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November Books 4) The Breaking of Nations

4) The Breaking of Nations: Order and Chaos in the Twenty-First Century, by Robert Cooper

Before I get onto the actual review, a bit of throat-clearing. This book was lent to me by my good friend NP, last time I was in his native country. He phoned me up on Monday to ask, in the politest possible way, if I had finished yet? I confessed I hadn't actually started reading it. (I have to confess I have in fact read several other books since the last one I blogged, but that was for a Speshul Prodjekt which will be revealed in due time.)

Thus prodded, I started on Monday evening and finished this morning. I know the author, of course; he is notable partly for cycling round Brussels wearing remarkable ties, but mainly for having been successively the senior foreign policy adviser to Tony Blair and Javier Solana. At meetings he speaks quietly, indeed hesitantly, but with great authority, and with an air of abstraction that makes me uncertain if he would know who I am, though we have often been in the same room, and even exchanged generally cordial remarks.

Final bit of throat-clearing: I have often complained that my problem with academic analyses of international politics is that they are often so desperately far from the reality that they purport to describe. I'm not the first member of my family to whinge about this (see Maurice Hayes' report of my father's views). Cooper agrees - he states at one point that "diplomatic history seems to be written by scholars for scholars". The problem with academic analysts is that they are not practitioners; and the problem with practitioners is that they are too busy practising to write it down. Cooper is in the rare position of being a practitioner who has taken the time to write it all down, and tell us what he is doing; and it makes sense to me in a way that the likes of Fukuyama and Chomsky simply don't.

His is the sort of writing that helps me understand a) what is going on in the world politically and also b) what I can to to try and change things. Cooper divides the world into three categories: pre-modern, where chaos reigns; modern, where the ideals of the Treaty of Westphalia stil operate; and post-modern, as typified by the European Union and Japan, where interdependence has replaced the desire for independence. The USA, of course, is in a peculiar place, as a state which is the most powerful in the world and yet stuck between modern and post-modern paradigms. It's a flexible typology.

How can the diplomat from country X seek to influence the behaviour of country Y? Cooper is blunt:
...states have at their disposal three main instruments of influence: words, money and force. They can persuade, they can bribe or they can coerce.
...followed by several impressive pages on the pros and cons of economic sanctions and military action, leading to the conclusion that unless you can change the mind-set of the people you want to influence, deploying cash and weapons to reinforce your case is probably a waste of time.

There's lots of good stuff here, about power, domestic imperative, economic motives, and the clash of civiliastions (in more or less that order of priorities). All stuff that I felt I knew, but needed to have someone set down in written form. One particular point that leapt off the page at me: his observations on international protectorates, as in Bosnia and Kosovo, which depend on international cooperation and the voluntary acquiescence of the locals in question: "...not as efficient as traditional imperialism... Nevertheless, in a postmodern era... nothing else will work."

The only slightly less-than-excellent part of the book is the twenty-page coda on the virtues of a Europe-wide armaments policy. In a work which is otherwise devoted to grand strategy it seemed odd to have so much prominence given to a single point. Admittedly, it is an important point, and I have myself witnessed Cooper convincing a senior politician of the rightness of his views on this one. Indeed, if one considers the book as a collection of three different essays, it probably works OK; it's just that the first 150 pages work so well as an organic whole that the last 20 stand out rather.

In conclusion - very strongly recommended, if you want to find out what is really going on in the world rather than take refuge in the romantic fantasies either of the Left or the Right.


( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 15th, 2006 10:14 pm (UTC)
That sounds like an incredibly interesting book. I shall look for it. Thank you!
Nov. 15th, 2006 10:53 pm (UTC)
This actually does sound very interesting. How does it compare with Kissinger's Diplomacy in terms of the elements of practioner vs. academic?

Also: virtues of a Europe-wide armaments policy? As in he is arguing for one...rather than the patchwork of trans-national corporations that exist now?
Nov. 16th, 2006 07:15 am (UTC)
Haven't read Kissinger, I'm afraid; though I know that Cooper recommends that book to his staff.

On the Europe-wide policy - I should have written "defence procurement policy" - he means the Europeans are unable to project force effectively because their military equipment is not sufficiently interoperable. It's a well-worn argument in Brussels circles, and he would have strengthened this part of the book by reflecting on the difficulties for national leaders in implementing such a policy, and reporting on what has happened to previous attempts to implement it.
Nov. 16th, 2006 02:43 pm (UTC)
Jane's typically writes about this European procurement problem. However, it seems to me that the problem extends beyond interoperability, but to divergent, parallel, and redundant technical developments - for a European armoured personnel vehicle, for example.

I guess it seems a bit odd to me that European defence technologies are still so 'stove-piped' when there are successful models of cooperation like ESA, or where consolidation (e.g French/British shipbuilding) or trans-Atlantic links exist (e.g. BAe).
Nov. 17th, 2006 06:23 am (UTC)
Yeah, I think Cooper would agree with you (and Jane's) on that. Myself, although I completely buy the case being made, I think we need to reflect a bit on the traditional role of the indiviudal state in defence procurement - much more intrusive than in shipbuilding, much more long-established than space research - and the set of relationships and attitudes which make this a very difficult policy area to internationalise.
Nov. 15th, 2006 10:57 pm (UTC)
Also: after reading the Amazon commentary, I'll definitely want to talk with you about that last point after I read this book.
Nov. 16th, 2006 07:32 am (UTC)
I'm sold as well. I assume I can find this book in Brussels when I am there in December. I actually had a conversation with the Dutch Army officer responsible for liason with the Baltics at a reception in Vilnius last May. I would very much like to see a European Army and he pointed out the need to deal with the interoperablity issue. Of course as a language teacher, I feel that one area that needs work is improving communication which means deciding on and implementing a common working language. As the direction seems to be towards English, the French wont like that at all.
Nov. 16th, 2006 11:12 am (UTC)
Completely and utterly OT, but if you have a spare moment and are feeling kind, could you have a quick look at this post? I think you know more about non-Roman fonts than anyone else on my friends list...
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )

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