History is the study of the past but Michael Burleigh’s book, as its subtitle indicates, is a history of the present. The oxymoron involves the author in some difficulties, not always overcome. An analysis of bygone events relies on the accumulation of evidence, often unavailable when they took place, and on a long perspective from which it can be properly assessed. When Richard Nixon asked Zhou Enlai what he thought about the impact of the French Revolution, he famously replied that it was too early to say. According to the American interpreter, Zhou assumed that the president was referring to the upheavals of 1968 not 1789, but his answer could apply to both years. Only the passage of time can allow the true significance of events to become clear, which is why newspaper reports are known as the first draft of history.
However, Burleigh is no mere journalist. His book is based on an impressive amount of reading and research. His judgements are incisive and compelling. His style is always trenchant and sometimes blistering – he describes Donald Trump, who apparently thought that Belgium is a city, as a ‘pathological narcissist’. Moreover, as Burleigh examines the roots (though not the deep roots) of contemporary developments, he avoids facile analogies. Thus he rightly maintains that Trump resembles Berlusconi rather than Mussolini, since the president does not murder his domestic opponents – though it must be said that Trump’s body language, notably his pouting delivery, conjures up the Duce. Finally Burleigh attempts some limited predictions, looking to the future in an attempt to give a more rounded picture of the present. This is a risky business. He forecasts, for example, flying in the face of nearly two centuries of embroilment, that ‘the West will gradually abandon Afghanistan’.
Even so, Burleigh acknowledges that he lacks the gift of prophecy and he avoids full-scale futurology of the kind practised by Francis Fukuyama in his infamous The End of History and the Last Man. Writing immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Fukuyama argued that the future would just be a matter of working out the implications of liberal democracy as enshrined in the United States. In a sense, The Best of Times, the Worst of Times (Dickens was recently quoted by Xi Jinping) is a critical commentary on Fukuyama’s misbegotten thesis. Burleigh focuses on the two main international disasters that have occurred since the end of the Cold War – the invasion of Iraq and the 2008 financial crisis – and on the resulting dissipation of US power. After chapters dealing with the Middle East, Russia, China, America and Europe, he concludes that the West ‘is fading’.
During the 1990s American neo-cons hankered for a ‘global messianic transformation’ pursued with what one of them, Norman Podhoretz, called ‘incandescent moral clarity’. In particular they yearned to overthrow Saddam Hussein, just as their predecessors had longed to roll back communism. After 9/11, George W Bush fatuously denounced three unconnected states, Iraq, Iran and North Korea, as the ‘axis of evil’. Saddam bore no responsibility for this atrocity and the illegal assault on Iraq was justified by lies and doctored intelligence. It also reflected the sole superpower’s fatal hubris: one Bush aide said, ‘We create our own reality’, exactly echoing, as it happens, both Joseph Goebbels and Andrey Vyshinsky. Although the military operation was a stunning success, the postwar attempt at nation-building was a catastrophic failure. Ignorant about Sunni and Shia, Bush alienated both by referring to the invasion as a crusade. As Burleigh shows, it boosted terrorism, strengthened Iran, gave Russia an excuse to intervene in the Middle East and helped turn the entire region into today’s tragic shambles.
Since 2008, major world economies have shrunk by 10 to 15 per cent while top executive pay has continued its astronomic rise – by almost 450 per cent in the last twenty years. Greedy and crooked investment bankers who sold spurious financial products (as well as rigging the Libor rate, laundering drug money and so on) were, in Burleigh’s view, ‘the biggest villains’. But he also blames the crash on politicians who relaxed the monetary rules, the ‘regulators’ themselves, the lobbyists, the credit ratings agencies and the big accounting firms. Millions suffered from the resulting austerity, unemployment and housing problems. These hardships in turn animated a populist backlash, of which the most calamitous manifestations are Brexit and Trump. Burleigh is scathing about the mawkishly sentimental liberal elite, which urges the masses to feel good about migrants. But he acknowledges the value of experts, unlike Michael Gove and ISIS, with their scorn for ‘donkeys and mules of knowledge’. As it is, only one in six Americans can locate Ukraine on the map. Some 30 per cent of Republicans and 19 per cent of Democrats said yes when asked if they favoured the bombing of Agrabah, a place that exists only in the Disney cartoon film Aladdin.
Burleigh peppers his pages with other telling anecdotes and statistics. Saudi Arabia is the world’s seventh largest consumer of pornography (the largest is Pakistan), perhaps because even pictures of women’s legs on imported cornflake packets are covered with black stickers. After Trump’s travel ban came into force, a boy aged five was handcuffed as a security risk at Dulles Airport while his Iranian-born mother, an American citizen, was interrogated. ISIS bans the + sign, deemed ‘Western’, in favour of formulations such as ‘one added to one, God willing, equals two’. Of the 543 members of India’s parliament, 162 are facing criminal charges. In Iran, which squanders its oil wealth on subsidies, petrol costs less than bottled mineral water. Venal to the core, Russia spends $237 million to build a kilometre of road, whereas the USA spends $6 million. Between 2011 and 2013, China used 50 per cent more concrete than the USA did during the whole of the 20th century.
Nothing is more striking than the renaissance of China after the homicidal dictatorship of Mao. Burleigh has no illusions about the current regime, which has an appalling human rights record, subjects its citizens to Orwellian-style surveillance and executes more people than the rest of the world combined. Nor does he minimise China’s social and economic difficulties. But he is struck by the sheer strength of the wakened giant, which opens as many new power plants in a year, roughly one a week, as Britain operates in total. Russia, with a gross domestic product equal to Italy’s, is now dwarfed by China in all but geographical terms. And Xi seems to be acting in a more statesmanlike fashion than Putin, whom Burleigh aptly characterises as a typical product of the KGB: morose, resentful, paranoid, revanchist-minded, vicious, corrupt and mendacious. Putin and Trump together, in fact, make Xi look like ‘the only responsible adult in the room’.
Xi found factors to suggest that these are the best of times, such as globalisation, free trade, growing material wealth, a stable world order and advances in science and technology. But he countered the positives by listing the negatives: poverty, inequality, unemployment, terrorism, refugee crises and regional conflicts. What he did not mention, though Burleigh faces the matter squarely, was the American ‘Presidicament’. With Trump in the White House threatening to wipe North Korea off the map, the very worst of times may be just round the corner.