Dr Daniel Levin will be talking to the Cambridge Union about his new book on the 13th FebruaryAnita Lowenstein Dent

A major element of life is listening to other people tell stories. Often, they are of very little consequence: a means of filling an empty silence at a dinner party or a tool to help hungover friends piece together their exploits from the night before. It is, therefore, a rare privilege to listen to a story that induces serious thought and confronts long-standing perceptions and beliefs; an intellectual experience rather than a means of passing the time.

Dr Daniel Levin is currently telling me one of those stories.

“I had a chance many years ago to meet Mobutu [Sese Seko] in the Congo”, he begins. “Someone asked him about corruption and he said something truly fascinating that has really stuck with me. He said: ‘let’s say I need $5 million. I’m going to ask the Governor of the Central Bank for $20 million. Why? Because I know that he’ll need $5 million, his deputy will need $5 million and my deputy will need $5 million too.’”

Levin pauses for effect. “He said it very matter-of-factly, with a twinkle in his eye. He had no sense that the $20 million belonged to the Congolese people. But it was clear he completely understood what he needed to do for those around him to keep them invested in his rule. In that sense, he was utterly brilliant. It wasn’t just a Stalin situation, whereby you threaten everyone with death: he knew full well that one day they would just turn against him. It wasn’t just ruthlessness: he understood human weakness better than I ever did.”

“But, of course, he was abhorrent,” he adds, as an afterthought.

Levin is a fantastic storyteller. He adds dramatic gaps in all the right places, and his implacable accent (a fusion between American and German perhaps) contributes a certain something to the magic. But above all, he has a lot to tell that comes from a life of fascination.

He spent his early years as the son of a diplomat in the Middle East and in Africa. Following his law studies and an initial academic career, he has spent the last twenty years focused on economic development and political reform through financial literacy, political inclusion, and constitutional initiatives. He has worked with think-tanks on novel political models and with monarchies towards the democratic legitimization of their monarchic systems. He is also engaged in mediation efforts in war zones in his capacity as a member of the board of the Liechtenstein Foundation for State Governance.

And his life experiences have all been laid bare in his first book. Entitled Nothing but a Circus: Misadventures amongst the Powerful, it is a memoir of sorts, in that it contains a series of anecdotes about interactions with people of power, and how they use and abuse it in many circumstances.

Having been fortunate enough to have read the book, I note to Levin my intrigue at the lack of any explicit commentary in the book: it leaves it to the reader to form their own impression of the significance of each vignette. “The only time I try to explain the thought behind it all is in the introduction,” he tells me in explanation. “My goal was not to have a preachy book or an over-intellectualised expose on power and failure of people in power because that’s been exhausted. [Everyone’s] tired of it.”

“There’s so many flaws in our own systems: so many players that we think are regulated as part of the three traditional powers but are outside the scope of that regulation”

Instead, he continues, his goal was to “break down, just a little, human weaknesses which actually show that very thing in action, [via] the real life situations which happened to me. I hoped to show how individuals behave, especially as they ascend the ladders of power, and [illustrate] how they fail to ignore the small little temptations and then how they convince themselves that what they’re doing actually is for the public good, even though it’s entirely self-serving.”

“I broke down all the various elements of power as I saw them”, he continues, “from manipulation to greed to vanity and narcissism – and I planted each axiomatic element of power into one story.” This is reflected by the way in which the book is structured: a chapter on the long-sighted manipulation of Russian officials (aptly entitled Chess à la Russe), another that sheds light on US State Department misdeeds and my favourite chapter which documents his experiences helping reconstruct Angola after the country’s Civil War.

“I really got slapped down there,” he tells me after I ask further about it. For him, the chapter is emphasising the importance of the West realising that it cannot impose its systems on other countries. To Levin, without humility, the West can only worsen the situation. After all, he observes “there’s so many flaws in our own systems: so many players that we think are regulated [as] part of the three traditional powers but are outside the scope of that regulation.”

And, he argues, that the West often overlook that some of these “ancient cultures [may have been] monarchies in the past, but they had really impressive democratic legitimisation.” He laments a tendency in the West that “no matter how enlightened and wonderful we are, we tend to interact with individuals from less-developed countries in a patronising way. There is just an assumption that we’re coming from superior political systems and enlightening others, and this causes more harm than good”.

This lesson, he tells me, can also be seen elsewhere. Indeed, though the bulk of his experiences in relation to creating new constitutional frameworks come from post-colonial Africa and the Middle East, a much-younger Levin was at work in the early 1990s in Eastern Europe helping draft freedom of religion provisions in constitutions.

“Even if you’re going to put forward solutions, it’s like when you’re in a hole: first, you’ve got to stop digging”

“It was a lot less about power then,” he admits. Still, it offered Levin “the opportunity to witness the mistakes that were made,” and allowed him to reach the conclusion that it needs to be realised that it is about, “working with people on the ground to develop models that worked for them.”  

“The West really just swept into Eastern Europe with tremendous hubris,” he explains as an example. “They said: ‘look, these are enlightened constitutions which you need to adopt.’ There was very little actual debate.” In Levin’s view, the West overlooked that “the problem in the Soviet Union was not the lack of the constitution – the problem was the lack of institution and implementation of that constitution.”

Certainly, the book is a grand, and very enjoyable, exposé of a number of very important issues. But I wonder whether there is something missing: at no point in its pages does Levin suggest any way by which the problems can be tackled.

Levin is quick to respond, telling me that “even if you’re going to put forward solutions, it’s like when you’re in a hole: first, you’ve got to stop digging. And that is what I was trying to show here: the first step to addressing this failure to recognise that it exists. That was the goal of this book,” he continues. “It was intended to be diagnostic without being intellectual. And hopefully also a little bit funny,” he adds with a chuckle.

Nonetheless, he has a clear vision of one major solution. This revolves around, “looking at shapers of future generations.”. At present, he explains, involves, “taking people your age out of these war zones for several years and training them, providing them with tools and send them back to allow them to make a difference.” And in his view, this should be the West’s contribution: taking “individuals, removing them from the conflict, provide them with valuable information,” he says before listing “how Parliaments have involved, information on the advantages of federal versus centralised systems and monarchies versus republics.”

Furthermore, he is also keen to emphasise that “how we shape generations of leaders is really a question about a formula.” He continues by arguing that in, “academic institutions such as [Cambridge], it’s time to deal with the way some of these things are taught.” He offers diplomacy as an example, calling for the end of “endlessly [going] over the same academic truisms. The top institutions all approach it in the same way. Often, it’s not reflected in reality.”

“I’m not trying to belittle these institutions – I studied at them myself,” he clarifies. However, he does make it clear that, in his view, there is a, “real dearth of real thinking,” and, “very little true exposure to what you’re being taught about” which leads to the, “same platitudes being regurgitated.”

Levin believes this narrow approach to education can lead to problems in the real world. Launching into another one of his fabulous stories, he tells me about his involvement in the Syrian peace initiative in which he is working to, “rethink how executive power is structured”.

But he notes that one of the main problems is how the issues have been framed. “The debates that have been generated are whether Assad should go and whether he should be tried as a war criminal,” he notes. “If you’re going to frame the debate that way, he’s not going to go!” Instead, he argues, “you’ve got to come up with a way of a rotation of power whereby one group never feels alienated. It really does require some out of the box solutions; people are dying there so we don’t really have the luxury to focus on the terrible crimes!”

Having done the rounds at some of the institutions at the very top of the world order, Levin believes that this inflexible approach to teaching has left organisations like the UN or the WEF feeling like a “closed loop.”

“For the most part,” he tells me, “I’ve stopped going to these things. These organisations have become so terribly ineffective because they’ve become a closed loop with very few dissenting voices allowed to penetrate – and now, we’re seeing the same things in politics: Washington, London, Paris.”

Wary of asking too many questions about President Trump, I reference one of my favourites sentences in Levin’s book, in which he states that ‘everything in Washington is so comically inflated that words lose all meaning and need to be discounted back to zero’.

“We always work under the assumption that we have a separation and balance of powers, and we don’t talk about the fact that we have new centres of power that work without being subject to supervision”

Expanding on this, he tells me that in Washington, “words just get so overused that it really is just like an inflated currency: they lose their value. Phrases like ’frankly and ‘to be honest with you’ are tell-tale signs that the individual in question is being quite the opposite.”

I wonder to what extent this proves Trump’s claim that it is time to drain the swamp.It does in a sense,” Levin admits, “except that Trump is not just an imperfect messenger, but an irrelevant one.”

I think people are getting the Trump narrative wrong, he continues, “because they look at him as this really shiny loud disruptor but I really don’t believe he’s going to affect Washington. I think it’s going to really absorb him. Even a few weeks after the inauguration, there’s an astonishing opposition in government to Trump. And these are groups that really do operate in the shadows. We always work under the assumption that we have a separation and balance of powers, and we don’t talk about the fact that we have new centres of power that work without being subject to supervision.”

He continues, predicting that this is “going to shift dramatically in a Trump presidency”. In particular, he identifies “two primary destinations for power away from the three traditional pillars”. Firstly, there are technology companies “because of their unprecedented control of information, in terms of the quality, stream and content of it.”

And then there is the military. Levin is concerned that society has “always worked under the assumption that the military was worked under state control. But there are elements of them military and the intelligence agencies that work independently. We close our eyes and jump into that water hoping they have national duty in mind.”

Daniel Levin will be speaking to the Cambridge Union at 7pm on Monday 13th February about his new book, Nothing but a Circus: Misadventures Among the Powerful, before answering questions from the floor. The event is open to all, including non-Union members.

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