Five Best Books on the Changing World Order

From a Wall Street Journal story by Samuel Ramani headlined “Five Best: Books on the Changing World Order”:

The Russo-Ukrainian War
By Serhii Plokhy (2023)

1. Russia’s brutal 2022 invasion of Ukraine shattered an already-fraying system of European security. Yet Ukraine’s spirited resistance has derailed Vladimir Putin’s neo-imperial dreams, providing the world hope for a more secure future. In “The Russo-Ukrainian War,” Serhii Plokhy presents a deeply personal yet soberly analytical examination of these two developments. He explores how the stark contrast between Russia’s authoritarian path and Ukraine’s nascent democratic course placed both countries on a collision course.

He examines how Western appeasement of Mr. Putin—tolerance of Russian dark money, questionable diplomatic outreaches, dependence on Russian energy, disunity over Georgia’s and Ukraine’s NATO accession—emboldened Russian aggression. Mr. Plokhy’s narration of Mr. Putin’s botched invasion meticulously documents Russian war crimes and strategic failings, but also contains a potent subnarrative: the contrast between Ukrainian courage and Western naiveté. As the U.S. underestimates Ukraine’s counteroffensive potential, Mr. Plokhy provides grounds for optimism that Ukraine can again defy the odds on the battlefield, reunite the country with a cohesive national identity, and once and for all decouple Eastern Europe from Russia’s neo-imperial clasp.

Chip War
By Chris Miller (2022)

2. In October 2022, the U.S. announced sweeping export controls to restrict China’s access to advanced semiconductors and the equipment used to produce them. In “Chip War,” Chris Miller explains the backstory behind this high-stakes geopolitical competition. It is a rivalry so intense that China spends more on importing chips than on oil. After explaining how the invention of the transistor ensconced U.S. leadership in the post-World War II semiconductor race, Mr. Miller lays out the business decisions and geopolitical trends that precipitated the current chip war.

Chip nationalism, which is reflected by the state-led funding of semiconductor development, uneasily coexists with transnational cooperation and inspires economic espionage. Mr. Miller highlights how Texas Instruments’ 1968 opening of a semiconductor plant in Taiwan shifted the chip-production nexus to East Asia. He also recounts the Soviet Union’s farcical attempt to copy U.S. semiconductor technology and how this failure gave the U.S. a precision-weaponry advantage over the Soviet Union. Although America’s semiconductor advantage helped it win the Cold War, and China’s reliance on foreign chips is its Achilles’ heel, a successful Chinese invasion of Taiwan could give Beijing a decisive edge.

China’s Good War

By Rana Mitter (2020)

3. Henry Kissinger celebrated his 100th birthday earlier this year by warning of a new cold war between the U.S. and China. In “China’s Good War” Rana Mitter examines an overlooked harbinger of this escalating conflict: the creation of a myth of Chinese ascendancy during World War II. Although the Chinese Communist Party initially repressed memories of Japan’s World War II territorial occupations, China’s economic revival under Deng Xiaoping brought with it a re-evaluation of this dark period. CCP narratives highlighted Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek and CCP leader Mao Zedong’s wartime collaboration to heal Cultural Revolution-era divides and turn World War II into a unifying memory.

Reminders of China’s role in shaping the postwar world order strengthen Beijing’s self-image as a global power. Historical revisionism, Mr. Mitter argues, could fuel China’s increasingly assertive anti-Western foreign policy. As Russia claims the Ukraine invasion is a second act of the Soviet Union’s triumph over Nazism, nationalist mobilization around World War II is a foreboding sign of future Chinese aggression.

The Road to Unfreedom

By Timothy Snyder (2018)

4. According to Freedom House, global freedom declined for a 17th consecutive year in 2022. This trend of democratic erosion extends to the U.S. and Europe, as far-right movements discredit legitimate institutions and normalize illiberal values. Timothy Snyder’s “The Road to Unfreedom” explains why post-Cold War optimism about democratic diffusion unraveled and explores how Russia’s authoritarian tilt abetted that process. Mr. Snyder highlights Vladimir Putin’s admiration for the interwar philosopher Ivan Ilyin, an ultranationalist who disparaged Western democracy and Soviet-style communism.

Ilyin’s vision featured ritualistic elections, the concoction of internal and external enemies, and the defense of Russia’s “traditional values.” Mr. Putin implemented Ilyin’s vision through systematic disinformation and has replicated this strategy to target Western audiences. Mr. Snyder examines how Russia’s use of “implausible deniability” and conspiracies about a political process rigged by nefarious “establishment” figures gained traction in the West. These information-warfare techniques emboldened separatist movements across Europe and powered the rise of far-right demagogues in the mid-2010s. As America approaches the 2024 presidential election, Mr. Snyder’s prescient analysis of illiberalism’s emergence is worth reading.

Geopolitics for the End Time

By Bruno Maçães (2021)

5. The Covid-19 pandemic pitted the competing governance models of the U.S. and China against each other and saw the rival powers convert medical-aid distributions into an arena of geopolitical competition. Bruno Maçães’s “Geopolitics for the End Time” examines the consequences of the pandemic and the climate crisis. The author highlights how some countries hoarded masks and ventilators early in the pandemic and predicts that this trend will recur during climate-change-induced heat waves. America’s postpandemic attention to eliminating supply-chain vulnerabilities further undermines global interdependence.

Mr. Maçães also looks at how states leverage effective responses to environmental crises to bolster their own prestige and discredit their rivals. He contrasts China’s framing of the pandemic as a “national security crisis” with the U.S. and Europe’s depiction of a “public health problem,” and explains how Beijing tried to capitalize on Western unpreparedness. While economic blowback from China’s zero-Covid policy and disruptions to its Belt and Road Initiative infrastructure spending have tempered Beijing’s triumphalism, Mr. Maçães banishes naive assumptions that environmental disasters will catalyze international cooperation.

Selected by Samuel Ramani, the author, most recently, of ‘Putin’s War on Ukraine: Russia’s Campaign for Global Counter-Revolution.’

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