The Morning Call (Sunday)

Four books that try to make sense of a confusing world

- By James Stavridis

Every time I set out to visit a country in the NATOallian­ce when I was supreme allied commander, I’d try to read a book that could help me understand the history, culture and zeitgeist of the place. It could be a novel by a native writer, a history or a work of historical fiction.

So as 2021 begins, I want to offer four books that have helped memake sense of a confusing world in the past year.

Let’s start with a sweeping look at some of the most important global trends: “The New Map: Energy, Climate, and the Clash of Nations” by Pulitzer Prize-winning analyst Daniel Yergin. His 1990 book about the oil industry, “The Prize,” is a standard text in most graduate schools of internatio­nal relations. By the way, the world still depends on oil, gas and coal for 80% of its energy — roughly the same as it did when he wrote the book 30 years ago. But so much else has changed.

In “The New Map,” Yergin weaves geopolitic­s into his energy and climate analysis. Consider, for instance, his study of the Chinese territoria­l claims in the South China Sea. In that massive body of water, we find vast deposits of oil and gas, close to 40% of the world’s shipping, warming water, overfishin­g and increasing­ly dangerous military competitio­n between the U.S. and China. Yergin lays out the need to shift to greener sources of energy, but points out how hard this is going to be — and how the competitio­n (perhaps the conflict) between the U.S. and China will color the next two decades. This should be mandatory reading for President-elect Joe Biden’s incoming team.

Asecond powerful read is “The Missionari­es,” a novel about Colombia by Phil Klay. A combat veteran, Klay won the 2014 National Book Award for “Redeployme­nt,” a collection of short stories about the Iraq War, in which he participat­ed as a U.S. Marine. In “The Missionari­es,” he sets his sights on the supposedly successful American interventi­on in Colombia over the past several decades. Having spent three years as head of Southern Command, in charge of U.S. support for the Colombian military, I can attest to the lethal accuracy of Klay’s depiction.

The novel portrays the ugly 50-year war against the FARC, a Marxist guerrilla group. It contrasts the views of a hardened, yet somehow naïve, American female journalist, an American contractor serving as liaison to the Colombian military, a couple of FAR Cinsurgent­s and a Colombian military officer. There are no clear winners here, and by the end, the reader is left to strongly question U.S. interventi­on. Was the point to create a cadre of true believers in the benefits of an interventi­onist foreign policy? This will be a central question for the new administra­tion, and “The Missionari­es” can help officials understand the costs involved.

Scott Anderson’s history about the founding of the CIA, “The Quiet Americans: Four CIA

Spies at the Dawn of the Cold War — a Tragedy in Three Acts” is another important 2020 book. As we grapple with the direction of our country’s espionage efforts in this new era of great power competitio­n, it pays to look back at how we undertook the same missions in communist times. Four fascinatin­g characters, including the legendary Edward Lansdale, demonstrat­e both the successes and failures of the CIA’s early days. This is a book about finding a moral compass along with success in a vital mission, a balance that the U.S. has yet to achieve. The Biden administra­tion will certainly wrestle with these challenges in traditiona­l geopolitic­s and intelligen­ce, as well as in the new frontiers of cyber, outer space and biotech.

Then there is veteran historian Margaret MacMillan’s broad look at conflict and the human spirit, “War: How Conflict Shaped Us.” Why has war been such a defining characteri­stic of human life on earth? Drawing on history, political theory, literature, anthropolo­gy, biology and a dozen other discipline­s, MacMillan seeks to answer what in many ways is humanity’s existentia­l question: Why are we so fascinated with killing one another at scale? And what does it cost us? Abook like this may teach us how to essentiall­y “reverse engineer” the phenomenon of war and prevent more mayhem ahead. Let’s hope so.

 ??  ?? ‘The New Map: Energy, Climate, and the Clash of Nations’
By Daniel Yergin; Penguin Random House, 512 pages, $38
‘The New Map: Energy, Climate, and the Clash of Nations’ By Daniel Yergin; Penguin Random House, 512 pages, $38

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