In these brief reviews of four recently published books, writers deconstruct some of the most complex and enigmatic political realities occupying the contemporary mind. In his book ‘A Most Enterprising Country: North Korea in the Global Economy’, Hastings details the ingenious ways in which North Korea has conducted foreign trade despite its political isolation. Moving onto a similarly complex albeit distant context in ‘Russia: What Everyone Needs to Know’, Colton selects the historical and physical features that have made Russia Russia. Going further West towards Europe in ‘The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues, and the Coming Dark Age’ Kirchick paints a dark picture of contemporary Europe: rising anti-Semitism and Islamic radicalization, a looming Russian threat, the spread of Brexit-like referendums, the coming dominance of the far right, rampant nationalism and economic dysfunction but then he optimistically concludes that Europe might still be saved. Taking a more macro approach to what seems to be a mad world in ‘Reflections on Progress: Essays on the Global Political Economy,’ Dervis explores the troubles of contemporary capitalism, while looking for possibilities for reform through tax policy, regulation, and social spending.
A Most Enterprising Country: North Korea in the Global Economy
by Justin V. Hastings
Reviewed by Andrew J. Nathan
Hastings details the ingenious ways in which North Korea has conducted foreign trade despite its political isolation. In the 1970s, the country’s diplomatic missions used smuggling, counterfeiting, and weapons trafficking to cover their expenses and send money home to support the ruling Kim family’s lifestyle. In the 1990s, after assistance from the Soviet Union dried up, Pyongyang’s overseas missions and trading companies sold heroin, methamphetamines, and counterfeit cigarettes. In addition, North Korea supplied missile technology to Pakistan in exchange for nuclear weapons technology, and Pyongyang’s diplomats in Europe acquired equipment for the country’s nuclear program from companies in Austria and Germany. Even after the UN levied sanctions against North Korea in 2006, state companies disguised as private firms found ways to access weapons technology and equipment from suppliers all over the world; Chinese and Taiwanese brokers were especially helpful. Meanwhile, Pyongyang lost control over ordinary citizens’ economic lives, so they, too, have taken up smuggling and human trafficking across the Chinese border, a process that contributes to a rising tide of petty corruption. The Stalinist state is rotting from within, but its economy is doing fairly well.
Russia: What Everyone Needs to Know
by Timothy J. Colton
Reviewed by Robert Legvold
At first glance, one might think this volume were merely a primer that takes the uninitiated through the key stages of Russia’s history. But that would be to sell short a shrewd, bountiful book. With a finely tuned sense of choice, Colton selects the historical and physical features that have made Russia Russia and then sets about exploring a wide range of issues: how the country grew so large, the imprint of empire on its character, the reasons it chose revolution over reform, the triumph of the Bolsheviks, and the ways in which Soviet leaders Joseph Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev, and Leonid Brezhnev defined their respective eras. His discussion becomes even more refined and comprehensive when he turns to contemporary Russia, touching on almost every significant aspect of the country’s foreign and domestic development during the Yeltsin and Putin periods. Colton avoids simple formulas and undergirds his analysis with carefully chosen data, delivered in a cool, evenhanded fashion. This is particularly true of his assessment of the Putin regime and its prospects. Russia has never, and will never, follow foreign models, Colton argues: “What Russia can and must become is a better edition of itself.”
The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues, and the Coming Dark Age
by James Kirchick
Reviewed by Andrew Moravcsik
Through engaging anecdotes, Kirchick paints a dark picture of contemporary Europe: rising anti-Semitism and Islamic radicalization, a looming Russian threat, the spread of Brexit-like referendums, the coming dominance of the far right, rampant nationalism, and economic dysfunction—all of which, he warns, could trigger the dissolution of the EU, the collapse of democratic government, and the outbreak of a war on the continent. Similar forecasts have been issued like clockwork almost since the birth of the EU. Yet over the decades, European democracy has not collapsed, war has not broken out, the frequency of terrorist acts has declined, and Europeans have increasingly come to see Christianity as no longer essential to their national identities. Even the great wave of refugees that swept into Europe in 2015 has already crested, with the number plummeting over the past year and a half, in large part due to EU policies. With the exception of the United Kingdom, no member state has really contemplated exiting the EU, and even the British are now negotiating to retain as many EU policies as possible. So perhaps readers should not be surprised that, in his brief conclusion, Kirchick reverses course, tells some optimistic stories, and suggests that perhaps “the end” is not quite here yet. Europe, it seems, might still be saved.
Reflections on Progress: Essays on the Global Political Economy
by Kemal Dervis
Reviewed by G. John Ikenberry
In these collected essays, Dervis combines the expertise of an economist with the sensibilities of an enlightened social democrat to ruminate on the troubles of contemporary capitalism. He highlights growing anxiety about poverty, unemployment, inequality, and the extreme concentration of wealth and laments that Western governments seem incapable of developing more socially and economically inclusive growth models. At each turn, Dervis looks for possibilities for reform through tax policy, regulation, and social spending. If the technology-driven growth that has propelled the global economy forward for the last century is now ending, as Robert Gordon and other economists argue, then the prospects for progress are grim. Dervis is less pessimistic, however, and he pins his hopes on a renaissance in democratic institutions and revitalized social contracts. For Dervis, progress has not ended. Rather, understandings of progress must change to allow for forms of economic development that are more sustainable and equitable. He makes a convincing case for reform, but he does not answer a significant question: Where are the reformers?