Category Archives: International

Juan Reinaldo Sanchez with Axel Gyldén – The Double Life of Fidel Castro: My 17 Years as Personal Bodyguard to El Lider Maximo

Juan Reinaldo Sanchez with Axel Gyldén – The Double Life of Fidel Castro: My 17 Years as Personal Bodyguard to El Lider Maximo

Sanchez was Castro’s bodyguard for 26 years, and is now living out his old age in Florida. He saw a lot of things. The book contains plenty of juicy gossip, though from a well-placed source. But Sanchez also makes serious points about how power corrupts people, and the effect the Cuban Revolution has had on Cuba’s fortunes. He also gives insights into how the Cuban government works, what life is like for the elites versus commoners, how dissidents are treated, how the military is trained, and more. That is his real contribution, and it is a valuable one.


Frank Dikötter – The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962—1976

Frank Dikötter – The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962—1976

Part of Dikötter‘s trilogy on Maoist China, with the other volumes covering the Revolution and the Great Leap Forward. The Great Leap Forward (1958-1962) caused millions of deaths from starvation, and its attempt at industrialization failed. Rather than admit defeat, Mao decided to double down, and began the Cultural Revolution just four years after the Great Leap Forward ended. In some ways, Dikötter argues, the Cultural Revolution was a continuation rather than a distinct event.

It formally lasted for a decade until Mao’s 1976 death, though by then it had tapered off somewhat. This second push went only marginally better than the first. It also dismantled China’s higher education system, leaving an entire generation essentially with almost no college graduates—at least from domestic universities. China’s university system is still stunted, with professors afraid to do anything that might be considered politically our of line. This has had predictable effects on subsequent generations’ entrepreneurship, political diversity, and cultural output such as literature and film.

Elizabeth C. Economy – The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State

Elizabeth C. Economy – The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State

A very useful guide to China’s economy and political culture. It is especially credible because it lacks the exaggerated, hyper-emotional tone that many China analysts have taken in the Trump era. Economy’s general take is that China’s reach exceeds its grasp. After five years in office, President Xi Jinping has established that he is no liberalizer. He is re-centralizing economic and political power and undoing some, though not all, of the limited 1990s and 2000s-era reforms.

This is bad for China’s future. But it is no reason for other countries to be scared. Centrally run economies tend not to perform well, to put it mildly. Economy gives example after example of grand central plans for Chinese education, manufacturing, technology, and urban planning that sounded scary, but turned to be pretty crappy in practice. Such plans also consume billions of dollars of resources that could have been better used elsewhere, doubly foiling China’s geopolitical ambitions.

in short, as long as China remains illiberal, it will have limited growth prospects. It will fall further behind its more liberal neighbors and potential adversaries.

This is a shame because China’s 1.3 billion people have both human rights and enormous potential. Their government’s policies have left the country without a vibrant economic or political culture—there is a reason China has few homegrown international brands besides Alibaba and Lenovo. The Great Firewall around China’s internet and its political repression might make the current regime feel more secure, but they prevent the Chinese people from engaging with and profiting from the rest of the world.

The rest of the world needs to continue to put pressure on China’s government to reform its human rights abuses and act in economic good faith. The Trans-Pacific Partnership that Trump pulled out of is a natural venue. Eleven other countries are still party to it, and U.S. participation could only make it stronger. The WTO’s dispute resolution process, which Trump wants to pull out of is another option.

Some of Economy’s other policy recommendations, such as expanded use of the Export-Import Bank, are prone to the same problems as their Chinese analogues, and should be avoided. But overall, this is a smart and sober take in a political climate that badly needs it.

Martin Wolf – Why Globalization Works

Martin Wolf – Why Globalization Works

Of all the books in the early- and mid-2000s boomlet of popular-level books on trade and globalization, this is probably the one written at the highest level. Wolf is a longtime writer for the Financial Times, and before that was an academic and a think tanker. He offers some deep insights into the economics of trade, devastating critiques of anti-globalization activists, and a qualified defense of the current international trading system, which, as of this writing, is still governed by the WTO’s dispute resolution process and a number of bi- and multi-lateral trade agreements around the world. This system is imperfect and overly complicated, but it is a world better than what trade’s enemies had in mind back then and still do today.

Alexis de Tocqueville – Democracy in America

Alexis de Tocqueville – Democracy in America

Tocqueville, a Frenchman, visited America for a period of nine months around 1830 and published this two-volume work after returning home. Tocqueville is incredibly insightful, which is why his book is often cited and occasionally read today, nearly two centuries later. He has a mostly sunny disposition and a generally liberal outlook (in the correct, classical sense of the word), but this book is not quite the love letter to America many make it out to be.

Rosemary Sullivan – Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva

Rosemary Sullivan – Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva

Alliluyeva was Stalin’s daughter, born in 1926, two years before he consolidated his power. Her childhood was about as warm as one would expect. Stalin had occasional tender moments, but was a distant father, not to mention a dictator. When Svetlana was six and a half, her mother committed suicide. One of her teenage love interests ended up in the gulag. Friends kept a wise distance during the 1937-38 Terror, fearing that an adverse word from her to her father could have consequences.

In 1967, after three divorces, two children, and a stint in India, she defected to the United States. She wrote two books, was a media sensation for a time, and earned a large sum of money from the royalties. After several moves, she married Wesley Peters, an acolyte of Frank Lloyd Wright who spent his summers in Wisconsin and wintered in an Arizona compound with, among other people, Wright’s controlling widow, who was also a Russian. That marriage produced a daughter as well as another divorce, and Svetlana lost most of her money.

She moved back to the east coast, then the UK for a time, moving almost annually. She even defected back the USSR in the 1980s, considered it a mistake, and went back to America. She spent her final years in Wisconsin, of all places, a few hours’ drive from where I grew up.

She seems to have had a melancholy spirit. Circumstances made her lonely for obvious reasons, especially while her father still lived, and for her entire life she was unable to settle anywhere or with anyone for very long. Whatever she was looking for in life, she seems not to have found it. She was also prone to sudden emotional outbursts, and had occasional bouts of paranoia similar to her father’s. While she was certainly not her father, she was still his daughter. Sullivan has painted an interesting portrait of an interesting person.

Benjamin Powell – Out of Poverty: Sweatshops in the Global Economy

Benjamin Powell – Out of Poverty: Sweatshops in the Global Economy

Powell has the audacity to evaluate policies by their results, not their intentions. In this book, anti-sweatshop activists come off poorly. Most of their favored policies, despite good intentions, have lousy results. The concluding chapters contain a host of economically literate alternatives, from freeing trade and immigration restrictions to cultural openness and exchange. Integration, not segregation.