Stratfor staff spend much of the day combing through minutiae: cataloguing militant gains, tracking the banal movements of world leaders, noting the market prices of key commodities. This dull reckoning of detail is the foundation of what we do, the endless task of intelligence gathering that builds analysis. However important, the actual work can be tedious. Thus, it is a joy when we are able to step back from the details to consider a broader understanding of the world by reading the latest works on a diverse array of subjects.
With the summer vacation season well underway in the Northern Hemisphere, many of our subscribers now find themselves craving a good, in-depth read. To aid in that search, we have compiled this short list of recommended books (all published in the past nine months). We offer these suggestions for enriching and provocative reading, and while we don’t necessarily endorse each and every idea, they have yielded insight, cast light on our thinking and, in that way, become part of Stratfor. Hopefully this list helps with the age-old dilemma that haunts us all: “So many books, so little time.”
In Europe’s Shadow
Robert D. Kaplan, Random House, Feb. 2016, 336 pages
The kernel of this book is Kaplan’s 35 years of travel to the oft-ignored country of Romania. He uses the obscure, marginal story of Romanian history — and his direct experience of it from the Ceausescu dictatorship to the present — to throw modern Europe into stark relief. As with his broader work, he sheds light on the role of geography in history, the momentum of tradition in modernity and the role of human choice amid tragic constraints. Harkening back to the collapse of the Soviet bloc when he wrote his iconic Balkan Ghosts, Kaplan now looks at the current standoff between Russia and the West in the Ukrainian conflict and how Romania is impacted and shaped by the tectonic forces of the European borderlands once again.
Connectography: Mapping the Future of Global Civilization
Parag Khanna, Random House, April 2016, 496 pages
This book focuses on the role of connectivity in our modern world as a way of overcoming the limits of geography. Khanna coined the term connectography to describe a sort of post-geography, a time when “there is no geography that is not connected.” This optimistic outlook emphasizes technology and infrastructure as the antidote to the tragic realities of geopolitics. Though Stratfor would take issue with the argument that the net result of deeper connectivity is global stability, we share Khanna’s obsession with maps and his mission to make the map actively demonstrate how the world is evolving and adapting to 21st-century challenges.
Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS
Joby Warrick, Doubleday, Sept. 2015, 368 pages
Black Flags tells one side of the rise of the Islamic State to its preeminent role among jihadist groups. By focusing primarily on the narrative of one man — Jordanian-born militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi — this book captures the events that eventually coalesced into one of the world’s ugliest geopolitical battles, one that has pulled in all the major world powers and torn apart two countries. Awarded the Pulitzer Prize for best nonfiction in 2016, this book connects the day-to-day atrocities of the terrorist group with the obscure historical events and people who brought it to power.
China’s Next Strategic Advantage: From Imitation to Innovation
George S. Yip and Bruce McKern, MIT Press, April 2016, 304 pages
This book discusses the next steps of China’s development as Beijing tries to build on its manufacturing prowess. The country is trying to transition from low-value to high-value products by partnering with foreign firms and adapting or licensing foreign technology. At first glance, the strategy seems at odds with China’s desire to innovate and create its own technology. But, as Yip and McKern argue, the decision is a deliberate one modeled after Japan’s transformation from an imitator of Western technology in the 1960s to a leading innovator by the 1980s. South Korea followed Japan’s lead; China will likely manage to do so — and when it does, the world will never be the same.
Continental Shift: A Journey into Africa’s Changing Fortunes
Kevin Bloom & Richard Poplak, Portobello Books, April 2016, 448 pages
Two South African journalists take a meandering nine-year trip through 16 African countries to see for themselves how the continent is rapidly changing. The book quickly moves beyond the media tropes of poverty and misery to show a dynamic continent moving in several directions at once. From the limits of the nation-state in the Central African Republic to the rising cultural power of Nigeria, the blessed curse of mineral resources in the Democratic Republic of Congo to the wave of Chinese investment in Botswana, the authors cover a lot of ground to underscore just how important Africa’s future is for the world.
Gangster Warlords: Drug Dollars, Killing Fields, and the New Politics of Latin America
Ioan Grillo, Bloomsbury Press, Jan. 2016, 384 pages
Grillo interviews members of criminal groups and law enforcement agencies across Latin America and the Caribbean to reveal the evolving dynamics of organized crime and violence in the region. The book highlights how globalization as well as domestic and foreign policy have shaped and continue to shape the nature of crime in Brazil, Mexico, Jamaica and Honduras. The read is an important look at how history helped create insecurity and crime in Latin America and how that insecurity might manifest in the future.
Vanguard of the Imam: Religion, Politics, and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards
Afshon Ostovar, Oxford University Press, April 2016, 320 pages
This book explores the nexus of violence and conflict in shaping state power by examining Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). It is a rare book in terms of the depth and insight it offers on the secretive military institution, explaining the enduring revolutionary philosophy the corps still holds with respect to all manner of threats against the Islamic Republic. As the IRGC continues to expand its reach across the Middle East, it will play a pivotal role in determining how Iran interacts with its neighbors.
Chinese Economic Statecraft: Commercial Actors, Grand Strategy, and State Control
William J. Norris, Cornell University Press, March 2016, 320 pages
As China’s massive state-owned enterprises come onto the world stage, greater attention has been paid to China’s economic statecraft: Beijing’s ability to use commercial actors, state-owned or not, to achieve security goals. Yet, a lot of analysis of Chinese economic statecraft assumes that the business strategies of Chinese state-owned enterprises always align with Beijing’s grand strategy. Norris rejects the idea that the government exerts full control over its state-owned enterprises and unpacks the conditions under which Beijing can actually exert control over economic actors to meet its ambitious goals. At its core, this is a book about the problems that bedevil the Chinese central government at every turn, whether when dealing with businesses or local governments.
Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads
Paul Theroux, Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Sept. 2015, 464 pages
Theroux, a longtime travel-writer most known for his train trips across Africa and the Eurasian continent, focuses his latest travelogue on journeys by car along the back roads of the American south. The book explores race relations, poverty and inequality and sheds fresh light on classic regional writers such as William Faulkner. Deep South is peppered with elements of the history and geography of the U.S. south, but mostly it focuses on Theroux’s interactions with the regular people who have been shaped by these broader forces. With elections approaching in the United States, the book analyzes and contextualizes one of the least known and most misunderstood regions of the country.
The Industries of the Future
Alec J. Ross, Simon & Schuster, Feb. 2016, 320 pages
In this book, Ross, a technological innovation expert, explores upcoming advances in robotics, genomics, cryptocurrencies, big data, cybersecurity and digital economies. Building on his travel through 41 countries, he discusses the roadblocks to progress and their implications on success. While the book does not factor in the broader constraints of geopolitics and global power, this is an excellent and accessible primer on some groundbreaking technologies that Stratfor has written extensively about.