Drews, Robert, The End of the Bronze Age: Changes in Warfare and the Catastrophe CA. 1200 B.C., Princeton Univ Press, Princeton, NJ, 1993. 252 pp.
[cross-posted on Chicagoboyz]
With the kind intent of keeping my "To-Read" pile at Olympian scale, Lex recently brought my attention to this older book on the "Catastrophe" that hit the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean civilizations some 3,000 years ago.
"End" is a sweeping academic history by a Vanderbilt University Egyptologist which attempts to provide a new answer to the question of why palace culture in the eastern Med seemed to topple between 1225 and 1175 BCE. In the end, only the Egyptians and Assyrians were left intact, and in the case of the former, they faced several stiff challenges from "barbarian" warriors in the period. Famous Mycenean, Cretan, and Hittite empires were fatally wounded, however, and a new Iron Age was introduced leading to the Classical Antiquity that is more familiar.
For some readers, the experience may be have the following flavour:
HUMPHREY WILLIAMS: ...And spotteth twice they the camels before the third hour, and so, the Midianites went forth to Ram Gilead in Kadesh Bilgemath, by Shor Ethra Regalion, to the house of Gash-Bil-Bethuel-Bazda, he who brought the butter dish to Balshazar and the tent peg to the house of Rashomon, and there slew they the goats, yea, and placed they the bits in little pots. Here endeth the lesson.
From Monty Python's The Meaning of Life ... Part II: Growth and Learning
But the story of this cultural disruption is more than "x begat y, who begat z" chiselled into stone or written on papyrus or clay tablets. The dramatic shift in settlement patterns, precious goods, and cultural achievement continues to fascinate folk from the social and natural sciences, and the academic controversy has an interesting parallel to the fall of the western Roman empire discussed some months ago in a review of Ward-Perkin's book here at Chicagoboyz.
As summarized by Drews, some three thousand years ago, palaces and cities throughout the Aegean and Anatolia show signs of razing and destruction, all at roughly the same time. Subsequent settlements appeared to concentrate the population into more defensible sites, with heavier fortifications, and greater population sizes. There seemed to be a focus on monitoring seabourne approaches to these settlements.
Simultaneously there is a shift from small elite chariot armies (armed with composite bows) sponsored by an equally elite nobility, to an emphasis on infantry armed with javelins and long swords, supported by cavalry. The tales of Egyptian and Hittite kings handling "hordes" of "sea people" are left in stone, ceramic, and papyrus records. When the tropes of state propaganda are subtracted, it is clear the kings were coping with a familiar set of enemies fighting in a new and dramatically effective way.
Drews takes this historical information and first reviews the academic literature for suggested causes. An older explanation was earthquakes, which damaged the palace sites and triggered fires. Drews is skeptical of this explanation because in his eyes the destruction, and pattern of material remains, shows less natural and more man-made destruction.
Perhaps this cultural trauma, was triggered by migrations of barbarians peoples into the region other scholars suggest. Drews sees little indication from the destruction or the written record that any raiders were settling in the areas they burnt. There were no apparent cultural displacements.
Perhaps it was the shift from bronze to iron weaponry that changed the balance of power in the eastern Mediterranean. But here again, the record now suggests that the dramatic events of the early 12 century BCE took place before the widespread appearance of weapon-quality iron.
As an ancillary argument to the migration theory, some have suggested perhaps a drought triggered the movements of peoples into the civilized areas of the eastern Mediterranean. But the literature (sometimes in the form of clay tablets preserved by fires set during actual attacks) notes only occasional droughts, and makes no mention of it in association with the disruptions of the time period in question.
Raiding by the barbarians of northern and western Mediterranean has been proposed, and Drews has some sympathy with this cause but he notes that raiding per se is an insufficient cause. The civilizations of the eastern Med had had a trading relationship with barbarians for centuries, had hired them as mercenaries runners and foot soldiers for almost as long, but had never had need to fear them.
Finally, a general "system collapse" has been suggested for the destruction and abandonment of the palaces of the late 13th and early 12th century BCE. These cultures were dominated by very small elites and small cadres of professional soldiers. Perhaps there was some kind of revolution triggered by the social and political conditions. For Drews, the top-heavy nature of these cultures did make them militarily unstable but the question must be, why the disruption at a particular time, and across so much geography?
Having outlined, and dismissed as unsatisfactory, the various explanations for the demise of palace culture of the period, Professor Drews then turns to what we know of the military organization of the Bronze Age civilizations ... For his suggestion for a cause is "military."
He proposes that the hand-to-hand fighters of the northern and western Mediterranean, long used as guards and mercenaries by the civilized peoples, came to discover that their unique slashing and thrusting long swords (when matched with adapted armor and javelins) had the ability to crush the expensive chariot-bourne archers of the kingly states. And having removed the chariot forces, the unfortified palaces, cities and towns of the area were completely vulnerable to looting, and then burning.
What follows then is a detailed consideration of the literature and archaeology of the region, reconstructing the weaponry, deployment, and logistics associated with massed chariot armies in the Bronze Age. These armies were to dominate warfare across the Middle East and as far east as northwest India.
This is an academic work, though well-written, so folk who are daunted by French and German quotes and footnotes which occasionally fill half the page are better served by books for the general reader (such as Robbins' Collapse of the Bronze Age: The Story of Greece, Troy, Israel, Egypt, and the Peoples of the Sea). For those interested in digging into the details of Bronze Age war however (which itself is scantily covered in most histories of warfare) , they will be well rewarded. Written in 1993, recent scholarship has enhanced, modified, or taken issue with Drews' account, but the broad picture that the author draws, and the very wide range of sources he consulted, continues to place this book at the centre of the discussion. Everyone cites him -- pro and con.
In a nutshell, the use of horse-drawn light-weight chariots, and the introduction of the composite bow (with dramatically greater range and power than the simple curved bow) led to an era where kings could dominate the settled landscape in the face of lightly-armed enemy infantry. Chariots provided mobility and long-range striking power. Backed by "runners" or "skirmishers" they could slaughter most infantry at a distance. They quickly became the military force of choice, and records illustrated chariot battles as the premier method for sorting out differences between, say, the Egyptians and Hittites.
The drawback of chariot armies was two-fold. Numbers on the battlefield were critical so kings competed to create the largest chariot forces possible and deployed them en masse. Secondly, the logistical expense of chariot armies was enormous because chariots, horses and men were all specialists and treated as an elite. Acres of land would be needed to support a single chariot team with food for man and beast. It seems likely that chariot warriors were therefore a de facto feudal elite, given land and security responsibilities in return for their service and for purchasing or maintaining their equipment.
Through the centuries, from roughly 1800 BCE to 1200 BCE, chariot forces were the stable military force along the civilized eastern Mediterranean.
In contrast to the civilized areas, the Italian and Balkan regions of Europe were developing weaponry and armor more suited to combat infantry than chariot forces. The arrival of the bronze sword called Naue Type II triggered a new style of hand-to-hand warfare that enabled both slashing and thrusting attacks. With the addition of greaves (armor for the front of the leg), round shields, and mail coats that allowed mobility (as opposed to charioteer armor meant to stop arrows while one stood still), the mercenary troops which previously only acted in support of chariots became self-sustaining on the battlefield.
The development of throwing javelins, an outgrowth of hunting spears (contrasting with the earlier thrusting spears of infantry), gave the barbarian mercenaries a method to halt the *horses* of a chariot team. Once such a team was disabled, the expensive chariot and its riders were at the mercy of massed infantry. "Massed" as in "large numbers" not "ranked, row upon row." Quantity of infantry counted when fighting chariots.
The second half of Drews' book is a careful review of the evidence for changing military equipment across the period of the Catastrophe, and the origins of that weaponry.
What are the implications of the change? To Drews, the shift in weaponry, and styles of warfare, meant that the palaces of the eastern Med (unfortified and protected only by a tiny, expensive corps of chariots) were extremely vulnerable to seaborne raiders in large numbers, armed with javelins, swords, and armor. In turn however, those raiders were at a disadvantage when caught on the water ... because they did not have the combination of expert archers and impressed rowers that an Egyptian king could deploy when given sufficient warning.
If the raiders could operate unobstructed in groups of several thousand (in as few as 30-40 boats), they could loot and destroy towns, cities and palaces near the sea coast at a relatively quick pace. Once word of the new strategy's success spread, other barbarians groups could quickly adopt it. Indeed, the king of Libya attempted several attacks on Egypt using massed infantry armed in the new way and drawn from a half-dozen regions of the western and northern Mediterranean. The Egyptian king survived those huge confrontations by keeping his chariots out of the fray, and building his own armed infantry in numbers sufficient to stop the invaders.
Thus for Drews, the 50 years of turmoil, looting, and burning in the eastern Mediterranean is a reflection of a new approach to warfare ... infantry with swords and javelins. With the dawning of the Iron Age, these troops morphed into the heavily armored, spear-carrying hoplites that take us through the classical period into Roman times (the Roman legions used two javelins and a thrusting sword, primarily).
As mentioned earlier, a bit of research on the Internet confirms that Drews' book has been widely cited but by no means adopted wholeheartedly. The geophysicists are particularly heated about their support for earthquakes, particularly for the concept of "earthquake storms" or patterns (cf. Professor Nur's online article) which could have hit the eastern Mediterranean for a period of 50 years and subjected palaces and towns to repeated destruction and fire from natural causes. Such a sustained burst of earthquake activity could have devastating economic consequences and alter infrastructure dramatically.
Indeed the controversy between archaeologists and geologists on the matter has become so heated and polarizing that their students have written papers on how to better reconcile the two groups and get them to make adjustments for their cognitive biases. It's not often that a 3,000 year old conflagration still manages to throw off so much academic cross-disciplinary heat!
Again, the conclusion that Drew reaches is that by the end of the 13th cent BCE, the former mercenary soldiers of the kings of the Eastern Med (drawn primarily from the north shore of the Mediterranean as far west as Sardinia and Sicily) had developed a method for handling chariot armies -- new mobile armour, greaves, javelins, and long sword (suitable to sturdy cutting and thrusting).
With these methods, they were able to methodically topple the tiny elites supported in unprotected palaces across the Aegean, the Levant, and Anatolia. They were also able to make life very difficult for the Egyptian pharaohs and threaten (unsuccessfully) the Assyrian kings of the Tigris-Euphrates rivers.
This is a well-written book, with a fascinating and controversial hypothesis. It introduces a remote time in civilization still poorly understood and does so in a way that even the lay enthusiast will find inspiring. It illuminates a time of cultural disruption fully as significant as the fall of empires some millenia later. And it provides a review of the literature on society and warfare that should let readers Google and Amazon their way into the most obscure parts of the academic literature on the Bronze Age. Though an academic book best suited to advanced undergraduates and enthusiasts, it will also provide much pleasure just to those genuinely curious.
Table of Contents
Part One: Introduction
c.1 The Catastrophe and Its Chronology 
c2 The Catastrophe Surveyed 
Part Two: Alternative Explanations of the Catastrophe
c.3 Earthquakes 
c.4 Migrations 
c. 5 Ironworking 
c. 6 Drought 
c. 7 Systems Collapse 
c. 8 Raiders 
Part Three: A Military Explanation of the Catastrophe
c. 9 Preface to a military explanation of the Catastrophe 
c. 10 The Chariot Warfare of the Late Bronze Age 
c. 11 Footsoldiers in the Late Bronze Age 
c. 12 Infantry and Horse Troops in the Early Iron Age 
c. 13 Changes in Armor and Weapons at the End of the Bronze Age 
c. 14 The End of Chariot Warfare in the Catastrophe 
Sherman, Nancy, Stoic Warriors - The Ancient Philosophy Behind the Military Mind, Oxford University Press, 2005. 242pp.
[posted in its entirety on Chicagoboyz.net]
Dr. Sherman, a Georgetown Univ. ethic professor, has written a detailed review of Greco-Roman Stoicism as it might be applied to the modern American military. In the course of reviewing the book, I look at a number of issues surrounding the suffering and sacrifice of soldiers, both in ancient times and in modern liberal democracies.
At over 14,000 words, this review is not a perfect fit with Albion's Seedlings in its subject matter, nonetheless it deals with military matters affecting the Anglosphere and some blog readers may find it interesting. Particularly helpful are the subsequent comments on chicagoboyz.net posted by active or retired vets.
My review is structured to discuss the following questions:
1. Is an ancient philosophy worth resurrecting in modern times? An outline Dr. Sherman's argument, and her primary concerns.
2. Was an ancient philosophy useful in the past? Evaluate Stoicism in its original historical and military context.
3. Are the conditions for soldiers changed from the past? Review the childhood experiences of our modern military recruits that might affect their adult expectations and endurance under stress.
4. Do Americans share the same premises about warfare? Inspect the "civilianization" of war and warfare in America, and the West. How does the political divide reflect a cultural divide?
5. What will be the conditions of warfare in the next century? Review the scale of the peace-prosperity differential across the world, its likely durability, and the resulting implications for the nature and length of future war.
6. What is the future of moral philosophy? Will the cognitive sciences overtake philosophy in better explaining human experience and human emotion?
7. Can we fight any future war successfully under current constraints? Some Conclusions. Ask whether the traditional blind spots supporting military sacrifice (and military victory) in the past are permanently gone, and conclude with some personal thoughts on the restructuring that I think will be needed to fight wars in the future.
It seems as if the Anglosphere analytical framework is gaining a certain critical mass. Mark Steyn is in his usual form again in the NRO Corner -- money graf:
David is right that America is not a civilization unto itself but merely one part of the broader west. However, I do distinguish in the modern era between the Continental west and the Anglosphere west. The Continent has produced all the best paintings, music, cuisine, etc, but it is only the English-speaking west that has proved itself competent at sustained peaceful constitutional democratic evolution. The Continent has been pretty much a disaster at that.
Michael Barone has a particularly good piece in the same NRO. Key point:
...witness the robust sales of books on the Founding Fathers. Witness, also, the robust sales of British historian Andrew Roberts’s splendid History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900.
(Roberts, by the way, spoke at a dinner hosted by The Anglosphere Institute in Washington last month, at which I had the opportunity to conduct an interesting dialogue with him. Unfortunately the venue's rules prevented a tape from being made. However, I expect to post a review of the book on Seedlings in the not-too-distant future.)
Roberts points out almost all the advances of freedom in the 20th century have been made by the English-speaking peoples — Americans especially, but British, as well, and also (here his account will be unfamiliar to most American readers) Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders. And he recalls what held and holds them together by quoting a speech Winston Churchill gave in 1943 at Harvard: “Law, language, literature — these are considerable factors. Common conceptions of what is right and decent, a marked regard for fair play, especially to the weak and poor, a stern sentiment of impartial justice and above all a love of personal freedom ... these are the common conceptions on both sides of the ocean among the English-speaking peoples.”
Churchill recorded these things in his four-volume history of the English-speaking peoples up to 1900: the development of the common law, guarantees of freedom, representative government, independent courts.
More recently, Adam Hochschild, in his excellent Breaking the Chains, tells the story of the extraordinary English men and women, motivated by deep religious belief, who successfully persuaded Britain to abolish the slave trade and then slavery itself. Their example was followed in time, and after a bloody struggle, by likeminded Americans. The default assumption portrays American slavery as uniquely evil (which it wasn’t) and ignores the fact the first campaign to abolish slavery was worded in English.
The default assumption gets this almost precisely upside down. Yes, there are faults in our past. But Americans and the English-speaking peoples have been far more often the lifters of oppression than the oppressors.
The book description on Amazon gives the following description of Barone's book:
The ideals of freedom and individual rights that inspired America’s Founding Fathers did not spring from a vacuum. Along with many other defining principles of our national character, they can be traced directly back to one of the most pivotal events in British history—the late-seventeenth-century uprising known as the Glorious Revolution.
In a work of popular history that stands with recent favorites such as David McCullough’s 1776 and Joseph J. Ellis’s Founding Brothers, Michael Barone brings the story of this unlikely and largely bloodless revolt to American readers and reveals that, without the Glorious Revolution, the American Revolution may never have happened.
Unfolding in 1688–1689, Britain’s Glorious Revolution resulted in the hallmarks of representative government, guaranteed liberties, the foundations of global capitalism, and a foreign policy of opposing aggressive foreign powers.
Mead's book is entitled God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World.
A century ago it was commonplace to use the idea of "the English-speaking peoples" as a conceptual category and analytical framework. But the idea eventually faded, partly because too many of the people who wrote about it used a social-darwinist, or even a racially-based analysis that became increasingly suspect and increasingly irrelevant as a predictor. The rise of an educated, English-speaking middle class in India, for example, demanded that the British authorities either launch India down the path to self-governing Dominion status along the lines of Canada, or abandon its fundamental principles, or eventually see India become an independent republic. So in away the first iteration of english-speaking consciousness became a victim both of the ideological confusions of its time, and its own success.
Now a new iteration of the idea and analytical framework, suitable for its times, is emerging. It promises to be an interesting period.
The President, the Pope and the Prime Minister: Three Who Changed the
World, by John O'Sullivan; Regnery, 448 pages.
John O'Sullivan is a journalist with a fine sense of history. Thus it is appropriate that he should write a book about a time, and a set of people, who are now crossing the threshold between being the subject of journalism, to being the subject of history. Of the three -- Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and John Paul II -- two belong now to the ages, and Lady Thatcher has become less and less active as health issues reduce her speaking schedule. The students who will be entering university this year were born in 1988 -- Reagan's last year in office -- and were two when Margaret Thatcher left government. They were sixteen when the white smoke heralding John Paul II's successor issued forth over the Sistine Chapel; if they were not Catholics, and were incurious about current events, they might have barely registered his passing.
When I was their age, even though I was keenly interested in politics and current events, the names of the equivalent figures to me, Harry Truman and Clement Attlee, had the feel of ancient history, and so Reagan and Thatcher must seem to this generation. Yet the world they are inheriting has been profoundly shaped by each of these three, individually and synergistically. To those of us who experienced these changes as adults, we must now strain to remember exactly what public discourse under Jimmy Carter or Sunny Jim Callaghan was like. To those for whom that era is entirely historical, the assumptions that underlay that era must be as inaccessible as those of, say, the Albigensians.
Thus O'Sullivan has written the right book at exactly the right time in history. It can take advantage of the author's first-hand experience with the subject matter -- O'Sullivan was an adviser to Thatcher, a journalist covering the Reagan White House, and a Catholic layman active in conservative Catholic circles throughout John Paul's papacy. (I should disclose that John and I sit on the Board of the Anglosphere Institute together, and that I have in the past written paid work under his editorship.) Yet it comes at a time when there are many people who know those years only as history. It is sufficiently far for those who had lived through them that a reminder of how great the changes have been is useful. Furthermore, the debate over exactly what the effects of those players' roles have been is becoming historical, rather than political.
One of the book's great virtues is the effort O'Sullivan has made to show exactly how far we have come in our assumptions since those days. Amazingly, the economics and political science professions accepted at face value, right to the end, the claims of the Soviet system to being modern, productive, and legitimate. In fact it was backwards, unproductive, and illegitimate in the eyes of its populations to a degree that even the most hostile anti-Communist sources scarcely imagined. Pre-1989 economists debated the degree of value added by Soviet-bloc factories to the raw materials they consumed; post-1989 economists had to invent the concept of value-subtraction to describe the reality of what took place. The value of the output of many Soviet-bloc factories was in fact less than the value of the raw materials that went in to making them, particularly when they used (in an astonishingly inefficient manner) Soviet-provided fuel.
Political scientists similarly accepted that the Soviet-bloc public broadly accepted the legitimacy of their regimes, and that (for example) nationalist and religious sentiments had become things of the past. Here not only liberal sources, but even conservative sources, had little inkling of how deeply the Soviet ideologies had rotted away, or how strong the "obsolete" sentiments supposedly superseded still were. It was only at the very fringes, in the exile literature, that something like the truth could be found. And as the academic and government specialists were almost unanimous in dismissing them, they were almost entirely ignored. In 1977, I was for a time dating a woman who worked for a small press publishing samizdat literature. A part of her duties was to help entertain visiting samizdat writers, and I ended up going along sometime. Drinking with Russians is an interesting experience, and should she ever have liver problems, she should claim it as a work-related illness. But what struck me was their claim that nobody in the USSR believed in Communism, from the bottom to the top, and that sooner or later it would collapse. I tended to believe it; hardly anybody else did. Fourteen years later, this assessment was proven right.
What the experts had believed in was "convergence" -- that the western and Soviet systems were becoming more and more alike. By this theory, the Western economies were becoming more and more centralized and state-directed, while (pointing to small and hesitant market-oriented reforms attempted in the eastern bloc) the Soviet bloc would become somewhat more market-oriented. This would result in a gradual defusing of political tensions, a process of which detente was to be the start, and eventually the Soviet bloc and the West would jointly rule the world through a set of transnational institutions. This theory was so widely accepted that the duality of superpowers was generally written about as if it were the product of some sort of law of nature. Science-fiction writer Ursula LeGuin, for example, produced in that period two widely-read science-fiction novels, The Left Hand of Darkness and The Disposessed, both set in human solar systems with separate and distinct evolutionary and historical backgrounds, well into our future. Each of these worlds was politically metastable, and each was divided into a bureaucratic-capitalist sphere and an authoritarian-socialist sphere. So, although ostensibly set in worlds distant from us in time, space, and history, each, when read today, practically screams its origin somewhere between the Nixon and Carter administrations, louder even than orange shag carpet or disco suits. This is typical of the now-vanished mindset of that era.
From accommodation with Communism to pushing it into collapse, and from gradual motion to a more bureaucratic and managed capitalism to the entrepreneurial-led (and continuously accelerating) creative destruction of the past thirty years, the United States and at least some parts of the West have contradicted all the assumptions of the trends and destinations of social change of that time. Such assumptions were not so much received opinion but seemingly the ground assumptions from which all political, economic and social debate (outside of a few wild fringes) flowed. I still recall that in my introductory economics class at the University of Michigan in 1966, my teaching assistant (who must have been all of twenty-two or -three, and therefore far more sophisticated than me) responded to my invocation of the opinion of Milton Friedman by threatening to fail me on the spot for any further such mentions. (Twenty-five years later, I had the opportunity to relate this personally to Friedman, who laughed and said this wasn't the first time he had heard such stories.)
The larger question remains, whence came the great U-turn of the English-speaking world? And are the three subjects of O'Sullivan's book merely agents of inexorable social forces which, had they not existed, would have found other agents, or did this turn of events depend on the presence of these three people in their particular roles, and in their particular time and place?
It is plausible to say that it all would have happened anyway. Yet it is not clear why that would be the case. Both Reagan and Thatcher had made the assessment that the Soviet system had broken down and was merely coasting on inertia. This was very much a minority judgment at the time, as O'Sullivan demonstrates ably. There were alternative outcomes, sans Reagan and Thatcher. One would have been a prolongation of the status quo, with the Soviet regime propped up increasingly by Western credit. Assuming Gorbachev would still have been at the helm (and his accession was independent of Reagan or Thatcher's presence in office), we can assume he would have tried to reform Communism and failed -- we now know that the Soviet system was far more broken down that even he had assumed at the time.
The danger here is that failing regimes often lash out in desperate adventurism to stave off collapse. Like a collapsing star, the Soviet system first expanded, acquiring Third World clients that became further liabilities rather than assets. It's entirely possible that the Soviet intelligence bureaucracy, never under very tight control from the Kremlin, might have adventured a bridge or two too far. Under a Carter or a Ted Heath, the Soviets might have succumbed to the "democracy trap", in which weakness or confused signals from the democratic power is taken as acquiescence to an expansive move on the part of a totalitarian system -- only to bring an unexpectedly strong response from the finally-awakened democracies, leading to war. The Argentine invasion of the Falklands (covered well by O'Sullivan) is itself an example of this trap -- the Argentine junta undertook the operation to distract attention from its general failures in all other arenas, and they had read the British withdrawal of naval forces from the area as acquiescence to a coup de main.
With a weak or confused leadership at the helm in the US and the UK, it's entirely possible that a desperate Soviet leadership (perhaps replacing a Gorbachev who had gone too far in his reforms, as indeed was eventually attempted) might have made an attempt at expansion or distraction that could have inadvertently sparked a nuclear exchange, even if it had only initially triggered a direct conventional clash between Soviet and Western troops. As we discovered later, Soviet doctrine called for automatic use of tactical nuclear weapons once a conventional engagement had escalated to a serious level.
Another alternative outcome might have been a direct turn to an aggressive nationalistic fascism by Soviet authorities, with no devolution of dissatisfied nationalities, or slackening of control in the Eastern European satellites. This would have amounted to an abandonment of the useless shell of Communist ideology but the retention of the full apparatus of repression. This could easily have led to major armed clashes in the satellites, in the Baltic nations, and in the Caucuses and the "'stans" -- the Muslim-majority republics of Central Asia. The objection will arise that this seems to be happening now, as Putin gradually disassembles the democratic structures put in place at the fall of Communism.
However, even the incomplete transition to democracy and the unravelling of the imperial structure of the satellites and former Soviet republics represents a substantial ratchet toward freedom, and one that will never entirely be undone. Eastern Germany, Poland, Hungary, the Czech and Slovak states, the Baltic states, and Slovenia have all made essentially complete transitions to democracy. Bulgaria and Romania have done better than expected, as has perhaps Ukraine. Of the rest of the non-Central Asian states, only Belarus is a substantial failure, and the Central Asian 'stans are at least no worse than most of the rest of that region.
As for Russia itself, it is better than expected by the pessimists, although substantially worse than hoped by the optimists. Although freedom of the dead-tree press has been gradually curtailed by Putin, Russia has gone onto the Internet, which is now sufficiently integral to the Russian economy that it is not likely to be rooted out. Thanks to the dismantling of the Soviet empire, millions of ethnic Russians now live beyond the borders of the Russian state, and almost three million of those live in states (the Baltics, Cyprus) that are part of the EU (these "Eurorussians" outnumber several nationalities whose languages are official EU tongues -- perhaps they will be pushing soon to have Russian made an official EU language.) This has resulted in an "ru.net" -- a Russian-language Internet that is substantially beyond the control of Putin's censors.
This and other structural speedbumps on the road to complete authoritarianism will probably prevent any sliding all the way back to Soviet imperial days. Russia over the next few decades is more likely to resemble the Mexico that emerged after 1928 and the institutionalization of the Mexican revolution -- a corrupt, crony-ruled state spreading the rents from its oil wealth, strong-arming those who try to disturb the cozy (for the rulers) status quo, but maintaining at least formal democracy and a market-economy structure. It will likely be too preoccupied with its demographic crisis, its Muslim insurgents, and its encroaching Chinese neighbors to be a huge threat to anybody outside of its own near abroad.
Looking at alternative outcomes to the Reagan-Thatcher-John Paul II world, it is hard to see how any other leaders in any of the three seats of power could have done better, and very easy to see how they could have done worse -- all the way to outbreak of nuclear war. Therefore, while leaving any actual theodicy to more venturesome commentators, it is easy to see why some considered the advent of these three leaders (and their not-statistically-likely serial survival of assassination attempts) to be providential. Since I find theodicy to be too problematic to consider (if God does move human events directly, there's far too much moral dark matter assumed in the problem for we poor three-dimensional observers to be able to draw any conclusions from it), I think O'Sullivan spent either too much time or too little discussing that possibility. If we assume we cannot intuit divine knowledge or intention in specific human events, then that is all one can really say about the matter; if we assume one can understand such things, then the events O'Sullivan discusses would be one of the principal theological events of our century, and could easily merit not just the bulk of O'Sullivan's book, but a library full of books.
It is the addition of John Paul II to the list of ose who truly mattered that is O'Sullivan's particular contribution. There are many studies of Reagan's presidency, and Thatcher's prime ministership, and quite a few studies of the Reagan-Thatcher relationship. To view John Paul together with the two political figures adds a missing dimension, and I think a substantially more complete picture of the great U-turn that took place in the 1980s. The critical impact of John Paul was to force the intelligentsia of the West to readmit a moral dimension in opposing and ending the Soviet system. By the 1970s, the intellectual world of the West had developed a wide agenda of human-rights advocacy, and a network of activists who exhibited great concern about the people of Zimbabwe and South Africa, but to whom the inmates of the Soviet empire were more an embarrassing inconvenience than worthy of solidarity. O'Sullivan documents the non-violent and largely non-confrontational, but steady pressure placed on the Soviet system by first the Catholic clergy of the occupied nations, and ultimately the Pope drawn from among those astonishingly brave and unrelenting heroes. As O'Sullivan documents, the indifference of the human-rights establishment spurred the emergence of a parallel, impromptu human-rights movement in solidarity with Poland and the rest of the Soviet empire, that ultimately made part of difference in its extinction.
At times the detailed discussion of the theological issues facing Catholicism in that era can be heavy going for non-Catholic readers. However, O'Sullivan successfully demonstrates that in fact the turn away from a trendy, shallow, and wrong-headed "liberation theology" was an important component of the changes that marked the Eighties. O'Sullivan argues, I believe successfully, that John Paul's contribution was furthermore an essential component of these changes; that there was a synergy among Reagan, Thatcher, and John Paul II that would have been much less had any of the three been absent. Reagan by himself would have been powerful and effective, but he would have changed a nation, not a world. Thatcher affected that both through reviving Britain and through using the power of a revived Britain on the world scene. But Reagan and Thatcher were both primarily political leaders, and had it merely been the two of them, the changes of the Eighties would have been confined to the political realm. The addition of John Paul II moved the action from the Anglosphere alone to all Europe, the whole West, and ultimately the world, and moved it from the political sphere alone to a much wider sphere. Merely by being a Pole, he helped move the "other Europe" from the shadow into the light, and changed the definition of Europe in modern times. By being the Pope that he in fact was, he changed the Roman Catholic Church, and ultimately the world, in ways that politicians, no matter how virtuous, alone could never do.
In examining this synergy and in offering this chronicle of a critical time of change, John O'Sullivan has made a unique and worthwhile contribution to the discussion of this era.