It’s been a while since I’ve posted here. Let’s just say 2017 was a challenging year and leave it at that.
I’m starting with Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall, lent to me by a friend. The book looks at ten areas of the world and how the geography affects foreign policy and strategic interests. Tim Marshall is a foreign affairs correspondent with a lot of experience.
The book is wonderful to read. It’s engaging and brilliantly written. The content is interesting. Much of it was familiar to me but plenty was new, and the stuff I knew was presented in a way that opened up another level of understanding. It was crazy to think about how much of Russia is uninhabitable. I liked that Marshall considered both the historical effects of geography, such as how the Himalayas have kept India and China apart, as well as how technology might overcome those effects. What happens once one of those nations can realistically prosecute a war across the mountains?
The best chapter was the last one, on the Arctic. It was very enlightening, especially around the implication that some countries and corporations might want to see the ice completely gone.
The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future by Victor Cha
Published by Vintage in 2013
The Impossible State is an examination of North Korea and whether it will ever change. In the wake of the Arab Spring and the popular uprisings against authoritarian regimes across the Middle East and North Africa, Victor Cha wonders if this might happen to the Kim dynasty of North Korea.
To do this, Cha looks at the establishment and construction of the North Korean state. It is a country with thousands of years of history and much experience of invasion and occupation. After the second World War the Koreas were split and two separate countries were created. The book gives the history of the Kim family and how Kim Il Sung came to be installed as the leader of North Korea, looking at his personal qualities, his experience and his relationships with the Chinese and Russian governments.
North Korea in relation to South Korea is interesting. For several decades, North Korea was richer and more advanced than South Korea. This was partly to do with financial support from China and Russia but also partly to do with chaos and mismanagement in the South. What’s worth noting is that the current situation wasn’t inevitable. Cha was foreign policy advisor to several US presidents and is well placed to understand North Korea and its place in the international system. It wasn’t always as isolated as it is now, with even China’s support hesitant and reluctant.
Much of the book is focused on North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and the motivations behind it. Cha credibly argues that there is no way that North Korea will willingly stop developing nuclear weapons. It is the only leverage they have and the last twenty years have seen it work pretty well. They saw Qaddafi give up his nuclear enrichment programme only to be invaded by the US and the North Korean regime has a strong incentive to maintain its own development.
And finally, will there ever be a popular uprising? Cha thinks it’s unlikely. The control the Kim family has over the population and the way the cultural narrative has been manipulated has resulted in a people that have very little access to the outside world. Popular uprisings depend on the belief that life could be better, because it is seen to be better elsewhere. The North Koreans don’t have that belief. They have been told that life is much worse outside their own country and denied access to any information that might suggest otherwise.
This is a fascinating book. I haven’t read anything about North Korea before and much of this was new to me. I can’t tell you if there are better books out there, but if you want to know how North Korea became the impossible place it is now, then this is a good place to start. It’s a dense book with a lot of erudition but Cha’s writing style is light and pacy, so it never feels as heavy as it actually is. A surprisingly easy read and I enjoyed it.
The Rent Trap by Rosie Walker and Samir Jeraj
Published by Pluto Books in 2016
The Rent Trap explores the world of private renting and how rising house prices make home ownership out of reach for many renters. It looks at the instability caused by short term contracts and the impact on families. The book covers the de-regulation of the housing market and what that means for tenants.
Most landlords aren’t property developers. Most are individuals who’ve bought a second house as an investment for their retirements, or owner-occupiers renting a room to help with the mortgage payments. But what this means is that the people paying for the house aren’t the ones who’ll eventually own it and this is creating wide inequality. It’s interesting to see how individual small decisions, made for good reasons, create a huge problem in the absence of regulation.
Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda by Lt. Gen. Romeo Dallaire
Published by Random House in 2003
I went to Rwanda last year on a work trip and it inspired me to learn more about the genocide in 1994. I visited the excellent Genocide Memorial and bought several books.
Shake Hands with the Devil is the memoir of the force commander of the UN mission to Rwanda. It starts slowly, with some time spent on Lt. Gen. Dallaire’s career and experience, but by the end of the book it is clear why this needs to be covered in such detail.
This is a book about the actions of the international community in response to the crisis, or, more precisely, the lack of action. As Dallaire describes his experiences in Rwanda and with the UN it becomes clear that there was a lot going on that he was not aware of until far too late. The politics surrounding the genocide – the relationships the Rwandan government forces and the Rwandan Patriotic Front had with France, the US, and other western countries independent of the UN, the domestic situations in those countries and the public tolerance for another foreign intervention, the under-resourcing of the UN – contributed to something truly terrible. Shake Hands with the Devil doesn’t exonerate the Rwandans who made this happen and the choices both sides made, but he does make clear how the structural, systemic issues in international relations supported and exacerbated those choices.
There is a tragic honesty in this memoir: Dallaire comes across as a man well and truly out of his depth. He lauds and celebrates the officers and soldiers assigned to the mission but doesn’t hide his own failings. Indeed, the early pages spent exploring his own experience serve to show how his lack of real conflict experience hampered him as well as demonstrating the abilities that qualified him for the role.
Shake Hands with the Devil is an eye-opening read. The exposure of the way the UN has to operate, and what that means for people it is supposed to help, is damning.
The Secret State by Peter Hennessy
Published by Penguin in 2002, updated in 2010
The Secret State is about Britain’s secret plans to respond to an attack on the UK during the cold war and beyond. It covers the rationale behind investing in nuclear weapons and why UK governments chose that rather than a civil defence programme.
It is a fascinating book full of detail from Peter Hennessy’s conversations with key political figures as well as information from documents of the time no longer secret. It makes sense of where we find ourselves now with the Trident programme and the reasons it is hard for governments to make a different choice about it now. It didn’t change my views about Trident and nuclear deterrence but it did help me understand the reasoning behind arguments in favour of it.
I found it quite amusing/terrifying that a large part of the rationale for a British nuclear capability was that governments in the immediate post-war period thought that the US was more likely to start World War III than the USSR, and an independent British nuclear capability would ameliorate that. I wonder if our current government still thinks that.
This is an interesting and informative read and I really enjoyed it.
Honourable Friends by Caroline Lucas is a tour through her experience as a Green Party MP over the last five years and a look at the work she’s tried to progress.
Part of the book describes what it was like to enter Westminster when Lucas was first elected, with no party machinery in place to support her and no experience of the strange traditions of the place. Part of the book is a discussion about the change Lucas wants to see in both policy and procedure. A chapter is devoted to subjects like the environment, the NHS, housing and foreign policy. Lucas describes how she’s worked to find support from MPs in all parties and where she’s succeeded or failed. She points out how some of the ‘quaint’ archaic traditions of the British parliament hold back progress and block democracy. For example, Lucas talks about how voting works and how the process gets in the way of MPs giving votes serious consideration, or about how MPs are appointed to committees or reviews and how knowledge and experience is seen as unnecessary.
The book has a tone of ‘if people could just see how dangerous these policies are, they’d all change their minds’, a kind of bafflement that anyone could think austerity was a good idea. I’m not sure it’s a sophisticated persuasion technique, but I suspect Lucas is preaching to the converted with this book.
If you’re interested in the mechanics of how politics is done in the UK, or how democracy is expanded or contracted, then there is a lot of detail in here. Lucas’ style is conversational and it’s an easy read. I enjoyed it.
In The Establishment, Owen Jones argues that the establishment is not so much a group of wealthy people in cahoots to keep everyone else down, but rather a collection of people with shared beliefs who benefit from being able to influence each other.
The establishment hasn’t remained stable over the years and those that are considered to make up today’s establishment are not the same as those following WWII. To start with Jones charts the shift in the political consensus from the 1940s to now. Once upon a time, free market ideology was fringe thinking and considered a bit barmy. Jones shows the methods by which more and more influential people were convinced by it’s proponents. It shows how money can be used to change people’s thinking. There are lessons there for those who wish to shift the political consensus back towards the centre, but the lesson is that money speaks and money corrupts.
Jones looks at each of the groups whose members make up the establishment and shows how their interests align and complement those of the other groups. The chapter on tax avoiders was particularly illuminating. The involvement of corporations and huge consultancies in the process of writing legislation and regulation enables those corporations to manipulate the system in their favour. The revolving door between politics and business has serious implications for democracy. To be clear, Jones never claims this is a conspiracy. There’s no group of people sitting in a room somewhere cackling and stroking white cats. Much of this is the unintended and unexamined consequences of people pursuing their own interests.
I found the discussion about ownership of the media and their relationship with their readers interesting. Papers don’t report what they think their readers want. They report what their owners and advertisers want. He shows (and he’s not the first) how the pressure to maximize profit compromises investigative journalism.
The Establishment is a dense and lengthy read. I found it thought-provoking and stimulating and would recommend it to anyone interested in how politics works.