What to read to understand international relations
THE WORLD today is undergoing great changes, the likes of which we have not seen for 100 years. This observation by Xi Jinping, Chinas president, may exaggerate, but he is surely right that international relations are changing more now than at any time since the second world war. The unipolar moment of 1990-2010, when America had no rivals, is over. China presents a military, economic and technological challenge more pervasive than that mounted by the Soviet Union. In some ways the world is reverting to the disorder of the cold war, except that, unlike the Soviet Union, China does not champion, or even believe in, universal values. The two sides trade far more than the cold-war antagonists did. Countries allied to neither, such as Brazil, India and Saudi Arabia, are playing more important roles than during the cold war. Alas, Mr Xis great changes await their historians. Good histories take time to write and the rivalry between America and China is comparatively new. It sharpened in 2022-23, when Chinas ally, Russia, invaded Ukraine and America imposed sanctions on some technology exports to China. How the rivalry will play out is uncertain. America is caught between a Bidenesque desire for global leadership and Trumpian isolationism; China may precipitate a world war by invading Taiwan; Russias regime could gain something from its aggression against Ukraineor implode. Tomorrows world may be defined less by bipolar rivalry than by several competing spheres of interest, a version of the 19th centurys tensions. No wonder historians are holding off. Meanwhile, these five books illuminate separate aspects of todays geopolitics. The World: A Brief Introduction. By Richard Haass. Penguin; 400 pages; $18 and 15.99 Most students, Richard Haass writes, know little about international relations. He has set himself the task of explaining the basics of global literacy. Mr Haass is well qualified to do that. He advised President George H.W. Bush during the first Gulf war (Mr Bush took his advice not to overthrow Saddam Hussein) and George W. Bush (who rejected that advice by going to war again against Iraq). Mr Haass led the Council on Foreign Relations, Americas leading foreign-policy think-tank, for 20 years until June 2023. His book takes the form of a sequence of memoranda of understanding, non-binding agreements that governments sign. He begins with a crash course on world history, forgivably Euro-centric considering the outsize role that Europe and its American offspring played in the 20th century. He moves on to an equally brisk survey of the worlds regions and the roles played by geography, climate, natural resources and culture in determining the fate of nations. His most interesting thoughts come in the books final quarter, in a discussion of the tools and institutions that great powers have used to try to impose order on a chaotic world: alliance-building, international law, notions of sovereignty and the United Nations. Mr Haass hopes that a better informed American public will support the countrys role as the worlds policeman. But the main messages of this sensible and slightly bloodless primer are disheartening. Global order does not just emerge or continue automatically. Technocratic management is needed to protect a balance of power from the forces of disunity and violence, but is hard to sustain. The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. By Paul Kennedy. Knopf; 704 pages; $22. HarperCollins; 16.99 This is the sort of classic text that important people tote around in their briefcases and sometimes even read. Published in 1987, Paul Kennedys tome argues that great powers depend upon military might, which in turn depends on economic strength. As they rise their military spending tends to rise. But if they undermine their economies by spending too much, they are doomed to decline. This thesis goes back to Machiavelli if not before. Mr Kennedys distinctive contributions are, first, to weave this idea through a detailed account of 500 years of diplomatic and military history and, second, to show its relevance to the world in which he wrote the book. His final chapter is about the problem of number one in relative decline. America was in danger of imperial overreach, he wrote, because it was spending too much on its armed forces relative to its investment in non-military goals. Mr Kennedy was right about the underlying process, but wrong about the country. Within four years of his books publication the Soviet Union collapsed, brought down by the imbalances he was warning against. Is the American Century Over? By Joseph Nye. Polity Press; 152 pages; $12.95 and 9.99 Like Mr Haass, Joseph Nye has been both a practitioner and analyst of foreign policy. He served President Bill Clinton in various roles and is now a professor at Harvard University. He coined the phrase soft power, and he is sanguine about the staying power of Americas influence. [W]e are not entering a post-American world, he writes. The United States will have primacy in power resources and play the central role in the global balance of power among states. Mr Nye is defying the pessimism of such books as The Post-American World by Fareed Zakaria, which argues that America is in relative decline, and Edward Luces The Retreat of Western Liberalism, which says that liberal democracies are weakened by economic decay, middle-class frustration and populist rage. Mr Nye is also battling popular gloom: many Americans say their country is falling apart. In response, he points out that compared with Europe and Japan America is richer than it was in 1990. Its population is younger than either Europes or Chinas. It spends more on its armed forces than any other country. Although China poses the greatest military and economic challenge, it cannot match Americas alliances: about 60 of the largest 150 countries are American allies, including all the largest economies (bar China itself). Chinas rise will affect American influence, Mr Nye admits. America will depend more on persuasion and less on military might. Leadership is not the same as domination, Mr Nye writes. American leadership is likely to continue, unless Donald Trump wins the election in 2024. China Goes Global: The Partial Power. By David Shambaugh. Oxford University Press; 409 pages; $29.95 and 20 Whereas studies of American power tend to emphasise its decline, most on China are giddy about its rise. When China Rules the World by Martin Jacques, a British journalist, accepts a forecast that, measured by market exchange rates, Chinas economy will overtake Americas by the mid 2020s. It predicts that global elites will learn Mandarin, not English. Now economists think that it will take another quarter century at least for Chinas economy to top Americas in size. In China Goes Global David Shambaugh, a professor at George Washington University in Washington, DC, calls the claim that China will rule the world profoundly overstated and incorrect. If shaping the desired outcome of a situation is the essence of influence and the exercise of power, he writes, China falls short in many ways. Although it has spent billions to beef up its armed forces, they have not been tested in war. Chinas economic engagement with countries from Pakistan to Argentina has been followed by squabbling. It treats civil society with suspicion, and so cannot have fruitful dealings with international charities and NGOs. China has less influence than it should on solving global problems, such as pandemics and climate change, because it has done too little to fix them at home. Chinas footprint, as Mr Shambaugh puts it in a book published a decade ago, is broad, not deep. It is gaining clout but as yet is just a partial power. That still seems true. The Wealth and Poverty of Nations. By David Landes. Norton; 650 pages; $30. Little Brown; 20 David Landess monumental book seeks to explain why some of the worlds main economies have flourished over centuries and others have not. Like Mr Kennedy, Landes combines historical description with an over-arching theory. His thesis is that cultural differences play an outsize role in economic performance. Landes, who died in 2013, was a professor at Harvard who refused to specialise. His books include studies of 19th-century Egypt (Bankers and Pashas) and clock-making (Revolution in Time). His global economic history, whose title nods to Adam Smiths most famous work, is both comprehensive and readable. If there is one key to success, he suggests, it is openness. Countries have to be willing to borrow whatever they need from wherever they can get it, even if that hurts the amour propre of elites. Good economic policiessmall budget deficits, low barriers to trade and competitive exchange ratesare important but insufficient. What distinguishes successes from failures is not access to technology and new ideas but putting them to good use. That requires a tradition of independent inquiry, trust in experience rather than in ancient authorities and encouragement of routine innovation, not just big-ticket inventions. The one lesson that emerges, Landes writes, is the need to keep trying. No miracles. No perfection. No millennium. No apocalypse. His book does not predict whether the Chinese economy will overtake Americas or whether Sino-American rivalry will put globalisation into reverse. If these things happen, though, it will be a better guide to the reasons than most. Also try Geopolitics is one of The Economists main preoccupations. We have published an A to Z of international relations that explains hundreds of terms, from Abraham accords to zero-sum game, in plain English. We asked whether Chinas power is about to peak and pointed out the perils of Mr Xis transactional approach to foreign policy. We chided Joe Biden for underestimating Americas strengths and examined the geopolitical consequences of the war in Ukraine. Here we look at how that war will shape the future of warfare. Henry Kissinger, nearing his 100th birthday, told us what needed to be done to avert a third world war. Mr Kissinger and Mr Kennedy contributed to a series of By invitation articles from outside writers on the future of American power, published in 2021.