Favorite Books of 2015

The holiday season is upon us, so I thought I’d take to the blog once more to share some of the best books I read during the year.  Following fortuitous retweets from Marc Andreessen and Conor Sen last year, these annual posts have become the most frequently visited pages on the blog, with the 2014 and 2013 iterations attracting nearly one in five views.  So thanks!  I hope you find one or more of the books listed below to be an enriching read. (more…)

Reflections on a Winding Road to EM Private Equity

In late 2005, I would arrive at the office early and catch up on the latest news of sectarian violence in Iraq.  It made for gruesome reading—bodies discovered in vacant houses, tied to chairs with clear evidence of torture.  A favorite tool seemed to be power drills, which were used on knees, ankles, heads.

There were suspicions that Iraq’s interior minister—Bayan Jabr—was at least partially responsible, and that members of the National Police force that he oversaw were effectively operating as Shia death squads, exacting vendettas against Sunnis and former elements of Saddam Hussein’s regime.  The sectarian violence seemed to be increasing until February 2006, when militants bombed one of Shia Islam’s holiest sites, the Golden Mosque in Samarra, kicking off an orgiastic spate of bloodletting that brought Iraq to the precipice of a full-blown civil war. (more…)

Henry Kissinger’s World Order and the Question of Universal Values

In our time, the quest for world order will require relating the perceptions of societies whose realities have largely been self-contained.  The mystery to be overcome is one all peoples share—how divergent historic experiences and values can be shaped into a common order.1

Two weeks into the year and I’ve already found a finalist for my “Best Books of 2015” entry: Henry Kissinger’s World Order.  The book is a richly written, thought-provoking meditation on the structure of the international system from the world’s preeminent scholar-statesman.  You won’t find a critique of it here.

I touched upon Kissinger’s thinking in my post on Adda Bozeman’s Politics and Culture in International History, so I won’t retread it; but reading the book prompted me to contemplate once more whether U.S. actions have played a role in the fraying of world order, and if so, whether the issue of “universal” values might be to blame. (more…)

Thoughts on James Fallows’s “Chickenhawk Nation”

Colleville-sur-Mer, France (2004).
Colleville-sur-Mer, France (2004).

[President Barack] Obama gave his still-not-quite-natural-sounding callouts to the different military services represented in the crowd. (“I know we’ve got some Air Force in the house!” and so on, receiving cheers rendered as “Hooyah!” and “Oorah!” in the official White House transcript.) He told members of the military that the nation was grateful for their nonstop deployments and for the unique losses and burdens placed on them through the past dozen years of open-ended war … He said that the “9/11 generation of heroes” represented the very best in its country, and that its members constituted a military that was not only superior to all current adversaries but no less than “the finest fighting force in the history of the world” … This has become the way we assume the American military will be discussed by politicians and in the press: Overblown, limitless praise, absent the caveats or public skepticism we would apply to other American institutions, especially ones that run on taxpayer money. A somber moment to reflect on sacrifice. Then everyone except the few people in uniform getting on with their workaday concerns.1

James Fallows has written one of the most important articles of the year: “The Tragedy of the American Military.”2  You should read it now; the words below will be here when you’re finished.

In the article, Fallows discusses the crisis in civil-military relations that has been building over the last 15+ years, and argues that this state of affairs has negatively impacted the country’s ability to fight and win wars.  As I read it, the three pillars of his argument on why the United States gets lured “into endless wars it cannot win” are, in a nutshell: (more…)

Politics and Culture in International History

Politics and Culture in International History

The concept of order that has underpinned the modern era is in crisis. The search for world order has long been defined almost exclusively by the concepts of Western societies … But vast regions of the world have never shared and only acquiesced in the Western concept of order … [The United States must think] on two seemingly contradictory levels. The celebration of universal principles needs to be paired with recognition of the reality of other regions’ histories, cultures and views of their security.1

Henry Kissinger is not enthused.  The extant world order is fraying, and the United States has neither a coherent strategy for coiling it back together, nor the bearing for promulgating a new one.  This blog’s exploration of entropy as the defining characteristic of international affairs covers some similar territory as Kissinger’s essay, so it shall be shamelessly plugged in this paragraph.

But the richness of Kissinger’s essay lies beyond the exigencies capturing headlines today, for it raises the idea that the cacophony of crises is not amenable to tactical policy prescriptions.  Rather, the perturbations may be symptomatic of a larger, more intractable issue: the imposition of rules and norms on cultures and societies that—by dint of their own historical experience—don’t necessarily share the West’s values.2 (more…)

Entropy: The Defining Characteristic of Global Affairs

Expanding prosperity contributed to the popularity of the doctrine [of harmony of interests] in three different ways. It attenuated competition for markets among producers, since fresh markets were constantly available; it postponed the class issue, with its insistence on the primary importance of equitable distribution, by extending to members of the less prosperous classes some share in the general prosperity; and by creating a sense of confidence in present and future well-being, it encouraged men to believe that the world was ordered on so rational a plan as the natural harmony of interests.1

Politics are made up of two elements — utopia and reality — belonging to two different planes which can never meet. There is no greater barrier to clear political thinking than failure to distinguish between ideas, which are utopia, and institutions, which are reality.2

Stocks are near their all-time highs and show few signs of correcting anytime soon; debt markets appear frothy; the VIX is low—the capital markets are telling us that we’re living in “the best of all possible worlds.”3 Even TV commercials show us people dancing on their decks while telling us “the fun is back!”

But in the real world, for a while now I’ve been nagged by this feeling of entropy in global affairs; that order and institutions are giving way to chaos and ungovernability. (more…)