What Every American Should Know About the Rest of the World,

What Every American Should Know About the Rest of the World,

From the Guardian in London...

Oliver Burkeman

The Guardian

World affairs

Around the world in 382 pages

The new Penguin paperback just published in the US, poses a challenge for bookstore operators. It is a foreign policy monograph, but it is also a relentlessly upbeat self-help book. It is an encyclopaedia, but also a work of light entertainment. It belongs under "Political Science" - but also in that always slightly forbidding department of American bookshops labelled "Inspirational". It is, perhaps, the ultimate proof of the 21st-century truth that international studies can never again be the sole preserve of the ponderous and library-dwelling. It reads as state department briefings might, if the people in charge of writing them drank way too much coffee, developed attention-deficit disorder, and made a pact among themselves always to use the worst pun possible, all at the same time.

Its author, the journalist Melissa Rossi, calls it "the Berlitz approach to geopolitics": a 382-page marathon of factoids relating to pretty much every country in the world, beginning with the imminently dangerous ("Tickers"), followed by the moderately unstable ("Slow Tickers"), and the untroublesome (entitled, presumably for purposes of assonance, "Talkers"). "Turkey is mighty fretful of what might happen if the Iraqi Kurds become officially autonomous, as the Kurds are hoping," she writes in a typically peppy passage written just before the Iraq war. Also: "Think North Korea, think extreme paranoia: they''ve been suffering a nasty case of it for years." A section on North Korea''s arsenals of lethal weapons is headed, cringingly, "Contents Of Kim''s Box O'' Dangers".

Rossi is not biased towards Washington and its allies, as demonstrated, for example, in her willingness to heap eminently justified condemnation on Great Britain for its role in drawing so many of the borders that are the causes of conflicts today. Her analysis of the contemporary UK, however, typifies her bafflingly scattergun approach: British "hot spots", she notes, include Belfast ("still site of tensions"); London ("some radical Muslims entrenched here"); and, er, Edinburgh ("site of Europe''s biggest arts festival every August").

Eventually, though, as Rossi ranges speedily through the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the roots of the standoff over Kashmir, the causes of tensions in Indonesia and the internal politics of Syria, the cumulative weight of the information she communicates will provide a serious foreign-policy education, even for the well-informed. "I pray that someone will have the wit to park a copy in every White House bathroom," the travel writer Jonathan Raban writes on the book''s back cover. At branches of Borders and Barnes and Noble in the immediate vicinity of the state department - not to mention the United Nations in New York - stocks may soon be running low.

Copyright Guardian Newspapers Limited