In this nightmare vision of cats in revolt, fifteen-year-old Alex and his friends set out on a diabolical orgy of robbery, rape, torture and murder. Alex is jailed for his teenage delinquency and the State tries to reform him - but at what cost?
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For Sven Biscop, a lifelong analyst of international politics and the EU's external action, his latest book Grand Strategy in 10 Words: A Guide to Great Power Politics in the 21st Century is perhaps the most ambitious. Drawing on his wealth of experience, the author attempts to offer an attractive conceptual map for great powers, focusing on an ever-elusive objective: how to design and implement a truly effective Grand Strategy, at a time when the renaissance of geopolitics and the return of brutal great power competition is increasingly evident.
This endeavour takes the shape of a very insightful analysis based on ten keywords that ideally should substantiate such a strategy: 'simple', 'competitive', 'rational', 'allied', 'comprehensive', 'creative', 'agile', 'courageous', 'dirty' and 'proactive'. Each of these is afforded a separate chapter where the value of pursuing the said element is demonstrated and the actions of and interactions among the world's current great powers – the US, the EU, China and Russia – are critically analysed. Taken together, these analyses make for a very rewarding journey through how these international players (should) apply the concept of Grand Strategy in our decreasingly multilateral, increasingly multi-polar world.
This is a timely analysis that – crucially – also manages to feel both very real for the time it is written and future-proof in terms of the insights it includes and the lessons it uncovers. Even though written during the Covid-19 crisis, the book cleverly links current dynamics to longer-term trends, as well as recent developments to decades-long trajectories.
All four great powers that are analysed are given diligent and critical attention with the aim of demonstrating their true motives and the true reasons behind their successes and failures, beyond the rhetorical dress-up, the inherent biases and the emotional underbelly of many of their decisions. Indeed, the book's argumentation is perhaps at its most insightful (and entertaining) when the author dissects some of the specifics of the simple truth that, despite each power's advantages, crafting and executing a truly efficient Grand Strategy is never easy, but almost always messy and suboptimal.
Along the way, Biscop peppers the analysis with a healthy dose of prescriptive comment. This is not simply a book about how great powers act, but also about how they ought to act. Beyond the individual suggestions for each, which deserve attention in their own right, he also distils his reflections into a clear set of precepts that concern all of them. Firstly, great powers ought to accept each other as peer competitors; secondly, they must invest in effective multilateralism and stick to core rules on which they mutually agree; thirdly, they need to respect the sovereignty of all states (and therefore of all other powers); and finally, each great power must protect and strengthen its own sovereignty as a sine qua non for engaging with the others. It is the book's strength that this combination of recommendations includes inconvenient truths not just for Beijing or Moscow, but for Washington and Brussels as well. Biscop could at times have drilled deeper into how and when each side's actions veer dangerously away from this set of precepts, but he expertly mixes history, theory and empirical analysis of why each great power will be well-served if it follows this simple prescriptive map.
The author also punctuates his analysis with a host of interesting quotes from famous political figures and policy experts – these are effortlessly blended into the analysis and are organically used to complement the argumentation. What is more, the book also delivers plenty of its own quotable lines, which land especially strongly when the author casts a critical eye on how great powers tend to behave. ("Before one can lead by example, one must actually set an example", the author quips when referring to the fact that all great powers, including the EU and the US, at times venture into illegality in their actions).
The book is also helped by the fact that it is very readable: the writing is clear, crisp, and concise; simple, but never simplistic. Despite the straightforward style, the book does not suffer any analytical shallowness but rather demonstrates the author's deep level of confidence both in his analysis and his prescriptions. It is clear from the first pages that this is the work of an expert; one who wisely chooses not to shroud his argumentation in unnecessarily elaborate writing to sound more important, but rather one who understands the value of using expertise to offer extractable lessons from an extremely complex international reality in an accessible manner.
Ultimately, it is this simplicity – both in the clarity of the argument and the style employed – as well as the confidence and analytical richness that underpin it that make Grand Strategy in 10 Words a great contribution to the global debates around the current and future dynamics of great power politics. One might not always entirely agree with the analysis or all of the prescriptions, but the book puts forward an intelligent and highly intelligible case as to why Grand Strategy should be operationalised in a particular way by all great powers in these times of increasing turbulence. At least, that is, if the aim of all great powers is to avoid "rivalry without end (and, ultimately, without purpose)" – as it should be.