“This book,” starts the introduction, “was written by a man who did not exist. Despite this obvious handicap, Alfred Raquez was extraordinarily prolific.” Raquez was in fact a man on the lam: his real name Joseph Gervais, a lawyer from Lille, who got into a spot of bother—fraud, it seems—and decamped to the Orient, as it was then called, to avoid arrest and prosecution.

The great British geopolitical theorist Halford Mackinder wrote that great statesmanship requires “geographical capacity” and “an insight into the minds of other nations.” He explained geographical capacity as a “mind which flits easily over the globe, which thinks in terms of the map, which quickly clothes the map with meaning, which correctly and intuitively places the commercial, historical, or political drama on its stage.”

In 1955, Professor John King Fairbank established the Center for Asian Research at Harvard not to train scholars per se, but to educate and prepare a new generation of public servants for engagement with Chairman Mao’s China. Sinology was already an established academic discipline in Europe and the United States, tracing a lineage from the Jesuit missionaries through to the great 19th century translators such as James Legge, Thomas Wade and Herbert Giles. But unlike the Sinologists, who approached Chinese civilization through its ancient texts, the China Hands that Fairbank would train at Harvard were multidisciplinary men—in those days, it was primarily men—of the world: aspiring journalists, diplomats and policymakers.

The concept of “soft power”, popularized by Harvard’s Joseph Nye, has always seemed artificial. Power as wielded by nations is not neatly divisible into “hard” and “soft” categories. The great realist philosopher of power Hans Morgenthau identified the elements of national power as geography, natural resources, industrial capacity, population, military preparedness, national morale, the quality of government, and the quality of diplomacy.

Many years ago, when I was about thirteen and home in Khartoum for the holidays from school in England, my mother took me on a train trip to Port Sudan, from where we drove to Suakin, an extensive deserted city on the Red Sea. Old Ottoman-style buildings lay scattered around us in ruinous states ranging from the almost intact to mere piles of bricks and stones. I was particularly struck, I remember, by the enclosed balconies which jutted out from the second floors of some of them, and remember wondering what the people who looked out from them might have been like. Why didn’t anyone live there any more? What happened to them?

Predicting the global future is never easy. Even the most knowledgeable and fair-minded observers of geopolitics frequently miss the mark. After the First World War, the German historian Oswald Spengler predicted the decline of the West. In 1964, the American political philosopher James Burnham opined that the West was committing suicide. In 1987, just a few years before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Yale’s Paul Kennedy warned that the US would likely suffer from imperial overstretch in its struggle with Soviet-led communism.