The first takeaway from Gilles Kepel’s new book Away from Chaos is the immense complexity of Middle East politics.
During a one-year sojourn in London in the 1970s, my secondary school O-level history curriculum covered about a century from mid-1700s on. A decade into a discussion of the Napoleonic Wars, the history master (for such he was called) mentioned, almost in passing (and, in retrospect, probably for my benefit), that after marching through a swamp, a detachment of British soldiers had burned down the White House. “That’s the War of 1812!”, I interjected, finally twigging to what we had been discussing. “That’s what you call it,” was the reply. The “war” that engendered the National Anthem was to the British a mere police action in a far more important conflict.
The world-weary Giuseppe Lampedusa introduced us to the cynical formulation “for everything to remain as it was, it’s necessary for everything to change.” Empires rise and fall, sometimes swiftly. The papers in Short Term Empires in World History, delivered at a conference held in Germany in 2017, raise the issue of continuity and discontinuity in the context of characterizing empires.
Growing up in the United States can leave one with a curious idea of history. Revolutions are about independence, civil wars are about countries splitting apart, and colonies are about colonists. So what kind of a “colony” was, say, India?
In an age of microchips, information and cyber warfare, precision-guided ballistic missiles, satellite communications, advanced robotics and artificial intelligence, does a book about the historical struggles between insular sea powers and continental land powers have any relevance? Is there any practical benefit—other than an interest in history—to read about how the Athenians, Carthaginians, Venetians, Dutch, and British constructed and utilized sea power? Does the sea or land-oriented “culture” of a country really matter in 21st century geopolitics?
Geopolitical analysis is partly based on geographical perspective. Writers on geopolitics tend to view the world from their home country’s perspective. Australian national security expert Rory Medcalf in his new book Indo-Pacific Empire uses classical geopolitics and an understanding of modern geoeconomics to survey the current struggle for power in the most contested and consequential part of the world. And he does this from an Australian perspective—an Australian, moreover, whose diplomatic postings included India. That said, his book is a tour de force of 21st century geopolitical analysis that should be read by strategists and statesmen throughout the region and the world.
The global rivalry between China and the United States dominates the geopolitics of the 21st century. The world’s two largest economies armed with an impressive array of military capabilities are engaged in a struggle for power in the Asia-Pacific region, and the outcome of that struggle will determine the 21st century’s world order.