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March 1, 2015

How the World Works

An elder statesman explains the roots of global divisions; an economist debunks fair trade; and an Olympic rowing team shows the power of true teamwork.

World Order 
by Henry Kissinger. Penguin Press, 2014.

A foreign policy is a handy thing to have. Henry Kissinger would like us to get one. This book, the nonagenarian’s 14th, could easily devolve into name-dropping and war stories. Kissinger, however, already wrote his memoir, The White House Years. Both this book and his previous (On China) return to the rigorous scholarship of the former Harvard professor.

World Order begins largely as a history of foreign policy. Is there such a thing as a world order? Has there ever been? The closest we’ve come, as Kissinger references every few pages, was the Treaty of Westphalia, which concluded the Thirty Years War. It amounts to the “live and let live philosophy” that characterized Western relations, with the exception of the two World Wars, from the mid-17th century to the Cold War.

Each region of the world gets two succinct chapters. (Or, almost each: Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa apparently don’t play any part in the world order. One wonders how they feel about being summarily ignored.) Kissinger takes us from mid-17th century Germany to ISIL in 100 pages, a whirlwind piece of writing by any standard. He then begins to loop back as he covers each region. Europe tried to rule the world for a while via colonialism. The United States dreamt that it could export liberty. Meanwhile, the Islamic world and Asia were getting on with their own ways of life and completely different ideas about how the world should work.

First, take the diverging definitions of “state.” For Western governments, it’s an entity separate from its citizens, an entity that can change, evolve and adapt. For Eastern people—forget governments for a moment—it’s an internal entity, determined by philosophy, religion and ideology, which does not change and cannot be questioned. Add to that looming threats from the potential spread of nuclear weapons and cyberattacks, and you get the Gordian knot of current world affairs.

This is an eloquent book written by a silver-tongued career diplomat, so some of it must be taken with a pinch of inevitable political bias. Republican presidents get a lot more ink than Democrats, a true damning with faint praise. It is comforting, however, to have the messy world explained so clearly and to know that there are brilliant people working on saving us from ourselves. Kissinger warns that the United States could come “to be perceived as a declining power—a matter of choice, not destiny.” In other words, we can choose to be the counterbalance we have traditionally been, often playing two or more extreme forces off against one another, or we can retreat to wait for a more coherent world order and risk losing any say in it.

The Fair Trade Scandal: Marketing Poverty to Benefit the Rich
by Ndongo S. Sylla. Ohio University Press, 2014.

Buying fair trade agricultural products seems a no-brainer. The products taste good and you can pat yourself on the back for doing that extra little bit to help the poor producers in developing countries. And therein lies the problem, writes Ndongo Sylla, a development economist for the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation. Fair trade, he says, actually does very little to truly help the world’s poor. For every cup of fair trade coffee you buy at Starbucks, for instance, the exporting country, not the farmer, gets three cents more than it would from coffee that hasn’t met the fair trade labeling standard.

Those who defend fair trade as a remedy for poverty make “statements regarding the ambitions, scope and results of this model [that] are as pompous as they are devoid of evidence,” writes Sylla.

His book’s tone is hectoring, his prose is dense and his leftist political agenda is never in doubt. Despite those criticisms, he set out to ask the hard question: Has fair trade lived up to its promise to help alleviate poverty? The answer is no.

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics
by Daniel James Brown. Penguin, 2014.

I loved this book on its own merits but for the purposes of the Forward reader, this may be the best book I’ve ever read about leadership, teamwork, dedication and overcoming adversity. A racing shell is 60 feet long, 24 inches wide and a mere 3/16th of an inch thick. It holds nine men (these days, often eight men and one woman as coxswain). The oars are 10 feet long. When fully loaded, the whole thing weighs almost two tons. Set that on the water—the pitching, cold, rain-lashed, often white-capped waves of Lake Washington in Seattle—and ask the men to row in perfect unison as fast as they can, up to 40 strokes per minute. The pain they endure is so intense, rowers often collapse over their oars, their eyes glaze and refuse to focus; their muscles turn to concrete from the anaerobic demands. Heart rates reach almost 200 beats per minute.

Now set all of that at the height of the Great Depression. These boys are lumberjacks, farmers; three worked summers on the Grand Coulee dam hanging over the side of a cliff with jackhammers to earn enough for another semester of college. A place on the University of Washington rowing team, a perennial national champion, was not only the sort of challenge that a young athletic man wanted—it guaranteed a part-time job.

The story is riveting. The lessons—how to build the perfect shell in the days before fiberglass, how a rowing team achieves “swing,” the ability to row together so perfectly that the eight rowers look like one person—are fascinating. And the stories of the men and boys who beat the Nazis in a rigged race explain what made the Greatest Generation great.

The focus throughout on how to manage a group of individuals toward a goal will resonate with any executive who has had to overcome enormous obstacles. The words of the world’s greatest shell builder to a struggling team member alone make the book worth reading. “He told Joe that there were times when he seemed to think he was the only fellow in the boat,” Brown writes, “as if it was up to him to row the boat across the finish line all by himself. What mattered more … was how well everything he did in the boat harmonized with what the other fellows were doing. … ‘It has to matter to you whether he wins the race, not just whether you do.’”

That advice and a lot more besides won them the gold medal.