Home / Opinion / Four books that can help make sense of 2016

For observers of international politics, 2016 offered a roller-coaster ride. From Syria to the South China Sea and Brexit to Donald Trump, hardly anything turned out as expected by most analysts. We have had an unremitting diet of humble pie. As a historian, I like to think that it is too soon to get a proper handle on these events. All the same, I am happy to report that this year also gave us a crop of books that are indispensable to placing these dizzying developments in perspective.

If there was a thread linking the headline events of the year, it was the return of territoriality. Over the past 25 years, the notion of territory had receded in importance: central issues of security and economy were no longer seen as tied to pieces of territory. This stemmed from the combination of American hegemony (which allegedly did away with great power politics) and globalization (which apparently neutered the nation state).

Hence the dismay over events as disparate as the Islamic State’s determination—unlike, say, the Al-Qaeda—to hold on to captured territory, the spat between China and its neighbours over minor rocks and shoals, the response in Europe and America to immigration.

Charles Maier’s Once Within Borders is a splendid account of the changing notions of territory over the past five centuries. Maier is among the most distinguished living historians and this timely book has been years in the making. Starting with the competing forms of delimiting territorial space, the older expanding empires and newer early modern sovereign states, Maier traces emerging practices linked to the establishment of territorial sovereignty. He shows how changing geopolitics, the advent of commercial society, rise of industrial technology and development of new techniques of governance impinged upon evolving the notions of territory. “Human societies have not liberated themselves from territoriality," he observes, “but they continue to transform it." Whether you are interested in the politics of cyberspace or the grip of ideas such as “America First", Maier’s account provides the indispensable deep background.

The rhetoric of “America First" does, however, signify an important moment in world history. As historian Adam Tooze writes in a recent essay, 2016 may mark the end of the “American century" that began with the US’ entry into World War I. Why the US assumed such an encompassing global role is one of the great questions of contemporary history. It is also crucial to understanding why this role might now be ending.

Historians and political scientists have emphasized three main factors to explain the US’ unparalleled rise to global dominance: security, economics, ideology. John A. Thompson carefully unpacks each of these and shows them up as deficient in A Sense Of Power. Instead, he offers an altogether novel explanation: the American elites’ sense of power and responsibility.

This sociological argument is fleshed out in a fine analytic narrative. Thompson doesn’t entirely succeed in explaining why this sense of power took the stunningly ambitious shape that it did. Still, as we watch Donald Trump assemble his team of parvenus, it is difficult to dispute the importance of the old elites that shaped the American century.

While Thompson’s book ends with the onset of the Cold War, the really interesting story is how the US refashioned its global role after the collapse of the Bretton Woods order in the early 1970s.

Sebastian Mallaby’s The Man Who Knew is a fascinating biography of the former chairman of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan. But the book also opens a marvelous window into American politics, economics and finance from the late 1960s to the Great Financial Crisis. Greenspan himself emerges as more a skilled political operative than the economic “maestro" of previous, adulatory accounts. Given India’s recent experiments with monetary policy, especially the turn towards inflation targeting and a monetary policy committee, this history bears close reading.

As ever, literature illuminates politics as much as history or biography. The highlight of the year was the publication of the first full English translation of the great Viennese satirist Karl Kraus’ dramatic masterpiece, The Last Days Of Mankind. Composed during World War I and published soon after, this was a “drama" unlike any other. Its performance, Kraus wrote in the preface, which “would take some 10 evenings in terrestrial times, is intended for a theatre on Mars." Kraus’ work has had a cult following: well-known admirers include the historian Eric Hobsbawm and novelist Jonathan Franzen. The wonderful translation by Fred Bridgham and Edward Timms makes accessible this long, and sometimes obscure, work to a new generation of readers.

Kraus’ theme was not just the folly of politicians in launching the war, but the central role of the press in rationalizing, euphemizing and normalizing it. Kraus drove home his point with a devastating use of extracts from the actual newspapers of the day. He was equally unsparing about the gullibility of people. Austrian public opinion, he wrote elsewhere, was “the most willing victim of publicity in that it not only believes what it sees in print, but also believes the opposite, if it sees that in print too." There can be no better introduction to the “post-truth" of our own times, or to the mechanisms by which patriotic fervour is whipped up to sustain inane political projects.

Srinath Raghavan is senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.

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