Read reviews from foreign policy officials on recent publications on US isolationism, the future of energy, and China's new Silk Road.
Isolationism: A History of America's Efforts to Protect Itself from the World
US President Donald Trump's brand of "America First" isolationism has ousted much of the foreign policy establishment and appalled US allies around the world in the past four years. Ahead of this year's presidential election, many of them hope that the Trump years will end in a bizarre detour. A future Joe Biden administration will steer the United States back to the brand of liberal internationalism that served the country so well 75 years after War II.
Charles Kupchan, a former senior Clinton and Obama administration (and occasionally foreign policy contributor), has two things to say about this. First, Trump and his style of isolationism are hardly deviations; Rather, a mixture of isolationism, unilateralism, economic protectionism and racially tinged nativism is "straight out of the playbook that anchored foreign policy for most of American history prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor," he writes.
Second, the postwar Pax Americana cemented by a United States activist around the world is dead. “A strategic cut is imminent. The key question is whether it occurs by default or by default, ”writes Kupchan.
Isolationism is a deeply explored, intriguing look at how the urge to keep the world in check has largely defined the United States and its foreign policy since the country was founded. And with good reason: George Washington's famous warning to avoid foreign entanglements lasted so long because a strategy of isolationism "undoubtedly served the interests of the nation." For most of its history, the United States has stayed away from the kind of global engagement that seems to be the norm today.
The few departures – the Spanish-American War and the subsequent outbreak of American imperialism as well as the entry of the United States into the First World War – soon led to a backlash and a retreat behind the moat. US isolationism reached its peak during the Great Depression. The America First Committee, which urged the country to stay out of World War II – the namesake and inspiration for Trump's own foreign policy – apparently tarnished the image of isolationism for good. The war, then the Cold War threat, created the glue to bind security-conscious Republicans and partner Democrats to a unified foreign policy that lasted for decades.
But with the end of the Cold War, that foreign policy consensus began to crumble and is now gone. And today the same forces that fueled isolationism in the past – particularly economic fears, the need to build nations at home, and concerns about social homogeneity – are resounding, driving both Trump and many of his progressive political rivals to argue that the United States The United States has achieved too much and needs to reduce its global commitments. Therefore, Kupchan argues that America will resign. The question is how.
Trump's 19th-century brand of isolationism, although it worked well in its day, is hardly suitable for an era of economic networking and increasing transnational challenges like climate change and pandemics, argues Kupchan. Merely breaking international order – as Trump attempted – will not restore the affluent, detached security that defined much of the early history of the United States.
Instead, said Kupchan, Washington must strike a balance between a crusade foreign policy that has led to decades of endless war and unmanageable global commitments, and a retreat that would risk repeating the country's abdication in the 1930s. "(D) angry overreaches could lead to even more dangerous overreaches," he warns.
Kupchan's recipe for such a middle ground – a withdrawal from fringes like the Middle East, a doubling of international cooperation, and a return to spreading American values by example, not at gunpoint – sounds hopeful. The problem, as much as he notes, is that the recipe sounds a lot like what former President Barack Obama tried with his "liberal internationalism," which still fails to bridge the gap between "the extent of the nation's obligations abroad and "concluded the willingness of the political body to keep these obligations. "
The new map: energy, climate and the clash of nations
Daniel Yergin, the author of The Prize and The Quest, is back with what is essentially the keystone of a trilogy devoted to exploring how the modern world was created through energy – and which will shape what is on the horizon.
The New Map is a kaleidoscopic overview of what appears to be every geopolitical development in recent (and not so recent) history, all viewed in terms of energy, national rivalries, changing technologies, and the looming threat of climate change. Much like The Quest, Yergin's new book seeks to continue the oil-rich saga begun in The Prize, which focuses on groundbreaking developments in the oil and gas industry over the past decade, particularly the US shale revolution that turned the United States from fuel beggar to Energy superpower. And like The Quest, Yergin's latest book aims to highlight the energy technologies struggling with fossil fuels – from electric cars to renewables (in particular, nuclear energy is barely mentioned) – all overshadowed by an accelerating climate emergency and black swan pandemic.
Yergin, the vice chairman of energy research firm IHS Markit, is strongest on oil and gas, which is still the mainstay of the world's energy supply today and for decades to come. Even readers familiar with the US “slate storm” will find new gems in its retelling of the pioneers who smashed slate to start a revolution. Russia, which today uses oil and gas as it once pursued Marxist-Leninist ideas, offers Yergin just as much support as China's energy-powered forays into the South China Sea.
When it comes to the challenges and the challengers, Yergin is less sure-footed. His report on electric cars and the impending revolution in artificial intelligence in automotive technology is fun to read, but has been told before. His coverage of climate change and the magnitude of the uplift required to move the world's energy system from the old to the new goes little beyond what he outlined in The Quest.
The new map is an admirable, well-researched, and legible examination of all of the changes that have turned the rock-solid certainties of the past into today's dangerous flammability. But any book that tries to cover so much ground – from the development of coal coke in the 18th century to the Sykes-Picot division of the Middle East to the origins of the “nine-dash line” in China to Tesla's founding for this year Oil price wars – will feel a little wider than deep.
The Emperor's New Path: China and the Project of the Century
China's massive Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), ÖOne of the most ambitious infrastructure projects in history is invariably described as the signature policy of Chinese President Xi Jinping and seen as Beijing's attempt to use its economic power to expand its influence to Asia, Europe and Africa. It has sparked a backlash from recipient countries as well as Brussels and Washington, who accuse Beijing of using debt-trap diplomacy to take over vital parts of the world's real estate. For all the ink spilled on the BRI, it remains incredibly difficult to understand what the initiative is – and what isn't.
The Emperor's new road is a good means of doing this. Written by Jonathan Hillman, Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and former advisor to the Obama administration, the sleek book shows the rough reality of the BRI, a collection of high-profile investments in ports, roads and railways, and power plants of Almaty, Kazakhstan , to Zeebrugge, Belgium. Far from being a well-crafted master plan to turn China's economic power into geopolitical dominance, writes Hillman, the BRI is more of an uncoordinated struggle by Chinese firms to do business that few others would affect, and it leaves a mark of corruption, debt, and economically dubious projects.
"Since leaving the station, China's BRI has become a sauce train without a conductor," he writes. The new Silk Road is less like the Marshall Plan, the post-war reconstruction of Western Europe, than the war on terrorism after September 11th: “ill-defined and growing,” writes Hillman.
Hillman explains that while the size and scope of the BRI may be new, major powers have been building overseas infrastructures for centuries to expand their geopolitical reach, from Roman roads to the Suez Canal to the British Empire's "All Red" telegraph network. One big difference is that China is essentially doing – or trying to do – all of these things at the same time.
And that is most evident in Hillman's statement: the gap between the rhetoric and the reality of the BRI. Whether it's an empty cargo port in Gwadar, Pakistan, or a dying logistics facility at the Khorgos Gateway on the Sino-Kazakh border, China's much-touted projects have in many cases failed to deliver or even come close to fulfilling their promises.
With all of the hype and craftsmanship about how the BRI could usher in the Chinese century, Hillman's dedicated mix of high-level analysis and fieldwork in more than a dozen countries paints a much more nuanced picture.
"China is more forced than its imperial predecessors," he writes, "and it will be difficult to turn Xi's great vision into reality."
This story will appear in the autumn 2020 print edition.