November Books 4) The Breaking of Nations

4) The Breaking of Nations: Order and Chaos in the Twenty-First Century, by Robert Cooper

Before I get onto the actual review, a bit of throat-clearing. This book was lent to me by my good friend NP, last time I was in his native country. He phoned me up on Monday to ask, in the politest possible way, if I had finished yet? I confessed I hadn’t actually started reading it. (I have to confess I have in fact read several other books since the last one I blogged, but that was for a Speshul Prodjekt which will be revealed in due time.)

Thus prodded, I started on Monday evening and finished this morning. I know the author, of course; he is notable partly for cycling round Brussels wearing remarkable ties, but mainly for having been successively the senior foreign policy adviser to Tony Blair and Javier Solana. At meetings he speaks quietly, indeed hesitantly, but with great authority, and with an air of abstraction that makes me uncertain if he would know who I am, though we have often been in the same room, and even exchanged generally cordial remarks.

Final bit of throat-clearing: I have often complained that my problem with academic analyses of international politics is that they are often so desperately far from the reality that they purport to describe. I’m not the first member of my family to whinge about this (see Maurice Hayes’ report of my father’s views). Cooper agrees – he states at one point that “diplomatic history seems to be written by scholars for scholars”. The problem with academic analysts is that they are not practitioners; and the problem with practitioners is that they are too busy practising to write it down. Cooper is in the rare position of being a practitioner who has taken the time to write it all down, and tell us what he is doing; and it makes sense to me in a way that the likes of Fukuyama and Chomsky simply don’t.

His is the sort of writing that helps me understand a) what is going on in the world politically and also b) what I can to to try and change things. Cooper divides the world into three categories: pre-modern, where chaos reigns; modern, where the ideals of the Treaty of Westphalia stil operate; and post-modern, as typified by the European Union and Japan, where interdependence has replaced the desire for independence. The USA, of course, is in a peculiar place, as a state which is the most powerful in the world and yet stuck between modern and post-modern paradigms. It’s a flexible typology.

How can the diplomat from country X seek to influence the behaviour of country Y? Cooper is blunt:

…states have at their disposal three main instruments of influence: words, money and force. They can persuade, they can bribe or they can coerce.

…followed by several impressive pages on the pros and cons of economic sanctions and military action, leading to the conclusion that unless you can change the mind-set of the people you want to influence, deploying cash and weapons to reinforce your case is probably a waste of time.

There’s lots of good stuff here, about power, domestic imperative, economic motives, and the clash of civiliastions (in more or less that order of priorities). All stuff that I felt I knew, but needed to have someone set down in written form. One particular point that leapt off the page at me: his observations on international protectorates, as in Bosnia and Kosovo, which depend on international cooperation and the voluntary acquiescence of the locals in question: “…not as efficient as traditional imperialism… Nevertheless, in a postmodern era… nothing else will work.”

The only slightly less-than-excellent part of the book is the twenty-page coda on the virtues of a Europe-wide armaments policy. In a work which is otherwise devoted to grand strategy it seemed odd to have so much prominence given to a single point. Admittedly, it is an important point, and I have myself witnessed Cooper convincing a senior politician of the rightness of his views on this one. Indeed, if one considers the book as a collection of three different essays, it probably works OK; it’s just that the first 150 pages work so well as an organic whole that the last 20 stand out rather.

In conclusion – very strongly recommended, if you want to find out what is really going on in the world rather than take refuge in the romantic fantasies either of the Left or the Right.

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