Whenever I was about to visit a NATO alliance country when I was Supreme Allied Commander, I would try to read a book that might help me understand the history, culture and spirit of the time there. It can be a novel by a native writer, a story, or a work of historical fiction. Can France really be understood without reading Camus and Sartre? To understand Russia, including the mindset of Vladimir Putin, I have found more enlightenment in Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and, above all, Gogol than in most of the CIA reports, with all due respect to the agency.
So, at the end of 2020, I want to offer five books that have helped me understand a confusing world over the past year.
The New Map: Energy, Climate and the Clash of Nations – Daniel Yergin
Let’s start with a broad look at some of the biggest global trends: “The New Map: Energy, Climate, and the Clash of Nations” by Pulitzer Prize-winning analyst Daniel Yergin (disclosure: Dan is a colleague of mine in the capital society Carlyle Group). Yergin’s 1990 book on the oil industry, “The Prize,” is a standard text in most international relations graduate schools. By the way, the world still depends on oil, gas and coal for 80% of its energy, about the same as when he wrote the book 30 years ago. But many other things have changed.
In “The New Map,” Yergin incorporates geopolitics into his energy and climate analysis. Consider, for example, your study of Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea. In that huge body of water, we find vast deposits of oil and gas, about 40% of global shipping, hot water, overfishing, and increasingly dangerous military competition between the United States and China. Yergin raises the need to switch to greener energy sources, but points out how difficult this will be and how competition (perhaps conflict) between the United States and China will influence the next two decades. This should be a must-read for President-elect Joe Biden’s incoming team.
Missionaries – Phil Klay
A powerful second reading is “The Missionaries”, a novel about Colombia by Phil Klay. A combat veteran, Klay won the 2014 National Book Award for “Redistribution,” a collection of short stories about the Iraq War, in which he participated as a US Marine. In “The Missionaries,” he sets his sights in the supposedly successful US intervention in Colombia during the last decades. Having spent three years as chief of the Southern Command, in charge of US support to the Colombian military, I can attest to the lethal accuracy of Klay’s description.
The novel portrays the ugly 50-year war against the FARC, a Marxist guerrilla group. Contrast the views of a hardened but somewhat naive American journalist, an American contractor serving as a liaison with the Colombian military, a pair of FARC insurgents, and a Colombian military officer. There are no clear winners here, and in the end, the reader must strongly question America’s intervention. Was it the point of creating a cadre of true believers in the benefits of an interventionist foreign policy? This will be a central question for the new administration, and “The Missionaries” can help officials understand the costs involved.
Silent Americans: Four CIA Spies at the Dawn of the Cold War: A Tragedy in Three Acts – Scott Anderson
Scott Anderson’s story of the founding of the CIA, “The Silent Americans: Four CIA Spies at the Dawn of the Cold War: A Tragedy in Three Acts” is another important book of 2020. As we fight with the leadership of the Our country’s espionage efforts in this new era of great power competition, it is worth looking back to see how we undertook the same missions in communist times. Four fascinating characters, including the legendary Edward Lansdale, demonstrate both the successes and failures of the early days of the CIA. This is a book on finding a moral compass along with success in a vital mission, a balance America has yet to achieve. The Biden administration will certainly grapple with these challenges in traditional geopolitics and intelligence, as well as the new frontiers of cyberspace, outer space, and biotechnology.
War: How Conflict Shaped Us – Margaret MacMillan
Then there is veteran historian Margaret MacMillan’s broad view of conflict and the human spirit, “War: How Conflict Shaped Us.” Why has war been such a defining feature of human life on earth? Drawing on history, political theory, literature, anthropology, biology, and a dozen other disciplines, MacMillan seeks to answer what in many ways is humanity’s existential question: Why are we so fascinated with killing each other? others on a large scale? And what does it cost us? A book like this can teach us how to essentially “reverse engineer” the phenomenon of war and prevent further chaos in the future. Hopefully.
Make Russia Great Again – Christopher Buckle
Finally, because each book list must include a play of satire, I offer the hilarious “Make Russia Great Again” by Christopher Buckley. Buckley, the brilliant author of “Thanks For Smoking” and more than a dozen other fine novels, skewers the current administration with style. The book is apparently written by President Donald Trump’s seventh chief of staff (he’s actually getting close to that number), who remains incredibly loyal to his former boss even as he writes from prison, serving time for his actions in the White House. Unlike the many funny Trump memoirs published this year, this novel made me laugh out loud and, in the end, shake my head at what we have come to accept as normal. This book contains the answer to one of Trump’s few enduring mysteries: Why does he continue to please Vladimir Putin so notably? Buckley’s answer is very funny. And after 2020, boy, we need to laugh.
(This story was posted from a cable agency feed with no changes to the text.)