Hillary’s Memoirs–Hard Choices

July 24, 2016

Hillary’s Memoirs–Hard Choices

by David Runciman (June 12, 2014)


Hillary Rodham Clinton

Steely determination … Hillary Clinton. Photograph: Cliff Owen/AP

Hard Choices by Hillary Clinton review – buttoned-up but still revealing

What is Hillary Clinton’s strategy for becoming president – sheer persistence? This faintly robotic but impressive memoir is the latest chapter in an amazing story

If Hillary Clinton becomes the next American president she won’t just be the first woman to hold that office: she’ll be the first Secretary of State to get there since James Buchanan in 1857. Unlike in Britain, where foreign secretaries and chancellors of the exchequer routinely go on to the top job, senior US cabinet positions are not seen as stepping stones to the White House. No secretary of the treasury has ever become president. Cabinet officers are meant to be functionaries: people whose job is to make sense of the world. Presidents are meant to be politicians: people whose job is to lead it. In this long, exhausting, faintly robotic but ultimately impressive book, Hillary makes her pitch to be both.

When she lost to Obama following their titanic struggle for the Democratic nomination in 2008, she had no intention of serving in his cabinet. She expected to go back to the Senate and plot her next move from there. So, she tells us, it came as a bolt from the blue when Obama offered her the chance to become the US “diplomat-in-chief”. She demurred, still bruised by the hurtful things that had been said about her from his side during the campaign (most hurtful of all, the charge that her husband, who before Obama used jokingly to be called America’s first black president, was a racist). Obama persisted. It didn’t take long for Hillary to be tempted. She says she liked the idea of following in the footsteps of one of her political heroes, William Seward, another senator from New York who lost his party’s presidential nomination and then faithfully served Lincoln, the man who had beaten him, helping to abolish slavery in the process. She also says she was tickled by parallels with the fictional world of The West Wing, where the president-elect offers his defeated rival the job of secretary of state and refuses to take no for an answer. It’s nice to know that even the people at the top have spotted how often life now imitates TV.

However, this can’t be the whole story. Hillary leaves out any mention of political calculation, saying only that “When your President asks you to serve, you should say yes.” But political calculation is what the Clintons do for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Hillary says she consulted her husband, and it’s impossible to think they didn’t discuss what it would do to her chances of having another crack at the top job. It might not have looked like the most promising route back. But Hillary had been horribly scarred during the 2008 campaign by her 2002 vote as a senator to authorise the Iraq war. Obama hammered her on it, conveniently ignoring the fact that he wasn’t in the senate back then, so didn’t have to face that particular hard choice. The great thing about being secretary of state is that you don’t have to vote on anything: almost all the work you do is behind the scenes. So it’s a job that gives you the chance to craft your own narrative about the hard choices you faced and how you dealt with them, unhampered by the public record. That’s what Clinton does here, telling us about the fights she won and the fights she lost, but always on her own terms. She comes across as consistently hawkish, pushing Obama to take stronger action in Afghanistan, Libya and Syria, though more cautious than some of the excitable young people around him when it came to the Arab Spring (his aides, she says, “were swept up in the drama and idealism”; not her). She is able to explain her thinking in detail, making clear that military action always has to be accompanied by a commitment to social and economic reconstruction – not hard power or soft power but “smart power”. The underlying message is that if Obama didn’t always listen, more fool him.

For most of her tenure this political strategy worked brilliantly. As Obama’s first term drew to an end, she was the most popular politician in the country, her poll ratings far higher than those of her boss, since she was untouched by the miserable struggle to get his domestic programme through Congress. Then cameBenghazi. The attack on the US consulate on 11 September 2012, which claimed the lives of the US Ambassador to Libya and three of his countrymen, is the stick that her opponents now use to beat her with. She has been accused of complicity in the disaster (the inadequate security at the consulate is said to rest at her door) and of trying to cover it up afterwards. Conspiracy theories about what really happened abound, though the likeliest explanation for any gaps in the official narrative is cock-up rather than conspiracy: in the heat of the moment different government agencies spun the evidence to cover their backs. But that doesn’t stop the anti-Hillary conspiracy theorists from having a field day.

“…what comes through is Clinton’s sheer persistence. This is how she does politics, by keeping going and totting up the small victories so that they outweigh the defeats. Unlike Obama, who still appears to believe that politics is about rational argument, and unlike George Bush, who thought it was about vision, Hillary believes it is about breaking things down. She is a disaggregator, who can’t see a problem without trying to make it smaller, more manageable, and only then does she try to fit the pieces back together again.”–David Runciman, Political Theorist at Cambridge University

In the US, the Benghazi chapter of this book is the one that has been most eagerly awaited. It is fair to say that Clinton doesn’t give much away. At the same time, she doesn’t give an inch. She stands on her dignity, insists she acted at all times on the best information she had, profoundly regrets what happened, takes full responsibility but refuses to get drawn into the naked politicisation of a human tragedy. It’s not so much a non-denial denial as a piece of non-political politics. Will it silence the critics? Of course not. They will see it as more evidence that she has something to hide. It gives a glimpse of what any future Hillary campaign for the presidency will be like: the Republicans will try to open up her past; she will try to shut it down.

For those reasons, this is a pretty buttoned-up book. But it is not unrevealing. Clinton gives some clear indications of her likes and dislikes. She doesn’t seem to have much time for David Cameron, whom she appears to find too smooth (she much prefers William Hague); she is warily respectful of Angela Merkel; she was almost charmed by Nicolas Sarkozy; she thinks of Vladimir Putin as little more than a thug. Her silences often speak volumes. She says next to nothing about Samantha Power, the leading Obama foreign policy adviser who once called her a “monster”; she makes no mention at all of Anthony Weiner, the husband of her top aide, Huma Abedin, who humiliated them all with the tawdriest of sex scandals (he was the guy who tweeted his penis, then did it again). She says nothing about the state of her health, though it was bad towards the end of her time in office and is likely to dominate speculation about her future. She insists on her sense of humour, which, as so often, is a clear sign that she doesn’t really have one. She lists the number of times she went on David Letterman’s show to make “pantsuit jokes” (telling us the number – it was three – doesn’t add to the sense of fun). She recounts the moment when she tried to lighten US-Russia relations by giving her Soviet counterpart a literal “reset button”, though unfortunately the Russian word for “reset” was misspelt to mean “overcharged”. She tells us she was tempted to send the official responsible to Siberia. Ho ho.

Above all, what comes through is Clinton’s sheer persistence. This is how she does politics, by keeping going and totting up the small victories so that they outweigh the defeats. Unlike Obama, who still appears to believe that politics is about rational argument, and unlike George Bush, who thought it was about vision, Hillary believes it is about breaking things down. She is a disaggregator, who can’t see a problem without trying to make it smaller, more manageable, and only then does she try to fit the pieces back together again. Peace, she tells us, doesn’t necessarily begin with a grand fanfare. Sometimes it comes out of the temporary ceasefire that holds just long enough to make a difference. Part of why this book is so exhausting is its thoroughness: she travels the whole world and tells us about the different challenges she faced, taking them all seriously. Early on she quotes approvingly a maxim from Deng Xiaoping: “Coolly observe, calmly deal with things, hold your position, hide your capacities, bide your time, accomplish things where possible.” The US could do worse than having Deng as its next President.

Hard Choices is a prosaic book, but still, it is an amazing story. Think back to the first time Hillary entered the world’s consciousness, in early 1992, sitting on a sofa for a joint TV interview to try to rescue her husband from the terminal damage that Gennifer Flowers seemed likely to do to his presidential ambitions. It would have been barely credible back then that both of them might one day be president. But there was a true steeliness to that joint performance which gave a glimpse of the future. Their eyes told a story: we are not going away; we can keep going with this; we will outlast anything you have got. Doggedness is not the only political virtue and, God knows, it’s not the most attractive one. But who’s to say it’s not the most important.


Religion–The Quest for Meaning and Solace

July 19, 2016

RELIGION–The Quest for Meaning and Solace



Searching for Meaning Inside Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and Islam
By Corinna Nicolaou
289 pp. Columbia University, $35.

The increasing numbers of young people in Pew surveys who select “none” when asked to choose their religious affiliation cause extensive hand-wringing among religious leaders and pundits. But this phenomenon is more productively addressed through a memoir like Nicolaou’s sincere, idiosyncratic “A None’s Story.”

Nicolaou sets out to “quench my thirst for spirituality and address the religious ignorance I had felt so acutely in the wake of 9/11” by attending as many houses of worship as she can. Her four-year itinerary is not a methodical survey; it’s religious tourism. She celebrates Mass with Catholics, whoops with Pentecostals, meditates with Buddhists, celebrates Purim and Passover with Jews, Ramadan and Eid with Muslims.

The author’s naïveté can be grating, and she covers so much ground so quickly that her tone can veer jarringly from breezy to suddenly spiritual. But her determination to understand practice rather than ideology is wise. To those who criticize her project as superficial, or who expect her to eventually settle in a denomination, that’s “like being criticized for being homeless by people tucked under cozy comforters. I don’t have a snug bed — that’s the point.”

How to Save Religion From Itself
By Donniel Hartman
180 pp. Beacon, $24.95.

If religion is supposed to guard our best human virtues, why does it so often lead to war and injustice? Rabbi Hartman puts forward the radical notion that religion has an “autoimmune disease,” a critical flaw contained within it that leads to its misuse. (He sticks to Judaism here, but calls for similar self-criticisms within other traditions.) The disease’s two main symptoms are “God intoxication,” which over focuses believers on  the superficial worship of God, and “God manipulation,” which allows believers to justify pure self-interest in religious terms. Faith in God, Hartman argues, should not be excised from human life, it should be “treated and cured of its pathological side effects.” He attempts to do this by returning to the tradition’s texts, especially to one Talmudic saying of the Rabbi Hillel:“What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary.”

Hartman argues that the true moral and ethical center of Judaism does not depend on a notion of God, but on an autonomous, universal moral consciousness that it is our job to interpret responsibly. Religion should be a “moral mentor, reminding, cajoling, exhorting and at times threatening its adherents to check their self-interest.” Though this book will necessarily appeal more to the “loyal opposition” within Judaism, Hartman’s courageous, meticulously supported argument deserves wider hearing.

A Search for Faith in a Violent Religious World
By Dennis Covington
212 pp. Little, Brown, $26.

Best known for “Salvation on Sand Mountain,” in which he embedded deeply with snake-handling preachers, Covington has always been drawn to danger and God. Now in his 60s, he decides to go to “places where religion bled,” where he can “write about faith as an action rather than just a set of beliefs.” He sets out for the site of ancient Antioch, in Turkey, following the movements of early Christians. But soon he can’t seem to stop making trips across the Turkish border into Syria. The horrific violence he witnesses at the beginning of the ISIS takeover draws him into the international humanitarian catastrophe. In taut, immersive chapters, Covington broadens this war story in time and place, back to his childhood during the civil rights movement in Birmingham, Ala.; his reporting in the El Salvadoran war; and his relationship with his severely disturbed older brother.

Always questioning his own motives, Covington doesn’t spare readers the discomfort of his obsession with violence. “It wasn’t a suicidal impulse; I knew what one of those was like. This was the opposite, a desperation to live intensely so as not to die before we were dead.” The faith he finds is not steady, historical, or some kind of inner light. It is a mode of life occurring at the front lines, where people suffer most — haunted, tormented, but always intensely alive.

A Spirited Manifesto

By Lesley Hazleton
212 pp. Riverhead, $26.

Agnostics have it rough in American culture; their refusal to take a stand has the whiff of cowardice or laziness. But in Hazleton’s vital, mischievous new book, the term represents a positive orientation toward life all its own, one that embraces both science and mystery, and values the immediate joys of life.

Fully aware that a manifesto of a non-creed is a contradiction in terms, Hazleton nevertheless takes on the task with considerable gusto, insisting that “the absence of an ‘ultimate’ meaning of life — a grand, overarching explanation of everything — does not render life empty of relevance.” She proceeds through a number of the big questions or themes where she finds herself feeling most “agnostic”: the anthropomorphizing of God, the suspicion of doubt, the conflation of faith and belief, the characterization of a “soul” as something that can be either “lost” or “found.”

In each of her wide-ranging reflections, Hazleton nimbly avoids the “danger . . . of entering ­chicken-soup-for-the-soul territory” and the pitfalls of being “spiritual”: “The tag feels too nebulous and at the same time too self-congratulatory.” Instead, she remains intimately grounded and engaged in our human, day-to-day life.<

Brook Wilensky-Lanford is the author of “Paradise Lust: Searching for the Garden of Eden” and editor of Killing the Buddha, an online magazine of religion, culture and politics.

A version of this review appears in print on July 17, 2016, on page BR26 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Religion.

So it must be for ever

July 16, 2016

So it must be for ever

by Thomas Meaney

  • American Foreign Policy and Its Thinkers by Perry Anderson
    Verso, 244 pp, £14.99, March 2014, ISBN 978 1 78168 667 6
  • A Sense of Power: The Roots of America’s Global Role by John A. Thompson
    Cornell, 343 pp, £19.95, October 2015, ISBN 978 0 8014 4789 1
  • A Superpower Transformed: The Remaking of American Foreign Relations in the 1970s by Daniel J. Sargent
    Oxford, 369 pp, £23.49, January 2015, ISBN 978 0 19 539547 1


‘It is a sign of true political power when a great people can determine, of its own will, the vocabulary, the terminology and the words, the very way of speaking, even the way of thinking, of other peoples,’ Carl Schmitt wrote in 1932, at the wick’s end of the Weimar Republic. Schmitt, the most formidable legal and strategic mind in Germany, who would join the Nazi Party the following year, was thinking of America. The US was already the unrivaled hegemon of its hemisphere. Schmitt admired its ample living space and its protected position between two oceans. Americans had cleared out the native populations and intervened as they pleased in the Latin south. It would be harder going for the Germans in Europe.

For Schmitt what was extraordinary about the American empire was the way it added to its geographical advantage by continually re-figuring the nature of its triumph. US imperialism would go by other names: Manifest Destiny, Greater America, the American Century, the Free World, Internationalism. Colonies and dependencies were rarely declared outright: Americans knew how to conceal an empire, territorial or otherwise. (Who made a fuss in the 1950s when the US continued to add stars to its flag while Europe started disgorging its colonies, or noticed that, until the decolonisation of the Philippines in 1946, the number of US subjects overseas exceeded the number of black Americans on the mainland?) Schmitt found the sharpest expression of America’s imperial precociousness in the Monroe Doctrine, a quasi-legal fiat issued in 1823 from a position of relative weakness: the US decreed that European powers were barred from meddling in its zone of influence; inside that zone, it would decide what was peace, what was intervention, and what was security. For National Socialists in the 1930s, the power to make all legal questions of sovereignty answer to political exigency was a tantalising prospect. ‘As a German making remarks about American imperialism,’ Schmitt wrote, ‘I can only feel like a beggar in rags speaking about the riches and treasures of foreigners.’

The problem for the Germans was that just as they were trying to make their own Grossraum a reality – Hitler called it a ‘Monroe Doctrine for Europe’ – the Americans were dreaming of becoming a global power. This step was not as obvious or inevitable as it may now appear. Americans before the Second World War spoke less of the country’s exceptional primacy than of its exceptional aloofness from European-style power politics. They prided themselves on being above espionage, diplomatic intrigue and standing armies; they preferred to speak of international legal solutions and courts of arbitration. The possibility of a German-controlled Europe made such detachment harder to sustain. As the liberal historian John Thompson shows in A Sense of Power, it was neither the threat that the Germans and Japanese posed to the US mainland that drove the country into the war, nor the imperative to secure international markets, since the US economy in the 1940s was overwhelmingly based on domestic growth and consumption.

The chief motive behind America’s entry into the war, Thompson argues persuasively, was that its leaders realised that it would cost them relatively little to bend the world in the political direction they wanted. To justify intervention, Roosevelt had to tack between security concerns and economic ones, which he exaggerated for effect. ‘Wages and hours would be fixed by Hitler,’ he told the public on the radio, while ‘the American farmer would get for his products exactly what Hitler wanted to give.’ And in an age of air power, the US could no longer set faith in the oceans’ protection, not to mention the threat that a German invasion of Brazil posed to America’s supply of the minerals and metals it needed for its weaponry. ‘Do we want to see Hitler in Independence Hall making fun of the Liberty Bell?’ William Bullitt, Roosevelt’s Ambassador to France, asked a year before Pearl Harbor.

US war planners were already envisioning the utopia to come. Its premise was the defeat of Germany and Japan, but also the break-up of European empires into a world of discrete nation-states, each with its own liberal multi-party system and regular elections and each umbilically connected to the dollar. The Trusteeship System of the United Nations would serve as an incubator for premature nations, coaxing them from colonial rule into statehood, or in the case of some American holdings, towards a convenient grey zone between colony and military base. In this utopia the US was to be at once the summa of world history, never to be equaled, and the model that would have to be followed. The planners drafted blueprints for the United Nations as a way to package ‘internationalism’ for an American public assumed to be reluctant to prolong its global mission.

As the historian Stephen Wertheim has recently found, ‘isolationism’ wasn’t a word with much currency before the war; New Dealers fashioned it into a term of abuse to tar dissenters from US globalism – including those at home who were still committed to the equal legal status of all nations. ‘There is literally no question, military or political, in which the United States is not interested,’ Roosevelt told a weary Stalin in 1944. The Kremlin would have been more comfortable keeping to some form of a zones-of-influence system for a while longer, a wish shared by many ‘wise men’ of the West, from Alexandre Kojève to George Kennan, who preferred a world of bounded empires to one of nation-states. But by war’s end no one was in a position to gainsay the broad shape of the Pax Americana.

Perry Anderson, in American Foreign Policy and Its Thinkers, his first sustained critique of US power, concentrates on two unstable compounds in the empire’s image of itself, both of which crystallised in the decisive postwar years, when it was still unclear how American utopianism would adjust to postwar realities. The first such ‘compound’ is made up of two elements, exceptionalism and universalism, which Anderson treats as analytically distinct impulses. Providential exceptionalism came first, originating in the Puritans’ attempt to build a ‘city upon a hill’ that would impress the England they had left behind. At least in theory, Anderson suggests, American exceptionalism could be modest. Here he is on firm ground. One of the most forceful denunciations of American expansionism was made eight years before the expression ‘manifest destiny’ first appeared in print, when the leading Unitarian preacher, William Ellery Channing, warned that America’s ‘sublime moral empire’ should ‘diffuse freedom by manifesting its fruits’, since ‘there is no Fate to justify rapacious nations, any more than to justify gamblers and robbers, in plunder.’

American universalism, in Anderson’s view, is more dangerous. It was effectively propagated by Woodrow Wilson, who saw the entire world as a receptacle for America’s values. ‘Lift your eyes to the horizons of business,’ Anderson quotes him telling American salesmen, ‘and with the inspiration of the thought that you are Americans and are meant to carry liberty and justice and the principles of humanity wherever you go, go out and sell goods that will make the world more comfortable and more happy, and convert them to the principles of America.’ On the face of it, the message sounds like Channing’s call to spread American values through non-forcible means, but the circumstances had changed. In 1910 the country’s economic output was higher than that of Germany, France and Japan combined; by the middle of the First World War, it had surpassed that of the British Empire. The country’s excess material power opened fresh possibilities for what Anderson calls ‘messianic activism’.

The second of Anderson’s unstable compounds is the tension between the needs of American supremacy and the needs of global capitalism. For much of the postwar era, US leaders rarely bothered to distinguish between the two: the build-up of US power and capitalist husbandry went hand in hand. When they were forced to prioritise, American leaders tended to privilege political-military global leadership over the needs of capital, with the expectation that this would be better for capitalism in the long run. At Bretton Woods, the US triumphantly established the dollar as the world’s reserve currency and created supporting institutions, including the World Bank and the IMF. Over the cries of Wall Street banks, which demanded a much less constricting set of controls and were privately exploring the idea of lending Europeans reconstruction funds, the Truman administration embarked on a programme dedicated to economic stability. The reconstruction of Japan and Europe – which American historians persist in presenting as unique acts of beneficence – was undertaken to ensure the bedrock of the world capitalist system, even if that meant keeping the European empires on their feet a bit longer. ‘The US state,’ Anderson writes, ‘would henceforward act, not primarily as a projection of the concerns of US capital, but as a guardian of the general interest of all capitals, sacrificing – where necessary, and for as long as needed – national gain for international advantage, in the confidence of ultimate pay-off.’

The drama of US foreign policy for Anderson comes in the way the country and its policy elite balance the requirements of global capitalism with what they perceive as the national interest. From the 1940s to the 1970s, these interests were blurred, sometimes more than Washington could tolerate. Truman complained that the first draft of his doctrine for containing communism in Europe read too much like ‘an investment prospectus’. Anderson’s survey doesn’t parse the different types of US intervention in the global south, but these could be roughly plotted along his axes of global capital and national interest. US-backed coups in Guatemala and Grenada were salves for regional irritants, but the meddling in Iran and Congo was undertaken in the general interest of global capital and the US-led world order at large.

By the early 1970s, it was apparent that global capital wasn’t serving the US as effectively as the US was serving it. ‘The remit of the imperial state beyond the requirements of national capital,’ Anderson writes, ‘was for the first time under pressure.’ Since the war, the US had privileged the economic self-interest of its recovering allies, accepting their protectionism and an overvalued dollar as the price to be paid for its political hegemony. But the Vietnam War had depleted the Treasury, escalated inflation and upset the balance of payments, which only worsened when Nixon removed controls on US corporate investment abroad. The total value of dollars outside the country soon exceeded the government’s gold reserves. France under De Gaulle attacked the greenback with purchases of bullion, sending a cruiser to New York to pick up its share. Describing Nixon as ‘the only president with an original mind in foreign policy’, Anderson counts his decision to sever gold from the dollar and his declaration of the end of the Bretton Woods system as a remarkable coup de main. ‘The principles of free trade, the free market and the solidarity of the free world,’ he writes, ‘could not stand in the way of the national interest.’ Or as John Connally, Nixon’s militantly economic nationalist Treasury Secretary, put it, ‘The foreigners are out to screw us. It’s our job to screw them first.’

But, as the historian Daniel Sargent notes in his shrewd reconstruction of this episode, the tactic was ‘less purposeful than ironic’. Nixon had intended to threaten Europeans with a dollar devaluation that would improve the US trade balance, restore American employment and better his chances of re-election. The plan was to embark on a temporary period of floating currencies before a return to the status quo; no one in the Nixon administration wanted to give up control of the monetary order to market forces. No one, that is, except for Connally’s successor, George Shultz, a University of Chicago economist who beat Kissinger in the bureaucratic turf war and committed the country headlong to floating currencies and the free flow of capital without national controls. (Kissinger worried that the policy Shultz called for would encourage a hostile bloc of Western European economies to form, shattering the Atlantic Alliance.)

Nixon’s economic demarche had begun as an attempt to protect US markets and insulate them from capital flows, but it turned out, in Anderson’s telling, to be a boon for both capital markets and US power, which could now manipulate world currency valuations by means of Federal Reserve interest rate adjustments. Wall Street, sceptical at first of a departure from fixed-exchange markets, learned to love the new order.

It is a sign of the limited intellectual range of American diplomatic historians that when Anderson’s critique first appeared in the pages of New Left Review, they detected an update of William Appleman Williams’s New Left classic, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (1959). But Anderson’s picture of American imperialism departs from several presuppositions of New Left historiography. He salutes Williams and the ‘Wisconsin School’ – the prairie populist tradition associated with him – but he also makes a point of distancing himself from it. In particular, Williams’s contention that American imperialism was grounded in the ideology of the ‘open door’ – which began with the US’s determination to be granted equal access and fair treatment in China’s European-dominated port cities – and the continuous extension of American capitalism towards ever larger markets, first across the continent, then across the Pacific and beyond, doesn’t square with Anderson’s view of a predominantly protectionist United States before the Second World War, the Republican Party having long equated the ‘conspiracy of free trade’ with British imperial interference with growing American industry. What for Williams is a story of continuous American economic expansion is for Anderson a story of the way Americans came to conflate the global capitalist system with the projection of their own national power, continually looking past the fissures in their own ideology and interests.

Anderson’s interpretation has more in common with the Swedish left historian Anders Stephanson, along with several putatively conservative critics of American empire, among them Chalmers Johnson, who argued in his Blowback trilogy that US imperialism ‘breeds some of the most important contradictions of capitalism’ – not the other way round – and that much of post-1989 US policy, from the inflicting of the 1998 financial crisis on the Asian Tigers to the current push for the TTP and TTIP, has been aimed at prying open markets that the US was content during the Cold War to give leave to be protectionist and heterodox. Unlike Johnson, however, Anderson doesn’t chase down equivalences between the Soviet Union and the US, with the Eastern European nations mirroring the US’s satellites in East Asia, Japan figuring as America’s East Germany, and the Kwanju massacre as America’s more murderous version of Tiananmen Square. The competition was never close to equal in Anderson’s telling, which finds support in rich new archival studies, such as Oscar Sanchez-Sibony’s Red Globalisation, which shows how desperate the Soviet Bloc was to participate in Western markets as early as the 1950s, and Jeremy Friedman’s Shadow Cold War, which lays out the immense cost of the Soviet Union’s revolutionary posture in the Third World, a beleaguered and misguided attempt to maintain radical credibility against the allure of Maoism.

Anderson’s critique of American power is also distinctive in a more basic sense. Many of the most prominent American critics of US imperialism came to their positions while serving as ‘spear-carriers of empire’, in Johnson’s phrase. Williams’s thinking grew out of the racism he witnessed as an ensign in the US Navy, and his narrow escape from taking part in the nuclear tests on Bikini Island. Johnson, himself a US Navy veteran of the Korean War, was a consultant to the Office of National Estimates in the CIA, and a longtime academic Cold Warrior. Along with perhaps the most prominent contemporary conservative critic, the former US Army colonel Andrew Bacevich, Johnson expected US globalism to readjust after the downfall of the Soviet Union. When no such adjustment came – in fact, the number of bases expanded – these critics began to question whether American globalism really grew out of the need for Soviet containment. Their scepticism was bolstered by first-hand disgust with imperial practices: in Johnson’s case, the rape culture and environmental devastation he witnessed at US bases in Okinawa; in Bacevich’s, the hubris and technological utopianism of the ‘no-fault operations’ of the Persian Gulf War.

The anti-imperial passion shared by Bacevich, Johnson and Williams issues from their belief that US foreign entanglements, especially in service of the maintenance of global capitalism, threaten a truer version of American republican principles. Each of them has a commitment to what Williams called ‘an open door to revolutions’, his term for a world order where the US doesn’t impose its own economic hegemony and different peoples are able to pursue their own forms of social life.

Anderson entertains no such possibility of redemption. There’s no better republic to go back to, no way to roll back the messianism. Though he doesn’t endorse it, the version of US globalism that seems to interest Anderson most is that of the mid-century émigré geostrategist Nicholas Spykman, who in America’s Strategy in World Politics (1942) – ‘perhaps the most striking single exercise in geopolitical literature of any land’, Anderson says – spared his readers the dogmas of liberal democracy and the free market. Instead, he advised his adopted country to face up to the realities of class warfare, the increasing concentration of wealth and the coming race for resources. The more clear-eyed the US was about its interests, in other words, the less savagery it would perpetrate in the name of idealism. Carl Schmitt counselled something similar in his retirement, when in 1958 he published a platonic dialogue in which an American called ‘MacFuture’ interrupts – Alcibiades-like – a conversation between two German thinkers about geopolitics. MacFuture believes the US has a duty to submit the entire galaxy to a Monroe Doctrine, and that the conquest of space will be a repeat of the conquest of the New World. The Germans feebly try to interest their guest in the notion of limits.

Anderson doesn’t mention another tradition of domestic US anti-imperial critique, Black Internationalism, which bridged the distance between black American intellectuals and their African counterparts in the colonial world, seeking to solder their cause together with appeals to colour-blind communism and pan-Africanism. As Robert Vitalis notes in his book White World Order, Black Power, Black Internationalism was born alongside the white chauvinist version of international relations at the end of the 19th century, when ‘international relations meant race relations.’ The academic field of IR was focused more on the study of global racial hierarchies and the problems of colonial administration than on the abstract interplay of nation-states. Vitalis shows just how preoccupied American IR thinkers were in maintaining white dominance and purity in the colonial world, which of course included their own colonies. Foreign Affairs – still the house IR journal of the US foreign policy establishment – began its life in the 1920s as the Journal of Race Development. The tragedy of Black Internationalism is that some of its most radical advocates – Ralph Bunche at the United Nations, for example – became moderates in their attempt to reform American globalism from within. Meanwhile, some of the most stubborn figures – Rayford Logan, Alain Locke, Merze Tate – were institutionally and financially isolated in the black academy, outside of which their work was ignored. They were nearly forgotten by the following generation of black radicals, who had to cut their anti-imperial critiques from whole cloth in the 1960s and 1970s.

If Anderson’s analysis does have a precursor, it is in the work of Gabriel and Joyce Kolko, two radical historians of the 1960s. Gabriel Kolko’s The Politics of War (1968) – now forgotten, but recognised in its time by Hans Morgenthau and other conservatives as a scathing and persuasive revision of orthodox Cold War history – showed how US policy following the Second World War was dedicated to eradicating the threat of the anti-fascist left, which was poised to sweep elections across the world, especially in Europe and Korea. For the Kolkos, it was this more or less internal threat to the global capitalist system, rather than any possible communist takeover, that Washington couldn’t tolerate. But where the Kolkos found a concerted, coherent strategy among US postwar planners, Anderson sees American strategists cobbling together an ideology that’s less a cover than part of the substance of American imperialism itself. Instead of peeling back American rhetoric to reveal imperial intentions, Anderson examines the way the rhetoric contributes to and shapes those intentions.

The second part of American Foreign Policy and Its Thinkers plunges into the contemporary American dreamworld of empire. Anderson has always been attracted to those who speak of the world without euphemism, and he appraises the recent offerings of American ‘Grand Strategists’ with sardonic respect: however rabid or fantastic their conceptions, these are writers who take in the whole globe and describe it in a lucid register aimed at a wide audience. They don’t much condescend to election cycles, party affiliation or the preoccupations of American political science. The two boldest thinkers Anderson treats have much in common ideologically but have very different strategies. In 2014, Robert Kagan published an essay entitled ‘Superpowers Don’t Get to Retire: What Our Tired Country Still Owes the World’ in the New Republic. Partly a policy memo directed at the president (Obama promptly called Kagan in for lunch), it was also pitched at American millennials who grew up in the shadow of Afghanistan and Iraq and have little trust in the efficacy of American power. In Kagan’s world, authoritarianism is the default human condition, which only America stands capable of pushing back. Iran, Russia, China: all of these form a new authoritarian front every bit as dangerous as the USSR. ‘What gives the United States the right to act on behalf of a liberal world order?’ Kagan asks. ‘In truth nothing does, nothing beyond the conviction that the liberal order is the most just.’ ‘The liberal order,’ Kagan goes on, ‘was never put to a popular vote. It was not bequeathed by God. It is not the endpoint of human progress.’ So then what does justify it? Its enemies, Kagan declares, which are worse than itself. Just as liberal capitalism’s foes wish to impose their worldview, so America must impose a liberal world order, ‘and as much as we in the West might wish it to be imposed by superior virtue, it is generally imposed by superior power.’ The planet’s silent majority is grateful for this service. ‘Imagine strolling through Central Park,’ Kagan writes, ‘and, after noting how much safer it had become, deciding that humanity must simply have become less violent – without thinking that perhaps the New York Police Department had something to do with it.’ What Kagan calls for is what Schmitt thought impossible: a Monroe Doctrine for the world, which Kagan speaks of as a heavy moral burden. ‘In the international sphere, Americans have had to act as judge, jury, police, and in the case of military action, executioner,’ he writes. So it has been since 1945, so it must be for ever.

At the opposite end of the strategy spectrum from Kagan, Anderson has found a curious specimen. Thomas Barnett is a former Naval Academy instructor, and a self-declared economic determinist who delivers TED talks to the military top brass about the limits of American power. His work, Anderson writes, is ‘not unlike a materialist variant, from the other side of the barricades, of the vision of America in Hardt and Negri’s Empire’. ‘America needs to ask itself,’ Barnett writes in Great Powers (2009), ‘is it more important to make globalisation truly global, while retaining great-power peace and defeating whatever anti-globalisation insurgencies may appear in the decades ahead? Or do we tether our support for globalisation’s advance to the upfront demand that the world first resembles us politically?’

For Barnett, the answer is clear: America must trust in the market, which will solve all strategic problems. Russia? It is experiencing its Gilded Age, and will come around in fifty years. China? Already capitalist anyway, and Xi is just China’s version of Teddy Roosevelt trying to root out corruption and make markets more functional. Iran? Proceed with every deal possible, let the market penetrate, and stop threatening it with military strikes. Tell Israel to back off: Iran will take the position in the Middle East to which its culture and educated population entitle it. North Korea? First let Beijing extract from it all the minerals it needs. Then, when it reaches rock bottom, the Chinese will invite the South Koreans in to clean up the mess. In a world so tilted in the US’s favour, Barnett calls for drastically reducing the military to a small force with only a handful of bases that will be used to handle terrorist pin-pricks. In every other respect the time has come for stay-at-home capitalist husbandry.

What strikes Anderson about the collection of American strategists he’s assembled is how – despite their radically different worldviews – they all agree that the US will and must remain the supreme world power. In Walter Russell Mead’s eyes, America’s genius, with its special British lineage, is simply too difficult to replicate. In John Ikenberry’s, the world is already signing up to mimic America’s image. To Kagan, American dominance is simply a matter of political will. As Barnett sees it, the US is already so ahead in world history, it’s almost unfair.

As the strategist Christopher Layne, one of the rare dissenting voices in Anderson’s account, points out, when American foreign policy pundits speak of the ‘post-American world’, what they really mean is ‘the Now and Forever American World’. The presidential candidates who tend to win are those who most seamlessly embody the contradictory calls for more vigorous projection of American power on the one hand, and more aggressive globalisation on the other. This is something the Clintons have always understood.

George W. Bush and The Neo-Cons

July  10, 2016

George W. Bush and The Neo-Cons: You Deserve what is coming to you for Naivety in World Affairs and Arrogance 

“Rarely in the history of the United States has the nation been so ill-served as during the presidency of George W. Bush….Whether George W. Bush was the worst president in American history will be long debated, but his decision to invade Iraq is easily the worst foreign policy decision ever made by an American president.”–Jean Edward Smith

Review: ‘Bush,’ a Biography as Scathing Indictment

by Peter Baker

For George W. Bush, the summer already looks unbearable. The party he gave his life to will repudiate him by nominating a bombastic serial insulter who makes the famously brash former president look like a museum docent by comparison. And a renowned presidential biographer is weighing in with a judgment that makes Mr. Bush’s gentleman’s Cs at Yale look like the honor roll.

The Vulcans

If Mr. Bush eventually gets a more sympathetic hearing by history, as he hopes, it will not start with Jean Edward Smith’s “Bush,” a comprehensive and compelling narrative punctuated by searing verdicts of all the places where the author thinks the 43rd president went off track. Mr. Smith’s indictment does not track Donald J. Trump’s, but the cumulative effect is to leave Mr. Bush with few defenders in this season of his discontent.

Mr. Smith, a longtime academic and finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, made a name for himself in part with masterly biographies of Dwight D. Eisenhower and Ulysses S. Grant, offering historical reassessments of underrated presidents who looked better with the passage of time. With “Bush” he sticks to the original conventional assessment, presenting a shoot-from-the-hip Texan driven by religiosity and immune to the advice of people who knew what they were talking about.

While not a fresh portrait, it is one worth debating at a time when the political class is struggling to understand the meaning of Mr. Trump’s rise. Mr. Trump’s name appears nowhere in “Bush,” but it is clear the populist revolt that propelled him to the verge of the Republican nomination had its roots in Mr. Bush’s presidency, so much so that he easily overcame the former president’s brother Jeb. Mr. Trump rejects much of what George W. Bush stood for, from the war in Iraq and more forgiving immigration policies to free trade and the very notion of compassionate conservatism.

As a biographer, Mr. Smith makes no comparisons with today’s Republican leader, but he sides unmistakably with those who see Mr. Bush’s presidency in the darkest shades, if often for radically different reasons. (Mr. Smith abhors waterboarding terror suspects, for example; Mr. Trump wants it resumed.)

Mr. Smith leaves no mystery where he stands on Mr. Bush’s place in history. The first sentence of his book: “Rarely in the history of the United States has the nation been so ill-served as during the presidency of George W. Bush.”

The last: “Whether George W. Bush was the worst president in American history will be long debated, but his decision to invade Iraq is easily the worst foreign policy decision ever made by an American president.”

In between are more than 650 pages of fast-paced if harsh biography. In this telling, Mr. Bush’s religious piety took on messianic fervor leading him to turn democracy promotion into a mission from God. He didn’t listen to the generals and diplomats. He badly bungled the response to Hurricane Katrina. He presided over the diminution of American values by authorizing torture and bugging.

'Bush' by Jean Edward Smith'

The Face of the Agent of God’s Will

“Believing he was the agent of God’s will, and acting with divine guidance, George W. Bush would lead the nation into two disastrous wars of aggression,” Mr. Smith writes. “Bush’s personalization of the war on terror combined with his macho assertiveness as the nation’s commander in chief,” he adds later, “were a recipe for disaster.”

The value of Mr. Smith’s account is not original reporting but a thorough assimilation of the existing record. Mr. Bush declined to speak with him, as he has with other authors since leaving office. Mr. Smith spoke with both Dick Cheney and Donald H. Rumsfeld, but for the most part relies on the existing body of literature, for a complete history of Mr. Bush’s life.

One notable exception does not actually involve Mr. Bush. In a footnote, Mr. Smith reveals that David H. Petraeus invited him to dinner at the Cosmos Club in Washington after his extramarital affair with Paula Broadwell forced his resignation as C.I.A. director. Mr. Petraeus evidently was mulling a comeback. “How did Ike handle the Kay Summersby affair?” he asked.

“Much of the rest of the meal was devoted to my explaining how Eisenhower had put the affair behind him and successfully run for president in 1952,” Mr. Smith reports. He adds that he asked Mr. Petraeus whether the Obama administration had taken advantage of his affair to rid itself of him. “He smiled, but did not reply,” Mr. Smith writes.

Author–Jean Edward Smith

Mr. Smith is more approving of his main subject in moments where Mr. Bush follows his original campaign doctrine of compassionate conservatism. The former president gets high marks for his No Child Left Behind program — intended to improve education, especially for minority students — as well as for expanding Medicare to cover prescription drugs and for leading an ambitious fight against AIDS in Africa. Mr. Smith credits Mr. Bush for saving the economy through his bold and counter-intuitive intervention after the financial crash of 2008.

He presents a president who, for all his flaws, was usually gracious and warmhearted, who disdained the sort of divisive bashing that Mr. Trump favors and who went out of his way to make Barack Obama’s transition successful. He rejects the caricature of a president who simply did what his vice president told him to.

Mr. Smith’s fundamental critique is his belief that Mr. Bush overreacted to the terrorist attacks of September. 11, 2001. “The events of 9/11 were tragic, but scarcely catastrophic,” he writes. That led Mr. Bush, in his view, to advance policies that were not justified by the actual danger.

The Patriot Act, he writes, “may be the most ill-conceived piece of domestic legislation since the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798.” In labeling Iran, Iraq and North Korea an “axis of evil,” Mr. Bush “had spoken without weighing the consequences.” Mr. Bush’s refusal to face up to the fact that Iraq had no unconventional weapons “suggests a willfulness that borders on psychosis.” His second-term Inaugural Address making democracy promotion his major goal “must rank as one of the most ill-considered of all time.”

Mr. Smith takes this indictment further than others by criticizing even the decision to go to war in Afghanistan, suggesting that it was a mistake to conflate the Taliban with Al Qaeda. He, of course, has the benefit of hindsight. Even if he is right, few if any leaders in either party at the time argued against the invasion. And what is often overlooked is how Mr. Bush evolved over time and modified his approach to the point that Mr. Obama kept many of his national security policies after taking office.

But if Mr. Bush feels bruised by Mr. Smith’s evaluation, he can commiserate at Kennebunkport, Me., this summer with his father. In 1992, Mr. Smith published “George Bush’s War,” castigating the first President Bush for Operation Desert Storm’s expulsion of Iraqi troops from Kuwait.

He scorned the 41st president for personalizing world politics, accused him of dissembling and screening out expert opinion and going to war against Iraq mainly because he wanted a fight — all themes that repeat in “Bush.”

Ultimately, the elder Mr. Bush’s reputation has grown with time despite this assessment — to his chagrin, partly because of comparisons with his son. The younger Mr. Bush now has to hope for the same — and may be able to count on comparisons with Mr. Trump to make him look better with time.

Peter Baker, a longtime White House correspondent for The New York Times, is the author of “Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House.”

Arrogance, recklessness and scorn for ideas — George W. Bush

Washington DC

July 3, 2016

Arrogance, recklessness and scorn for ideas — George W. Bush, not Trump?

Review by David Greenberg


David Greenberg, Professor of History and of Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers University, is the author of “Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency.”

The fireball candidacy of Donald Trump has created shock waves of nostalgia for an ostensibly moderate, reasonable Republican Party of yore. Trump’s vulgarity, anti-intellectualism, mendacity, mean-spiritedness and brawling, bullying style have been deemed unprecedented and unparalleled.

But anyone prone to romanticize the old GOP should take a bracing shot of “Bush,” a hefty biography of our 43rd president by the prolific and acclaimed biographer Jean Edward Smith. Written in sober, smooth, snark-free prose, with an air of thoughtful, detached authority, the book is nonetheless exceedingly damning in its judgments about George W. Bush’s years in office. It reminds us anew of Bush’s own arrogance, recklessness, strong-arm politics and scorn for ideas — and of the apoplexy he provoked from liberals and Democrats who felt powerless to rein him in.

On top of the scores of reported books published during his tenure, Bush has already been the subject of several post-presidential studies, most notably Peter Baker’s “Days of Fire.” Unlike Baker’s volume, whose footnotes disclose original interviews with government officials, Smith’s deft synthesis mainly rests on information gleaned from the library of first-wave accounts.

His notes abound with citations of enduring works by Jane Mayer, Thomas Ricks, James Risen, Charlie Savage, Ron Suskind, Bob Woodward and other reporters, as well as of the protagonists’ memoirs and periodical journalism. In a few places, Smith draws uncritically from questionable sources, such as Kitty Kelly, who has been widely criticized for trafficking in gossip, but overall “Bush” reads as authoritative and trustworthy.

If Smith’s narrative feels familiar, it may also be because he closely tracks the headlines of the day: Proceeding chronologically, his account showcases whatever was prominent in the news at a given moment. Events or decisions that escaped the spotlight when they unfolded are dealt with only when their ramifications become clear. Thus, Bush’s housing policies — from his promotion of an “ownership society” to the 2008 mortgage-market crash — are shoehorned into the book’s penultimate chapter, not laid out at the earlier moments when he was making or acquiescing in the steps that enabled the crisis.

Structuring the book this way is legitimate. It has the virtue of recalling how events flowed from one to the next during those tumultuous, mean years. But it deprives readers of the opportunity to glimpse events in a fresh light — to learn unexpected backstories or note juxtapositions that are revealing only in hindsight. Some deeply consequential developments, such as Iran’s bid to acquire nuclear weapons, get almost no ink because they didn’t dominate the news until after Bush left office. Yet part of what historians ought to do is to call attention to significant events or actions that were neglected by the press or the public in their day. Smith ably crystallizes and confirms the prevailing understandings of the Bush presidency rather than forcing a reappraisal.

Because Smith dwells on what was in the news, his book is — appropriately — dominated by the wars undertaken in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The invasion of Afghanistan to topple the Taliban, and especially the more dubious choice to invade Iraq and depose Saddam Hussein, will almost certainly define Bush’s presidency for decades to come. It’s hard to imagine a better overview than this volume of both invasions, their troubled occupations, their political fallout, and their implications for civil liberties and executive power at home.

On Bush’s conduct of these wars — and indeed on most aspects of the man and his presidency — Smith is relentlessly critical and may strike some readers as hyperbolic. “Rarely in the history of the United States has the nation been so ill-served as during the presidency of George W. Bush,” his book begins, and the judgments rarely soften. Several hundred pages in, Smith, with no less surety, declares that “George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq will likely go down in history as the worst foreign policy decision ever made by an American president.” And in his conclusion he shows only a flicker of uncertainty, writing that “whether George W. Bush was the worst president in American history will be long debated.” But if these judgments are stark and in some places too strong — the Vietnam War, for what it’s worth, was hands-down a bigger catastrophe than Iraq — they are buttressed by pages of coolly presented evidence.

Smith is equally harsh in weighing the policies that flowed from the war on terrorism, especially those that infringed on the rights of people suspected of abetting America’s enemies: the wholesale surveillance, without the necessary court warrants, of some suspects; the limitless imprisonment of others; the use of military tribunals to evade constitutional protections of their rights; the use of torture to try to wrest information from them. Smith, again with ample justification, deems all of these violations of civil liberties to have been unnecessary responses to the threat of violence from al-Qaeda or other Islamist groups that were targeting America.

Smith isn’t incapable of offering praise of Bush. He is charitable toward the president on the financial crisis of 2008, recognizing that while Bush remained for too long oblivious to the dangers of an under-regulated mortgage market, he did step up when disaster struck, bucking his party’s fears of government intervention and following the advice of Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson to stanch the hemorrhaging. Smith is also quite willing to credit Bush’s rhetoric about “compassionate conservatism” as a sign of a genuine moderation on his part, even though the signature policies of his presidency — the surplus-squandering tax cuts, the bid to privatize Social Security, the scuttling of environmental protection efforts, the intermingling of church and state — reveal that Bush was in practice more conservative than even Ronald Reagan.

Between the lines, Smith traces Bush’s failings as president to character flaws. The book is, after all, a biography, and the president’s upbringing and family life are duly covered. (One pet peeve: Smith constantly refers to Bush’s twin daughters, Jenna and Barbara, as “the twins,” rather than by their names. Often, he writes about them as a single entity, failing to explore, say, differences in the girls’ relationships with their father or in their politics.)

In sizing up Bush’s character, Smith is plainly put off by his subject’s swaggering manner, his unreflective style and his illiberal attitudes. Perhaps most displeasing to Smith — and, more important, most detrimental to wise leadership — is Bush’s mixture of pious righteousness and gut-level decision-making. Time and again, he writes with dismay of how Bush “dismissed” prescient warnings or thoughtful advice, or took big steps without proper consideration.

He doesn’t buy into the fiction that Bush was somehow a puppet of Vice President Dick Cheney or other aides (though Smith does endorse foul theories about the undue influence of “neoconservatives,” whom he accuses of having too much “chutzpah”). Rather, Smith acknowledges that Bush regularly made the key calls, even if at times that meant following Cheney’s or Paulson’s or someone else’s recommendations. If anything, as Smith sees it, Bush was altogether too much “the decider,” as the president once inelegantly described himself. While professing to take seriously the burdens of his office, he made choices that affected millions of lives and wrought havoc around the globe without giving them the thought they required — before or after.

In this year’s election, Trump’s rise has been chalked up to his brassy, unreflective style — the bluntness, the contempt for liberal niceties, the swagger. Smith’s fine biography reminds us, if indirectly, that while there are many dissimilarities between Bush and Trump, in this key respect they are more alike than different. And even if one rejects the extreme verdict that Bush’s presidency was among the worst ever, the example of his unquestionably troubled tenure suggests that while scorn for ideas and indecision in a leader may have its costs, so too does the instinct for deciding things too quickly.

READ THIS: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/07/04/bush-by-jean-edward-smith.

This biography will be sold in the United States on July 5, 2016, the day 43rd President of the United States, George W. Bush turns 70. Thinking Americans are wondering whether Donald Trump will be another BUSH if elected. We will have to watch the Clinton-Trump debates when the time comes later this year. Being President of the most powerful country in the world is an awesome responsibility which requires character, intelligence and experience in public service.–Din Merican

Our Thinking on Markets

Washington DC

July 3, 2016

Markets–Demystification and Democratization of Economics

Review by Steven Pearlstein


Steven Pearlstein is a Washington Post business and economics writer. He is also the Robinson Professor of Public Affairs at George Mason University.

Ever since the breakthrough success of Tim Harford’s “The Undercover Economist” more than a decade ago, there’s been a growing cottage industry of economists writing books that use stories and events from everyday life to illustrate economic principles and theories many people thought they couldn’t understand.

This demystification and democratization of economics has been a good thing (I use Harford’s book in my own class at George Mason). But at this point, the genre has become annoyingly formulaic and simplistic, stripped of sophistication, intellectual richness and even economic relevance. Moreover, in the search for a fresh and compelling theme, there is the unfortunate tendency for authors to overreach, to try to explain too much on the basis of too little. That, alas, is the problem with the latest entry in this category, Ray Fisman and Tim Sullivan’s “The Inner Lives of Markets.”

Fisman is an economist at Boston University and a contributor at Slate. Sullivan is an well-traveled book editor now at the Harvard Business Review Press. Together, they set out to identify the most important economic journal articles of the past 60 years and explain to the layman not only how they changed the profession’s thinking about how markets work, but how these insights have allowed us to perfect markets and expand their role, thereby transforming our lives in ways both good and bad.

The economists and the insights are well known, if for no other reason than almost all have been cited by the Nobel jury. There is John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern’s work laying the foundation for game theory, which played a central role in nuclear arms control and has allowed economists ever since to understand and model the dynamic nature of markets. There are Paul Samuelson, Robert Solow, Kenneth Arrow and Gerard Debreu, who brought mathematical precision to the task of constructing elegant models of the whole economy.

There is George Akerlof’s seemingly innocuous insight about the asymmetry of information between buyers and sellers in the market for used cars, one that opened up whole new avenues of research into the ways individual markets are imperfectly competitive and lead to less-than-optimal results.

We learn about Michael Spence’s observation that the value of a Harvard degree lay not in what students learned in class but in what it signaled about the intelligence and diligence of students who were admitted — and how that got economists thinking about the importance of trust and reliability in markets, and how those are created. There is the story of William Vickrey’s clever modification to the sealed-bid auction — the high bidder wins but pays the price offered by the second-highest — and Jean Tirole’s insight about “two sided markets” that helps explain why banks offer free credit cards and Google provides free searches.

And we learn how Lloyd Shapley, David Gale and Al Roth’s curiosity about the way people chose mates or colleges led to dramatic improvement in the way students are assigned to public schools, doctors are assigned to residencies and healthy kidneys allocated to people who desperately need them.

“The Inner Lives of Markets: How People Shape Them—And They Shape Us” by Ray Fisman and Tim Sullivan (PublicAffairs)

Fisman and Sullivan are at their best as intellectual historians, chronicling the evolution in economics from neoclassical models based on perfect competition and rational behavior to one that accommodates market failures resulting from imperfect competition, strategic behavior and irrationality. But even in that, they wind up giving a superficial account while belaboring the real-world anecdotes and examples that ostensibly were meant to inform the economic insight, not supplant it.

More significantly, they fall into the now-common trap of letting their fascination with companies that are revolutionizing certain sectors of the economy — companies such as Amazon (whose founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post), eBay, Google, Uber and Airbnb — blind them to the reality that the bulk of the economy still revolves around more humdrum enterprises and markets. While the insights of economists certainly help to explain the success of those firms, it is more than a stretch to argue that those economists are responsible for the creation of those companies and their game-changing business models.

Fisman and Sullivan strain their credibility even more when they try to connect the new economic thinking to what they see as an epic battle now playing out between market fundamentalists, who see increasingly open and competitive markets as the solution to everything, and anti-market moralists, who see markets as instruments of selfishness, greed and exploitation that have been allowed to invade too many aspects of our lives.

“Every time we participate in a market innovation — each time we hail a ride via a smart phone or download a song from iTunes — we’re part of a massive social experiment whose ultimate consequences are unknown,” they write in their introduction. By the book’s end, their outlook darkens even more: “The evidence about how markets can affect our behavior combined with the new ways that markets are impinging on our lives should make the rest of us at least a bit uneasy about our future.”

It would all be quite ominous if it weren’t so sophomoric.