denmark) based on high taxation, substantial welfare provision, and social cohesion.
    4. The pandemic has revealed how the less educated and less wealthy feel alienated from the elite, but people should listen to the experts who know best how to respond to such a crisis and, for their part, the experts should show empathy and listen to the people.
    5. New technologies - most notably artificial intelligence - will utterly transform the world of work, so that we will have to consider ideas like a universal basic income or topping up the wages of low-income workers.
    6. Covid-19 will not lead to a decline in urban living because people thrive on real life contact, but it could encourage a reimagining of cities with more walking and cycling and ideas like 'the 15 minute city'.
    7. Coronavirus has highlighted and worsened the inequalities in societies and economies with poor and (in the US especially) black citizens suffering the most, but meanwhile countries with less inequality and higher levels of trust seem to have handled the crisis best.
    8. In spite of what some commentators may think, the pandemic will not result in the death or even the decline (except perhaps a small and temporary one) in globalisation because the forces are too great and the benefits too large.
    9. The world is becoming bipolar as the historic ascendancy of the United States is increasingly being challenged by the growing economic and military power of China but, while bipolarity is inevitable, a new cold war is a choice.
    10. The 'liberal international order' created by the United States after the Second World War has brought unprecedented peace and prosperity, but is now under threat from America's abdication and China's expansionism, yet there are strong practical reasons why it can survive.
    If one had to reduce this book to one sentence, it would be: "the pandemic will not reshape history so much as accelerate it". Overall it is a profoundly positive work but, Zakaria does warn, especially in the relation to climate change, that "the next crisis could be the last".

    "This Divided Island" by Samantha Subramanian (2014)

    I read this book about the Sri Lankan civil war before and during a two-week trip to the island in which I ensured that I visited the Tamil part of the country as well as the more general areas populated by the majority Sinhalese. It is an unconventional book in a couple of respects.

    First, it is not written by an insider or a total outsider and, though it is a work of non-fiction, the power of the writing has some of the elements of a novel. Subramanian is an Indian of Tamil ethnicity and Brahmin caste who studied journalism at Penn State University, so he has some sympathies with Tamils and speaks their language but he has the objectivity and fluency of a journalist.

    Second, this is not a factual narrative of the Sri Lankan civil war, although helpfully there is a two-page timeline. Instead the structure of the work is a series of personal stories curated through interviews and travels. This approach means that the reader learns little hard fact but really feels the pain and loss of the people on either side of the conflict.

    Subramanian refers to the origins of the majority Buddhist Sinhalese and the minority Hindu Tamils and argues that, though Buddhist nationalists represent the Sinhalese as the native population and portray the Tamils as foreigners, "Nobody knows with certainty whether the Sinhalese were here before the Tamils" but "Both communities have lived on the island for over twenty centuries". He insists: "In Sri Lanka, ethnic divisions are lines drawn not in sand but in slush".

    He argues that "Through no doing of their own, Tamils found themselves unfairly advantaged" by British colonial policy which meant that Tamils were disproportionately likely to go to university, work in the civil service, and learn English. Following independence, in 1956, parliament sought to correct what was seen as an historic and unfair advantage by making Sinhalese the sole official language of the country. Then, in 1972, a new constitution gave Buddhism 'the foremost place' among the nation's religions.

    In 1975, a Tamil called Velupillai Prabhakaran - who the next year founded the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) or Tamil Tigers - assassinated the mayor of Jaffna. The beginning of the civil war is usually dated from a Tiger ambush of an army convoy in Jaffna on 23 July 1983 when 12 soldiers were killed. The government finally declared a crushing victory on 18 May 2009 and Prabhakaran himself was killed in the final day of fighting.

    The 26 year long war cost up to 100,000 lives. Then, in the final bloody weeks, some 40,000 non- combatants were killed in what many have classed a war crime by the Sri Lankan army. The Tamil word for the war was 'prachanai' which simply translates as 'the problem'.

    Subramanian is even-handed in his acknowledgment of injustice on both sides of the conflict. He explains how the LTTE forced ever-younger boys into their army and killed those they regarded as traitors of even just critics and he writes of the Tigers showing "such an endless genius for brutality". But he expresses horror at the excesses of the Sri Lankan army, particularly the shelling of civilians and hospitals in the final weeks, and records the multiple disappearances of former Tiger soldiers and critical journalists since the conflict ended.

    He notes: "In the long war, the two sides had grown closer in temper than either would have cared to admit".

    "Time To Start Thinking" by Edward Luce (2012)

    The subtitle to this book describes much better its topic: "America And The Spectre Of Decline". The fact that the author is not himself American adds perspective but Luce is a very well-informed observer: he spent a year in Washington DC as speechwriter to former US Treasury Secretary Larry Summers (whom he is not slow to criticise) and he was the Washington Bureau Chief of the "Financial Times" from 2006-2010.

    The author's choice of sub-titles for his chapters neatly summarise his main themes:

    Luce states from the start: "This book will not predict America's collapse. But it will prove skeptical about America's ability to sharply reverse her fortunes." He argues: "If America is to restore its competitiveness, it will need to do many things, few of which will be possible without a much more effective federal government. In today's world, smart government is a critical ingredient of national competiveness. Unless America can address government's role in a more pragmatic light, it may doom itself to continued decline."

    This is an interesting message from a journalist who has worked for the Right-wing "Financial Times" since 1995. It is a line that will appeal to most Democrats, independents and even old-style Republicans, but the current leadership of the Republican Party (and most especially the Tea Party movement) would regard it as heresy. I read Luce's book on a trip to America in the run up to the 2012 presidential and congressional elections and I would love to make it compulsory for all the candidates to read this evidenced, balanced and insightful challenge to the whole US political and economic establishment.

    "21 Lessons For The 21st Century" by Yuval Noah Harari (2018)

    Harari is an Israeli academic specialising in world history who is best-known for his books "Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind" and "Homo Deus: A Brief History Of Tomorrow". I have not read these earlier works but I understand that his latest book reworks many of the themes of his previous writing and indeed he acknowledges that earlier versions of some segments were previously published as essays and articles. So, fascinating and enjoyable though this book is, there is a sense that it is something of a smorgasbord of earlier material.

    This sense is underlined by the title and structure of the book. Convenient though it may be for the title, it is difficult to divine each chapter as a lesson, rather than a knowledgeable rumination, and the division of the book into 21 chapters is something of an artifice because the chapters vary substantially in length from five which are fewer than 10 pages to one which is 45 pages. Having said all this, "21 Lessons" is a genuinely impressive and very readable work. The author displays a stunning breadth of knowledge of different subjects, different nations and different periods of history.

    Harari points out that "For the first time in history, infectious diseases kill fewer people than old age, famine kills fewer people than obesity, and violence kills fewer people than accidents". So he is not so worried about the dangers of terrorism and conventional war, both of which he views as minor threats compared to the existential challenges of nuclear weapons, ecological collapse and technological disruption (especially biotech and infotech).

    He has no faith in religion (he is especially hard on Judaism) and doubts the capacity of liberal democracies to survive in their present form, but he offers few practical solutions (he is sympathetic to the idea of a universal basic income and supports stronger regulation of big data). He is very much a globalist arguing that "we need a new global identity" and that global problems need global solutions (he is a major supporter of the European Union and the United Nations).

    The penultimate chapter – by far the longest – addresses perhaps the most important of existential questions: what is the meaning of life?

    First, he addresses a popular story told for thousands of years which explains that “we are all part of an eternal cycle that encompasses and connects all beings”. He mentions two examples of this circle of life story: the Hindu epic the Bhagavad-Gita and the Disney epic “The Lion King”. Next he looks at religions and ideologies that believe in “a linear cosmic drama which has a definite beginning, a not-too-long middle and a once-and-for-all ending”. Such religions include Christianity, Islam and Judaism and such ideologies include nationalism and communism. Harari rejects all such deterministic stories as lacking in evidence and failing to explain the world as we find it.

    Eventually Harari comes to the view that: “The meaning of life isn’t a ready-made product. There is no divine script and nothing outside me can give meaning to my life”. He is very attracted to Buddhism and explains that “According to the Buddha … life has no meaning and people don’t need to create any meaning”. He argues that “The big question facing humans isn’t ‘what is the meaning of life’ but rather ‘how do we get out of suffering?'”

    And how do we do that? He is passionate about Vipassana meditation which involves observation of the present moment with concentration on breath and sensations throughout the body. So keen is he on such introspection that he meditates for two hours each day and each year takes a meditation retreat of a month or two.

    "When China Rules The World" by Martin Jacques (2009)

    British academic and writer Martin Jacques brings a very distinctive approach to this impressive study of modern China: he was editor of the Communist Party of Great Britain's journal "Marxism Today" from 1977 until its closure in 1991 and he was married to a young Malaysian of Indian origin who tragically died only six years after they met in 1993.

    It is a long book - a main text of 435 pages with more than another 100 pages of bibliography and notes - but it is very well-written and combines erudition and insight to make this a must-read work for any serious student of China. If, as Jacques himself contends "Understanding China will be one of the great challenges of the twenty-first century", this work is a considerable aid in that understanding.

    In a serious and comprehensive analysis, Jacques puts modern-day China into a long historic context and explores contemporary (and possible future) relations between a resurgent China and other East Asian states, the United States, and other parts of the world. His main themes can be summarised as follows:

    Jacques states: "The underlying argument of the book is that China's impact on the world will be as great as that of the United States over the last century, probably far greater." He insists that: "China, with continuing economic growth (albeit at a reduced rate) is destined to become one of the two major global powers and ultimately the major global power".

    And what are the prospects for economic liberalisation leading to political liberalisation and even fully-fledged democracy? Jacques believes that there is little demand for democracy within China and that the country is not ready for multi-party democracy based on universal suffrage. He feels that the supremacy of the Chinese Communist Party is secure for the next couple of decades but that eventually there will be reform, probably on the basis of particular provinces or municipalities and possibly through changes in the party itself.

    Link: author's web site click here

    "Why Do People Hate America?" by Ziauddin Sardar and Merryl Wyn Davies (2002)

    After the horrific events of 11 September 2001, Americans and non-Americans alike have struggled to understand the reason for such an all-out assault on the USA and this international bestseller - published in 2002 - has proved to be one of the most thoughtful and influential contributions to a debate of profound importance. Significantly it comes from two British-based Muslim writers - Pakistan-born Ziauddin Sardar, a writer and broadcaster, and Welsh-born Merryl Wyn Davies, a writer and anthropologist.

    Many Americans will find this an exceptionally difficult book to read because it challenges so many beliefs which are central to the American psyche but, if they are open-minded enough, they will find it illuminating if disturbing. This is in no sense a 'balanced' analysis, since there is no effort to delineate what is 'good' about American society - that is taken as understood. Equally this is not a prognosis for change, since it does not attempt to set out specifically what needs to be done to address and resolve the hatred - the reader is left to infer this from the analysis, but I think that this is a serious weakness in the work.

    So, just why do so many people around the world hate America with such a passion? As one would expect from intellectuals like Sardar and Davies, the answer is not singular or simple.

    Sardar and Davies argue that, since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, America has become not simply the only super power but a "hyper power" without historical precedent in its wealth and strength. If their criticisms could be reduced to a single charge, it would probably be that this immense power results in overweening arrogance which in turns results in a blind belief in the superiority of all things American and an inability to engage openly with other countries, cultures and opinions.

    The authors conclude:"To avoid a clash of civilisations, the USA must accept that all civilisations have the same right to exist, the same freedom to express themselves, and the same liberty to order their society guided by their own moral vision. Moreover, all other people of the world have the right and the freedom to disagree with America".

    "Why I'm No Longer Talking To White People About Race" by Reni Eddo-Lodge (2017)

    The award-winning black novelist Bernardine Evaristo has described the title of this non-fiction work - the first by Eddo-Lodge - as "gloriously provocative" and "marketing gold". The truth is, of course, that the whole book is a conversation with white and non-white readers, by a young black woman born in north London and raised by a Nigerian mother, and it has achieved massive sales and caused a storm of comment.

    Timing is important. "Why" was published the year after the Brexit referendum and the election of Trump and spoke to liberals wondering why so many people were so fearing of 'the other'. Then, in the summer of 2020, the book soared to the top of the best-seller list. The worldwide reaction to the appalling death of George Floyd in the United States, and a global pandemic which underlined the different life chances of black and non-black people and provided more time to think about these things, ensured that Eddo-Lodge's book had a whole new readership, including me checking my white privilege.

    Although the book has been the subject of a fair amount of research and contains plenty of information and facts, this is not an academic work and the content is not novel to those who have been paying attention to the debate about race, but the style is very accessible and, for many readers (especially white ones), it presents the argument in a compelling and forceful manner than cannot be ignored. The tone is anger, but people of colour have much to be angry about.

    "Why" begins with a short history of the experience of black people in Britain. Of course, a seminal event was the arrival of the 492 Caribbeans on board the "Windrush" in June 1948 (the week I was born). Eddo-Lodge underlines that the reason why the United Kingdom received immigrants from the Caribbean, Africa and Asia was because Britain had colonised these parts of the world and promoted the slave trade before, after the devastation of the Second World War, encouraging them to travel to the 'mother country' to take up low-skilled work as the economy revived.

    The next section of the book explains that racism is not simply about prejudice by individuals but about the nature of the system. She prefers the term structural racism rather than institutional racism because "it is built into spaces much broader than our more traditional institutions". This is why, whether we look at education, employment, health, housing, income or wealth, the life chances of people of colour are so much worse than those of white people.

    There are two hard-hitting chapters examining the relationship between anti-racism on the one hand and feminism and class respectively on the other. Eddo-Lodge refers to "feminism's race problem" and highlights "the overwhelming whiteness of feminism". For black feminists and black socialists, a key issue is what is called "intersectionality" - a recognition that some people can and do suffer from two (or more) forms of discrimination and that we should not prioritise one to the exclusion of the other. Eddo-Lodge notes that "So much of politics is just middle-aged white men passing the ball to one another" and refers to "what writer bell hooks called 'the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy'".

    The final chapter - entitled "There's No Justice, There's Just Us" - is the shortest and the weakest. There is no manifesto of political change, but simply a call to white individuals to change the conversation. She declares "racism is a white problem. It reveals the anxieties, hypocrisies and double standards of whiteness" and urges "White people, you need to talk to other white people about race". Of themselves, feminism and socialism will not eradicate racism, but feminism and socialism have massive roles to play in combatting the effects of racism and radicals from different corners of the fight for social justice need to beware of denigrating or disrespecting each other.

    "Zone Of Crisis: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran And Iraq" by Amin Saikal (2014)

    Amin Saikal is an Afghan-born scholar of international affairs who is Director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Australian National University. He has written a study of four West Asian countries that are adjacent to one another and rarely out of the headlines, what he calls "a volatile, uncertain and unpredictable zone, with serious implications for changing world order". He is an immensely knowledgeable observer with a balanced and insightful view of events and he writes clearly although a little academically in tone. Sadly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, he has little original to say about how to sort out the chronic messes that he describes.

    Afghanistan and Pakistan are predominately Sunni states, while Iraq and Iran have a Shia majority population (the only such countries in the world except for tiny Bahrain and secular Azerbaijan). Afghanistan and Iraq have suffered recent invasions by predominately American and British military forces, while Pakistan and Iran have 'only' faced drone attacks and economic sanctions respectively. Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq have some of the veneers of a democracy, but their political institutions are massively flawed, while Iran - the most stable of the states examined - has its own version of elective power that is counterbalanced by a more powerful theocratic elite.

    In his commendably short but nevertheless informative book, Saikal has four long chapters and, in the case of each nation, he sets out the complicated mosaic of ethnic groups and a brief account of the recent historical legacy, he examines the current governance and economic performance, he explores the country's position in international relationships, and finally he attempts a look at the way forward.

    So, for Afghanistan, Saikal explains how the Taliban and their supporters largely come from the Ghilzai part of the Pashtun community, while former President Karzai and most of his cohort belong to the Durrani segment of the Pashtuns, so that "the conflict within Aghanistan since 2001 has been essentially an intra-Pashtun one". He is scathing of Karzai insisting: "His approach and policies gave rise to politics of patronage, corruption and inefficiency in both the civilian and military spheres at all levels." But he is equally critical of the Americans: "the Bush administration failed to draw up a comprehensive and coherent programme of reconstruction for Afghanistan. The approach that it adopted was piecemeal, poorly coordinated and badly implemented." In this chaotic state, opium cultivation has continued to expand, so that "Afghanistan has for all practical purposes become, once again, a narco-state."

    Although Pakistan of course has its own chapter, Saikal notes that "Developments in the two countries have been so intertwined that some analysts and policymakers have opted to lump them together under the joint designation, 'Af-Pak'." But Pakistan has its own ethnic mix with the largest groups (in order) being the Punjabis (who back the Pakistan Muslim League political party), the Sindhis (who support the Pakistan People's Party), the Pathans as the Pashtuns are called here (responsible for a Taliban insurgency), and the Baluchis (supporting another insurgency). Political power has oscillated between the PML, the PPP, and the military with the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) always massively influential. This is a nation that spends around one quarter of government revenue on defence (which includes a nuclear arsenal) but less than 2% on education and under 1% on health.

    Iran is less socially fragmented than Afghanistan, Pakistan or Iraq, with a substantial majority of Iranians being of Persian ethnicity, which has enabled it - unlike the other countries - to have a clear national identity as opposed to the tribal, sectarian or religious identities to which the citizens of the other states adhere. Also, since the Ayatollah Khomeini seized control of the revolution of 1978-79, the country has had a unique political system that Saikal characterises as an uneasy and fluctuating balance between the 'sovereignty of God' (as expressed through the fundamentalist Shia leaders with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as their shock troops) and the 'sovereignty of the people' (as represented by the elected president and parliament). Saikal sees some hopeful signs following the recent election of President Rouhani.

    It is in the case of Iraq that Saikal is at his bitterest about American policy in the zone of crisis following the occupation of the country from 2003-2011. He opines that "Washington's misreading and underestimation of Iraq's complexity boggles the mind" and writes "The United States, as the leading occupying force, could neither fully grasp the complexity of the Iraqi situation, nor put in motion an appropriate and effective post-invasion strategy of political reform, governance and reconstruction for the country." But, of course, Iraqis do not escape his criticisms. We are all very familiar with the divisions and conflicts between the Shias in the south, the Sunnis in the centre, and the Kurds in the north, but Saikal highlights further cleavages between secularists/semi-secularists and Islamists and between centralists and regionalists. He is damning of the leadership of al-Maliki who he insists "has increasingly acted like a dictator, cementing patronage and nepotism as hallmarks of Iraqi governance."

    So, what is to be done? Saikal points out that "Neutrality and openness are required of all parties if progress is to be made" (what are the chances of that?). He insists: "political systems must be created to allow for and promote plurality, compromise, moderation and the acceptance of dissent" (he is a fan of the Lebanese model). He suggests revisiting the possibility of a reformist Islamist model (he appears to have in mind Iran under Khatami). In a wider context, he points out the need for a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and the Indo-Pakistani contestation of Kashmir. A huge and complex agenda then ...

    All reviews by ROGER DARLINGTON

    Last modified on 8 November 2022

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