Thoughts on DISORDER by Helen Thompson
I reviewed an ambitious, but frustrating, new history for Foreign Policy magazine.
I recently wrote a book review essay for Foreign Policy about Helen Thompson’s Disorder: Hard Times in the 21st Century.1 I know at least one subscriber asked me in a comment a while back if I would review the book, so I hope that you will find my review valuable.
I will post a few excerpts lower down, although I would encourage you to read the full original article on FP.com.2 Before getting into that, however, I thought you might be interested in some of my thoughts on the process.
Book reviews are both the hardest and among the most satisfying things to write.3
First, the reviewer has to be fair to the author. Writing a book is a major commitment of time and emotional energy. Not all books are good, but all books deserve to be treated with respect.4 That means taking the time to understand what the author wrote.
Then the reviewer must figure out how to distill hundreds of pages of material into an article orders of magnitude shorter by identifying the specific sections, phrases—or even individual words—that define the book. This requires a level of close reading and note-taking that can turn even the most enjoyable book into a bit of a slog.
But the reviewer’s highest obligation is to prospective readers. The review should be an engaging and informative piece of writing in its own right. It isn’t enough to simply tell people what the book is about and go through it section by section. Reviewers need to situate the book in the context of a broader intellectual conversation and explain why this book matters for our broader understanding of the world. The reviewer therefore needs enough expertise to have a point of view. Above all, the review must help readers determine whether they should commit money and time to read the book themselves. “It’s good” or “it’s bad” is insufficient.
So when I was commissioned by Foreign Policy last month to write a review of Disorder, I was both excited and nervous about the assignment. Excited, because it looked interesting and because it had already gotten some positive comments from people I respect. Nervous, because I hadn’t reviewed any books in a few years and because I expected it to be a challenge to write something useful about a book that covered so much ground.
My task turned out to be harder than I had originally anticipated.
The first three chapters—on the complex interplay between energy and geopolitics—were a joy to read. I didn’t have space in my essay to cover them in detail, but I can do so here.
Thompson begins with the first discoveries of oil in the U.S. and the Caucasus in the 19th century. Oil made cars, tanks, and modern navies possible. But the adoption of oil created strategic vulnerabilities for the industrial societies that had suddenly become dependent on imports. The energy poverty of the Central Powers put them at a distinct disadvantage during World War I, while Thompson frames World War II as a victory of the oil producers (the U.S. and the Soviet Union) and their allies against an axis of fuel-starved oil importers (Germany and Japan).
The story during the Cold War was the stagnation of U.S. oil production that began in the mid-1950s in the midst of soaring domestic and global demand. While production rose elsewhere, the overall result was an increasing dependence on imports, which rose from essentially nothing in the mid-1940s to roughly 15% of total U.S. consumption by the mid-1960s. American crude production started falling in 1970, and by 1977, imports were covering nearly half of America’s demand for crude oil. Even without the supply squeeze engineered by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries in 1973, there was bound to be a shift in the balance between producers and consumers.
Consumers eventually responding by curtailing demand and by finding new sources of supply. Global consumption of crude oil didn’t surpass the 1979 peak until the mid-1990s, thanks mostly to substantial improvements in energy efficiency. Meanwhile, the barrels that OPEC withdrew from the market were replaced by additional production in the Soviet Union, as well as, to a lesser extent, the North Sea, Mexico, and China. Despite the protestations of the Reagan Administration, Europeans eagerly seized what they perceived to be an opportunity to diversify away from unreliable Middle Eastern energy supplies by embracing the Soviets.
As Thompson repeatedly notes, Germans have been dependent on Russian oil and gas almost continuously since the 19th century. Rather than an aberration, the unseemly alliance between Germany’s industrialists, its political class, and the Putin regime (at least until about 9 weeks ago) should be understood as simply the latest iteration of a longstanding partnership between two complementary economies.
Thompson’s narrative gets particularly interesting after the Soviet Union breaks apart. Russia remained a major supplier of oil and gas to Europe, but now it did so via pipelines that ran through independent Belarus and, especially, Ukraine—much to the Russians’ annoyance. Meanwhile, several of the new republics of the Caucasus and Central Asia became energy producers in their own right, with ambitions to send their fossil fuels to Europe across the Caspian Sea and Turkey.
At the same time, China’s rapid growth led to a massive surge in global demand for fossil fuels that would not be matched by higher supply until the emergence of U.S. shale oil and gas. (China also switched from being a net exporter of oil to a net importer in the 1990s.) The result was a destabilizing series of price booms and busts, as well as a radical shift in Americans’ willingness to invest in the security of the Middle East and North Africa.
Thompson excels at describing the complicated corporate and international diplomacy of this period, linking negotiations over competing pipeline routes to everything from different countries’ stances on Turkey’s European Union membership talks to the Libyan civil war to Russia’s conflicts with Georgia and Ukraine. Despite being written before Putin’s most recent invasion of Ukraine, the book is full of valuable insights into the dynamics of the Russia-Ukraine-EU relationship, as well as the myriad conflicts within Europe over how to approach the twin questions of Russia and energy security.
Thompson even provides a surprisingly compelling justification for the 2003 Iraq War. In her view, a swift change in government had the potential to ameliorate a looming oil shortage by providing cover to remove sanctions. At the same time, Iraq without Saddam Hussein would obviate the need for American soldiers in Saudi Arabia, as well as the enforcement of a no-fly-zone to protect the Kurdish minority, thereby allowing the U.S. to shrink its military footprint in the Middle East.
Unfortunately, Disorder’s second section on economics and finance was radically different. It was so problematic—including several significant factual errors and misreadings of cited sources—that I asked multiple people for guidance on how to write a review of the whole book. Beyond the errors, the analytical framing of many of the key events seemed to miss the point. That made me wonder: if there was so much wrong in the areas where I know what I am talking about, what might be lurking in the sections where I know far less, such as the history of oil and gas pipelines, or the third section, which is as much about political philosophy as history?
Thankfully, my editor at Foreign Policy was extremely helpful and gave me a good suggestion for how to frame the overall review. If there is one central question that has preoccupied historians at least as far back as Thucydides, it is: how much of what happens can be attributed to specific choices as opposed to deep-seated “structural” forces?5
Rereading Disorder and my notes again and again, I realized that one of my biggest gripes with Thompson’s narrative of economic and financial history was that she didn’t give policymakers—and the intellectuals who influence them—enough credit for making their own decisions. Whether or not she meant to do so, the emphasis on “structural” causes effectively exonerated a whole cohort of people who (inadvertently or not) ruined tens of millions of lives.
Here is how I put it in the opening of my review:
The past few decades have not been kind to the democracies of the North Atlantic. Deindustrialization, financial crises, mass unemployment, chaos in the Middle East, and rising inequality have shortened life expectancies, undermined social stability, and opened the door to demagogues and authoritarians. And that was before the pandemic killed tens of millions of people and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine displaced millions more and upended global commodity markets.
Could the West have realistically avoided any of this? Or was it always going to be helpless in the face of “structurally driven shocks, the effects of which have cascaded from one place to another and between the geopolitical, economic, and domestic political spheres,” as University of Cambridge professor Helen Thompson puts it in Disorder: Hard Times in the 21st Century?
The question matters. If specific politicians and technocrats—and the intellectuals who influence them—make mistakes, then there is hope. The world has the potential to learn from their choices and do better in the future—or at least make new, different mistakes. If not, then the most it can aim for is the peace of mind that comes from understanding that there are no alternatives.
This framing was particularly stark in Thompson’s writings on Europe and Brexit (and the election of Trump, but I didn’t have space for that in my review).
While I would not go quite as far as my brilliant former colleague Martin Sandbu, who has argued that the euro crisis was purely attributable to policy errors by officials at the European Central Bank and by national political leaders, it is indisputable that there were specific people who made specific choices that immiserated tens of millions of people. While Thompson does occasionally hint at this possibility, she gives far more weight to the idea that these outcomes were the inevitable consequences of the system as it had been designed:
Thompson writes, “A Eurozone in which the [European Central Bank] ECB set monetary policy and elected member state governments decided on the rest of economic policy was a Eurozone heading towards its death.” For her, the central bank could never end the financial panics of 2010 to 2012 unless Europeans first gave up democratic control over taxes, spending, and labor market regulations. To be fair, that is what many European elites believed at the time and in retrospect. But their view only makes sense if there actually was an inherent conflict between the policies that the ECB and national governments should have been pursuing.
The tragedy of Europe’s post-2008 experience is that there was no such conflict…Europe’s problem was that too many of the technocrats and politicians simply misunderstood what was happening and what was needed, preferring cheap ethnic stereotypes over serious economic analyses.
Meanwhile, Thompson’s explanations of Brexit (and Trump) downplay how easily both of those outcomes could have been avoided. By definition, elections won by such small margins must be understood as something closer to chance rather than inevitability:
[Brexit] it must be remembered, was decided in a close vote that was only held because the Tories won an unexpected parliamentary majority the year before. And that election, it should also be recalled, was one in which European issues played almost no part. Instead, the supposed threat of Scottish independence was the decisive issue in key English constituencies. Moreover, according to the British Social Attitudes survey, only 22 percent of U.K. citizens wanted to leave the EU in 2015. But instead of treating the outcome as a fluke that needs to be explained by contingent circumstances, Thompson believes that it was a fundamental consequence of the United Kingdom’s place outside the euro.
While Thompson makes intriguing arguments that I explain in more detail in my review, they don’t explain why the U.K. had such a different experience from Poland, Sweden, or Switzerland (which is outside the EU but nevertheless offers full freedom of movement to EU nationals). I prefer the simpler explanation from economist Thiemo Fetzer, which is that the U.K.’s self-imposed austerity measures radicalized enough of the population and created a critical mass of people who would be happy to vote against whatever the “establishment” wanted—if given the chance.
Policymakers may be constrained by the material and social circumstances in which they operate, with oil and gas playing especially important roles, as Thompson convincingly argues. But as Putin has reminded the world so vividly this year, individual choices can still make a difference—for better and for worse.
No, I didn’t pick the headline or the subhead, which are harsher than what I would have chosen.
If you find yourself hitting a paywall and aren’t already a subscriber, you should be able to read the whole piece by opening the link in a new incognito browser window. You may also see a popup asking you to subscribe, but this can be closed without losing access to the article.
The exception is if the author was obviously lazy about putting the book together and/or uses plagiarism. Thankfully I have never been asked to review books like that.
Thucydides famously claimed that the Second Peloponnesian War was caused by Spartans’ fear of the “rise” of Athens in the 50 years following the end of the Persian Wars. Implicit in this analysis is an argument that the Athenians—specifically Pericles—were blameless for provoking the reluctant Spartans into leading a coalition bent on their destruction. Thucydides dismisses the immediate events leading up to the war as “pretexts”.
Yet, as Donald Kagan and other historians have pointed out, several key facts reported in Thucydides’s own narrative undermine this structural case. Kagan has further argued that Thucydides’s defenses of Pericles and Nicias, alongside his harsh criticisms of Demosthenes and Cleon, reveal a class bias in favor of his fellow aristocrats that in turn was motivated by Thucydides’s displeasure at being exiled for contributing to the Athenian loss of Amphipolis during the war.