Book Reviews on Burleigh's A History of Now

Amazon's Take: 
In the decades since the end of World War II, it has been widely assumed that the western model of liberal democracy and free trade is the way the world should be governed.

However, events in the early years of the 21st century—first, the 2003 war with Iraq and its chaotic aftermath and, second, the financial crash of 2008—have threatened the general acceptance that continued progress under the benign (or sometimes not-so-benign) gaze of the western powers is the only way forwards.

And as America turns inwards and Europe is beset by austerity politics and populist nationalism, the post-war consensus looks less and less secure. But is this really the worst of times?

In a forensic examination of the world we now live in, acclaimed historian Michael Burleigh sets out to answer that question.

Who could have imagined that China would champion globalization and lead the battle on climate change? Or that post-Soviet Russia might present a greater threat to the world's stability than ISIS?

And while we may be on the cusp of still more dramatic change, perhaps the risks will—in time—bring not only change but a wholly positive transformation.

Incisive, robust, and always insightful, The Best of Times, The Worst of Times is both a dazzling tour d'horizon of the world as it is today and a surprisingly optimistic vision of the world as it might become.

Justin Marrozi's Take 
The last time I saw Michael Burleigh he assured me he had given up writing books. I wasn’t convinced. Once a writer always a writer. It’s not something you can just switch off. Making money with exotic investors has its merits but I doubt it has been half as much fun as writing this swashbuckling tour d’horizon. 

The Best of Times, The Worst of Times finds our trenchant historian and columnist attempting to write a history of now, picking a selection of flashpoints and key nations around the world.

To explain the messiness and unpredictability of our new post-Cold War disorder, Burleigh provides insightful, anecdote-packed context to the ruinous rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the rise of the would-be sultan Erdogan in Turkey, Putin’s failed-state Russia, China, the US and the EU.

Whether or not you call this history or an extreme version of long-form journalism is immaterial. It’s a breakneck geopolitical gallop across the globe in the hands of a historian and commentator at the peak of his powers.

Burleigh takes as his starting-point the twin, game-changing phenomena that together challenged the ascendancy of the West’s free-trade-and-liberal-democracy order: first, the 2003 Iraq War, whose baleful consequences we and the entire Middle East endure to this day, and second, the 2008 financial crash, whose reverberations continue to be felt in our depleted paychecks and unsavoury politics.

The Burleigh Weltanschauung can be unforgiving and the putdowns come thick and fast. Tony Blair is “a deluded idealist”, the EU “a geopolitical nullity”. Bankers are “short, bald, fat nonentities”.

If this all sounds like knockabout stuff, it in no way diminishes the force of Burleigh’s arguments, whether it is invective against the complacent cabal of international elites who have been stupendous recruiting sergeants for populist movements across the West or the neo-cons of George W Bush’s presidency and their ill-starred project of “global messianic transformation”.

The Saudis — “inveterate double dealers” — deservedly come in for a good kicking. One day, minds immeasurably greater than ours will explain why Western powers acquiesced for decades to a friendly relationship with an oil-rich kingdom whose officially sanctioned ideology was bent on our destruction.

Ordinary Brits and Americans increasingly doubt the benefits of this so-called “strategic relationship” with a regime propagating toxic, Jew-and-Christian-hating Wahhabism when it is not preaching the destruction of the “infidel” Shia. 
There is a direct ideological connection between Saudi Arabia and more or less every suicide bomber, yet still our rulers, blindsided by arms sales, talk of our “friends” in Riyadh. Little wonder that the death-cult iconoclasts of Islamic State were perfectly happy to use Saudi textbooks in their schools during their short-lived, presumptuous “caliphate”.

The assurance last week from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that Saudi Arabia would return to “moderate Islam” and destroy “extremist thoughts” immediately is one for the fairies.

India gets scant mention here. Burleigh compares it unfavourably with China, summarising it in a paragraph as a place of “outdoor defaecation, absentee teachers and 300 million illiterates”, together with a lower house of parliament in which almost a third of its 543 members are facing criminal charges, including rape, murder and kidnapping. So much for the world’s largest democracy.

Until only recently the pre-eminent global force, master of all it surveyed, the liberal West is now in retreat as power is mediated through a more multi-polar world in which authoritarian China and Russia pick up much of the slack left by Trump’s America.

The West, Burleigh argues, could do a lot worse than showing both Russia and China more respect, rather than over-extending Nato and the EU and fretting about human rights.

More pragmatism, less posturing. Certainly it is difficult to see what the US and Europe have managed to gain in recent years from their more confrontational approach to two powers who reject the Western liberal democratic model.

Although The Best of Times, The Worst of Times professes to eschew futurology, there are a handful of not entirely gloomy predictions about Europe, Trump’s America and Xi Jinping’s China. 
More book reviews

Beyond the big-picture analysis and of rather greater relevance to most of us, perhaps, is Burleigh’s withering condemnation of the pathetic reality of our everyday digital lives.

“We are increasingly trapped in a perpetual electronic and virtual present that is turning people into incommunicative idiots capable of little more than a tweet,” he writes. Ouch.