Sometimes it takes more than the morning paper and the evening news to understand what’s going on. Herewith five books The Vimy Report recommends to its readers to provide context for today’s fast moving events.
Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Nineties, by Paul Johnson, Harper Collins, 1991
There’s nothing like a good history of the last century to understand the current one. Of the many general studies available, none is as thorough, profound, and easy to read as the one by British historian Paul Johnson. Johnson has written several heavy histories and numerous short biographies, but Modern Times is the one that explains the historical trends which have conditioned our own times. History is not, after all, “one damn thing after another”. Read Johnson to appreciate the connections between events, and the thinking of the villains who strode through the century murdering millions “for the cause”. In the final analysis, Johnson argues that it was confused and fearful statesmen who stood by and did nothing who made the century what it was. There’s a lesson for us in his observation that “The failure of intellectual leadership in the twentieth century, or rather its apparent inability to offer clear and firm guidance to a perplexed humanity … lay at the root of the tragedies of the age”.
The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat, by Vali Nasr, Doubleday, 2013
Read The Dispensable Nation to appreciate the thinking behind the radical new direction in which the Obama administration has taken US foreign policy since 2008. Vali Nasr is Dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, an authority on political Islam (read his The Shia Revival) , and from 2009 to 2011 worked in the State Department under Hillary Clinton and the late Richard Holbrooke. The Dispensable Nation is his insider account of the slippage in American leadership. Under Obama, Nasr writes, “American foreign policy has become completely subservient to tactical domestic political considerations”. In the cocoon of US politics, Obama satisfied public opinion by doing “more of the things that people want and fewer of the things we have to do that may be unpopular”. All allies saw, however, was “constant tactical maneuvers” that never added up to a strategy. Instead of the United States exercising global leadership, in its place was the vision of a “superpower tired of the world and in retreat, most visibly from the one area of the world where it has been most intensely engaged”.
America in Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder, by Bret Stephens, Penguin Group, 2014
Bret Stephens is the foreign affairs columnist for The Wall Street Journal and winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for commentary. America is not in decline, he argues, it’s in retreat. Decline is the product of forces beyond the power to arrest; retreat, by contrast, is often nothing more than a political choice. The central fact of the decade, Stephens believes, is the choice Washington has made to “get out”. “Wars end because they have been won, or lost, or brought to some kind of mutually agreed truce. Only in the age of Obama do wars end by means of attitude and expectation adjustment, of learning to ‘move on’, in the parlance of left-wing politics and popular psychotherapy.” Compounding the problem has been Obama’s personal failures as a world leader. “His habits of indifference, illusion, and self-regard” have not gone unnoticed among allies or adversaries. Should we mind, Stephens asks, that leaders in Beijing, Moscow, or Tehran think the president of the United States is a self-infatuated weakling? “The answer is yes, assuming we don’t want to see Taiwan, Estonia, or Bahrain become the next Crimea.”
Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell in and out of Love with Vladimir Putin, by Ben Judah, Yale University
Foreign Policy magazine named Fragile Empire one of its Top 25 Books to Read in 2013. We’ve put it in our top five for 2015. Ben Judah is a young man (born in 1988) who has travelled widely in Russia and Central Asia, written for such outlets as The Financial Times and the Economist, and reported for Reuters from Moscow. His biography of the rise to power of the “President from Nowhere” is by far the best account currently available of recent Russian history. Much of the story he tells is new and so is his thesis. Putin’s “managed democracy” gave the country the formal institutions of a democracy but gutted them of any meaning. Russia became a “videocracy” that censored TV for the masses while allowing the intelligentsia their newspapers and blogs. But behind the televised illusion, the regime was building an anachronistic Soviet-style power structure that transferred state assets to a Putin oligarchy. It worked for a while as oil revenues boomed and Russians experienced the greatest upswing in living standards in history. But the illusion was shattered when Putin circumvented the intent of the constitution and resumed the presidency in 2012 after Medvedev’s single term. As Judah tells the story, the maneuver exposed the regime for what it was, broke the “Putin consensus”, and precipitated a culture war between the most advanced part of Russian society and the most backward where Putinism still appeals. Russians have tired of the “commander’s voice”, Judah believes, but “Putin cannot be defeated politically, only economically”. This Judah wrote before the collapse of oil prices and the Russian economy crashed.
Chasing a Mirage: The Tragic Illusion of an Islamic State, by Tarek Fatah, John Wiley & Sons Canada,
Tarek Fatah is a Pakistani journalist who was imprisoned twice before moving to Saudi Arabia, then ten years later to Canada in 1987, the whole time under death threats for his criticism of Islamic extremism. In the aftermath of 9/11, he founded the Muslim Canadian Congress, a secular Muslim organization dedicated to the separation of religion and the state and to an end to the “gender apartheid” practiced in many parts of the Muslim world. Being Canadian, he writes, has had the most profound effect on his thinking. “For it is only here in Canada that I can speak out against the hijacking of my faith and the encroaching spectre of a new Islamo-fascism”. His book, Chasing a Mirage, draws an important distinction between Muslims and Islamists. All the former want is a “state of Islam”, a state of spirituality to govern their personal lives; the latter, in contrast, seek “an Islamic state”, a political entity, a theocracy that uses Islam as a tool to control citizens and govern society. Chasing a Mirage can serve as a textbook on Islamic history, showing how Muslims have suffered through the ages when Islam has been used to achieve political power. It is time, Fatah argues, for Muslim politicians to realize that the days of the emirs and caliphs are over. It is time for Muslim scholars and clerics to reconcile Islam with modernity and individual freedom. It is time for Muslims to stop chasing the mirage of an Islamic state.