11 June 2024

Why Would Anyone Want to Run the World?

John Lewis Gaddis

Netflix viewers got an introduction, this spring, to a famous physics experiment: the three-body problem. A magnetized pendulum suspended above two fixed magnets will swing between them predictably. A third magnet, however, randomizes the motion, not because the laws of physics have been repealed, but because the forces involved are too intricate to measure. The only way to “model” them is to relate their history. That’s what Netflix did in dramatizing the Chinese writer Liu Cixin’s science-fiction classic, The Three-Body Problem: a planet light years from earth falls within the gravitational attraction of three suns. It’s no spoiler to say that the results, for earth, are not auspicious.

Sergey Radchenko, a historian at Johns Hopkins University, comes from the East Asian island of Sakhalin, a good place from which to detect geopolitical gravitations. His first book bore the appropriate title Two Suns in the Heavens: The Sino-Soviet Struggle for Supremacy, 1962–1967. His second, Unwanted Visionaries: The Soviet Failure in Asia at the End of the Cold War, extended his analysis through the 1980s. Now, with To Run the World: The Kremlin’s Cold War Bid for Global Power, Radchenko seeks to refocus recent scholarship, which has sought to “decenter” the history of that conflict, back on the superpowers for which it was originally known.

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