It’s not very often that one comes across a book which delves into subjects that you particularly like. This book blends two of my favorite subjects-history and politics in an insightful analysis of how ancients lived and ruled in societies. More importantly, what one can learn from them.
Quite a lot as it turns out. The book is based on the firm view that all that is going on in our lives, has parallels in history. Thus by learning how people tackled issues not quite different from our own, we can govern ourselves better. From time immemorial, history has been faithfully recorded by preceptors, who in turn through their rigorous analysis have influenced it.
The most diverse set of luminaries are chosen in this book. It commences with Winston Churchill's experiences in the late 19th century in Sudan, fighting the Mahdi. It was here that he gained his initial military experience, and a sense of the importance of history and people. These insights stood him good stead in fighting Nazism and co-opting the Americans in WWII. He is praised for his foresight in aligning with Stalin despite his abhorrence of communism, only to repel the advance of Hitler. No book on policy can be bereft of Sun-Tzu and Machiavelli. The author vividly portrays these philosophers as well as the historical context within which they lived. Thucydides who wrote the opus, "The Pelopponesian War" is also profiled. Set in the background of the war between Athens and Sparta, it remains a fascinating read combining the military might and political battles in these city states.
Increasingly states might collapse due to the non-availability of resources and massive unemployment of the youth. It has also to do with the unwillingness of people who live in city-states to consider themselves as part of a larger nation. Here Kaplan studies Malthus, whose essays on economic demand and scarcity of resources proved crucial for thinkers of his era.
Finally Kaplan delves into studying political structures in the ancient civilizations of Sumer, India and China. He finds that multiplicity of cultures did not deter successful empires from being formed. Rather, commerce and some astute political maneuvering led to formation of dynasties which survived the ravages of time...until more powerful ones toppled them. He studies Tiberius, who ushered in a long reign of peace and prosperity in the Roman Empire. Thus, while Tiberius did not expand his suzerain, he certainly managed to govern it better.
The impression one gets from reading this book is of fast paced change, shrewd political masters and the primacy of political opportunism. We live in similar political scenarios, where war and the fight for dominance will increasingly become asymmetrical. The astute politician is he who knows how to navigate this.
Next stop : Plain Speaking by N. Chandrababu Naidu