It’s been a while since I posted one of these, and I have read a good deal of books in the interim. Unfortunately, I’m writing this post at an awkward time, as I’m just about to finish up several more books. I’ve therefore decided to make this set of reviews shorter than usual (only 3 books) and review the two books I’ve left off with the books I’m currently wrapping up.
The Dawn of Eurasia (by Bruno Macaes): This book has received a fair amount of attention and a significant amount of praise since it was released. The book itself is somewhat unique, and it does not fit neatly into any one box. However, if I were to try to place it, I would say it is very much in the tradition of Robert Kaplan in that it blends a travelogue narrative with political commentary on Europe’s increasing stagnation and the growing importance of Central and East Asia. I do not like Kaplan, so I should have known that I wouldn’t really enjoy this book. It’s not that the writing is bad or the arguments shoddy; the opposite is true. The problem is that the book lacks rigor, as it is simply a collection of musings about Eurasia that, while interesting, seem very poorly supported. I did really enjoy the description of Central Asia, as that is a region I find quite fascinating but poorly understand. The depictions of Azerbaijan and the floating cities of the Caspian Sea were gripping and really quite excellent, for example. Sadly, the rest of the book is fairly dry and uninteresting. Many of Macaes’ arguments regarding Europe and China are simply truisms – of course there is no clear border between Europe and Asia – or boring, unoriginal takes. Interestingly, most of the reviews I have seen are much more positive, so perhaps I’m missing something. Nonetheless, I’d have to recommend skipping this book.
An Introduction to African Politics (by Alex Thomson): I found this book surprisingly enjoyable despite it being a textbook. In fact, I decided to finish reading An Introduction to African Politics even though I dropped the class for which it was assigned. Thomson organizes the book conceptually, looking at things like domestic ideology, foreign relations, and economic policies at a very macro level. This allows him to concisely but comprehensively cover African politics. The downside of this approach is that the book has very little information about the political development of specific countries. To be fair, there are case studies at the end of each chapter focusing on a particular country. I found these boring and awkward, though, so I largely skipped them. But besides this weakness, which is to be expected given the absurd amount of effort that would be required to comprehensively cover most African countries in a single volume, the book is quite good and an easy read. Thomson should also be commended for so effectively presenting the competing interpretations of African politics. Every major perspective is offered, but they are all presented in a way that is fair and largely without bias.
Four Guardians: A Principled Agent View of American Civil-Military Relations (by Jeffrey Donnithorne): This book is strange in that it is a great read – it’s concise and full of interesting information – but its research design is completely ridiculous. Basically, Donnithorne seeks to examine how the strategic cultures of the U.S. service branches influence their policy preferences and interactions with civilian policymakers. He does this by offering in-depth chapters on all the different branches and their history and culture, which allows him to generate predictive claims about their preferences and behavior. He then applies these predictions to two case studies: the creation of the RDJTF and the Goldwater-Nichols reforms. I thought the case studies were useless (though they did have some interesting historical information), as the qualitative research design was just completely unconvincing. However, the chapters on each of the services are absolutely excellent and promise to be of value to everyone from novice military enthusiast to seasoned defense analysts. In short, the book utterly fails in what it seeks to do, but it is an outstanding and informative read nonetheless.