A Scholar’s Stage forum member reports that he and a friend recently finished reading John Darwin’s After Tamerlane. Enraptured by Darwin’s account of flourish and fall, they ask what else they might read to understand the rise and decline of peoples and powers over the course of human history.
In my mind there are four central parts to this tale:
Every year I post a list of every book I read the year previous, with my ten favorites bolded.. As in those posts, I list the books in the approximate order in which I finished them. Some of these books I read bit by bit over several months. Others I finished the day I started them. All include a url, but the ten best (according to nothing but my own subjective judgement) are bolded and given a link. I only count books that I finished for the first time this year as eligible for “ten best books of the year.” A more condensed list of books that I started but read only in excerpt (or did not finish) can be found at the bottom of the post.
Desmund Shum is a red billionaire.Red Roulette is his memoir, a tell all expose of his family’s climb to the summits of wealth and the foothills of power. The book describes how he and his ex-wife maneuvered to the top—and why they subsequently crashed back to earth. Their fall was as dramatic as their rise: Shum now lives in exile; his unfortunate ex now lives in prison. With nothing to lose, Shum lets loose: his memoir promises to hang Beijing’s dirty laundry for all to see. What a sight this laundry turns out to be! Read this book. Though Shum is unreliable narrator, his memoir is the best single introduction to elite Chinese life yet written.
In the most recent issue of American Affairs, Walter Hudson argues against “the pull of the Cold War analogy.”θ Cold War analogies for 21st century Sino-American relations are natural yet insufficient. A friend of mine recently complained to me about the thoughtlessness of these analogies. “It is not difficult to rail against lazy Cold War thinking,” I responded. “What is difficult is fleshing out a more illuminating analogy to fill the gap.” Hudson faces this challenge squarely. He argues that the mirror we seek will be found in the eclipse of the British Empire by the United States.
Vladislav M. Zubok’s A Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War From Stalin to Gorbachev is a surprising counterpart to my essay, “Culture Wars are Long Wars.” That essay proposed a general theory of cultural change. Key to its thesis was the observation that most cultural change does not occur because people change their ideas, but because people with new ideas replace people with old ones. As most people form their essential political worldview by the time they are 30 and only adapt it on the edges to new circumstances, only the most earth shaking events have the power to fundamentally shift the frameworks and values that the majority filter their politics through. Large scale cultural shift is largely a story of generational churn.
While the focus of that piece was on American domestic politics, this is a general phenomena that applies across cultures and time periods. Vladislav Zubok understands this. The generational nature of political change is a recurring theme of Failed Empire, which chronicles the ups and downs of Soviet diplomacy from the end of World War II to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. While we often describe Soviet history in terms of the leader reigning at the top of the system, Zubok argues that shifts in Soviet strategic behavior reflected not only the differing leadership styles of the various CPSU General Secretaries, but broader transitions from one generation of leaders to another.
What kind of world does the Communist Party of China want? How can we know what they are thinking? These questions are the subject of “How Xi Jinping’s ‘New Era’ Should Have Ended U.S. Debate on Beijing’s Ambitions,” a report by National Intelligence College professor Dan Tobin that was originally published as testimony to Congress. This episode uses Tobin’s research as a starting point to discuss a web of issues at the core of Western attempts to understand the Chinese system. We talk about why Western analysts often struggle to understand the Communist Party, which parts of the “China watching” world are most successful doing this, and why any of this should matter to the “average” American citizen with no particular stake in China.
Joining me (Tanner Greer) to discuss this report is Peter Mattis. Mattis is a Senior Fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and most recently was the Senate-appointed staff director at the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, where he was part of the legislative team that passed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, and the Tibetan Policy and Support Act. He is the coauthor of Chinese Communist Espionage: An Intelligence Primer and the author of Analyzing the Chinese Military: A Review Essay and Resource Guide on the People’s Liberation Army (2015).
Scott Rozelle and Natalie Hell’s bookInvisible China is an interesting if somewhat dry look at the development challenges China faces over the next 20 years. Chinese officials are perhaps the book’s main target audience. Rozelle and Hell worry that unless Communist officialdom takes drastic action soon, China will be stuck in what has been called the “middle income trap.”
But this post is not about China. Rather, it is about what China did to Mexico. Mexico is the cautionary tale Rozelle and Hell want to scare Chinese officials with. “If you don’t reform now,” they seem to argue, “what you did to Mexico will be done to you!” That is a boogeyman worth fearing.
The closing days of the First World War gave birth to modern combat. Previous to these developments, advances in firepower made titans of the trenchworks. For four years the trenches were assaulted: for four years storms of steel mowed all offensives down. But as the war reached its end tactics were developed to storm through the gauntlet. Stephen Biddle has called these tactics, and what evolved out of them, “the modern system of battle.” The closing developments of the 1918 made offensives possible again—but the playing field remained tilted towards the defender.
We’re looking at that big bow wave and wondering how the heck we’re going to pay for it, and probably thanking our stars we won’t be here to have to answer the question. — Brian McKeon, Deputy Under-Secretary of Defense for Policy  The most dangerous concern is [the use] of military force against […]