While I’m still on my posting hiatus, I want to write up some more book reviews while the content is still relatively fresh. As you may notice, these books are heavily Asia-focused, and that is because many of them were read over the course of a summer class I took on Asian security. But even if you aren’t an Asia specialist, I think they are still worth reading!
1. Guerilla Dynasty: Politics and Leadership in North Korea (by Adrian Buzo) – I think it is safe to say that this book, written in 1999, is fairly out of date. Yet, it still offers a very rich and thorough analysis of the rise of the Kim regime. The book’s core argument, which I found to be persuasive and well-argued, is that the bizarre and inward-looking approach of the North Korean state stems from founder Kim Il-sung’s background as an anti-Japanese guerilla. This formative experience created in Kim a deep sense of paranoia and distrust of urban, cosmopolitan society. After all, Buzo notes, the paramount leader grew up in the rough Siberian hinterland without much real education and without any experience living in “civilized society.” This background created a set of biases that pushed Kim toward distrust of others and veneration of self-sufficiency – it’s for this reason that Kim strongly resisted promoting younger cohorts to high positions in the KWP, Buzo speculates. Unfortunately for the North Korea populace, the Sino-Soviet split meant that neither Beijing nor Moscow was willing to pressure Kim to reform, as both were reluctant to alienate the Hermit Kingdom and thus lose influence to the other. The result, Buzo argues, is that North Korea has become an ossified totalitarian state. I really enjoyed the book, and I think it provides some quite interesting historical examples, which are aided by Buzo’s background as a diplomat stationed in North Korea. If you have any interest in the development of the North Korean regime, I think you’d still be well-advised to at least skim through this book. Given its age, though, I would not recommend it as your introduction to the topic.
2. End of an Era: How China’s Authoritarian Revival is Undermining its Rise (by Carl Minzner) – There are several exceptional books out now that challenge the narrative of China’s inexorable rise to unassailable dominance. From Beckley’s Unrivalled to Economy’s The Third Revolution, readers have a wide and deep literature from which to draw. Minzner’s work is yet another in this vein, and it is quite good. The central thesis is that the Chinese Communist Party is incapable of pursuing much needed economic and legal reforms because of its deep paranoia and need for complete control. Thus, while Communist China has witnessed several periods of opening and liberalization throughout its history, they are inevitably rolled back when the Party becomes spooked at what it has created. Minzner shows across a range of indicators that China once again finds itself in a period of growing authoritarianism, particularly now that Xi Jinping has become fully ensconced within the Party leadership. This is a problem, Minzner argues, because China’s economy is slowing and many well-educated college graduates are struggling to find lucrative work. In short, China is facing many of the populist push factors currently tearing apart the West. Xi has so far been able to use state power to control these movements, but Minzner compellingly suggests that the erosion of rule of law and effective institutions are forcing dissidents to pursue extra-legal actions outside normal channels, thus subverting state power. The situation is made worse by the CCP’s penchant for exploiting ethnic nationalism to promote Han chauvinism as an identity around which Chinese can rally. While this may work in the short-term, Minzner believes it is likely to backfire eventually. I found this book to be exceptionally well-researched and written. The problem, of course, is that it is already becoming outdated, as all books analyzing fast-moving current events do. So, I guess that means you should read it now.
3. Convergence or Conflict in the Taiwan Strait: The Illusion of Peace? (by Michael J. Cole) – There are few recent good books on Taiwan. Thus, Convergence or Conflict is very much worth acquiring. However, the book itself is quite mediocre and, frankly, exceptionally biased. The core purpose of the book is to trace the development of Taiwanese nationalism and identity. In particular, the book details the powerful, organic civil society groups that have formed in Taiwan, especially during the Sunflower Movement of 2014. The existence of these groups, according to Cole, is powerful evidence of Taiwanese skepticism toward China and strong opposition to any kind of reunification with the mainland. Reading this book now, it seems that Cole was quite prescient, as China has taken a very dark turn. This is particularly apparent in Hong Kong, which is concerning for Taiwan given that many pro-reunification advocates have pointed to the former British colony as a model for peaceful integration with the mainland. But despite the many things Cole gets right, the book is incredibly biased and one-sided. It is important to note that Cole is married to an influential member of the DPP and is personally engaged in Taiwan’s domestic politics. Thus, it is not surprising that his book comes off less as an academic tome and more as a partisan diatribe. There is a lot of exceptionally well-researched and interesting information in this book, but its tone is grating and sure to turn off many who do not share Cole’s views.
4. Leap of Faith: Hubris, Negligence, and America’s Greatest Foreign Policy Tragedy (by Mike Mazarr) – Mazarr’s Leap of Faith is a terrific history of the leadup to the Iraq War. Integrating psychological theories, detailed historical research, and multiple interviews with midlevel bureaucrats and policymakers engaged in the planning and execution of the Iraq invasion, this book offers a thorough and comprehensive examination of why the U.S. went to war and why the war went so poorly. Importantly, Mazarr remains even-handed throughout the book, avoiding the ludicrous conspiracy theories of the left while also never pulling punches when addressing the actions of the Bush administration. In the end, one is left feeling that the war was not some grand conspiracy but instead the product of Bush’s self-assurance and almost religious zeal regarding his role and the role of the United States in the world. The book benefits from Mazarr’s time working at OSD Policy and RAND, as he has a very detailed knowledge of the interagency process and connections to sources within the government that usually do not get asked their opinion. But while the analysis of American politics and policymaking is exceptionally good, the book tends to ignore the role of allies. This is not a significant problem for me, however, as that is not this book’s purpose and there are many other excellent works on, for example, the British decision to support the invasion of Iraq. The book is also valuable for its conclusion, which offers a holistic assessment of the decision to invade Iraq and a framework for improving decisionmaking in the future. Instead of offering blanket condemnations and seeking out villans, the book offers important lessons for future policymakers faced with similarly vexing foreign policy conundrums. For me, at least, this is greatly appreciated.