History Books » Contemporary History (1945-)

The best books on The World Since 1978

recommended by Gideon Rachman

Most British prime ministers would probably have made the same decision as Tony Blair and followed George W. Bush into war in Iraq in 2003, says the FT's chief foreign affairs commentator.

Interview by Alec Ash

Buy all books

Why did you choose 1978 as a starting point? Where was the world then?

I think 1978 is, in retrospect, the birth date of globalisation. We’re sitting here in Beijing, and when Deng Xiaoping came to power in 1978 and launched reform and opening, that began the process that created the colossus that is modern China. Six months after Deng’s reforms, Margaret Thatcher came to power in Britain, then Reagan in the US, and in Europe you had the creation of the single market, which was a mini globalisation itself. It wasn’t apparent at the time, but 1978 was a break point.

In the world before 1978, the group of rich developed nations was really quite small. There was Western Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia, Japan – and that’s it. Then in a very short period of time, from 1978 to 1991, there is a process that creates the globalised world that we’re now living in. As well as China and India, there is also the opening up of Latin America. Dictatorships transform to democracy, and countries embrace the Washington consensus. In 1989 there’s the fall of the Berlin wall, and the half of Europe that had been walled off from the capitalist system joins in. So by 1991, you suddenly have all of the world’s major powers participating in a single global economy, albeit from different levels of wealth.

Of course, all periodisation is arbitrary. Some would say the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 was the beginning of the new period. In America some see 2001 as the end of the period. But in my book Zero-Sum Future (published as Zero-Sum World in the UK) I take 1978 to 2008 as a thirty year period in which globalisation is the single most important political as well as economic phenomenon. It was the creation of the globalised world, and of a Davos mentality – by which I mean that you could get leaders from China, the US, Western Europe and India to all show up at the same meeting and to a significant extent they would be talking the same language. They would all believe it’s a good thing to have more global trade, and they would all be talking to the same CEOs or banks. They were playing the same game in a way that they hadn’t been before 1978.

And what is different from then to where the world is now?

I think that era ended in 2008, but what it has led to isn’t certain. Whether it will be a modification or a transformation, we still don’t know. It ended because the blithe optimism that global capitalism was basically a force for good for everybody – that even if it creates a few problems it could solve them as it goes along – had to either be scrapped or severely modified, because it caused a massive financial crisis and a deep recession in the West.

That also, in a geopolitical sense, made the West realise that our assumption that, because China and India and so on appeared to be adopting our way of doing things, we had won – the end of history thesis – might be wrong actually, and the rest of the world is catching up with us quite fast. In the post-2008 period you started to see calculations of when China will be the world’s largest economy. It’s amazing how varied estimates are. I think it will happen in 2018, according to The Economist, or in 2016 according to the OECD. So the period of sole superpowerdom, which ran from the end of the Cold War to 2008, has ended. Suddenly America is much more conscious of the limits of its power, the flaws of its own system, and the fact that China recovered from the financial crisis much faster.

So is the “end of history” idea defunct?

I’m reluctant to join in with the kicking of [Francis] Fukuyama. He was onto something. But the crude version of the end of history has ended – by which I mean the belief that everybody was converging from different places on a similar system, which was democratic and capitalist, and that as they did so it would create a liberal nirvana where we would have a global government system, because we wouldn’t have anything to fight about, we would all be getting richer and our political systems would converge. Although that sounds very naive, I think it was more or less how people thought in the Clinton years. And it was the main idea of the 1978 to 2008 period in the West.

Let’s get stuck into your book selections, beginning with Ezra Vogel’s biography of Deng Xiaoping, given the setting of our interview.

This is the best and most comprehensive book I know, certainly in English, on the Deng Xiaoping era. Deng’s importance will only grow with the passage of time. I think he will emerge as a truly historic figure – less dramatic than Mao, but with more lasting impact if China remains on this course. There was a need for a really serious and readable study of him, and this is a big door-stopping book but a pleasure to read. The author has an eye for anecdote, and I am surprised at how much is known about private conversations at the top of the Communist party. My assumption had been that this was a secret society that didn’t keep records, and we wouldn’t have any clue.

Do we get a feel for what Deng Xiaoping was like as a person?

Yes, absolutely. And a very fascinating person he is – tiny, dynamic and incredibly robust. He was of the generation that went through appalling periods in their lives. He came out of it a political exile, his family suffered terribly in the Cultural Revolution, and yet he was still able to take command when the time came, not to be derailed by personal tragedies, and to have a clear vision.

And his clear vision was not to have a clear vision, or rather to eschew the crazy central planning of the Mao era when you would sit in central Beijing and try to construct a utopian dream. Pragmatism is his hallmark. All the most famous statements attributed to Deng are different expressions of pragmatism. Cross the river by feeling for the stones; It doesn’t matter if a cat is white or black, so long as it catches mice. They’re all saying: whatever it is that works, works. Let’s take a few steps back and let people get on with it.

It’s remarkable how he could embrace or accept change, at least in the economic sphere, at such an advanced age. One of the most interesting things in the book is the extent to which Deng had a window onto the world. He had spent some years in France as a young man, and in 1975 he goes back to France on a brief visit. He’s impressed with what he sees as a modern industrial society, and when he comes into power he encourages other top cadres to go abroad, to France and to other places, and to learn from the power of example.

How should we in the West reconcile this economic opening up with the authoritarian control he always exerted over the political sphere, most visibly so in the crackdown on the Tiananmen square protests?

I think that’s partly what makes him such an incredibly interesting figure – because he doesn’t conform to what we would like a transformational leader to be. He’s not a Mandela or a Havel, who embraces all of the things that we like. And he’s very deliberately not a Gorbachev. I think that’s interesting partly because it poses difficult moral questions. What do you say about Deng Xiaoping? Do we at some level entertain the idea that maybe he was right? You can’t approve, obviously, of the killing of innocent people, but his vision of development had something to it. If China had let the political genie out of the bottle in 1989, maybe it would have been fine, or maybe it wouldn’t have. Maybe there would have been a period of political turmoil.

That’s certainly a widely held opinion in China.

And one which the West has difficulty dealing with. But I think it’s at least worth us entertaining that maybe they have a point. It’s important for us not to simply say we know best.

Deng Xiaoping is also interesting because on an intellectual level he challenges the assumptions that the West made post 1989. It’s important to remember that [the June 4th massacre] was the same year as the fall of the Berlin wall. So for a period we said that Chinese autocracy couldn’t last, as we saw that autocracy didn’t last in Eastern Europe, and that if they are going to succeed economically, they are going to have to become a democracy. But that too has been challenged by the success of China economically.

So what is the legacy of Deng Xiaoping in today’s China, where some say political reform is now necessary for continued growth?

It’s hard to tell what Deng would have done, because of the contradiction you identify. It’s coming to the point where China may have to resolve the desire to retain political control and the desire to free up the economy and get growth. Or maybe it’s not such a contradiction as we in the West reckon. We had thought that you can’t have both, but maybe they’ve come up with something new. I don’t know what Deng would have done, because it’s twenty years since his last great act, the southern tour of 1992. Now we’re living in a different world, and the Chinese economy must have tripled or quadrupled in size.

Let’s move our attention across to Europe, with Charles Grant’s book on Jacques Delors, the former President of the European Commission.

Choosing a book about Delors is perhaps not a very obvious way of talking about a period when dramatic things were happening in Europe. But taking a step back, why is Europe part of this story of globalisation? Firstly, the fall of the Berlin wall meant that the Soviet alternative to the Western system collapsed. But also because the formation of the European Union was a mini globalisation in itself. It constructed a European single market and a single currency, which broke down barriers between countries in an economic sense, and with an explicit political agenda behind it. So in Europe they were much more conscious of the political implications of what they were doing economically. In a sense that was the point.

There’s a good quote in the book, where Delors, working on the single market with Thatcher, said on French radio that he was making a single market, but what he was really there to build was a political union – which was anathema to Thatcher. He was a very contemporary figure in the sense that he got markets. If you look at his significance within France, it was to reverse the socialist excesses of the first two years of the Mitterand years. So in a French context he was an economic liberal, but he was an internationalist in the sense that he understood the rest of the world in a way that believers in French exceptionalism did not.

If the market was the theme of this period, Delors absolutely got that, both in France and in Brussels. He was both a visionary and a tactician, and that’s what makes him such a powerful figure. He had a very clear vision of what he wanted Europe to become, but he was also a brilliant tactician able to make alliances with people who were different, like Margaret Thatcher. And then when the Berlin wall came down he formed a whole new set of alliances with Helmut Kohl. Thatcher went off on her own trajectory, but Delors was able to remain at the centre of those creating the new post Cold War Europe.

Thatcher famously said that she didn’t roll back the British state in order to see the creation of the Brussels super state. Could you contrast her world view with Delors’s?

I think it’s a very interesting difference, and in fact I almost chose John Campbell’s Thatcher biography as one of my five. Thatcher is very much part of this globalisation story, partly because she pioneered a lot of the ideas that then went global, like privatisation. Obvious idea as it may seem, privatisation was a British invention. She also abolished exchange controls in her first year of office, and that laid the groundwork for the City. The City [London’s financial centre] became the pre-eminent global financial capital.

So in that sense she was a globaliser. But when it came to politics, she was a nation stater. Her critics would say that is a blatant contradiction which blows up Thatcherism. I would be a bit more charitable and say it’s a tension. I think she was onto something in the way that democratic legitimacy still resides in the state, because that’s the unit that people identify with. She felt that business could be globalised but the state must remain national, while Delors believed the nation state would eventually be a unit of the past and a historical anachronism, and that creating a single market, a single currency and ultimately a single European government was the logical conclusion.

In Europe now, if anything the Thatcherite vision is looking more powerful. Her view that trying to create a political union was courting disaster looks prescient at the moment. Her argument that the single currency would lead to political trouble was not wrong, and indeed there was a rational side to her reaction to German reunification – even if there was also something primitive and atavistic to it – and the problem of how to accommodate German power within the European system. Delors had a clear answer to that, which was the Euro, whereas Thatcher said that the Euro won’t contain German power, in some ways it will amplify it – and that’s where we are now. It may be that in ten years time Europe has got its act together, Delorsism has a resurgence and his vision is ultimately vindicated. But from the perspective of 2013, Delors was a visionary whose vision got a little ahead of him, and is in danger of failing.

Moving further West still, which period does America Between The Wars look at?

The two wars it defines are the Cold War and the War on Terror. Neither of them are traditional hot wars. So it’s 1989 to 2001.

11/9 to 9/11.

Exactly. The authors make a good case that this is a distinct period, at least in America – a feel-good period, which has been called the long nineties. There’s a nice quote in the book, from Newt Gingrich of all people, who says it was like a Great Gatsby period, where nothing was too serious and everyone was making money.

I’m sure Newt Gingrich was having a whale of a time.

Whale, in his case, is quite appropriate. I’m sure he was. He was a big figure then, with the revolt against Clinton, and was at his political height.

The period has been called a “holiday from history.” Would you call it a complacent time?

Complacency is a little harsh, although perhaps fair in hindsight. I would call it optimism. At least they had a vision – and quite an attractive one, based around the power of American capitalist and democratic ideas. It was an optimistic period for America, because they won the Cold War. By the end of the eighties America was also extremely worried about the rise of Japan. But then the Berlin wall fell, the Japanese bubble deflated, and the tech revolution began in America.

For the Americans, who thought of themselves as a rustbelt economy with Wall Street attached, the tech revolution was both a great new engine of wealth, and a symbol of technological transformation. But it was also read – probably correctly – as a proof of American capitalism’s enduring inventiveness and ability to regenerate the United States. That is a message that in the aftermath of their triumph in the Cold War had enormous political resonance. This is why we won the Cold War, was the thought in the back of people’s minds – we can create a Silicon Valley because of the political values and individualism that allow it to flourish.

What happens in 2001 to burst the bubble?

9/11 obviously. It gave the feeling that the holiday from history is over, and that America is back in serious and dangerous times. So it was the end of the era in one way, but I think that 2008 and [the collapse of] Lehmann Brothers will actually be more significant. 9/11 created a sense of American vulnerability but it didn’t create any sense of the limits to American power. On the contrary, you got a resurgence of the attitude of going out to remake the world, which is what the neocons are all about. For the neocons the War on Terror was a way of reasserting American power, and remaking the world in America’s image. The idea was to go out there, where there were a few outliers who hadn’t seen the light and converted to American democracy and capitalism, and invade them. If you look at the Bob Kagan, or at the theorists of what America was doing when it invaded Iraq, there was a vision derived from the Second World War and the remaking of Japan – that what they were doing was a form of benificent imperialism.

And is the nail already in the coffin of this world view?

No. Actually I don’t think an alternative world view has sprung up yet. But a faith in globalisation, convergence, and the belief in American power both in its reality and in its beneficial qualities, seems much less self-evident now than it did back then. And the faith in financial capitalism really has gone. But if you want a sense of how people were thinking in the heyday of America as sole superpower, with globalisation going very well, America Between the Wars is as good an account as there is of the thinking inside the Clinton White House. The authors have extremely good access to all of the key people in that era, and interviewed them all subsequently. So it has the advantage of recent history that all the actors are still around and the authors understand their mentality. And they create a very readable narrative out of it, of how Clinton and the people around him saw the world. It already feels a bit like a period piece, actually.

Your fourth pick is Tony Blair’s autobiography. How does his prime ministership in Britain run parallel to what’s happening in America?

Blair is an interesting figure. He’s a bit of a chameleon, and he spanned two periods. First, the period of huge faith in globalisation – the pre 9/11 optimistic period, capitalism and the third way, which he jointly developed. Then he outlasted Clinton, and became George W Bush’s great ally in the War on Terror – the much darker American world view that followed 9/11. He tried to span both and fit them into a common conceptual framework. And he is important when it comes to the global market, and the tension between globalisation and the state.

Was he pushing a line or world view of his own?

Blair isn’t a particularly profound thinker. He’s highly intelligent, but he tended to embrace the conventional wisdom as it formed, and then build on it but not really make a breakthrough. Of course, in terms of the Labour party, he was radical because he forced them to reconcile Thatcherism at home with globalisation and modern capitalism. But he was just getting them to accept the zeitgeist – he didn’t remold the zeitgeist in the way that Thatcher did.

How does the book read on its own merits?

The other reason I chose this book is that it’s fun to read. Political memoirs tend to be quite heavy going – the Thatcher memoir, the Reagan memoir, they’ve got an official quality to them. Whereas with Blair you can actually hear his voice. He writes with an informality and a sense of humour that makes it fun to read. Of course, like any politician he is shaping his legacy, but he can at least simulate frankness.

How does his personality come across?

Very shrewd, actually. He’s a good reader of people and situations. What he says in the book about what his opposite number is thinking, or how to deal with people, is always interesting. He’s a very good politician in that respect. He can size people up, see where they are coming from, he understands what they want to hear. There’s a nice bit in the book where he talks about when to interrupt someone saying something absolutely outrageous, and when to just let them rattle on. It gives you the sense of an active political mind at work.

The strength of his conviction when he felt it was morally right to go into Iraq is his most contentious legacy. How does he address that decision?

A lot of the book is about those decisions, how he wrestled with them, and it doesn’t really differ from what else he has said publically – that he felt it was a fundamental moral issue, that he had been concerned about Iraq since before 9/11, and why he still thinks it was the right call.

Although it was a very contentious decision, my suspicion is that most British prime ministers would have made the same call. In a way it was a conventional decision, because I think that British foreign policy has long been trying to maintain a special relationship with the United States, and a very close relationship with our European neighbours, and not to have to choose between them. But I’ve always felt that if that choice was forced on the Brits they would go with the Americans, for historical and cultural reasons. And that, in a sense, was the choice that Blair faced in 2001. He had a controversial American president charging off in a direction that was deeply disapproved of in Berlin, Paris and Brussels. Which way does he jump? It doesn’t surprise me at all that he jumped with the Americans.

Do you believe Britain can be a bridge between the two sides of the Atlantic?

That’s a bit of a cliché. Because of language and history, clearly the British have a better network of relations in the US than, say, the French. They share some of the ideas and intellectual traditions of the Americans. So in quite a practical way, Britain can be a bridge between these two worlds they know quite well. But they actually know the American side much better than the European side.

Finally, tell us about The Limits of Power and its message.

This is the post-Iraq disillusionment times. It’s a very slim book, and it’s quite an angry book. Bacevich is an interesting figure. He’s a foreign policy academic who has broken with the conventional Washington establishment view about the use of American power and the basically beneficial aspects of the American military might – the consensus view that both Clinton and Bush would have embraced, even if they might have disagreed over when to use that power. I hesitate to compare him to Chomsky, because I like Bacevich and I’m not Chomsky’s biggest fan, but he’s a thinking man’s Chomsky, if you like.

Is he as down on a perceived American imperialism as Chomsky is?

He is. And he has a personal story about it. He is a military veteran, and his son fought in Iraq and was killed there. So there is an undercurrent of anger in the book.

Will you encapsulate the central argument of the book for us?

The argument is that America has taken a terrible wrong turn, has become over-militarised, and that there is much more consensus in embracing this mistaken view of the world between Democrats and Republicans than is commonly recognised, or than there should be. That the mistaken view of American power, both of its strength and of how to use it, has gripped Washington in a way that is dangerous and that has led to policy errors. And there’s a second book which he wrote shortly afterwards called Washington Rules, which builds on that argument.

He promotes realism in American foreign policy, which is a particular school [of international relations theory]. It’s about treating America as a state like any other state, which needs to protect and guard its interests. So it’s opposed to the school which believes that the US somehow embodies an idea which is superior to the ideas of other states. In Bacevich’s view, it’s just a state among others that needs to defend its interests, and have a more realistic and constrained view.

There are traces of that, actually, in Obama’s thinking. If you ask why Obama is such a reluctant interventionist, it’s partly because he has imbibed some of the views expressed by Bacevich, albeit in a more moderate form: that the US has got carried away by a sense of its own power and what it can achieve, that intervention is often counter-productive and wrong headed.

So we no longer live in a world of American hegemony?

There’s rather a nice quote from the Bacevich book. He says American power has limits and we need to “shake off the ambition to which hubris and sanctimony has given rise.” And he quotes Chomsky saying that “terms like peace and freedom became code words for expansionism.” So he takes a much more cynical view of the neo con theories during the Bush years.

So what role should America play, given it still has a lot of real terms power, both soft and hard?

That brings us full circle back to the China that Deng Xiaoping has created in retrospect. The big debate for America is how long it will remain the clearly pre-eminent global power. How much should it actively seek to do that, to quietly check China’s rise, and what are the best means of doing that? Those are separate questions. But on the last one, I think Obama is enough of a conventional president to believe that America has the ability to remain the pre-eminent power and that it should do so. But he believes much more in husbanding American power, and in rebuilding the economic, domestic strength that has been the basis of that power. When he talks of nation building at home, that is very much a Bacevich idea – that your first moral responsibility is to your people, so there’s no point being a global power if it’s against the background of massive income inequality, and no health and safety net. Power projection overseas won’t last unless it’s built on sure domestic foundations. And again Bacevich, and I believe Obama, argue that a series of foreign interventions drain that economic power. America hasn’t got limitless funds, limitless strength. It has to be much more calculating about how it uses its power, and that’s why I think Obama is visibly reluctant to get involved in Syria – because he feels that America has learnt some very costly lessons about intervention.

Now it’s China that is increasingly making its power felt.

And that raises the question of whether America should try to check China in a non-military way. Which again is a post-Clinton view. There was a feeling in the Clinton years that the rise of China would look after itself, because it would trigger a series of political changes in China that would make it much more congenial to live with. That hasn’t happened, and as we close in on the time when China becomes the world’s biggest economy, America is feeling weaker. What do you do about that?

I feel Obama is balancing two opposite strategies. One is to stick with the Clinton convergence view of engagement with China – that engagement will build a mutually beneficial cooperative relationship which will ultimately change China. But equally America is now hedging against the rise of China with a pivot strategy, by building up or reinforcing alliances with Japan and South Korea, Australia and India. So there is a soft containment going on, a more traditional balance of power approach, which I think Clinton was trying to get away from and Obama is perhaps moving back towards. But he is doing both at the same time – it’s not either or.

Where is the European experiment in this new world order?

Totally absent. Europe’s Euro crisis is so absorbing that they have, I think, no intellectual energy left to think about the rise of China. The Europeans still largely think of China in economic terms as a commercial opportunity and a commercial threat, because Europe doesn’t have a network of alliances in Asia.

And China dismisses Europe as squabbling children.

Exactly. I think the Europeans have proved their relevance in a rather depressing way, in that people have become conscious that if the European economy collapses, it’s still large enough to bring everyone else down with them. It’s perhaps not the gauge of relevance that we would have sought. Europe hoped that their significance would be as a model for the world, a model for global governance, and that the EU would at some point be generalisable — perhaps through the G20. But that was always going to be a tough call, and it looks very delusory in the wake of the Euro crisis.

To sum up, is there a big new idea for the post 2008 world?

If there is, I don’t think we’ve identified it yet. Maybe the idea is going to be Easternisation rather than Westernisation. The end of history thesis was about the spread of ideas – economic and political – that had developed essentially in the West. Global capitalism, democracy and so on. Now we have a huge shift of economic power from West to East. The untold part of the story is the implications of that, which will be commercial and economic in terms of living standards and where people do business, and geopolitical in the traditional sense of where the contest for power takes place – i.e. in Asia not in Europe.

Get the weekly Five Books newsletter

The most interesting part of the story which is still playing out is in culture and values. You could still make the case that the Fukuyama view will prevail, that even China will ultimately have to embrace liberal, universal values. In that sense, the end of history was not wrong. Or maybe will we see new political and cultural ideas coming out of the rise of Asia – not only from China, but also from India and Southeast Asia – which will be different from the individualist ideas pushed by the Americans. More communitarian perhaps.

I don’t know. We’ll see.

Interview by Alec Ash

June 10, 2013

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at [email protected]

Support Five Books

Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. If you've enjoyed this interview, please support us by .

Gideon Rachman

Gideon Rachman

Gideon Rachman is a journalist who has been the Financial Times chief foreign affairs commentator since July 2006. He joined the FT after a 15 year career at the Economist, which included spells as a foreign correspondent in Brussels, Washington and Bangkok.

Gideon Rachman

Gideon Rachman

Gideon Rachman is a journalist who has been the Financial Times chief foreign affairs commentator since July 2006. He joined the FT after a 15 year career at the Economist, which included spells as a foreign correspondent in Brussels, Washington and Bangkok.