Tag: july theme

Vladimir Putin Has Created a Fragile Empire

Fragile EmpireFragile Empire: How Russia Fell In and Out of Love with Vladimir Putin, written by Ben Judah, explores the life of Putin, his rise to political power, and the problems his regime is causing for Russia today. Putin brought about some positive changes for Russia including turning a bankrupt state into an energy superpower, building a strong middle class, halting NATO expansion, and helping incomes rise over one hundred and forty percent. Putin’s political career can be considered successful, but as Judah argues, he has failed to build a modern state and has instead created a regime that can be considered synonymous with ineptitude and corruption. To fully comprehend what is wrong with Russia today, Judah says we must first understand why Russia fell in love with Putin in the first place.

Judah begins by describing Putin’s early life, his rise to power and how he gained the public’s admiration through telepopularism and videocracy. By seizing control of the airwaves, the Kremlin was able to make Putin into a TV tsar creating all different guises for Putin to wear. There was one to appeal to all the different groups of Russia: the housewives, the unemployed, those nostalgic of the USSR, rural Russians, military men, and extremists. All of these groups were able to identify with Putin in some way, and saw in him not a wounded Russia, but a healthy, athletic, and proud Russia. Putin’s popularity with the public was able to continue for a time. The economy was on the rise, a new middle class was thriving, and the people loved him.

The protest movement in Moscow during the winter of 2011 to 2012, however, finally exposed the reality behind the regime’s power. The movement showed how the regime relied on the control of television, the media, huge assets, and security organs, not legitimacy and the approval of the elites as many had believed. Judah describes how under Putin’s leadership, Russia became a country wrought with contradictions. At the same time Russia was both highly sophisticated and deeply backward, housed formal institutions of democracy but stripped them of any meaning, and was a videocracy pumping censored television to the masses but still allowed free newspapers and blogs for the intellectuals. Corruption caused elections to become a joke. The same tactics that had won over the public had also created a regime with a defunct and outdated power structure. Russia became a patronage network filled with corrupt individuals who are all a part of Putin’s oligarchy.

As Judah explains, the movement has cost Putin the support of the most advanced part of society, and has forced him to seek it out instead in the most backward. Putin is now holding back Russia instead of propelling it forward. We must now question if Putin can still control the new middle class, if he can win over the first post-soviet generation, and whether his Kremlin can still hold onto a Siberia overshadowed by China. By looking at Putin’s life from his childhood to the present, Judah offers an intriguing look into the life of Russia’s leader and Russia’s uncertain future. Gathered from research and hundreds of interviews collected over five years, Judah offers an insightful look into the thoughts and lives of many ordinary Russians as well as their leader in Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In and Out of Love with Vladimir Putin.

Stumbling Giant: Why China Will Not Be The Next Superpower

Stumbling GiantMany argue that China will soon overtake the United States and become the next superpower. Timothy Beardson, author of Stumbling Giant: The Threats to China’s Future, disagrees, asserting that confronted with myriad problems and the inadequacy of response to these problems, China will not become the next superpower. Beardson does not wish to undermine the emergence of China on the national stage; in fact he believes it is the most important world development since the birth of communism. Instead he proceeds to explain the vast problems facing China today and offers solutions to these problems while also stressing the dangers that could befall China if proper solutions are not carried out.

Ultimately, Beardson boils down China’s problems to four main ideas: stability, prosperity, identity, and honor. Stability is concerned with the level of social calm and the avoidance of large-scale dissidence and external threat. Prosperity entails good employment levels, stable social security, economic development and rising incomes. Identity refers to the kind of society and values China has, and finally honor pertains to how the Chinese feel they treat and are treated by the rest of the world. The number of problems facing China may surely seem daunting, but as Beardson points out, the country has a history of identifying issues and dealing with them. This time around, the solutions may require radical changes of policy, however.

Drawing on research and personal experience gathered from living and working in Asia over the last thirty-five years, Beardson presents China’s many problems, which include gender inequality, social instability, a devastated environment, a low-technology economy, no effective welfare safety net, a fixed governance structure, and much more. Beardson takes a close look at the educational, cultural, moral and political factors behind China’s economic problems, examines the identity of the Chinese Communist Party and China’s current relationship not only with America, but with the rest of the world. Beardson also stresses the importance of looking back at the past to help understand China today. By investigating China’s history and the events that led to the creation of today’s China, Beardson agrees will be able to extract valuable lessons and identify themes relevant to understanding China’s future.

Take the great environmental harms currently facing China. As Beardson explains China has the worst environment of any major country in the world. Fertilizers are poisoning rivers, children are dying from pollution, water is in short supply, and China is contributing significantly to global pollution and environmental distress that reaches far beyond its borders. How is a country to solve such vast problems? Beardson argues that while it will be difficult, improvement is possible with the right educational programs, pricing formulas, technology and political will. Beardson offers solutions that fall into two categories: economic and governance. Economic solutions would include implementing more effective water and energy prices that would discourage ineffective use and waste, shifting the focus from manufacturing to the service sector, developing new environmental technologies, and building the knowledge economy. Changes in governance would need to encourage NGOs, bring greater attention to the rule of law, overhaul cadre management, and motivate officials to follow national policy on environment. As Beardson points out, these environmental issues can be solved, but if they are not, it could be the environment and not the economy that topples China.

China’s sphere of influence has always been limited to a very large regional power. The Chinese government and its people want to build a modern, prosperous, strong and respected country. Many believe that China will become the next superpower. An article from CNN asserts that China should be considered a superpower once it can rival the United States militarily and claims that China is already any economic superpower. The Daily Beast states that China’s lack of debt, expanding infrastructure, and thriving economy prove that we have already entered the season of Chinese supremacy. If they will become the next superpower, only time will tell, but Stumbling Giant: The Threats to China’s Future, offers a great counterpoint to arguments for China and deftly asserts that China will not be a threat to the United States’ superpower status.

What Changed When Everything Changed : The Fluidity of American National Identity

When Americans come upon a social arrangement they want to preserve, they do not alter their behavior to fit their values; they alter their values to fit their behavior. They change what it means to be an American…

With intensely divisive issues like voting rights, immigration policy, and the war on terror in the news, the notion of what is “American” or “un-American” is much in question. In What Changed When Everything Changed: 9/11 and the Making of National Identity, Joseph Margulies presents the surprising analysis that despite consistent language usage in describing out ideals, national identity is quite fluid. As the counsel of record for the first Supreme Court case regarding the detentions at Guantanamo Bay, Margulies has had personal experience with changing American values. In this insightful and persuasive book, Margulies calls attention to the language and themes of the political discourse and popular culture serve as important indicators of the shifting ideals of the nation.

“Liberty”, “equality”, “the rule of law”, “limited government”, “individualism”, and “community” are constant words and phrases used to define American ideals. While the words do no change, we use different stories and contexts to assign them new meanings. The twists and turns of political language are an expected aspect of politics, and become common fodder for satirists and pop culture. This normalization of fluidity in the meaning of words, even those words with which we form our national identity, makes the shifts in our national identity almost subconscious.

The normalization of new values in pop culture changes the meanings we assign these words at an even more subconscious level. The immensely popular television show 24 reinforced the idea that torture can provide key information for the defense of the country. This kind of influence certainly does not flow in only one direction, and the show could not have been created or risen to such fame without an initial change in the public opinion of torture. Still, the mass influence of entertainment media calls into question the moral responsibility of popular culture.

How we build our national identity is complex. Few would have predicted that as the threat of terrorism declined, the American appetite for repressive policies would have increased. Margulies urges his readers to consider the changes to the American national identity more actively, but maintains optimism that thanks to this very fluidity, the “American Creed” will return to “the way things ought to be.”

Democracy in Retreat: A Divided Egypt

Democracy has long been upheld as the ideal way to run a country. America, “land of the free” is revered for its representative government elected by the people for the people, and the US has committed to a mission of spreading and supporting democracy worldwide. In Joshua Kurlantzick’s newest book Democracy in Retreat: The Revolt of the Middle Class and the Worldwide Decline of Representative Government, he argues that nations are actually moving against democracy as a solution. When newly democratic governments appear to fail, public opinion is often swayed to believe democracy is not an effective option.

Democracy in Retreat: The Revolt of the Middle Class and the Worldwide Decline of Representative GovernmentDemocracy in Retreat is especially relevant to the current situation in Egypt. This July, their first publicly-elected president, Mohamed Morsi, was overthrown after just one year in office. Morsi attempted to undertake some democratic initiatives, such as firing certain ineffective military officials who were not publically elected, granting defendants greater rights in court cases, and creating a presidential website, where citizens could offer feedback on the administration. At the same time, reporters and a TV personality were jailed for expressing criticism of the president and the Muslim Brotherhood. Citizens were tortured, raped, and killed, and the Egyptian economy continued to suffer. Kurlantzick cites a major study showing that in 2012, “about 40% of Egyptians did not believe democracy was the best system of governance for the country,” even before Morsi could complete a year in office.

Fearful that Morsi would force Islamic authoritarianism on the country, many Egyptians fought to overthrow him, obtaining 20 million signatures on a petition demanding his removal (more than the 13 million votes Morsi won in his election). The military decided to depose Morsi, and are currently detaining him in unknown whereabouts. Backlash from the military takeover resulted in a divided Egypt and mass emigration.

During Morsi’s time in office, many Egyptians felt corrupt ballot boxes were no longer the way to get their voices heard and took to the streets in protest. A recent Time magazine cover displayed an image of the rallies, reading “Egypt: World’s Best Protesters, World’s Worst Democrats.” It could be argued that Time’s cover is unfair, considering Morsi’s opposition believes that by protesting a leader who is no longer fit to rule their country, they are exercising the very foundations of democracy. A New York Times article quoted one male anti-Morsi demonstrator as saying “We had to show Morsi that we could get rid of him if we didn’t like him just like we got rid of the one before him. What the Egyptian people did is pure democracy.”

The big question to answer is: is it more democratic to elect a leader or to overthrow one? Supporters of Morsi are angered by the President’s upheaval, feeling that the military got rid of the “people’s choice” by removing Morsi from office; however, Morsi would not have been removed if the people also had not chosen to overthrow him in the first place. The conflict remains irreconcilable as both sides believe they are exercising democratic values. When democratic practices result in the election of an undemocratic leader, it becomes difficult to define what democracy truly is.

Many are also skeptical about whether democracy can make a comeback under the authoritative control of the military-led interim government. The Egyptian armed forces claim that they are attempting to keep the nation in a state of calm until elections for a new leader can begin. But with citizens killed and injured in attempts to quash opposition to the military, are military governments working towards or away from democracy? And some citizens, especially the middle class, support a military takeover, believing that the armed forces will act as a check against Islamists, crime, and violence. The middle classes, who Kurlantzick claims are integral to the success of a democracy, are often suspicious of democratic rule out of fear that if the poor are all backed behind one candidate, their own needs will be ignored if that candidate wins.

Despite the many problems posed for democracy in the Middle East, Kurlantzick remains committed to democracy as an institution and discusses how it can successfully come about, even in countries like Egypt. Part of his solution is to assert civilian control over the armed forces and separate the military from national politics, like Indonesia has done. This would be especially important for countries such as Egypt and Syria, where their governments have been inextricably tied to the military, often against the people. In order to do so, Kurlantzick suggests that civilian leaders may have to create incentives for the military to cooperate with such a transition, such as increasing the defense budget or reserving certain privileges and rights to the armed forces.

Time No Longer Scrutinizes American Myth & History

9780300176568In Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century Patrick Smith explores America’s need for a new perspective and self-image. Smith argues that while old myths and stories once motivated and defined America and what it meant to be American, that these myths cannot drive the nation forward any longer. Instead of living within these myths and adding to them, Americans need to instead learn to live in history. We need to determine how to understand ourselves as Americans and how to act and advance in the post-American century, a one hundred and three year period lasting from 1898 to 2001. Smith urges that in order to do this we must disregard myth and instead gain a true understanding of the past and how we arrived at the present moment.

In the four essays that comprise this volume Smith expands upon this idea and also discusses how so many Americans are blind of history, the price Americans have paid for this blindness, and what we can do now to remedy this. In Part One of the book, entitled “History Without Memory,” Smith provides primary historical information for the parts that follow. This section is also primarily concerned with the contradictions between many American’s love of history and the nation’s place among the great forgetters caused, Smith asserts, because we have always been satisfied with the idea of America and therefore substituted myth and story for authentic history. Part Two, “A Culture of Representation,” delves into the atmosphere that prevailed at the beginning of the American century when America entered the “world stage” by its involvement in the Spanish-American War. As Smith delves beneath the surface of a nation eager to distinguish itself, he reveals that the moment is much more complex than normally understood.

Part Three, “Cold War Man,” explores the idea of Wilsonian idealism in combination with a dominance of the unconscious. From this came an odd belief structure based on nostalgia and science, one that was looking back towards the past while simultaneously looking forward toward the future. “Time and Time Again,” the final essay, speaks to the possibility that Americans might engage in a modern act of “becoming,” or changing the dominant assumptions of American life. Focusing on the time from 9/11 to present, Smith speculates whether America’s founding political heritage is suitable for the time ahead or whether it has taken the nation as far as it could. He asks if we are prepared for our time, and more importantly if Americans will ask and answer this question.

Smith presents neither a declinist prediction nor an effort to re-enchant Americans with an idea of themselves, but rather the many formidable choices that our nation has to make. In a time where America finds itself suspended between myth and history, Patrick Smith’s Time No Longer proves an important read.

July Theme: The American Century…and After

So far in July, we’ve discussed Susan Dunn’s 1940: FDR, Willkie, Lindbergh, Hitler—the Election amid the Storm, which powerfully argues for this year and its presidential election—the third, unprecedented win for FDR—as a major turning point in American History. As David Shribman recently wrote for the Wall Street Journal: “Few years turn out to be as perilous as 1940, or as portentous.” Stay tuned for details on a forthcoming Goodreads giveaway!

Meanwhile, Stephen D. King, author of When the Money Runs Out: The End of Western Affluence has been interviewing on expectations of continued economic growth and increase in living standards in the U.S., Western Europe, and Australia are out of sync with what the future holds, and the associated dangers with that mindset.

YUP July 2013 Theme

No consideration of the American Century is complete without the other key players on the international stage: In Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell in and Out of Love with Vladimir Putin, journalist Ben Judah takes us through the rise of the Russian President-turned-Prime-Minister with an inside account of Putin’s years of rule and the impending crisis that threatens his tsar-like regime.  Close to Russia’s sprawling borders, and within the former USSR, former Wall Street Journal reporter, Philip Shishkin has reported from the ground since 2005 on politics and turmoil for his book: Restless Valley: Revolution, Murder, and Intrigue in the Heart of Central Asia, investigating the nations of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan and the negotiation of their roles with both the U.S. and Russia in the American campaign in Afghanistan.

And as for competition on the horizon, Timothy Beardson makes the case that a daunting array of challenges confront China today, countering the widespread assumption that China is poised to surpass the United States and rise to global supremacy in Stumbling Giant: The Threats to China’s Future.

Luuk van Middelaar, author of The Passage to Europe: How a Continent Became a Union, considers the origins of the European Union, the forces binding it together and driving it forward, and how political leaders will surmount the current economic turmoil amidst speculation on its continued existence as more nations are added.

Certainly one of—if not the –most remarkable additions to global society and culture is the rising popularity and interconnectivity of the Internet, which law professor Anupam Chander analyzes in The Electronic Silk Road: How the Web Binds the World Together in Commerce, exploring how global trade on the Internet is now regulated, why regulation matters to individuals as well as nations, and how better regulatory laws can encourage international trade while protecting national and human rights. Fittingly, you can follow The Electronic Silk Road on Facebook for more updates.  

Lastly, the theme title takes its cue from Patrick Smith’s Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century, asking why America’s founding myths no longer apply, and why we must reconsider the facts of our history; coupled with Joseph MarguliesWhat Changed When Everything Changed: 9/11 and the Making of National Identity, our conversation bookends with a new idea of the challenges faced not only by Americans, but the whole of global society.

As always, we invite you to read along and share your thoughts on these timely issues and discussions!

How to Avoid the Looming Dystopia: When the Money Runs Out

When the Money Runs OutIs the current economic stagnation in the West a temporary setback or a new and lasting reality? Prominent economist Stephen D. King looks back at history to get a fresh picture of the current global economic situation and it isn’t pretty. In his accessible, engaging, and hard-hitting book When the Money Runs Out: The End of Western Affluence, King argues that expectations of continued economic growth and increase in living standards in the U.S., Western Europe, and Australia are out of sync with what the future holds.


As King explains in an interview on the Squawk Box on CNBC (above) over the past six decades, the West has enjoyed remarkable growth rates. Current economic performance, however, indicates that there is a significant lasting reorganization of economic growth patterns in the West. King identifies four factors that contributed to the period of increased growth rates: the inclusion of women in the workforce, the opening of trade from the 1950s through the 1990s, the increases in educational attainment, and increases in financial markets such as consumer credit. The nature of these economic influences is such that they cannot be expected to continue contributing to future growth rates.

Promises were made to the public in Western countries based on past economic growth rates. As growth rates slow, those promises will be broken, leading to distrust and resentment. Using historical lessons, King provides recommendations to avoid dystopia, which he outlines in depth at the book launch of When the Money Runs Out at AS/COA (below), but warns that it will require some painful reforms.


Lessons from 1940: An Election on the Brink of War


As the world became embroiled in the fight against the Nazis, America gathered to decide on the president who would lead them through it. Susan Dunn’s book, 1940: FDR, Wilkie, Lindbergh, Hitler—the Election amid the Storm, documents this incredible moment in history when the US broke with tradition and elected FDR to his third term in office. Through this story, Dunn paints a picture of politicians ultimately rising above partisan differences to make the right decision for the country and for the world.

Presidential campaigns or “that most colorful American art form” as David Shribman describes them in his review of 1940 in the Wall Street Journal, tend to bring out the worst in our politicians, as they pander to interest groups and lash out at their opponents with rancorous words. FDR is cherished in the American imagination, a popular hero who guided the United States through the Depression and defeated Hitler, but even this beloved public figure, had to lie to the American people to win the election.

Although FDR opposed American isolationism, he promised the public that he would not let the United States become embroiled in Europe’s war several times approaching the Presidential Election. Marc Wortman explains on The Daily Beast, “FDR had good reason to fear that his inward-looking nation, still deeply traumatized by the Depression, would reject him and his start-and-stop efforts to rebuild the nation’s paltry national defenses.” FDR responded to the Republican campaign attacks on his foreign policy with promises he knew he would not keep, a lie he deemed necessary as the best man for the job of leading a country on the brink of war.

Reviewing 1940 in the The Washington Post, Jonathan Yardley compares the significance of FDR’s third term election to Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860, declaring them the two most important elections in American history. The country, emotionally divided on the international issues united in selecting FDR to continue to guide the US out of the Depression and through the coming war. “History tells us that they chose well,” Yardley says. In 1940, Dunn highlights perhaps an even more historically successful decision, FDR and Wilkie’s ability to move past the “campaign oratory” with which they had attacked each other on international issues, in order to support the Lend-Lease arrangement, giving military equipment to the British. This bipartisan cooperation on high stakes and emotional issues should be inspirational in America’s current context of divided parties, international strife, and domestic economic challenges.

The Reality of Democracy in Retreat

Read an excerpt from Democracy in Retreat on TheAtlantic.com!

Citizens and leaders of the United States tend to take their democracy for granted. At first China, South Korea, Taiwan, Russia, and more were considered to exceptions – nations moving against the powerful solution of democracy. They accounted for a small but worrisome portion of the world population. But it seems in the past two decades that this has become more of a trend than a series of unfortunate events.

Democracy in Retreat: The Revolt of the Middle Class and the Worldwide Decline of Representative GovernmentYUP author Joshua Kurlantzick discusses this seemingly global shift in his new book, Democracy in Retreat: The Revolt of the Middle Class and the Worldwide Decline of Representative Government. This text aims to track this tendency, attempting to determine if this divergence from democratic practices is reversible.

In a recent interview about the book, Kurlantzick, a true believer in the effectiveness of democracy, claims:

“There is no strong evidence that authoritarian governments are better at providing development than democracies. I could name about 50 dictators who ran their countries into the ground economically. There is evidence that over time democracy provides better social welfare, such as longer life expectancy, lower infant mortality, more social and political freedoms.”

He also speaks to the “nostalgia factor” that prevents countries from evolving into democratic states, “A lot of time people’s memories of the past are what they want it to have been. Sometimes when they look back at a regime that provided a certain degree of development or security, they forget the bad parts. In the Philippines today they talk about [late dictator Ferdinand] Marcos in a positive way, and his wife and son are still very powerful there, perhaps because the presidents over the past 12 years have been pretty disastrous. A successful leader in transition realizes that you can’t destroy all of the institutions of the past, that you have to work with them. It’s also important to keep in people’s memories the wrongs that were committed.”

These great shifts in global thinking will continue to shape the way established countries like the United States behave and react.

Jess Bravin on Democracy Now!

The Terror Courts: Rough Justice at Guantanamo BayRecently, Jess Bravin appeared on “Democracy Now” to discuss his new book, The Terror Courts: Rough Justice at Guantanamo Bay. He spoke on the government’s military commissions at Guantanamo Bay and the legal implications of these actions. Describing his reporting for the The Wall Street Journal, Bravin said:

I got wind of work in the Bush administration to authorize military tribunals, what they call “military commissions,” to prosecute the people behind 9/11. That was the plan. And I thought that was an astounding development, because this type of justice is a sort of ad hoc sort of trial that has occasionally been held by the United States during or after wartime. These hadn’t been held since World War II. And so, it was a dormant area of law that suddenly might be very much alive. And so I followed that.

Bravin’s book works to track the policies forged at Guantanamo and the consequences these plans will have on the American justice system.

Watch the full interview here, and stay tuned for more updates and interviews on this timely topic!