More Readings

Luis Rubio

Once when he received an important recognition, Sean Connery explained that, on coming from a modest background, the great opportunity in his lifetime presented itself when, at five years of age, he learned to read. Reading was one of the great opportunities in this year of the virus. Here go some other books.

There are few matters as controversial as politics in the U.S., especially when it is about its impacts on the rest of the world and, particularly, on Mexico. The convulsions that that nation has undergone in its foreign policy in recent years are transcendent precisely because this is a question of the sole superpower, the one that built the post-war order and that, during these years, has done everything to undermine its foreign policy instead of reconstructing it under novel circumstances.

Among my readings of this year two stand out in singular fashion in this respect: in Why Are We Polarized? Ezra Klein embarks on a meticulous, profound and convincing analysis on the causes and dynamics of the present polarization in the U.S. Tracing the structures and fractures that characterize the party system reveals how each of these has been maximizing their positions, converting social or personal identity into the major differentiating element, to the point that they represent irreconcilable postures. What the author does not explain is how it is that the stances that are self-evident for the followers of one party are have the effect of alienating the followers of the other, as occurred with Obama and Trump, respectively

In United States in the World, Robert Zoellick describes the patterns that have guided the foreign policy of his country, with notable emphasis on the constraints that have shaped decisions in the matter from its Independence. In addition to narrating the history, Zoellick incorporates an interminable series of anecdotes, specific disputes and states of affairs that not only render attractive the reading a text of such analysis and depth, but also absorbing. The final part of the book, written in the light of Trump’s last hurrah, is particularly relevant for Mexico in that the author discusses the transition of NAFTA to T-MEC, situating it within the context of North America. The book ends with a quote from de Tocqueville that highlights the general tenor: “The greatness of America is not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.”

Samir Puri*, an ex-functionary of the British Diplomatic Service,  devotes himself to analyzing the empires that crumbled in the XX century, but that left in their wake unresolved conflicts, some insoluble, which mark the XXI century. Throughout the work Puri studies the geopolitical dynamic between Russia and the Western nations, the changes that the African continent is undergoing and the sources of conflict that distinguish countries like India to the region of the Middle East. In conventional terms, Puri discards an easy reconciliation between China and the European nations or the United States, as they are cheered on by objectives to a substantial extent contradictory. He accentuates the conflict between the U.S and China, concerning which he anticipates “an era of interplay between many post-imperial visions, evident in everything, from geopolitics to commerce and inter-cultural exchanges. Rather than the future being Asia, it will feature more two-way streets of reciprocal influence between different nations.”

What explains the different configurations and histories of democracy in distinct civilizations? There are many studies that compare Europe to Asia, but few delineate the differences of origin. In an extraordinary book, The Decline and Rise of Democracy, David Stasavage sets forth a fascinating hypothesis: States developed as democracies or autocracies depending on the strength or weakness of the governments that emerged around the world from their initiation. Democracy had a tendency to proliferate where there was a weak government and simple technologies: where there were no strong institutions, above all a bureaucracy capable of collecting taxes, the governors required the consent of the population, as occurred in diverse regions of Europe. Contrariwise, where the central bureaucracy was stronger, as in China, consent was not necessary, which gave rise to the ascent of autocracies. One of the most interesting cases in point that the author relates in his work is the difference between Tlaxcaltecans and Aztecs, attributing to the former an early democracy in the face of the autocratic centralism of the latter.

In The Economy of Extortion, Luis de la Calle makes clear the manner in which diverse mechanisms, customs and ways of conducting public affairs in Mexico constitute a ballast in that they impede productivity from escalating, diminish the appeal for companies to grow (above all informal ones) and sentence the country to underdevelopment. Extortion, says the author, is nothing other than corruption: the abuse of power for personal gain and it manifests itself at the moment that a self-appointed street valet extorts to “keep the car from coming to harm” to the bureaucrat who presses for a bribe or to union leaders who threaten a strike by their union members. What is captivating about this book is the diversity of forms in which extortion rears its head and its consequent social, economic and cultural impacts.

*The Great Imperial Hangover