The Fate of Empires: Sir John Glubb 1976


I recently came across this old but quite interesting book “The Fate of Empires and Search for Survival” by Sir John Glubb.

The book was originally published in 1976, and is no longer in print. Old copies are difficult to find, but PDF versions of the book are available online.

The book is only 26 pages. However, it packs quite a lot of thought-provoking information into such a small space. Sir John Glubb also proposes several controversial theories concerning the life cycle and demise of empires.

Sir Glubb undertook a historical study of the lifecycle of empires covering a span of 3,000 years of recorded human history, from Assyria and Persia through the British Empire. He observes that all empires survive as empires for around 250 years, corresponding to 10 human generations.

The book acknowledges that most empires do not have well-defined start and/or end dates. However, there is a reasonable degree of expert consensus on when a nation achieves the status of being an empire, and when such an empire fails or falls, reverting to a nation or falling under the control of a new empire.

Sir Glubb further observed that all empires pass through six stages of existence.

The Age of Pioneers (Outburst): The rapid development of a nation, often of insignificant status, to conquer rivals and become an empire. Pioneers are typically motivated by either greed or admiration of the existing empire.

The Age of Conquests: This includes commercial expansion and dominance as well as military power and dominance.

The Age of Commerce: The “glory and honor” of the Age of Conquest gradually is replaced by the desire to earn money and profit.

The Age of Affluence: As wealth pours into the empire, the commercial classes grow immensely wealthy. Art, luxury, and architecture flourishes during this period. The empire shifts from the militaristic quest for glory, to the defense of its wealth, luxury, and privilege. Conquest becomes viewed as an immoral, uncivilized act, and pacifism achieves moral superiority.

The Age of Intellect: Wealthy patrons endow colleges and universities, giving rise to the pursuit of knowledge. Interestingly, the author provides ample evidence for this period of intellectual development across 3,000 years of history.

The Age of Decadence: The final period of empires, characterized by defensiveness, pessimism, materialism, and frivolity. The empire experiences a significant influx of foreigners, and transitions to a welfare state. Religious institutions are substantially weakened. Eventually, the empire spirals into selfishness and the loss of a sense of duty. Empires ultimately fail due to a diverse range of mostly external causes and forces, the result of the internal decay of the empire destroying its ability to resist such external forces.

Sir Glubb packed this book with many direct references to many empires both ancient and contemporary. He patiently assists the reader in relating the rise and fall of historical empires to our modern empires, including Britain (1700 to 1950) and the USA (1776 to ???).

I highly recommend this book for individuals with an interest for history. I also recommend this book for managers and leaders. I believe that some of these historical lessons attributed to empires can provide insight into the rise and fall of commercial empires and entities.

Frank T.



Japan and the Shackles of the Past: T. Murphy 2014

Japan T Murphy 2014I had the privilege of hearing Taggart Murphy speak a few weeks ago at our Rotary Club of Bangkok South luncheon meeting. Murphy is an engaging and genuinely interesting speaker, and I was very interested to hear his thoughts on Japanese politics, economics, and culture. His presentation inspired me to purchase his recent book “Japan and the Shackles of the Past”, which was published in December 2014 by Oxford University Press.

Murphy is a Professor of International Political Economy at the MBA Program in International Business at the Tokyo campus of the University of Tsukuba. He is also a former Investment Banker, and was a Non-Resident Senior Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution.

“Japan and the Shackles of the Past” is very well researched and presented, and is organized into two parts. Part One is titled “The Forging of the Shackles” and presents a very thorough political, economic, and cultural history of Japan. Murphy diligently educates the reader in the historical and cultural foundations upon which Japanese society has been constructed.

Part Two is titled “The Shackles Trap Today’s Japan”, and is organized into chapters focused on “Economy and Finance”, “Business”, “Social and Cultural Change”, “Politics”, and “Japan and the World.”

Murphy has very thoroughly researched and presented both the rich historical background and the complex, opaque, and frequently contradictory nature of modern day Japanese culture and politics.

The final chapter of the book “Japan and the World” primarily deals with Japan’s current events and geopolitical challenges and strategy starting in mid 2010. With out a doubt, this is by far the most interesting and thought provoking chapter in the book. Murphy skillfully analyzes, interprets, and anticipates Japan’s current events and strategy by frequently referencing the foundational material presented in the previous 10 chapters.

It is clear in the final chapter that Murphy has shifted his author’s perspective from cultural and economic historian to geopolitical and economic analyst and strategist. He objectively explains current events, and then presents his subjective analysis of these events based on his extensive knowledge of Japanese history and culture.

Murphy does not evaluate Japan in a vacuum; he is always careful to diligently explain the broad geopolitical and economic external forces which are confronting and challenging Japan. He observes that “China is the greatest power in the region; it always has been and always will be.” He notes that though China has had periods of internal weakness, the latest and longest such period having began with the Opium Wars, “there is simply no plausible way in which China’s re-emergence as the preeminent power in Asia can be derailed.”

Of the USA, Murphy notes that “the United States does not fundamentally care about Japan. That does not mean to say that many Americans do not have some sort of personal tie with the country and thus regard it with affection.” He further explains that “American elites rarely see Japan as anything other than a military asset, as a tool to realize a dream … that the United States can somehow achieve … a world where it faces no potential threat, no potential challenge — ‘full spectrum dominance’ to use the language of America’s deluded military planners.” He describes this dream as a “tragic and foolhardy illusion.” Murphy discusses President Eisenhower’s warning of the emergence of a military – industrial complex “that would destroy American democracy unless brought to heel.” He anticipates that “the American Empire is doomed to failure because it is structurally and institutionally ignorant of the wider world. Only a demolition of the national security state can remedy this ignorance.”

Murphy explains that “China wants the United States out of Asia far more badly than the United States wants to stay in the region; Beijing has embarked on a long and high-stakes game to see it happen. The stakes may be equally high for Tokyo, but they are not for most Americans, and when that becomes clear, the US – Japan ‘alliance’ will crumble, leaving Japan alone and friendless.”

Murphy discusses Japan’s need to rejoin Asia. He notes that “Japan’s original sin lies in its attempts to separate itself from Asia. The sin is understandable but the repercussions have been horrendous.” Looking to the future, Murphy observes that it “seems safe to predict the coming close of the 500 – year ascendancy of the West and the return of the fulcrum of human history to East Asia. Japan has potentially a central role to play in this, but only as an Asian country accepted by its neighbors as such.”

I highly recommend reading Taggart Murphy’s “Japan and the Shackles of the Past”. It is a great compliment to my other two recent recommendations, “Asian Godfathers” and “How Asia Works”, both by Joe Studwell.

Frank T.

How Asia Works: Joe Studwell 2013

How Asia Works

I found Joe Studwell’s 2007 book “Asian Godfathers” to be so interesting and valuable, that I decided to also read Studwell’s 2013 book “How Asia Works.”

During the second half of the 20th century, Asia witnessed rapid economic transformation. Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and China have “produced the quickest progressions from poverty to wealth that the world has seen.”

Nearly all Asian states have achieved rapid economic growth and transformation. However, each state has pursued unique policies, and each has achieved a different level of transformation and success. Studwell diligently and patiently explores the different policies of various Asian states to determine which policies have been successful, and which have proven to be less successful or impediments to progress.

Studwell observes that there are three fundamental policies which have driven the successful transformation of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and China. He also carefully observes how Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand were less successful in recognizing and implementing these three fundamental policies. Though these SE Asian countries did achieve significant levels of transformation and economic success, they failed to realize their full potential as compared with the East Asian states.

Studwell’s first fundamental policy is to transform farming into “large-scale gardening supported by agricultural extension services.” At first this seems counter-intuitive, as large scale industrial farming would seem to deliver the best opportunity to maximize yields and minimize costs. However, Studwell carefully demonstrates that the Philippines, where agricultural land ownership was not reformed, and large agricultural landowners control and manage farms on an industrial scale, fail to achieve the yield and efficiency of East Asian counterparts Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea. Agricultural success is vital to ensure adequate resources for the state, and also high efficiency to enable agricultural labor resources to be diverted from agriculture to industrial output.

The second fundamental policy is the “state direction of entrepreneurs towards state-defined industrialization objectives” to achieve “technological upgrading of manufacturing (as) the natural vehicle for swift economic transformation.” Studwell observes that “in south-east Asian nations, leading entrepreneurs were no less capable than those in other countries, but governments failed to constrain them to manufacture and did not subject them to export discipline.” SE Asian countries “fail(ed) to generate indigenous manufacturing and technological capacity” and instead relied upon high levels of foreign direct investment. Today Studwell observes that there are many globally recognized Japanese, Korean, and Taiwanese manufacturing brands, but in SE Asia our only recognizable brands are Singapore’s Tiger Beer and Thailand’s Singha and Chang Beer, which scarcely qualify as manufacturers.

The third fundamental policy is “interventions in the financial sector to focus capital on intensive, small-scale agriculture and on manufacturing development”, to “keep money targeted at a development strategy that produces the fastest possible technological learning, and hence the promise of high future profits, rather than on short-term returns and individual consumption.” Studwell explains that this policy is contrary to the short term interests of businessmen and consumers, who have shorter strategic horizons and interests.

Studwell organized “How Asia Works” as a series of “journeys” through Asia, exploring historical and first-hand observations of each country’s strategic policy framework, the success of implementation, and the results both internally and as compared to peer Asian states. The book is very enjoyable to read, quite informative, and certainly thought provoking.

Thailand can still take advantage of Studwell’s recommendations, especially with respect to agricultural reform. Thailand desperately needs effective agricultural extension services to support the technological transformation of Thailand’s farming practices.

I also hope the leaders in Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia carefully read and consider Studwell’s observations and recommendations as they plot the course of their development journey.

Frank T.

Asian Godfathers: Joe Studwell 2007

Asian Godfathers

Regardless whether you were born and raised in SE Asia, are an expat in an SE Asian country, or are an immigrant to SE Asia, if you seek a better understanding of SE Asian politics, business, and history, you need to read Joe Studwell’s landmark book “Asian Godfathers”.

I personally consider “Asian Godfathers” to be more than just an interesting historical study on the rise of the region’s leading tycoons. This book serves as an important reference document to understand the power, influence, goals, and in some cases “dark secrets” of the most influential people in SE Asia.

Studwell does a very good job of introducing the concept of the Godfather, the historical context which gave rise to influential persons and families, and a summary of how to establish oneself as a Godfather. Joe brings context to the Asian Godfather by discussing the rise and fall of American Godfathers; most of whom were substantially curtailed and controlled by Theodore Roosevelt’s “Bureau of Corporations” Federal Reserve Act, along with the Glass-Steagall Bill (which was effectively repealed in 1999 by President Clinton).

Though SE Asian governments continue to evolve in both form and governance, and many have taken steps in recent years to minimize the influence of non-democratic powerful influences, Godfathers and their influential families continue to wield significant power in their domestic political and economic systems.

The final section of the book “Cast of Characters” contains a brief summary of each of the Asian Godfathers and/or the influential families which derive their power and influence today from an influential Godfather ancestor.

“Asian Godfathers” is a fascinating book, enjoyable to read, and very informative and enlightening. Though it was published in 2007, it remains very relevant today, and I highly recommend it to anyone who wishes to better understand SE Asian power and politics.

Frank T.

Chinese Geopolitical Books

China Geopolitics

Many of us recognize that China already plays a very large role in global geopolitics, and is likely destined to become both an economic and military superpower in the coming decades.

My interest in China’s development, and its impact on Thailand’s economy and business community, motivated me to read two books which explore aspects of China’s geopolitical strategy.

Modern China essentially began in 1949. However, Chinese history, culture, and philosophy date back more than 3,000 years. Chinese leaders are certainly well grounded in the 21st century, technologically sophisticated, educated in modern economic and financial theory, and have a firm grasp of western culture. However, Chinese leaders and their advisors are also well aware of the deep and diverse philosophical wisdom accumulated through 30 centuries of leadership.

“Asia’s Cauldron”, published 2014 by Robert D. Kaplan, explores China’s historical and present day claims to the South China Sea. Kaplan does a very thorough job of reviewing all of the historical bases relevant to the current South China Sea conflict. He even provides a very interesting summary of the US domination of the Caribbean Sea subsequent to its defeat of Spain, the digging of the Panama Canal, and how these actions allowed the US to dominate the Atlantic and Pacific ocean trade routes.

Today China is poised to exert control over the South China Sea, closely following the historical strategy of 19th century America. Presently, more than half of the global ocean tonnage passes through the South China Sea, including more than 80% of China’s petroleum imports.

Kaplan postulates that China’s strategy is primarily motivated by trade and business, in the tradition of strong Asian leaders such as Lee Kuan Yew and Deng Xiaopeng. China is not significantly motivated by a desire to establish regional or global hegemony.

This is a fascinating book, well written, and very insightful.

“Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power”, published 2011 by Yan Xuetong, takes a deep dive into the International Political Philosophies of the  “pre-Qin” thinkers. The pre-Qin period consists of the Spring and Autumn Period (ca. 770 to 476 BCE) and the Warring States Period (ca. 475 to 221 BCE). This was a time of ruthless competition for territorial advantage among the small Chinese states. China was unified by the first emperor of Qin in 221 BCE.

Yan focuses on seven pre-Qin masters: Guanzi. Laozi, Confucius, Mencius, Mozi, Xunzi, and Hanfeizi. Each of these seven masters held well-reasoned, unique philosophies on the variables leading to successful hegemonic power, humane authority, and governance.

I chose to read the book’s three appendices first, to gain a better understanding of both the pre-Qin period and the Yan’s academic and philosophical background. I believe that this proved to be a good reading strategy, but I must honestly say that Yan’s material is very academic and dry. The material is certainly interesting, and potentially relevant to a better understanding of current Chinese geopolitical strategy. However, it take great diligence and patience to read all of the details of ancient philosophy and the associated commentaries.

Unless you are a student of International Relations with a deep interest in historical Chinese philosophy, I suggest you skip Yan’s masterpiece. However, I highly recommend Kaplan’s book “Asia’s Cauldron”.

Frank T.

No Place to Hide: Glenn Greenwald

No Place to Hide

I just completed a very interesting and frankly troubling book, “No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, The NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State”, by Glenn Greenwald (copyright 2014). Glenn Greenwald is the reporter who broke the Edward Snowden story about NSA surveillance.

The book tells the story of how Greenwald was contacted by Snowden, how their relationship developed, and how Snowden ultimately convinced Greenwald to publish Snowden’s information concerning the depth and breadth of NSA surveillance activities.

The “behind the scenes” story about Edward Snowden, his personality and state of mind, his motivations to risk martyrdom as a whistleblower against possibly the most powerful spy agency in the world, and the struggle to evade detection and capture, is fascinating. Greenwald’s disclosures about NSA surveillance capabilities, infrastructure, and the massive and pervasive nature of their spying activities against both foreign nationals and U.S. citizens is both fascinating and shocking. Greenwald takes great care to explain the technology of surveillance and hacking, and also the legal and political framework under which the NSA conducts its activities.

Spying and surveillance is as old as human civilization, as is war, prostitution, deceit, corruption, and many other undesirable human vices. The value of surveillance as a strategic advantage and a tool for prevention or interdiction of wrongful acts is not in question. However, moral limits must be observed to protect the rights of innocent citizens, and the US should also recognize rights of non-US citizens.

The Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution clearly states “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” The evidence presented in this book appears to resolutely demonstrate that the NSA, acting under the authority of both the Bush and Obama administrations, violated these Fourth Amendment rights both willfully, pervasively, and egregiously.

Greenwald succeeded in prosecuting his case concerning excessive and intrusive NSA surveillance. I believe that Greenwald also succeeded in both defining and defending Snowden’s motivation as a whistleblower in the tradition of Daniel Ellsberg’s disclosure of the Pentagon Papers (published in the New York Times in 1971). However, I am still not convinced that Snowden gave due consideration to other options to address the wrongful acts of the NSA.

Both Greenwald and Snowden clearly believe in the right and responsibility of a free press to investigate and disclose alleged wrongdoings. However, in this case, I am not convinced that widespread publication was the first and best option. Snowden never availed himself of other options, such as taking his evidence to an elected representative such as a Senator or Representative. The US Congress has 535 voting members, many of whom would have been receptive and responsive to Snowden’s considerable evidence.

Public disclosure was a nuclear option which placed Snowden in the position of judge, jury, and executioner of the NSA, and which ultimately has had little real impact on the NSA’s ongoing surveillance. Snowden’s self-righteous motivations may have been just, but I believe his actions are still subject to criticism.

Frank T.

Flashpoints: George Friedman 2015


Last week I finished reading the book “Flashpoints — The Emerging Crisis in Europe” by George Friedman (published 2015). I found Friedman’s book to be a fascinating and insightful review of the long history of conflict and political fragmentation of the European peninsula.

Friedman brings the story of Europe to life by weaving his own family history into the narrative. Friedman’s family are Eastern European Jews who struggled to survive during the 31 years conflict spanning the two World Wars. However, I was most impressed by the fast that Friedman was able to maintain a very dispassionate and unbiased viewpoint despite the terrible tragedies through which his family and the entire European Jewish community suffered.

Friedman provides a great depth and breadth of historical facts to help the reader to understand and interpret the current events and conflicts in Europe. I found a conclusion by Normal Angell (1933 Nobel Peace Prize winner) in his 1909 book “The Great Illusion” to be especially noteworthy, because it echoes commonly held views within the modern community. Angell argued that “war in Europe had become impossible due to the intense level of interdependence between European countries in investments and trade.” I count myself as among the many people who find it difficult to believe that major war could break out today between western countries, or between the West and China, India, and/or Russia precisely because the resulting economic disruption and devastation  should obviously make such a war unthinkable and therefore impossible. However, just five years after Angell published his book, Europe became embroiled in total war which was ultimately to last 31 years through the end of WW2, resulting in more than 100 million deaths.

Friedman concludes that today the European flashpoint are on the frontier of the EU, but the EU itself is crumbling. He opines that there are four European Unions: the German States (Germany and Austria), the rest of northern Europe, the Mediterranean states, and the states in the Russian borderland. Each of these four regions experiences reality in a different way, and the differences are irreconcilable. “… the idea that Europe has moved beyond using armed conflict to settle its issues is a fantasy. It was not true in the past generation, and it will remain untrue in the future.”

Friedman concludes his book with the following observation: “Humans do not fight wars because they are fools or haven’t learned a lesson. They know the pain that is coming. They fight because they must, because reality has forced them to do so. The Europeans are still human, and they will still encounter terrible choices like those that others face and that they have faced in the past. They will have to choose between war and peace, and as in the past, they will at times choose war. Nothing has ended. For humans nothing significant is ever over.”

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and highly recommend it.

Frank T.