Friday, September 23, 2022

Review: Chaos Under Heaven: Trump, XI, and the Battle for the Twenty-First Century

Chaos Under Heaven: Trump, XI, and the Battle for the Twenty-First CenturyChaos Under Heaven: Trump, XI, and the Battle for the Twenty-First Century by Josh Rogin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An important and intriguing book. There are several ways in which this book changed my mind on some key issues related to China.

For a long time, I was in the camp of doing what we could to entice and encourage economic and political liberalization in China: using trade and deepening relationships to move China from its repressive and closed system to a freer and more open society. A free China being a part of the world system would be great for everyone. And this looked to be working, if slowly, up through the early 2000s. I was still in that camp well after however. Rogin’s book shows, however, that whatever might have been happening from the 70s through the 90s, the Twenty-First century was shaping up to be something very different. The engagement strategy was no longer working (if it ever really was) and was in many ways backfiring as the CCP (The Chinese Communist Party) abused this engagement to cement its power, enrich itself, further oppress its people, and extend its influence beyond its borders.

Rogin highlights how both the Obama and Trump administrations failed to see or meet these threats. And in many cases made them worse. Rogin shows how the Obama administration continued to push the engagement strategies and ignored China’s bad faith and bad actions (both in China and here at home). He goes into greater detail on the mixed messages of the Trump administration. Often talking tough on China, Trump was successfully wooed by Xi and seemingly caved to many of Xi’s ‘personal favors’ asked of Trump. Inside the administration, there was plenty of chaos as well: with his advisors split between various camps. There were those who wanted to continue engagement. Then there were the “China Hawks” who saw China as both an economic and political enemy. And another camp that just wanted to continue business as usual to keep the money flowing. Each of these had Trump’s ear at various times; leading to shifting policies depending on Trump’s gut or mood. On the plus side, the chaotic and disruptive nature of Trump did keep the CCP and Xi on their toes, never quite knowing what to expect. Rogin discussed how the tariffs and other Trump policies did put pressure on China, though not to the extent that any progress seems to have been made. In any case, I’m still not convinced tariffs were a good idea. But what I am more convinced of now is that policies of engagement are no longer effective and we need to move to different footing to protect ourselves and the rest of free world from the CCP’s aggressiveness and manipulations.

Rogin is even-handed as can be seen by the fact that those will certain ideological convictions will think he’s biased. MAGA-types will hate this book because it shows the incompetent and chaotic way Trump governed. Those suffering from Trump Derangement Syndrome will think Rogin goes to easy on him – in particularly when Rogin highlights the few successes of the Trump administration vis-à-vis China.

Rogin’s book convinced me that the CCP-led China is far more a threat than I really appreciated. Not that I thought they were benign, but the depth and extent of the threat that Rogin details has forced me to rethink the ways I think we should be approaching China. This is not Cold War Part 2, it is something different. Still, in the way the USSR and its role in the world colored almost all foreign policy during the Cold War, our relationship to China will be the dominant lens by which we will have to consider foreign policy going forward. And this book is an important piece in making sense of some of that.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Review: Star Wars: The Rising Storm

Star Wars: The Rising StormStar Wars: The Rising Storm by Cavan Scott
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm mixed on the Light of the Jedi series. There are some things I really like. But I find myself having trouble getting into the books; though usually as the books progress, I get more into it. The Rising Storm meandered through the first 2/3 or so of the book. There were too many characters, too many changing POVs, it was hard to track and get invested. The first half of the book dragged. It was hard to care about the characters when there were dozens of pages where the characters were off 'stage'. As the story got more focus and the action became more compressed, I enjoyed the book a lot more. The last hundred pages flew by. There are some great twists and the ending was good. I am more interested in the characters of Bell, Ty, and Elzar. The third book in the trilogy is well set up and the ultimate climax should be good.

View all my reviews

Friday, September 02, 2022

Review: The Narrows

The Narrows (Harry Bosch, #10; Harry Bosch Universe, #13)The Narrows by Michael Connelly
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As always, Connelly does an amazing job. Here Connelly mixes things up, using 1st and 3rd person narration. Sometimes that can be confusing, but Connelly does a masterful job of it and employs to great purpose. Especially as the novel draws to a close, it helps to heighten the tension and drama by switching between Bosch's first person point of view and the third person narration. It's almost like a film making switching from a close up to a wide shot.

View all my reviews

Review: Books That Matter: The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Books That Matter: The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman EmpireBooks That Matter: The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Leo Damrosch
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was an interesting course. It wasn't quite what I expected or hoped for, but I still enjoyed it and learned from it. I think I was hoping more for something like a cliff notes of Gibbons' work. And Damrosh certainly talks about the book, its ideas, and arguments. But there is also a lot of material about Gibbons life, his time period, and so on. Not uninteresting or even irrelevant, but at the same time wasn't quite what I was looking for.

Damrosh does a great job of communicating the immensity and importance of Gibbons' masterpiece. I didn't realize how much it covered the Eastern Empire and the Islamic world. The amount of information that Gibbons had to go through and analyze to produce this work is an incredible achievement in itself.

One criticism I might have is that I don't feel like I really have a great grasp on Gibbons' explanation for the decline and fall. It seems to be, broadly, that the Western empire lost its ability to repel the repeated Germanic and eastern tribes pushing into their territory and that this was because of its poor constitution that allowed and even encouraged too many weak and corrupt emperors. The immense bureaucracy held for a while, but eventually the internal pressures from centuries of bad governance ate away at the empire's capacity. The Eastern was better defended by natural boundaries and by the boundary of the Persian empire; and so didn't face the same external pressures and therefore was able to hold out much longer despite having similar internal pressures. Still, I would have liked a lecture, towards the end, that really covered and summarized Gibbons account of the causes in a more in-depth way. Partly, Damrosch might not do this because Gibbons own view (at least according to Damrosh) by the end was that the decline and fall didn't explaining -- what was remarkable was that the empire lasted as long as it did (not that it fell).

This course is no substitute for the book. I am not sure I'll ever have the time or focus to read Gibbons whole work myself, so this course at least gives you a framework for the works influence and as well as a guide for jumping into the narrative at certain points that might be of interest.

View all my reviews