There's a scene in No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy's stunning, elegiac murder ballad from 2005, that's as funny as it is tragic. In the far reaches of West Texas, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell takes the measure of a drug deal gone horribly wrong. Quickly surveying the bodies and the bloodshed, he quips, "If it ain't a mess, it'll do till the mess gets here." In light of the events of 2016 – a year marked by coups and celebrity deaths and unexpected elections results around the world – the scene now seems eerily prophetic.
Here at Stratfor, we have spent the past 12 months combing through the mess to tell you what it means and what will happen next. But that's not all we've been doing. Along the way, we have been tirelessly consuming books, films and even video games – sometimes even in our down time. We can't help but impose our penchant for geopolitics on everything around us. With that in mind, we have compiled a list of 20 recommendations for the holiday season that we hope will sharpen your mind and cast the world in a new light.
Paths of Glory (Film)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick, 1957, 88 minutes
The beauty of this film is that it takes an eminently relatable conflict — the battle between doing what you want and doing what you're told — and amplifies it to tragic effect. Yes, it is set during World War I
(perhaps history's greatest case study in geopolitical conflict), but it isn't the war itself that puts geopolitics on full display. That honor belongs to the circumstances in which the soldiers and their commanding officers find themselves, circumstances that compel their actions, constrain their behavior, guide their motivations and limit their options for reprisal. Their impossible predicament speaks to the power — even the tyranny — of the institutions of which they are a part.
It is little wonder, then, that the film helped to inspire television's The Wire, a study in human agency considered by many to be the best television show ever made. During an interview, creator David Simon said, "If anyone wants to look at Paths of Glory and think it doesn't speak to the essential triumph of institutions over individuals and doesn't speak to the fundamental inhumanity of the 20th century and beyond, then they weren't watching the same film as the rest of us."
The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State (Book)
By William McCants, Picador, 2016, 272 pages
The Islamic State as a territory-holding power is in slow, terminal decline
. But the movement will almost certainly endure in some form or another
, and the group's astounding rise and successful challenge to the jihadist status quo
are sure to keep resonating far beyond its sphere of direct influence.
Amid a flood of publications, William McCants' book is the best one yet written about the Islamic State movement. It outlines the militant group's combination of tactical and ideological innovations through a deep study of Arabic-language source material, including ancient religious works and unpublished correspondences between jihadist leaders. The book is a must for anyone interested in understanding the near-apocalyptic crisis in the Middle East and the future trajectory of global jihad.
Other standout books on the Islamic State that bear reading are ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror by Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan (Phaidon Press, 2015), ISIS: State of Terror by Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger (Ecco, 2015), and The Syrian Jihad by Charles Lister (Oxford University Press, 2016).
Shield of Achilles (Book)
By Phillip Bobbitt, Penguin, 2002, 922 pages
Philip Bobbitt's Shield of Achilles
offers a brilliant blend of history, strategy and constitutional theory. Covering more than five centuries, Bobbitt shows how successive constitutional orders
— the bones of the Princely State, Kingly State, Territorial State, State-Nation and Nation-State — follow from the treaties that concluded a series of great wars. He demonstrates how each successive constitutional order provided a new source of legitimacy, binding its people into a new contract between the state and its citizens. From a very long running start — beginning in 1494 when Charles VIII invaded Italy — Bobbitt allows us to leap with a confidence bred of comprehension into the emerging Market State
Books like this don't come along often. With Hegelian sweep, consummate erudition and poetic sensitivity, Bobbitt will leave you with a deeper understanding of the play we are all acting out.
Things change. Politics evolve. You'll want this book to penetrate the plot.
Command: Modern Air/Naval Operations (Video Game)
Many of our readers will remember, as some of us do, spending painstaking hours playing tabletop war games. Much of that time was consumed with popping out bits of cardboard, setting up elaborate formations and measuring out minute distances.
Command: Modern Air/Naval Operations is an update of this pastime that automates these sometimes tedious steps without sacrificing realism or fidelity to the mechanics of war and statecraft. Although it first came out in 2014, WarfareSims has managed to keep the game fresh by releasing several different packages of extra content, including scenarios based on real-world geopolitical situations: civil war in Ukraine and Syria, competition in the South China Sea and even a Brexit-based NATO-Russia standoff in the Baltics.
Because of the complexity of the simulations, the game has a bit of a learning curve. It is a good gift for the fairly committed war gamer or anyone who wants to develop a deeper understanding of modern military operations.
The Brink (TV Show)
Created by Roberto Benabib and Kim Benabib, 2015, 10 episodes
Geopolitical comedies are few and far between, often trumped by history and politics as the preferred fodder for film and television. Not since Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove
has anyone really poked fun at the prospect of nuclear war. That is, until HBO's The Brink
came along. The show touches on similarly apocalyptic subject matter, and just as Strangelove
was a movie for the Cold War era, The Brink
is very much a reflection of its times.
Centered on a fictional emerging crisis in Pakistan, The Brink largely follows the exploits of a feckless foreign service officer assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, a pair of devil-may-care American naval aviators and an amorous U.S. secretary of state, played by Tim Robbins. The three perspectives provide a narrative cross section of the crisis, tracking events on the ground, decisions made in the White House Situation Room and the cockpit view of the airmen poised to have a disproportionately strategic effect.
The Brink does a good job of highlighting the fundamental absurdities at play in the international system and shows that, despite the positions they hold, individuals in power are just as fallible and foolish as any human. Anyone who has had experience in the military, political and diplomatic sectors will find moments of The Brink that cut close to the bone. The show also nicely encapsulates the various forces at work in any global crisis, and its satirical bent prevents it from becoming too leaden or judgmental. The times are as dangerous as they've ever been, but the show reminds us that if you lose your sense of humor at the darkest hour, you risk losing everything.
The Cold War: A New History (Book)
By John Lewis Gaddis, Penguin, 2005, 352 pages
For years, Stratfor has been shouting from the rooftops about the breakdown of the post-Cold War order
. The past several years
— and the recent U.S. elections
— have brought this narrative once again to the mainstream, as pundits speculate about changes to the United States' long-standing posture toward China, Russia and NATO. It is now more important than ever to understand the global conflict that brought this world to be.
Yale professor John Lewis Gaddis has been called the "dean of Cold War history" and has spent his life chronicling the period. Much of the scholarship on the era, he notes, is excruciatingly detailed and impenetrable. Gaddis aimed to assemble a short, comprehensive primer that didn't take "300 pages just to get up to 1962." In well under 300 pages, the book covers the entire conflict from start to finish. Along the way, Gaddis manages to trace the broad trends through the thicket of details and personalities.
This is an essential, quick read for anyone trying to understand the roots of current world dynamics. This book is especially important for anyone born after the heyday of the conflict or Cold Warriors who want a fresh look at the bigger picture.
Illicit: How Smugglers, Traffickers, and Copycats Are Hijacking the Global Economy (Book)
By Moises Naim, Anchor, 2006, 352 pages
Illicit activity has been around for as long as there have been authorities to subvert. But, like the rest of the world, black markets are changing quickly under the pressure of globalization, technologization and decentralization. Just like legitimate businesses, criminal networks have become more diffuse and global, but the ways in which we combat them have not changed to reflect this reality.
Moises Naim explains the pitfalls of imagining that criminal enterprises are centralized, hierarchical organizations. Instead, most criminal networks and terrorist organizations have come to operate as loose networks of individuals, many of them highly specialized and engaged in legitimate enterprise. Criminal markets are melding with legitimate ones, which by extension links them more directly and concretely to recognized political structures. And this, Naim concludes, is a trend we should be worried about. Ten years after its publication, as the nationalist backlash against free trade and terrorism change the course of globalization, Illicit is well worth revisiting.
Who Are We? The Challenge to America's National Identity
By Samuel Huntington, Simon & Schuster, 2004, 448 pages
Samuel Huntington is perhaps most famous for his 1996 Clash of Civilizations
and his seminal 1968 book, Political Order in Changing Societies
. His more recent book, Who Are We?
, examines the historical, social and cultural foundations of American national identity
. He argues that for better or, in his view, worse the United States is entering a fundamentally new period in its history, one in which the country's founding cultural heritage has lost its place as the organizing principle and binding glue of American public life.
Though published more than a decade ago, the book could not be more relevant today given the national debates on immigration, terrorism and refugees. Even if one disagrees with some of Huntington's conclusions about the consequences of demographic changes in the U.S. body politic, his framework presents a compelling synthesis of present trends. Particularly notable is Huntington's persuasive account of the growing gap between an internationalist, cosmopolitan elite and the public at large.
Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World (Film)
Directed by Werner Herzog, 2016, 98 minutes
German filmmaker Werner Herzog has spent a lifetime embracing his outsider status and creating surreal works in alien, bewildering locales: an outpost in Antarctica, the jungles of Peru, a volcano spewing poison gas, the belly of Chauvet Cave. In his latest documentary, the 74-year-old is exploring the world of the internet, where he admits he is a neophyte.
Herzog tries to uncover what he calls the "glory" of the internet, speaking with technologists, roboticists, monks, hackers and hermits to understand the "monumental revolution coming at us." He focuses on how this revolution will affect humans and human life, something Stratfor has long covered from a dispassionate, geopolitical angle. With his trademark stunning visuals, Herzog brings this question down to a personal level, exploring a range of topics including cyberespionage, driverless cars, private space travel, automation, artificial intelligence, consumer electronics and the internet of things.
Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War
By P.W. Singer and August Cole, Mariner Books, 2015, 416 pages
Technological leaps, rising nationalism and growing geopolitical friction are giving even the most ardent idealists pause in imagining what a 21st century world war
would look like. P.W. Singer and August Cole paint the picture for you in this riveting fictional work on a war waged from the skies
by the United States, China and Russia. The authors scoured satellite imagery of Chinese aircraft carrier development, interviewed U.S. Army Special Forces and met with Chinese generals to build their storyline. The end result was realistic enough that the book is required reading in military departments around the world that are trying to wrap their heads around — and prepare for — the next war in space
. An excellent read for anyone who has spent weeks consumed by Tom Clancy novels and wants to get a glimpse into 21st century warfare.
Crusader Kings II, Europa Universalis, Victoria II, Hearts of Iron 4
Paradox Development Studio, various releases
Paradox Interactive offers a series of detailed and in-depth historical grand strategy games. Among the series, there are four standouts:
Crusader Kings II: In this game you take control of a Medieval fiefdom (1066-1453) as you play the role of a noble, king or nomadic tribesman looking to carve out territory. The player must build or maintain power by navigating church relations, kinship and vassal relations.
Europa Universalis: This game picks up where Crusader Kings II ends, offering control of over 250 countries. Play as any country between 1399 and 1820 and experience the discovery of the New World and innovations in all aspects of life.
Victoria II: Guide a nation from the era of absolute monarchy into the modern world. Avoid global crises or throw your lot in with an independence movement, while controlling laws that dictate the role of slavery, voting, welfare, and work in the life of the country's citizens.
Hearts of Iron 4: Lead any nation through the tribulations of World War II. Manage strategic investment in arms, technology, or resources. Spy on other nations' nuclear program or doggedly maintain neutrality throughout the fight. Play as a country on the periphery of the war and guide your nation to prominence as the rest of the world tears itself apart.
Doctor Zhivago (Film)
Directed by David Lean, 1965, 200 minutes
This is a classic film for the tragic romantic who knows that struggle is part of survival in an ever-changing world — a fact Russians understand very well
. Based on Boris Pasternak's novel, the sweeping epic spans the devastation of World War I, the earth-shattering Russian Revolution
and the Soviet Union's tumultuous infancy.
Though mostly a romance, the film reflects the breakdown of class and society in Russia, exacerbated by the country's sublime but brutal geography. The film is a timeless reflection on Russia's constant oscillation from strength to weakness to chaos and back. Today, it is perhaps more relevant than ever as Russia is caught in a cycle of weakening under President Vladimir Putin. For a similar, more recent — and Russian — take on Russia's enduring challenge, Stratfor recommends The Barber of Siberia (1998), directed by Nikita Mikhalkov.
The HEAD Game: High-Efficiency Analytic Decision Making and the Art of Solving Complex Problems Quickly (Book)
By Philip Mudd, Liveright, 2015, 288 pages
The amount of data available to leaders and the public at large today is frankly overwhelming. The problems are more complex than ever and, even with so much information, the decisions are more difficult. Everyone is confronted with the dilemma of how to think through these problems
, especially those interested in deciphering geopolitics. Philip Mudd, a former senior leader at the FBI and CIA, argues that the process is much the same whether one is analyzing potential nuclear conflict or trying to decide on buying a new house. In The Head Game
, Mudd lays out his career-proven methodology to give readers the tools to grapple with different problems without succumbing to common pitfalls
. He highlights the power of asking the right questions, discerning key drivers and measuring performance, while offering stories of success and failure from his own career. Mudd provides readers with a compelling process for clearer thinking in an era of increasing uncertainty.
China: a Macro History (Book)
By Ray Huang, M.E. Sharpe, 1988, 335 pages
Understanding China is fundamental to understanding the world system, but it is easier said than done. Although it is a single country, China encompasses a territory nearly as vast and diverse as all of Europe
. The more one reads about China and Chinese thought, the more one realizes the importance of understanding historical analogues that are obscure to Westerners.
In this compact, comprehensive book, Ray Huang frames the 3,000-year sweep of Chinese history and development through major trends and geopolitical themes, and, more important, parallels to the Western world. This book explains in a clear, unbiased manner why it is so profoundly challenging to govern China and, by extension, why Beijing does what it does.
China in Ten Words (Book)
By Yu Hua, Anchor, 2011, 240 pages
Chinese novelist Yu Hua picks 10 words, each of which evokes for him an essential aspect of the contemporary Chinese experience. He uses this list to reflect on his own life and that of his country, from the time of the Cultural Revolution to the ferment of the 1980s, ending in the economically exuberant — but in Yu's view, culturally and politically anemic — present.
A straightforward yet highly affecting and readable reflection on the extraordinary contradictions and imbalances that define China today, China in Ten Words is An important read for anyone who wants to understand how China's recent past echoes through its present and future.
Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (Book)
By Timothy Snyder, Basic Books, 2010, 544 pages
Timothy Snyder's book tells the story of a sprawling region in Central and Eastern Europe
that he calls the Bloodlands — the uneasy buffer between Soviet Moscow and fascist Berlin where 14 million people were murdered between 1933 and 1945 in the name of strategic and economic progress. Bloodlands
synthesizes the Holocaust and the Soviet purges in a geographic, historical and strategic context. With its close attention to numbers, geography and local case studies, the book takes the reader beyond the "banality of evil" to understand the chilling rationality
of evil and the detailed political calculations that made mass murder possible. Stalin's all-consuming fear of simultaneous invasion, Poland's anxiety about entrapment, and Germany's desire for colonial holdings and strategic depth drove a cycle of inhuman violence in the Bloodlands that resonates today — and will continue to do so long into the future.
Out of the Desert: My Journey From Nomadic Bedouin to the Heart of Global Oil (Book)
By Ali al-Naimi, Penguin, 2016, 320 pages
OPEC, the 12-member cartel whose decisions shape world oil markets, is a complex and often inscrutable group. This autobiography cuts it down to size, allowing the most important figure in the bloc to tell the story of the last 20 years. During his two decades as Saudi Arabia's oil minister, Ali al-Naimi shepherded the kingdom's oil policy through all of the ups and downs from the late 1990s up to this year. Al-Naimi is best known for setting oil markets on fire in 2014
as the mastermind behind Saudi Arabia's policy
not to cut oil production in the face of falling prices. That decision has shaped the oil market for the past two years, though Saudi Arabia has recently backed a production cut
. Al-Naimi's account offers critical insight into how Saudi Arabia shapes oil markets.
Midnight's Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India's Partition (Book)
By Nisid Hajari, Mariner Books, 2015, 368 pages
That India was once the jewel in Britain's imperial crown
is well known. Less known is full the story behind the British Empire's decision to partition its prized colonial possession
into two new nations when it pulled out of the subcontinent in 1947. In Midnight's Furies,
Bloomberg editor Nisid Hajari tells that story through two pivotal figures: Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, and Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan. With talent and charisma, vision and resolve, these men used the power of their pens to draw new lines on the map of post-colonial South Asia, compelling one of the largest forced migrations in modern history. The process left behind unresolved conflicts that linger in places as diverse as Kashmir, western Myanmar
and Bangladesh, fueling trafficking, communal violence and terrorism. What's more, the two nuclear-armed powers will continue to compete for the foreseeable future.
Empire of Cotton: A Global History
By Sven Beckert, Knopf, 2014, 640 pages
At Stratfor, we love books that encapsulate global trends in a nutshell. A growing number of commodity histories — among them, Sidney W. Mintz's Sweetness and Power (Penguin, 1985) and Daniel Yergin's The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power (Free Press 1990) — accomplish this task quite well. Empire of Cotton fits into the same category. For much of history, and particularly in the 19th century, cotton was the key commodity. The story of cotton is the story of the modern world's construction, from the dawn of the Industrial Revolution to the spread of technology and capital. At the center of this story is the Civil War, when the world's great cotton producer, the American South, was suddenly behind a blockade, prompting India, Egypt and Brazil to step up production and fill the gap. Sven Beckert's book is a useful guide to understanding the way the world's systems can develop and adapt to generate and accommodate demand.
Charlie Wilson's War (Film)
Directed by Mike Nichols, 2007, 102 minutes
The rise of al Qaeda, the Taliban
and global jihadism
can be traced to the Soviet Union's 10-year war with Afghanistan, which ended in 1989. During that conflict, Washington's strategy was to arm the mujahideen — whom then-President Ronald Reagan famously called "freedom fighters" — to take on the Soviets in Afghanistan. In Charlie Wilson's War
, we are introduced to Charlie Wilson, a freewheeling Texas congressman (played by Tom Hanks) whose penchant for women and booze adds an amusing element to a character portrait of the man who helped deepen the United States's involvement in that war. The film —which takes the viewer to the dusty refugee camps of Pakistan and through the stately halls of Capitol Hill — is at once accessible and entertaining, informative and engaging. By the end, the viewer has a snapshot of the politics and politicking between the CIA, Congress and a range of international figures in the final battle of the Cold War.